The Weird Sisters, Henry Fuseli, 1783
From The Threepenny Review:
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.