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!]

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