Friday, October 31, 2008

Dust of Bones

Don't miss our interview over at The Tarot Channel, all about Magic Words: A Dictionary.


We were surprised to discover the following magic spell in a modern book of science magic tricks:

"Dust of bones and witch's attire, I command you to draw some fire."

The spell is recommended for setting a sugar cube alight with "genuine witch's dust ... made from the scraping from the bottom of her kettle after she made her brew ... The witches use it to draw fire—lightning—from the sky to start their fires." (Nathan Shalit, Science Magic Tricks, 1998).

This spell harks back to an era when science and the occult overlapped. As Henry Adams noted in his autobiography, "Science has proved that forces, sensible and occult, physical and metaphysical, simple and complex, surround, traverse, vibrate, rotate, repel, attract, without stop; that man's senses are conscious of few, and only in a partial degree; but that, from the beginning of organic existence his consciousness has been induced, expanded, trained in the lines of sensitiveness; and that the rise of his faculties from a lower power to a higher, or from a narrower to a wider field, may be due to the function of assimilating and storing outside force or forces. There is nothing unscientific in the idea that, beyond the lines of force felt by the senses, the universe may be—as it has always been—either a supersensuous chaos or a divine unity, which irresistibly attracts, and is either life or death to penetrate. Thus far, religion, philosophy, and science seem to go hand in hand."

Thursday, October 30, 2008


This musical word has an exotic ring to it, with a sizzling zap in the middle and a plosive ta to mark the impact at the end. The word has been traced back to Europe in the 1300s, in talismanic parchments containing exotic-sounding divine names and guaranteeing longevity.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


In the mystical Shingon sect of Buddhism, the name Shingon is known as the “True Word” or “Magic Word.” Shingon is the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit word mantra.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Noctar Raiban

These antiquated magic words for mind reading are from an Egyptian book of magical talismans. They were believed to compel even “the most discreet man ... to unveil his utterly secret thoughts.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Darkness, Light, Earth, Air, Sun, Truth

The magical incantation "Darkness, Light, Earth, Air, Sun, Truth," explained by the Pythagorean Androcydes, was discovered in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus.* It was used for banishing disease.

*Hugo Magnus, Superstition in Medicine (1905)

Friday, October 24, 2008


It was the voice of that magic harp at the bottom of the sea, . . . the voice of hidden music that had cried ‘Resurgam’ through the wood.
—Richard Le Gallienne, The Worshipper of the Image (1900).
A breath of new life, "the magic Latin word resurgam"* means “I shall rise again” or "I shall return."

*Herbert David Croly, The New Republic, 1941

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ridas Talimol

Used by magicians to control fire or water, ridas talimol is an antiquated magic phrase for “commanding the elements,” from an Egyptian book of magical talismans.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mekka-lekka-hi, Mekka-hiney-ho

This magic phrase was popularized by the children’s television series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986): “One of Pee-wee’s visiting pals to pop into the Playhouse was in the form of a genie—a disembodied, turban-topped talking head named Jambi. Always a jokester, Jambi swiveled his head and worked his magic much to Pee-wee’s rapture; he granted wishes if Pee-wee chanted along with him (‘mecca-lecka-hi, mecca-hiney-ho’)” (Stephen Cox, Dreaming of Jeannie, 2000).

Here are some examples of Mekka-lekka-hi, Mekka-hiney-ho in literature:
“It might as well have been Abracadabra, hocus pocus, or meka-leka-hi, meka-hiney-ho. It was a magical incantation in the language of the gods.” —Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (2003)

“A massive frozen glass door stood in my way, which I opened with ease, by repeating the chant ‘Mecca lecka hai, mecca heiney ho,’ and using the handle.” — (2004)

“We’d let those kids know that they’re loved and valuable, and deserving of healing. ‘Mekka Lekka Hi, Mekka Lekka Hiney Ho. Fear be gone when we say ‘go.’” —Naomi Judd, Naomi’s Breakthrough Guide (2004)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


As the building blocks of language, the letters of the alphabet are our most concise magic words. Here's one of our favorite tributes to the A B C's as "open sesames" to magical worlds:

Abashed I stand, yet eager, like Aladdin awed before
The cavern of enchantment, with darksome, magic door;
For 'mid the cloistered shadows there wait on every side
The portals of the mystic realms my word can open wide.

What need of sprite or genie? What use of lamp or ring?
I have the word that opens, the wonder-charm I bring;
I am my own magician, when, with my wand in hand,
I come a seeking pilgrim into the bookman's land.

Why pause in doubtful longing? I need but choose the gate—
I need but speak the magic word for which the hinges wait;
The door will swing obedient and open me the way
To Egypt or to Arden, to Chile or Cathay.

O covers of a wealth of books, O wizard hing├Ęd doors,
What treasures do you lock from me, what wonder-realm is yours?
Nay, mine, all mine to conjure with, the simple A B C—
The charm I learned, a little child, beside my mother's knee.

—Abbie Farwell Brown, St. Nicholas, 1900

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Cadence of Nostalgia

In the introduction to Magic Words: A Dictionary, we note the powerfully evocative lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael—musical, magical words that conjure the listener's yearning for simpler times. The playwright Jonathan Caws-Elwitt whimsically combined those bits of nostalgia into a sentence of his own:
Down by the old mill, moonlight spills like buttermilk on a Wabash veranda, while possums feast on rhubarb 'neath the sycamores, as if tucking into watermelons.

P.S. Oleander.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Allow Silence

Speak a magic word from your heart. And if, when the magic moment arrives, no sound escapes your lips, then let silence be louder than words. “The delight that we unveil always seems to come down to this: I have a feeling in my heart and now, without any words—abracadabra: You have that feeling in your heart.”* That’s what magic is—a kind of communion, an imparting of a transcendent experience from one who is initiated to those who assemble around him. And some of these shared, transcendent experiences are just too magical for words.

*George Alistair Sanger, quoted in The Art of Digital Music: 56 Visionary Artists and Insiders Reveal Their Creative Secrets by David Battino (2005)

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Well, I never! Who would have thought such a common word could work magic?
—Peggy Christian, The Bookstore Mouse (2002)
Professional magician Kenton Knepper (The Mystic of Magic) notes, “I feel that every word is magical, for by defining, we create. By labeling anything, we limit it. When we limit something, it becomes a seeming reality. All that is in physical form is a compression, and words do compress a wide range of possibilities of experience into a single thing. Each word has a compression of its own limitation of experience. Limitation is not a bad thing. We must have limitation for anything to exist in any purposeful way. On the other hand, those of us who work in illusion (as well as a hopefully larger perspective) understand very well the deception that occurs by such limitation and labeling. ‘I never want to touch the deck of cards at all’ is something an audience later recalls as truth. But a good card sharp says such a thing as he hands the deck to a person to shuffle. The word ‘never’ creates the false impression that the card sharp never, ever touches the cards. In physical fact, he himself handled the cards as he gave them over for a shuffle. In the process he has marked the cards or abused them in his favorite manner for his later benefit.”*

*Personal correspondence (2005). The Mystic of Magic’s website for magicians only is

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Tathata is an expression of wordless wonder from Mahayana Buddhism. Tathata celebrates the "thusness" or "suchness" of the transitory present moment. As no two moments are ever quite the same, tathata reminds us to open our eyes to the sublime. We are reminded of the opening lines of the song "This Magic Moment," popularized by The Drifters and Jay & the Americans: "This magic moment, so different and so new."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cosmic Laws of Energy

Magicians, who can be thought of as a tribe of flashy philosophers, constantly demonstrate metaphysical and related dynamics—from the creation and destruction of matter (silk handkerchiefs or whatnot), to the concept of separation (cut ropes and sawed ladies), to the idea of harnessing limitless power through proper language and skillful handiwork. Magic words, written upon anything from a mystic-looking parchment scroll to an ordinary playing card, emblazoned on a t-shirt or appearing on skin rubbed with ash, can serve to represent and even embody the cosmic laws of energy—laws proclaimed and encoded within the very lines, curves, and arrangements of the letters.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ashi Vanghuhi

In Zoroastrianism, Ashi Vanghuhi is the name of a Beneficent Immortal who presides over blessings.

Friday, October 10, 2008


We highlighted the magic word Italia in months past, but we couldn't resist this additional literary example:
This Italy of yours, on whose threshold I stand, is the home of history, of beauty, of the arts—of all that makes life splendid and sweet. Italy, for us dull strangers, is a magic word. We cross ourselves when we pronounce it. We are brought up to think that when we have earned leisure and rest—at some bright hour, when fortune smiles—we may go forth and cross oceans and mountains and see on Italian soil the primal substance—the Platonic ‘idea’—of our consoling dreams and our richest fancies. ... I begin to behold the promise of my dreams. It’s Italy. ... The air has a perfume; everything that enters my soul, at every sense, is a suggestion, a promise, a performance.
—Henry James, Travelling Companions (1870)

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Boodoongapita is featured in a folk story from India about a fussy boy who learns from a traveling magician a magic word to make anything displeasing disappear.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

One Great Memory

"I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe ... that the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy ... and that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself."
—W.B. Yeates, Ideas of Good and Evil

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One Word: That's Magic

Professional magician John W. LeBlanc notes that there are “untold numbers of anecdotes told by professional performers who found that just changing one, single word made an enormous difference in the response of the audience to a performance piece. One word. That’s magic.”

As in the fables of old, “It’s in the words that the magic is—‘Abracadabra,’ ‘Open Sesame,’ and the rest—but the magic words in one story aren’t magical in the next. It seems . . . that the real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what” (John Barth, The Tidewater Tales, 1987).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Magic Words that Come to You

"A magic word may bring motivation. You can never tell when it is going to come. Therefore it is smart to keep your eyes, your ears and, supremely, your mind, open. For that magic word may indeed change you, and in doing so, change your life." —Norman Vincent Peale, You Can If You Think You Can, 1987


By the way, don't miss our extensive interview about magic words at Musings from a Muddy Island.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Antiquated Language and the Universal Mystery

Medieval conjurors first began using exotic words to “give their performances an air of authentic secret knowledge.”[1] Whether they employed pseudo-Latin phrases, nonsense syllables, or esoteric terms from religious antiquity, these magicians were doing far more than merely adding a bit of enigmatic audio to their visuals.[2] They were enhancing their specific illusions with a universal mystery: language as an instrument of creation.

Ancient-sounding words project an aura of tradition, of “‘old wisdom’ handed down through generations.”[3] It’s little wonder that the archetypical depiction of a magician involves the utterance of antiquated words, in addition to the grand gestures that impart a larger-than-life dimension to his activities.[4] And because archaic magic words necessarily predate a magician’s own life, they point to the existence of a “transcendent” realm beyond the logic and laws of our ordinary world.

[1] Paul Kriwaczek, In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World (2003)
[2] Needless to say, a magician’s patter can serve to distract, for “We get mesmerized by magic words” (Dale Mathers, An Introduction to Meaning and Purpose in Analytical Psychology [2002]).
[3] Jesper Sorensen, Magical Rituals and Conceptual Blending
[4] (2002)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sim Sala Bim

Magician Steve Spill, of Magicopolis fame, shared with us how his copy of Magic Words: A Dictionary arrived at exactly the right moment, against astronomical odds:
Thank you so much for your scholarly work. I am pleased to tell you that your book, Magic Words, was put to good use the moment it arrived here at Magicopolis.

My friend Bob just finished a book I loaned him, Trouping with Dante by Marion Trikosko, and phoned to let me know he enjoyed it. He asked if I could tell him a little about the words Sim Sala Bim. Bob asked what the words mean, wanted to know their origin, and so on. I said that I thought they were made up by Dante but was not sure.

While telling him I would try and find out more, the mailman arrived with a package that I opened as we were talking. In it was a book, a most extraordinary book, Magic Words by Craig Conley.

“Bob,” I said into the phone, “Sim Sala Bim is the Swedish equivalent of abracadabra, and is known in other Scandinavian cultures as well…”

I then continued to give him information about the history of the words, how Whit Hadyn said they were nonsense syllables from a Danish nursery rhyme, and that Orson Welles used Sim Sala Bim as magic words in the 1967 film Casino Royale. I went on until Bob stopped me.

“Hey, Steve, where are you getting all this information?”

“From this dictionary of magic words,” I said calmly. “It just arrived in the mail.”

I couldn’t hold back any longer, and told him what had just happened. Bob thought I was kidding him. What a fantastic, unbelievable, mind-boggling coincidence we had just shared. What are the odds that I would get this obscure information in the mail at just the moment Bob asked for it? A quintillion to one would be my guess.

Thank you Craig for the surprise and wonder,

Steve Spill

Hili Hili Mili Mili

This meaningless mantra of Buddhist origin invokes planetary forces.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Women in Boxes

The documentary Women in Boxes, spearheaded by Blaire Baron Larsen, is a springboard for pondering the deeper significance of magicians placing their assistants in boxes. As performers, the duos likely have no idea what archetypal stories they're playing out. But something profound is going on, in light of the renowned psychologist Erich Neumann, a trailblazer in feminine psychology and the Great Mother archetype of world mythology. Applying Neumann's insights to stage magic, the prototypical female assistant symbolizes the anima -- that part of the psyche connected to the world of the subconscious -- the soul, if you will. The anima can be human or animal (hence the great tradition of women magically transforming into tigers). The prototypical male magician symbolizes the hero archetype on a quest toward individuality. In order to be truly creative, the magician's masculine world of ego consciousness must make a link to the feminine assistant's world of the soul. Through "sawing a lady in half," the magician tries to divide the anima, not so much to conquer her but to understand her like a scientist. He tries to contain the anima in a box, not to imprison her but to accommodate, encompass, and give definite form to her curvaceous amorphousness. Indeed, there's nothing inherently "sexist" about the roles of stage magician and assistant; the two form a single personality struggling to become integrated. (Read more of Neumann's wisdom in his indispensable The Origins and History of Consciousness. Here's a link to Camille Paglia's profile of Neumann). See the Women in Boxes website for the trailer, gallery, and DVD information.


The Japanese equivalent to abracadabra, dogura-magura means “magic used by Christians” in the Kyushu dialect of the Nagasaki area. This area was home to early Jesuit and European merchant settlements.