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Spring 2014

On Magic

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Marina Warner

The haggard sisters’ brew in Macbeth would have remained a ghastly soup had they not chanted over it, and made “the charm firm and good” with their tripping rhyming curses. Spells can be cast by various means, foul and fair, using a range of ingredients (body parts) and processes (fumigations, gestures), but to be effective words are vital. A spell is a verbal formula of some kind, often riddling, even nonsensical. But language binds the meaning into the action and defines its aims. As Hecate says, giving her approval to the three witches:

And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

The weird sisters are bent on doing harm, drowning sailors and ruining great men like Macbeth, but magic was most commonly used in the past to protect against danger rather than cause it. Othello in his suspicions behaves threateningly to Desdemona for losing the handkerchief; it was given, he claims, to protect them both. In my Catholic childhood, we prayed daily that we—and others—might be spared from death, plague, famine, illness, sudden blows of fate (flood, fire, shipwreck), and we kept charms about us with the correct prayers. They came in many marvelous conventional forms, as “ejaculations,” as antiphons made up of praises and responses, and as litanies, which invoked specific experts in the harms and horrors that we hoped to avert. St. Barbara would protect you against being struck by lightning, St. Blaise against choking on a fishbone. In Paris, recently, I came across St. Expedit, a brother for St. Opportune. The saints’ particular spheres of influence are connected to the manner of their own deaths, because magical thinking often depends on a homeopathic match between the threatened ill and its prevention or cure: so St. Apollonia’s attribute is a gigantic molar held between brutal pincers, an image which suggests she might be minded to inflict toothache on you. But no, she will help ease it if you pray to her, and your entreaties will be effective if you repeat the right salutations in the correct order. The power of the verbal spell does not lie in your disposition or intention, but derives from the internal structure of the formula and from its age-old, time-tested character. Jacques Derrida, whose background in North Africa I think helped fashion his profound sense of verbal magic, comments in Specters of Marx, “[For we are wagering here that] thinking never has done with the conjuring impulse...”

Kabbalistic beliefs share common ground in this love of letters as potent, active powers in themselves: “Every word an angel, every letter an angel, and the spaces between them” was a tenet of the mystical Isaac Luria in Prague. According to analogous Muslim practices involving inscription, the right words work even when they’re hidden, indecipherable, or have disappeared altogether: they need only to have made contact, for their presence lingers in the substances where they were once inscribed, transferred by means of the magic operation of writing. The tablets used to teach the Qur’an at school were washed after lessons, and the water kept because it was hallowed by contact with the sacred text; similarly, Middle Eastern medicine bowls have quotations from the Qur’an chased into the brass, in the trust that using them to give a patient a drink will make the medicine work better.

Shakespeare uses verbal magic, cantrips and ditties, nonsense songs and verses throughout the plays, but in Othello he gives a glimpse of how powerful a spell becomes when it’s no longer oral, but fixed in material form. The fatal handkerchief is no ordinary hanky; it’s a love spell, and it was made with gruesome and potent ingredients (mummified “maiden’s hearts”) by a two-hundred-year-old sibyl in Egypt—Egypt being the birthplace and pinnacle of magic knowledge. “In her prophetic fury,” Othello tells Desdemona, this crone “sew’d the work.” His mother kept it to ward off the evil eye from her marriage and secure the love of her husband, Othello’s father, and Othello has passed it on to his wife to the same ends. Unlike the witches’ broth in Macbeth, Othello the Moor’s silk handkerchief is made to last; in one sense it is a text, woven to keep active and working through time.

Muslim practices are frequently scoffed at for their superstition, but in many respects they resemble both Judaic and Catholic ritual trust in the power of the word, especially transfused into things—into relics or paper or stones or…clothes. They were charmed with many kinds of conjuration, formulaic repetitions with not a word changed or out of place from the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet and other texts established by custom: the ninety-nine epithets of god, the stories of the saints. Islam is a scribal religion above all, and while rituals demand that words be chanted and recited, their power intensifies when written down. Calligraphic blazons act as icons, gems are incised with prayers to release their talismanic powers, phylacteries hold tightly wound documents written all over with blessings and invocations, magic undergarments become palimpsests, densely worked with magic charms and pious prayers, and children’s jackets are embroidered with entreaties to protect the wearer from anything that might endanger a young life.

I had long been aware of the idea of envenomed garments, like the robe of Nessus, or the dress Medea sends her rival, which burns her horribly to death. But talismanically protective clothes were unknown to me until I saw them in an exhibition at the Louvre about Ottoman princes’ wardrobes from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The making of these magic garments was an amazingly elaborate art, ultimately rooted in Chinese astrology, for the work of inscription involves the wearer’s horoscope. Looked at from one angle, the Turkish practice was rankly superstitious, a fabulous, extreme, and crazy example of human fantasy in the doomed quest for mastery of natural forces. But looked at from another angle, the attempt to activate blessing and security through acts of writing rather than simple speech acts, and then by wearing the texts on one’s body, shows us a new dimension of word power and communicates an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination.

Magic clothes struck me as unutterably strange when I first saw them, but since then I’ve been collecting other examples. In seventeenth-century Europe, lovers pledged their love on the stays of their beloved, on the whalebone stiffeners that used to be stitched into corsets or on the suspenders used to hold up stockings. Wishes and hopes, written on materials secreted in intimate places, aimed at binding the wearer to the love of the giver and—as in the case of Othello’s handkerchief—spelled woe to the beloved if she strayed.

Then I remembered that I too wore magical articles of dress when I was a girl: miraculous medals, crucifixes, and the scapular. Devotion to the scapular was greatly encouraged at my convent school. It comes in the form of a pair of small felt brown squares yoked together by strings; the shape is meant to recall in miniature the narrow tunic monks wear over their habits, and scapulars are usually friar-brown and stitched in blue with the initials of Jesus and Mary and various other symbols of prayer. Wearing it under your shirt near your heart was meant to keep you safe from sin and other dangers.

For a believer, the inherent power of prayer depends on an ultimate divine guarantor—God, Allah, Mary, St. Apollonia. I lost my faith a long time ago, but the experience of having once believed, and rather fervently too, underlies my sense of words’ power to heal as well as to harm. Granted, to entertain for a moment the idea that writing blessings on your children’s clothes could keep them safe spreads an illusion abhorrent to rational thought. What folly. Yet it strikes me that it also resonates with the hope that writing can make something happen (contra Auden), and that is a principle I have to go on believing in, in spite of loud counter-argument and little evidence. If writing didn’t persevere in making up sequences of words as defense and attack, if writers didn’t conjure realities or summon alternatives, what kind of human world would remain?

Marina Warner, who lives in London, is a cultural historian, essayist, and novelist whose works include Joan of Arc, All Alone of Her Sex, and Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights.

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