Magic spells

Wandering Among Words 7: Gramarye

If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.

We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.

All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.

Let’s start with spell. The Medieval French word espeler (modern épeler) gives rise to one meaning for ‘spell’: the naming in order of the letters of a word. The old meaning of épeler was to ‘explain’; it may or not be related to Old English spel, meaning a saying, a speaking or a story, as in godspell or gospel, the ‘good story’.

Old English spel leads to our modern sense of spell, a set of words supposed to have magical power: the spoken phrases cause something to happen, perhaps against its nature. This naturally lead on to charms, words or even objects designed to bespell people and things. The word charm originates from the Latin carmen, ‘a song’, revealing its origins as an intoned or sung spell.

When someone is described as charming they have somehow cast a spell over their companions, perhaps through mellifluous words and a pleasing manner. Naturally this is another form of enchantment, unsurprising as this last term derives from the French chanter, to sing. And of course, the Latin word from which we derive ‘chant’ is cantus, the core of the sung spell we call an incantation.

The written word is often magical of course, as many spells and charms are found inscribed on paper, on talismans and so on. Runes, which we know from Old English and Viking examples, are often closely associated with magic, especially when placed on a sword or other portable object like a ring. Little surprise then that ‘rune’ is related to Old English rūn, meaning a whisper, or a mystery. Runic writing may thus be whispered spells made manifest.

A book of magic is frequently called a grimoire. This is simply an altered form of the word ‘grammar’, used for a book in Latin or Greek and then, by extension, a book of written spells and incantations, invoking spirits and powers both angelic and demonic. From ‘grammar’ is derived the Scottish word glamour, that deceptive charm which certain people wear, concealing their true nature.

So many words attesting to the power of words to shape events, to shape reality — or at least our perception of them — that it’s small wonder that books are not just gateways to magic but are magical of themselves. Let’s then end this short tour exploring how books are indeed true magic — through their words and phrases ensorcelling us to believe all things are possible — by quoting Kipling’s Puck of Pook Hill:

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare.

Now although Kipling refers to England as Gramarye it’s clear that by ‘she’ he means the whole island of Britain; in fact T H White is explicit when, in The Book of Merlyn, he describes “a country called Wales, part of the isle my master calls Gramarye”.

It’s very appropriate then that Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye takes its name from a book,”the only true magic” as Alice Hoffman might say.


Image credit: WordPress Free Media Library

25 thoughts on “Magic spells

  1. Pingback: Magic spells — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. Really getting into the Halloween spirit 🙂 I love Puck of Pook’s Hill and I love exploring words, so of course I loved the post (I should probably have put Puck and words in the opposite order but…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mallika! It’s been quite a while since I read Puck of Pook’s Hill or even Rewards and Fairies but Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye had always intrigued me, right from when I was a kid. Oddly, I didn’t plan this post with Halloween in mind, probably it was the autumn equinox that set me off on this train of thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But it fits in 🙂 Its been a while since I read the Puck books too. I actually don’t have copies on my own-I liked the editions they had at the library I read them from and want to get something similar when I get them and definitely with the original illustrations, let’s see.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    Interesting! In Polish we’ve “czary”, almost exactly “glamours”, and “zaklęcia”, derived from a word meaning “to beg”, perhaps it could also be translated as “invocation”? In a rpg setting that could be used to distinguish divine and wizardry magic, but they’re usually used interchangeably.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you say suggests that while it’s possible to come up with equivalent translations of magical words in, say, Polish and English, etymologically the equivalents may be more apparent than real.

      Still, it certainly would be interesting to look at the etymology of words related to magic in languages unrelated to Latin and Germanic—clearly many if not all the words I’ve looked at in English derive from Vulgar Latin (thanks to Norman French) or Old English, and apparently the term ‘magic’ itself comes to us, via Ancient Greek ‘magikos’, from an old Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest.

      RPG — it’s been decades since I dabbled briefly in D&D, but I think I’m congenitally unsuited to role-playing, whether from the sheer effort involved in inhabiting a role or from being so emotionally involved I’d fear to lose a sense of self! That’s why I stick to reading: it’s magic that I can cope with. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just few days ago we were talking about the runes and their meanings and functions different from an alphabet. This post gives new material and perspective and I’ll soon put in on the announcement “wall” of my website . Thanks a lot. 👏🙋

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The origins of the word magic can also be seen in the Christmas nativity story – The Wise Men from the East bearing gifts are referred to as the Magi (singular ‘Magus’) – pointing to a Persian (Zoroastrian) origin for some of the learned magicians/astrologers who came following a star.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for mentioning this, I referred obliquely to it in my reply to Piotrek’s comment above — “the term ‘magic’ itself comes to us, via Ancient Greek ‘magikos’, from an old Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest” — and yes, I could have made more of this etymological link, I know. But then I’d have had to embark on another long aside involving John Fowles, the Golden Dawn, Ursula Le Guin, Sooty and Sweep and who knows what else!

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.