Thursday, July 31, 2008


Have you ever been mesmerized while waiting for the sunrise? As you watch the horizon for that first burst of light, you get swept up in the eternal present moment. With baited breath, your sense of time is suspended, and you’re primed for a miracle. This is the “liminal zone,” the threshold between night and day, between here and there, between this and that. It’s the crossroads where anything is possible. And then the dawn breaks through, like a sudden burst of inspiration, like an act of creation: “Let there be light.” That is the magic of Abraxas, an enigmatic name that has perhaps always been closely associated with the power of the sun. This “strange, mysterious name”[1] captures that magical, suspended, timeless moment: “all of time as an eternal instant.”[2] Abraxas is the power of infinity—the promise of endless possibilities, the “cosmos” itself.[3] In mythology, Abraxas is the name of a celestial horse that draws the dawn goddess Aurora across the sky.[4] The name suggests a power that is not properly ours but rather a gift from another world.

But what of the name’s origin? It is likely, as an etymologist posited in 1891, that Abraxas belongs “to no known speech” but rather some “mystic dialect,” perhaps taking its origin “from some supposed divine inspiration.”[5] Yet scholars, of course, search for a root. There are speculatory shreds of evidence which suggest that Abraxas is a combination of two Egyptian words, abrak and sax, meaning “the honorable and hallowed word” or “the word is adorable.”[6] Abrak is “found in the Bible as a salutation to Joseph by the Egyptians upon his accession to royal power.”[7] Abraxas appears in “an Egyptian invocation to the Godhead, meaning ‘hurt me not.’”[8] Other scholars suggest a Hebrew origin of the word, positing “a Grecized form of ha-berakhah, ‘the blessing,’” while still others speculate a derivation from the Greek habros and sac, “the beautiful, the glorious Savior.”[9] The name has appeared in the ancient Hebrew/Aramaic mystical treatises The Book of Raziel and The Sword of Moses, and in post-Talmudic Jewish incantation texts,[10] as well as in Persian mythology.[11]

An interesting occurrence of Abraxas is found in a papyrus from late antiquity (perhaps from Hellenized Egypt, though its exact origin is unknown). The papyrus contains “magical recipes, invocations, and incantations,” and tells of a baboon disembarking the Sun boat and proclaiming: “Thou art the number of the year ABRAXAS.” This statement causes God to laugh seven times, and with the first laugh the “splendor [of light] shone through the whole universe.”[12]

The Basilideans, a Gnostic sect founded in the 2nd century CE by Basilides of Alexandria, worshipped Abraxas as the “supreme and primordial creator” deity, “with all the infinite emanations.”[13] The god Abraxas unites the opposites, including good and evil,[14] the one and the many.[15] He is “symbolized as a composite creature, with the body of a human being and the head of a rooster, and with each of his legs ending in a serpent.”[16] His name is actually a mathematical formula: in Greek, the letters add up to 365, the days of the year[17] and the number of eons[18] (cycles of creation).

“That a name so sacredly guarded, so potent in its influence, should be preserved by mystic societies through the many ages . . . is significant,”[19] notes Moses W. Redding, a scholar of secret societies. Redding suggests that only in Freemasonry has this “Divine Word” been “held in due reverence.”[21]

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers (1993)
[2] Gene Wolfe, Shadow and Claw (1994)
[3] Carl Jung, the third sermon of the Seven Sermons to the Dead (1917)
[4] Anna Franklin, Midsummer: Magical Celebrations of the Summer Solstice (2002)
[5] Harnaek, Ueber dal gnostische Buch Pistil-Sophia, quoted in Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[6] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[7] Moses W. Redding, The Illustrated History of Freemasonry (2004)
[8] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[9] Ibid.
[10] Moshe Idel, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (2004)
[11] Constance Victoria Briggs, The Encyclopedia of God (2003)
[12] Marie-Louise Von Franz, Creation Myths (1972)
[13] Zecharia Sitchin, The Cosmic Code (1998)
[14] Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), translated by Lafcadio Hearn
[15] Tracy R. Twyman, The Merovingian Mythos and the Mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau (2004)
[16] Marc Ian Barasch, Healing Dreams (2001)
[17] Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928)
[18] John Michael Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult (2003)
[19] Carl Lindahl, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs (2002)
[20] The Illustrated History of Freemasonry (2004)
[21] Ibid.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Fragment by Sappho

[Is poetry holographic? Like a hologram, can a surviving fragment of an ancient poem unfold the original meaning in its entirety? We like to think so.]

Here's Sappho's take on magic words:
Although they are
Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal
(translated by Mary Barnard)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Meaning “suddenly” this Japanese version of presto is used as a teleportation spell in the Dragon Ball manga and role playing games [created by Akira Toriyama, 1984].

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kesk Ma'sik

These words for changing from reality to non-reality are of Micmac [Maritime Algonquian] origin. Similarly, kesk matiket means a magician, and kesk mta’q means “making a magic sound” [Micmac elder Michael W. Francis, quoted in Beverly Diamond and Franziska von Rosen, Visions of Sound, 1994].

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Vessel of Moss

In 1916, the United States American Ethnology Bureau recorded some magic words from Tsimshian mythology, spoken by both humans and animals:
Magic words enable a man to escape from a mountain. He says, "On the thumb," "On the sand," and, repeating these words, gets down safely. When the Porcupine throws himself down from a high tree, he shouts, "Vessel of moss!" and falls on the ground without hurting himself. When the Beaver shouts, "Stone!" he strikes the ground and almost dies. Magical words addressed to the West Wind and to the East Wind cause those winds to blow gently. A wound closes as the effect of magic words.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hiram Abif

The magic words of professional magician Thurston [1869-1936], Hiram Abif is a name from a legend studied in Freemasonry concerning “freedom of speech, conscience, and thought.” The legend became a central part of Masonic ritual in 1730 [Paul M. Bessel, “The Hiram Abif Legend in Freemasonry,” 1999].

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The magic word was—‘Excelsior!’
—Roy Thomas, Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Universe (2006)
Excelsior is a cry of ascendancy, supremacy, mastery, greatness. It is a charm for gaining the upper hand. The silvery tones of this heart-stirring magic word “put a soul in every bell / To triumph o’er the powers of hell—Excelsior!” (Thomas Bracken, “Longfellow,” Musings in Maoriland, 1890). In his poem “Excelsior,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow likened the word to a sigh, an oft-repeated prayer, the accents of an unknown tongue, and a falling star. Excelsior is of Latin origin, ex meaning “beyond” and celsus meaning “lofty.” It is typically taken to mean "ever upward."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


The magic word rantorp [a Scandinavian name] changes people into chairs in the play General Gorgeous by Michael McClure [1982].

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Portals into other realities

"Sound in the form of music can evoke deep emotions in all of us. Words have similar power to evoke emotional reactions and can even lead us to kill each other. No doubt the source of the classic magical words, 'abracadabra' and 'open Sesame', which led to the opening of the cave that contained the treasures of Ali Baba, was based on the idea of the power of words. In the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, it is the physical cave that is opened by the magical words. At the metaphysical level, the opening leads into the unconscious mind, or, as some would say, into another realm of existence. Intrinsic to both ideas is that powerful words/sounds have potency in themselves. There is clearly more to music than mere pleasure; as some cultures opine, sound can take us into other realities, help us to communicate with other beings, summon up 'demons' and evoke the gods."
—Lynne Hume, Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities Through the Senses, 2007.

Monday, July 21, 2008


The word zebu comes from the Tibetan ceba, meaning ‘hump.’ Zebu is a breed of hump-backed India ox. With the Arabic Ali [‘by the most high’] in front, Alizebu could be translated as ‘holy cow.’ Alizebu is a word for revealing hidden passages in the computer game King’s Quest 6 [Sierra Entertainment, 1992].

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Zabar, Kresge, Caldor, Wal-Mart

Actually names of discount retail markets, this spell for conjuring zombies was chanted by Bart Simpson in Matt Groening’s animated series The Simpsons [Season 4, Episode 64, “Dial Z For Zombies,” Oct. 29, 1992].

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Asi Nise Masa

Asi Nise Masa is derived from a children’s language game akin to pig Latin, ‘la lingua serpentina,’ whereby the nonsense morphemes “-si” and “-sa” are inserted into existing words, here into the Jungian archetype anima. The phrase is featured in Fellini’s 8 ½ [1963] as the key that unlocks Guido’s unconscious.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Indocilis Privata Loqui

Latin for “not apt to disclose secrets,” Indocilis Privata Loqui is the motto of The Magic Circle [founded in Great Britain in 1905]. This “regal” phrase is attributed to the first Caesar: “Never . . . was there within the same compass of words, a more emphatic expression of Caesar’s essential and inseparable grandeur of thought, which could not be disguised or laid aside for an instant, than is found in the three casual words—Indocilis Privata Loqui” [Thomas De Quincey, The Caesars, 1832-34].

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Magic Spells

"It may be a magic spell in the dictionary, but in the mind of man all the world over it signifies the respect and consideration paid to great powers and noble qualities."
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (1898)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


"Imagination is the mystic word which is too often lost from the vocabulary of daily thought. It is a soul exercise, which makes possible many otherwise impossible things and experiences. Imagination is the activity of a soul which takes hold of difficulty, and by a little manipulation either tears away the mask and reveals a helper, or turning the difficulty around, finds it an aid walking backwards."
—Elmer Willis Serl, The Laughter of Jesus, 1911

Monday, July 14, 2008


"Magical words . . . are a prism of the universe; they reflect, decompose, and recombine all its wonders. The sounds imitate colours, the colours merge into harmony. The rhyme, rich or strange, swift or lingering, is inspired by poetic insight, that supreme beauty of art and triumph of genius which discovers in nature all secrets close to the human heart."
—Madame de Staël, Corinne, or Italy (1807), translated by Sylvia Raphael (1998)

Sunday, July 13, 2008


“Enthusiasm is a magic word—a word to conjure with. It comes from the Greek and in the original means, ‘God striving within us.’ It makes play of work, pleasure of hardships, and success of failure.” —Arthur Harrison Miller, Leadership (1920)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Metrical Feet

From the poem "Breath" by Don Marquis:
The gods mixed music with our clay . . .
Rune-giving Odin, Krishna, Pan,
Move in the running blood of man,
His tidal moods they mete and sway.

Song more endures than steel or stone . . .
Sandalled with magic syllables
We glide like shades through shadowy hells,
Or soar to heaven on a tone.
(Poems and Portraits, 1922)

Friday, July 11, 2008


“The word ‘fairy’ is a very modern word as used in the sense of spirit. The original meaning of the word was magic, supernatural power, and the old English writers used it in this sense. . . . The word used to be spelled ‘faerie’; and the term ‘faerie land’ originally meant ‘land of magic.’ Much later the term was applied to a supernatural being or person, for which the real English word was El, or Elf.”
—Lafcadio Hearn, Life and Literature (1917)

Thursday, July 10, 2008


“There is a magic word which is the key to all mysteries, which opens the places in which are hidden spiritual, intellectual and material treasures, and by which we gain power over the seen and unseen. This word is ‘Determination.’ If we desire to accomplish a great object, we must learn to concentrate upon the same all our desires. Whether the object is good or evil, the effect is invariably proportionate to the cause. The power of will is omnipotent, but it can only be put into action by a firm and resolute determination and fixedness of purpose.”
—An American Buddhist, “The Cosmogony of the Old Testament,” The Theosophist (May 1884)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


We've always been enchanted by vowelless words (and have even dedicated an entire dictionary to them). For the new edition of our collection of magic words, we unearthed some interesting facts about the expression ZZZZ, electrical zap of pure, focused energy.

In Tantric practice, “The ZZZZ sound brings the energy up to the pituitary/pineal area.”* A “simple humming of the voiced zzzzzzzzz formula” is also practiced by the German rune magicians.† Such a whirring, whistling sound is associated with the rune Elhaz, “the power of human life and ‘spirit.’”†

Seven Z’s appear in the text of a late 6th or early 7th century healing amulet, to help reduce episodes of fever typical of Malaria. The amulet was excavated “on the Golan Heights of the Horvat Kanaf synagogue, which was erected in the Byzantine Era.”‡

As we noted in the first edition of our Magic Words dictionary, the evil magician in Doug Henning’s musical The Magic Show (1981) uses the magic trigger word zzzz over and over again during his act.

* Jonathan Goldman, Tantra of Sound (2005)
† Edred Thorsson, Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic (1984)
‡ Peter Schäfer, Jewish Studies Between the Disciplines (2003)

(Image courtesy Rigmarole.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

One sign of a magic word

Number 131 of the "One Hundred Sixty-Three Tolstoyan Conclusions":
One sign of a magic word is that one cannot imagine opposing what it purports to stand for. Is there anyone against education, justice, and progress?
Number 132:
Another sign of a magic word is that those who invoke it do not ask how exactly to achieve the purpose it names.

(from Gary Saul Morson's Anna Karenina in Our Time, 2007)

Monday, July 7, 2008


The music of a sigh, the magician of a momentary joy.
—F.G., “British Poetry: the Drama,” The British Controversialist and Literary Magazine (1862)
The most profound meaning of a sigh is invariably absent from dictionaries. A sigh is an invocation. It is an audible expression of a deep yearning for someone or something beyond one’s reach. A sigh is an aspiration in both senses of the word: an exhalation of breath and a heartfelt wish. A sigh typically trails off into a deep silence, just as in meditation the intention carried by a sutra is allowed to germinate in the wordless void.

In Irish lore we find the fairy name sigh or sidh (pronounced “shee”), originating from the blast of wind sidhe that carries the vital spirit (comparable to the magician siddha and magic siddhi of Hindu belief).*

For Laplander shamen, a profound sigh seems to carry across the threshold to the otherworld to signal an awakening of oracular powers:
After some preparatory ceremonies, the magician falls senseless and motionless, as if the soul had really abandoned the body. After a lapse of twenty-four hours, the soul returning, the apparently inanimate body awakens as if out of the profound sleep, and utters a deep-drawn sigh, as if emerging from death to life. Thus brought to himself, the magician answers questions put to him, and, to remove all doubt in regard to the character of his responses, he names and describes the places where he has been, with minute circumstances well known to the interrogator.
—John Campbell Colquhoun, An History of Magic, Witchcraft, and Animal Magnetism (1851)
In “Ej Haj,” the Hungarian fairy tale by Zsuzsanna Palkó, the titular magician’s name not only sounds like but also means “a sigh.”† The word haj is possibly related to Xai, a Vogul shaman’s “invocation to the supernatural at ritual ceremonies.”† In the tale “János Teddneki,” the King of Devils is named “Hájháj,”† like a double sigh.

A double sigh conjures a magician in this exemplary passage:
A deep sigh escaped his parched lips, and that sigh was echoed by another. He looked up, and standing beside him, in the hush of solemn midnight, he beheld Grimwald the Magician!
—E.B. Clarke, “A Legend of Charlemagne,” The American Monthly Magazine (1837)
A sigh accomplishes a magical effect in this passage:
Jack Starhouse could make [cats] dance wild dances, leaping about upon their hind legs and casting themselves from side to side. This he did by strange sighs and whistlings and hissings.
—Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)
Sometimes, an intricate incantation is expressed through sighs:
He raised his arms, holding them out to her. ‘Kum [kunka] yali, kum buba tambe,’ and more magic words, said so quickly, they sounded like whispers and sighs. The young woman lifted one foot on the air. Then the other. She flew clumsily at first, with the child now held tightly in her arms. Then she felt the magic, the African mystery. Say she rose as free as a bird. As light as a feather.
—Virginia Hamilton, The People Could Fly (1985)
In the following passage, a sigh surrounds a magician like a spectral aura as he explains the limits of his art:
The shadow of a sigh penetrated the wall. “I am a magician indeed, with knowledge of every spell yet devised, the sleight of runes, incantations, designs, exorcisms, talismans. I am Master Mathematician, the first since Phandaal, yet I can do nothing to your brain without destroying your intelligence, your personality, your soul—for I am no god. A god may will things to existence; I must rely on magic, the spells which vibrate and twist space.”
—Jack Vance, The Dying Earth (1982)

* Abram Smythe Palmer, Folk-Etymology (1882)
† Linda Degh, Folktales and Society (1989)

[Special thanks to Gordon Meyer, for inspiration!]

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Did is a word of Achievement,
Won’t is a word of Retreat,
Might is a word of Bereavement,
Can’t is a word of Defeat,
Ought is a word of Duty,
Try is a word of the Hour,
Will is a word of Beauty,
Can is a word of Power.

“Can is a magic word. It has the power to do anything . . . . do everything. It changes things, changes people, changes places. It helps in inventions, in discoveries, in progress, in advancements. It removes obstructions, strikes hindrances, dilutes barriers. It changes seemingly impossible into possible. It changes poverty into riches. It changes weak into healthy. It changes miserable into joyful.” —Barendra Kumar, Can is the Word of Power (2007)

Saturday, July 5, 2008


I checked this great magic book out of the library and read a magic word that’s never supposed to fail. Can you keep a secret? . . . The magic word is Wizzlewuzzlewoozle. . . . Just say Wizzlewuzzlewoozle. . . . Then you wish for whatever you want and count to three.
—Walter Minkel, How to Do “The Three Bears” with Two Hands (2000)
This magic word is a three-part spell; wizzle refers to obtaining through cunning,* wuzzle means “to mingle”† (or muddle, as in “wuzzle-headed”), and woozle is “the product of force and distance.”‡ Woozle is popularly known in the context of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, as an entity whose existence is known from its tracks.

* Thomas Wright, Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (1886)
† Jeffrey Kacirk, The Word Museum (2001)
‡ David Chapman, qtd. in Jerry J. Wellington, Practical Work in School Science (1998)

Friday, July 4, 2008


This gusty spirit of melos.
—Hallie Flanagan, Arena (1965)
Aristotle used the word melos to identify the spellbinding power of incantations, just as Ezra Pound used the similar expression melopoeia to characterize words that “are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning.”* In short, melos is a charm whose rhythms have the power to compel an involuntary physical response.*

Of Greek origin, melos means “music,” the “space-time of poetry.”† As a magic word, the name Melos appears in the amulet parchments of Abyssinian Christianity and other Ethiopian magic texts.‡ The name refers to “the fearful sword of fire” that descends from “the gate of light,” a coded reference to Christ in Abyssinian liturgical texts.‡

King Solomon, who figured highly in Ethiopian mythology, is said to have considered Melos to be a magic word.‡ Note that Melos is a form of the name Solomon. Solomon spelled backwards is Nomolos, which shortens to Molos and hence Melos. (Another common variation is Nemlos.||) Some scholars suggest that Melos is a coded reference to King Solomon in the Abyssinian liturgical texts.¶

* Adalaide Kirby Morris, How to Live/What to Do (2003)
† Elliott Anderson, The Little Magazine in America (1978)
‡ Phillip Tovey, Inculturation of Christian Worship (2004)
|| Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (1975)
¶ Georg Gerster, Churches in Rock (1970)

Thursday, July 3, 2008


You see that magic word, Inasmuch?
—Isabel Reaney, Just in Time (1884)
“That word, inasmuch, that’s a holy terror of a word. What does it mean? I think it means this is your last chance.” So suggests Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes (1996). While inasmuch doesn’t always instill fear and trembling, it is uniformly forceful and betrays an aura of foreboding. Why does it imply a “last chance”? The word establishes a parameter and takes the venturesome right to the edge, the verge, the threshold. It’s at a threshold—a gateway between worlds—that magic can happen. Inasmuch was, of course, originally three words, in as much, and as a compound magic word it’s like a dial with three settings, tuning in to a precise degree of consequence.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


It—that magical word.
—Joe McLaughlin, Pride of the Lion (2003)
The pronoun it is often ambiguous, but its power lies in its veil of obscurity. It is “a word that can mean almost anything—and perhaps the most important word” in one’s vocabulary. “Nay, more than a word, a symbol, symbolic of that one quality” vital to a practitioner. It is “not strength, not speed or endurance” but rather “something more, that little special something, that intangible, magical power” which, when added to one’s other qualities, makes one victorious.[1]

[1] Joe McLaughlin, Pride of the Lion (2003)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


We touched upon the powerful word art in the first edition of our dictionary of magic words, but we recently dug up this truly marvelous testament:
Art! If I had not that magic word before me in the distance I should have died already. But for Art one has need of no one; we depend entirely upon ourselves, and if we fail, it is because there was nothing in us, and that we ought to live no longer. Art! I picture it to myself like a great light shining before me in the distance, and I forget everything else but this, and I shall press forward to the goal, my eyes fixed upon this light.
—Marie Bashkirtseff, The Journal of a Young Artist (1889)
This tribute to art stands as one of our all-time favorites.