This essay was originally published at Skeptical Witch.
What is a spell?
If you would be kind enough to indulge my inner word-geek for a moment, I promise to get on to the enchanted frog part soon. The following etymologies for the word “spell” come from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Old English spell “story, saying, tale, history, narrative, fable; discourse, command,” from Proto-Germanic *spellam (see spell (v.1)). Compare Old Saxon spel, Old Norse spjall, Old High German spel, Gothic spill “report, discourse, tale, fable, myth;” German Beispiel “example.” From c.1200 as “an utterance, something said, a statement, remark;” meaning “set of words with supposed magical or occult powers, incantation, charm” first recorded 1570s; hence any means or cause of enchantment.
The term ‘spell’ is generally used for magical procedures which cause harm, or force people to do something against their will — unlike charms for healing, protection, etc. [“Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore”]
early 14c., “read letter by letter, write or say the letters of;” c.1400, “form words by means of letters,” apparently a French word that merged with or displaced a native Old English one; both are from the same Germanic root, but the French word had evolved a different sense. The native word is Old English spellian “to tell, speak, discourse, talk,” from Proto-Germanic *spellam (cognates: Old High German spellon “to tell,” Old Norse spjalla, Gothic spillon “to talk, tell”), from PIE *spel- (2) “to say aloud, recite.”
The first thing to notice is that the taproot of the word, the meaning from which later meanings grow, is “speech.” We go from there to telling, written language, reading, reading with difficulty, story, and finally, speech as magical power.
The power of words
And language does bring power. We use it to try out ideas before we act on them, to get others’ feedback, to rework our plans. We use the written word to communicate with the dead or the far distant, when we read what they’ve written. We use it to persuade, to incite, to comfort, to torment.
Our self-talk has everything to do with how we move through the world, and psychology and religion both use language to help us modify our ways of being. In therapy, we put words to our unrecognized wishes and fears, which makes them available for revision. (What a great word, re-vision — the ability to see anew, to forge a new vision!). In religion we use mantras and prayers to realign ourselves with what we believe to be the deepest reality. People within the Abrahamic traditions who pray will tell you that their prayers aren’t necessary to get God’s attention, or to keep God informed; as Jesus says, “your Father knows what you need before you ask.” Rather, the prayer is to place you in a certain relationship to this God, as well as to other people — to acknowledge your dependence, and learn to care about others’ welfare; to make your own spiritual growth your daily focus. The seventeenth-century devotional poet George Herbert, in his poem “The Flower,” thanks God for the restoration of his ability to write, adding, “Thy word is all, if we could spell“– if we truly mastered and internalized the truth of his faith.
Likewise, Buddhist meditation is a relaxing of the self you have, and the formation of a new awareness of your true nature and place in the world. Mantras aid in this process, partly through the content, but also through focus on the sound itself. Catholic rosaries, litanies, and chant can have a similar effect, using sound to draw the meditator into an inner silence.
How do spells work?
To return, as promised, to the enchanted frog piece, I don’t actually believe that the power of words overrides nature. Rather, they work with the natures we have — the brain structure that makes us susceptible to rhythm, music, imagery — in order to change our disposition to the world. We can also use them to affect others’ welfare, for good or ill (to quote Tim Minchin: ”Sticks and stones / may break your bones / but words can break hearts”). Except for the odd, outlying scary person, witches (sane and decent ones) direct their efforts to good.
So when I “do a spell,” I am harnessing the power of repetition, rhyme and rhythm to take an intended stance toward life and internalize it, make it part of the very rhythm of my being. When I write a spell for someone, I’m hoping to give them a way to coast into a new kind of experience. The spells are, in this sense, a kind of autohypnosis, to be used intentionally for the purpose of healing.
This makes a “good” spell one that:
- works with nature, instead of trying to override it (spells are not used to tamper with others’ freedom);
- is undertaken along with informed, constructive effort, not as a substitute for it (spells are not about instant success);
- is undertaken with the understanding that we are not all-powerful, and that pain, failure and death are realities we must face (spells are not escapist); and
- is written in a way that reaches the practitioner deeply, simply, gently — collaboratively.
Telmaris Green (pseudonym) is a psychotherapist in private practice in Indianapolis. She holds an M.A. in English Renaissance from Indiana University, and a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. She has given numerous local presentations on the treatment of trauma, dissociation, and personality disorders, including Dissociative Identity Disorder. Contact her through her wordpress blogs, Skeptical Witch and Solitary Witch.