INCANTATION . The practice of incantation (Lat., incantatio, from incantare, “to chant a religious formula”) differs considerably from culture to culture. For the purposes of this cross-cultural overview, however, incantation can be understood as the authorized use of rhythmically organized words of power that are chanted, spoken, or written to accomplish a desired goal by binding spiritual powers to act in a favorable way.
Since incantation uses words to move spiritual powers and accomplish a desired result, this practice is related to other uses of sacred language such as prayer, invocation, blessing, and cursing. Verbal formulas associated with prayer beseech the spiritual powers for certain actions or maintain communication by praise and submission. However, verbal formulas associated with incantation are designed to perform the desired result by “obliging” (Lat., obligare, “to bind”) spiritual powers. Invocation, blessing, and cursing are used with both prayer and incantation.
The Power Of Incantation
Even though practices of incantation differ widely from culture to culture, its validity or efficacy appears to depend on cultural consensus about a number of primary factors, namely, the power of the chanted verbal formula, the authority of the incantor, the receptivity of spiritual forces both good and evil, the connection with the religious or mythological tradition, and the power of the accompanying ritual.
The power of the formula
Societies that use incantations understand them to be performative, that is, they accomplish what they say. The act of chanting the verbal formula itself has power. Scholars have put forth a variety of explanations concerning the effect incantations have for people. Older theories considered incantation to be a form of magic, an attempt to control and manipulate the forces of nature. More recent theories have suggested that incantations are expressive of needs and wishes or symbolize a desired result, or that they have the psychological effect of restructuring reality in the minds of people. Although these explanations may provide certain insights into the meaning of incantation, it must be remembered that, to the people involved, the proper chanting of the formula itself has performative power. To them it does not express or symbolize some other action—it does it. When, for example, the incantation experts of the Trobriand Islanders chant over the newly planted yam vines, “Raise thy stalk, O taytu. Make it flare up, make it lie across!” (Malinowski, 1935, vol. 1, p. 146), the people know that the “hearing” of these commands by the tubers is what makes them sprout and grow.
It is not, however, just any words that have such power. Incantations are special verbal formulas that in a variety of ways, depending upon the particular cultural tradition, tap into sacred power. They may, for example, contain powerful scriptural expressions, mantras, or sacred names. They are usually rhythmically organized and chanted repeatedly. They may use special devices such as foreign or unintelligible words, “abracadabra” nonsense phrases. The Anglo-Saxon medical-incantation treatise Lacnunga provides an example, using powerful names and impressive nonsense words:
Sing this prayer over the black blains nine times: first, Paternoster. “Tigath tigath tigath calicet aclu cluel sedes adclocles acre earcre arnem nonabiuth aer aernem nidren arcum cunath arcum arctua fligara uflen binchi cutern nicuparam raf afth egal uflen arta arta arta trauncula trauncula. [In Latin:] Seek and you shall find. I adjure you by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that you grow no larger but that you dry up.… Cross Matthew, cross Mark, cross Luke, cross John.” (Grattan and Singer, 1952, p. 107; my trans.)
It should be noted that, although the primary power of an incantation resides in its oral presentation, once these formulas could be written down, the chirographic (handwritten) text itself contributed to the potency of the incantation. From before 600 ce come Jewish-related Aramaic incantation texts written by experts on bowls and designed to ward off various sorts of evil. Such power could now be extended even into the realm of the dead, as in the case of Middle Kingdom Egyptian incantations inscribed on the inside wall of coffins, by which the various gods and demons encountered by the soul would be bound to act beneficially.
The chanter’s authority
Closely connected to the power of the verbal formula is the authority of the incantors. These may be experts in terms of learning or ecclesiastical authority, like Daoist priests or Christian monks; they may be people who have been specially initiated into the use of such power, like various kinds of shamans; they may be charismatic holy ones who keep certain special observances or practices that sanction their authority. In the incantation itself, the chanter often clothes himself in the aura of divine authority and power. A Malay shaman, drawing authority from both Hinduism and Islam, outroars a thunderstorm:
Om! Virgin goddess, Mahadewi! Om!
Cub am I of mighty tiger!
ʿAli’s line through me descends!
My voice is the rumble of thunder, …
By virtue of my charm got from ʿAli
And of Islam’s confession of faith. (Winstedt, 1925, p. 59)
Receptivity of the spiritual forces
The power of the incantation further derives from the people’s shared understanding of the nature and receptivity of the spiritual powers to be moved and bound by the powerful words. That spiritual entity may be simply an object or person that is to perform in a certain way. At other times, the incantation invokes, with careful mention of names, spirits, or gods who control aspects of nature and life, empowering or binding them to act beneficially. Ritual specialists of Java, when burying the umbilical cord of a newborn baby, intone the following words: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! Father Earth, Mother Earth, I am about to leave in your care the birthcord of the baby.… Don’t bother the baby. This is necessary because of Allah. If you do bother him, you will by punished by God” (Geertz, 1960, p. 46).
A great many incantations are addressed to evil spirits or demons, conjuring them to leave or stay away. It is extremely important that the incantor name and identify the origin and characteristics of the evil power in order to bind it. Pre-Spanish Maya incantations, for example, list detailed knowledge about the evil spirit of the disease, recounting its parentage, its lustful impulses that inspired its shameful birth, and all its characteristics; they then proceed to consign the spirit to the foul-smelling underworld or to cast it into the wind to fall behind the sky. An Aramaic incantation becomes very specific in naming one of the many demons: “I adjure you, Lilith Ḥablas, granddaughter of Lilith Zarnai, … the one who fills deep places, strikes, smites, casts down, strangles, kills, and casts down boys and girls, male and female foetuses,” while another text conjures by name nearly eighty demons and spirits of evils or sicknesses (Isbell, 1975, pp. 61, 121–122), showing that, occasionally, an incantation will name a whole series of evil spirits and demons—just to be sure that the right one is included.
Connection of the chant with tradition
The successful operation of the incantation depends on its connection with the religious or mythological tradition of the people. In one way or another, the incantation fits the specific human circumstance into the larger pattern of sacred existence and power as known in the religion of the people. Incantations in which such patterns are made explicit can be called narrative incantations. For example, Scottish incantations are regularly grounded in stories or legends about Christ and his disciples, as in this example: “Christ went on an ass, / She sprained her foot, / He came down / And healed her foot; / As He healed that / May He heal this, / And greater than this, / If it be His will to do” (Carmichael, 1928, vol. 2, p. 17). An ancient Egyptian narrative incantation, relating at great length how Isis rescued her son Horus from a scorpion’s bite, concludes with the main point: “It means that Horus lives for his mother—and that the sufferer lives for his mother likewise; the poison is powerless!” (Borghouts, 1978, pp. 62–69).
The accompanying ritual actions
While incantations can be used alone without any accompanying actions, in most cultures the chanting of incantations is usually associated with the power of other ritual actions. The incantation may be related to a ritual object that it empowers with sacred force. For treating a child with worms, the Javanese doctor chants over a special herb: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! Grandmother spirit, Grandfather spirit.… The harmful worms—may they all die. The good worms—may they stay for the whole length of the child’s life” (Geertz, 1960, p. 93). Cherokee specialists almost always chant their incantations over tobacco, “remaking” or empowering the tobacco to perform the desired benefit. A Daoist priest chants this incantation over a small puppet as he rubs it over a patient: “Substitute, be thou in place of the fore part of the body, … be thou in place of the back parts, … be thou in place of the left side, that health may be ensured to him for year upon year” (de Groot, 1967, vol. 6, p. 1260). Incantation texts are often accompanied by directions for ritual actions. For example, an ancient Mesopotamian incantation for potency commands: “Let the ass swell up! Let him mount the jenny! Let the buck get an erection! Let him again and again mount the young she-goat!”; then the ritual directions follow: “Pulverized magnetic iron ore you put [into] puru oil; you recite the incantation over it seven times; the man rubs his penis, the woman her vagina with the oil, then he can have intercourse” (Biggs, 1967, p. 33). Incantation and ritual together accomplish the desired result.
Forms Of Address
Within the great diversity of forms taken by the incantation formulas in different cultures and even within the same culture, a number of standard types can be discerned in the way spiritual powers are addressed. Many operate with the command form, using imperatives or statements of obligation to bind the spiritual powers to the desired action. Other incantations use the declaratory mode to establish the hoped-for result. And there are other incantations that approach the prayer mode, beseeching or charming the spiritual powers to take the beneficial action. Many times, of course, incantations use a combination of these three forms.
The command form, at its simplest, consists in naming the spiritual power and binding it to the desired action with an imperative. The High German “Pro Nessia” incantation from the ninth century ce, driving out the worm spirit that causes disease, is pure command:
Go out, nesso,
with the nine little ones,
out from the marrow into the veins,
from the veins into the flesh,
from the flesh into the hide,
from the hide into this arrow.
Three paternosters. (Hampp, 1961, p. 118; my trans.)
In Burma, an exorcist addresses many powers of the supernatural world in a general incantation in order to focus his powerful command on the ouktazaun (minor spirit) that is possessing his client: “To all the samma and brahma devas of the sky heavens; to all the ghosts, monsters, and other evil creatures; to the ogres of the earth; to the master witches and the wizards; to the evil nats and the ouktazauns: I command you to leave. I command you by the glory of the Triple Gems [Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha]” (Spiro, 1967, p. 177).
Very often incantations use a declaratory mode to perform the intended result of binding evil forces or compelling the good, declaring the desired state to be a reality in the present or the future. A Cherokee incantation designed to break up a happily married couple, for the benefit of a forgotten lover, simply declares the result to be so:
Now! Very quickly pillow your head upon the Soul of
the Dog, outside, where there is loneliness!
Your name is ______.
In the very middle of your two bodies loneliness has
just come to think.
You are to be broken in the Pathway.
Now! Where the joining is has just come to be divided.
Your two souls have just come to be divided somewhere
in the Valley.
Without breaking your soul, I have just come to stupefy
you with the Smoke of the Blue Tobacco. (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1965, pp. 139–140)
When the Trobriand sorcerer tours the gardens with their budding leaves, he intones, “The yam rises and swells like a bush-hen’s nest. The yam rises and swells like a baking-mound.… For these are my yams, and my kinsmen will eat them up. My mother will die of surfeit, I myself will die of repletion” (Malinowski, 1935, vol. 1, p. 146). It is in this declaratory mode that blessings and curses are often formulated, focusing on the person or thing to be involved and declaring the favorable or unfavorable state to be a reality.
A third mode of expression in many incantations is that of beseeching or charming the sacred powers to act benevolently. This form approaches that of prayer and, at times, is indistinguishable from it. Yet the typical expressions, “May you,” “Let God,” “I ask you,” and the like, can also be understood as compelling or binding the spiritual powers, not just beseeching them. A Burmese doctor chants a prayer-spell over a sick girl, repeating it three times as he empowers many spiritual beings for action: “May the five Buddhas, the nats, and the Brahmas rest on the forehead [of the patient]; may Sakka rest on the eyes and ears, Thurasandi Devi on the mouth, and Matali on the hands, feet, and body, … and may they guard and protect me” (Spiro, 1967, p. 152). And the Malay incantor turns even to Iblis (Satan) and the other spirits and devils and firmly requests direct action on behalf of his lovesick client:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!
Friend of mine, Iblis!
And all ye spirits and devils that love to trouble man!
I ask you to go and enter the body of this girl,
Burning her heart as this sand burns,
Fired with love for me. (Winstedt, 1925, p. 165)
Purposes Of Incantation
Purposes for the use of incantation differ widely and cover the whole gamut of life needs of individuals and societies. It is possible, however, to classify incantations, according to their purpose, into three broad categories: defensive, productive, and malevolent.
Among defensive incantations, a major purpose is prophylactic or apotropaic, that is, warding off evil spirits and their troubles, especially in the critical passages of life. Classic among apotropaic incantations are those widespread in the ancient Near East, directed against demonic powers called liliths—ghostly paramours of men, who attack women during their periods and at childbirth and who devour children. An incantation bowl binds these demons:
I adjure you, every species of lilith, in the name of your offspring which demons and liliths bore.… Woe, tramplers, scourgers, mutilaters, breakers, disturbers, squeezers, muzzlers, and dissolvers like water.… You are fearful, terrified, and bound to my exorcism, you who appear to the sons of men—to men in the likeness of women and to women in the likeness of men—you who lie with people during the night and during the day. (Isbell, 1975, pp. 17–18)
Vedic incantation from ancient India is directed against the fiends who cause pregnant women to abort: “The blood-sucking demon, and him that tries to rob health, Kanva, the devourer of our offspring, destroy, O Prisniparni [medicinal plant], and overcome!” (Atharvaveda 2.25.4, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 22). The Egyptian Coffin Texts testify to the need for incantations to ward off the evil powers who feast on the soul in the passage of death.
The other major use of defensive incantations is for the expulsion of evil powers that have taken up abode. A Malay Muslim shaman exorcises the demon of disease, reciting first the creation story and then chanting,
Where is this genie lodging and taking shelter?…
Genie! if thou art in the feet of this patient,
Know that these feet are moved by Allah and His prophet;
If thou are in the belly of this patient,
His belly is God’s sea, the sea, too, of Muhammad.… (Winstedt, 1925, pp. 62–63)
Sickness can also be seen as the result of attack by rival humans, and then the appropriate measure is a counterincantation. The Atharva priest of ancient India chants over a special ritual plant: “The spell which they skillfully prepare … we drive it away! … With this herb have I destroyed all spells.… Evil be to him that prepares evil, the curse shall recoil upon him that utters curses: back do we hurl it against him, that it may slay him that fashions the spell” (Atharvaveda 10.1.1, 4–5, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 72).
A second purpose of incantation is beneficial, that is, it promotes growth, health, and happiness either by urging on the responsible inherent powers or by causing beneficial interference by divine powers. A curer in Java uses a massage and a spitting ritual with this incantation:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!
May the Prophet Adam repair [the person],
May Eve order [the person].
Untangle the tangled veins,
Right the dislocated bones,
Make the fluids of the body feel pleasant, …
Health falls with my white spittle,
Well, well, well, by the will of God. (Geertz, 1960, p. 94)
A great many incantations of the productive type have to do with love and sexual attraction, marriage, home and family, potency, successful birth, and the like. The Cherokee, for example, have a large variety of love incantations, for creating loneliness in the desired person, for retaining affection of a wandering mate, for acclimatizing a newlywed wife, or compelling a runaway spouse to return. Cherokee men and women can use incantations to “rebeautify” themselves and thus become attractive to a potential mate:
Now! I am as beautiful as the very blossoms themselves!
I am a man, you lovely ones, you women of the Seven Clans! …
All of you have just come to gaze upon me alone, the most beautiful.
Now! You lovely women, already I just took your souls! I am a man!
You women will live in the very middle of my soul.
Forever I will be as beautiful as the bright red blossoms! (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1965, pp. 86–87)
At times, productive incantations are needed to bring about pregnancy, as this one from ancient India: “Into thy womb shall enter a male germ, as an arrow into a quiver! May a man be born there, a son ten months old!” (Atharvaveda 3.23.2, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 97).
A third purpose of incantation is related to the need to harm, punish, or take revenge on enemies or rivals. A jilted woman can target her erstwhile lover with this fierce imprecation:
As the best of the plants thou art reputed, O herb; turn this man for me today into a eunuch that wears his hair dressed! … Then Indra with a pair of stones shall break his testicles both! O eunuch, into a eunuch thee I have turned; O castrate, into a castrate thee I have turned! (Atharvaveda 6.138.1–3, as cited in Bloomfield, 1964, p. 108)
The Cherokee bent on revenge learns from the shaman to recite the name of his adversary, repeating the following incantation four times and blowing his breath toward him after each rendition: “Your Pathways are Black: it was wood, not a human being! Dog excrement will cling nastily to you. You will be living intermittently.… Your Black Viscera will be lying all about.… Your Pathway lies toward the Nightland!” (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick, 1967, p. 127).
Incantations, as rhythmic or formulaic words of power used to accomplish a desired goal by binding spiritual powers, have sometimes been considered as magic rather than religion, or as a form of religious practice lower than prayer. It is true that incantations oblige the powers to perform the action rather than prayerfully request them for it. And it is also true that incantations have to do with self-interest, sometimes at the expense of others. Yet they do represent a religious mode of being in the world, albeit a mode of aggression rather than simple submission to spiritual powers. The power of chanted words fits the events of human life into the pattern of the sacred realities that underlie and support human existence. Far from being trivial, incantations provide help for whatever deeply troubles or concerns humans: health, birth, love, marriage, family, prosperity, death. Human existence is understood as a drama involving the interaction of many spiritual powers, and, through the power of the chanted formula, a restructuring of these powers is performed so that life can become more healthy, secure, prosperous, and happy.
Among the many works that include incantations from all over the world, the following provide a representative survey from ancient, medieval, and modern cultures.
Biggs, Robert D. Ṥà. zi. ga: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations. Locust Valley, N.Y., 1967. Translations and textual studies of incantations used in Mesopotamian society for this universal sexual problem.
Bloomfield, Maurice, trans. and ed. Hymns of the Atharva-Veda. Delhi, 1964. Reprint of “Sacred Books of the East,” vol. 42 (Oxford, 1897). Translations and interpretations of the most important incantations and hymns of the fourth Veda from ancient India by one of the outstanding American Sanskritists of the nineteenth century.
Borghouts, J. F., trans. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden, 1978. Translations of a representative range of incantations from ancient Egypt, dealing with concerns of everyday life, mostly from the Middle Kingdom and later.
Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations, vol. 2. Edinburgh, 1928. Various incantations collected orally in the highlands and islands of Scotland and translated into English.
Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill., 1960. Extensive information about incantations in this important study of the Javanese religious system, which combines Islam and native spirit beliefs.
Grattan, J. H. G., and Charles Singer. Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine. Oxford, 1952. Some incantations and healing rituals especially from the semipagan text Lacnunga, translated into modern English.
Groot, J. J. M. de. The Religious System of China (1892–1910). 6 vols. Reprint, Taipei, 1967. Especially volume 6 of this multivolumed work contains traditional Chinese rituals and incantations against specters.
Hampp, Irmgard. Beschwörung, Segen, Gebet: Untersuchung zum Zauberspruch aus dem Bereich der Volksheilkunde. Stuttgart, 1961. A rich sourcebook for incantations from German cultures, providing also a study of types and purposes.
Isbell, Charles D. Corpus of the Aramaic Incantation Bowls. Missoula, Mont., 1975. Texts and translations of all the published Aramaic texts inscribed on incantation bowls, from Jewish-related societies in Babylon.
Kilpatrick, Jack Frederick, and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick. Walk in Your Soul: Love Incantations of the Oklahoma Cherokees. Dallas, 1965. Incantations used in situations of love and marriage among the Cherokee.
Kilpatrick, Jack Frederick, and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick. Run toward the Nightland: Magic of the Oklahoma Cherokees. Dallas, 1967. Incantations of the Cherokee for use in various situations.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. Coral Gardens and Their Magic. 2 vols. London, 1935. Texts of many incantations interspersed with descriptions of the Trobriand Islanders to the east of New Guinea, with important interpretations by this famous anthropologist.
Roys, Ralph L., trans. and ed. Ritual of the Bacabs. Norman, Okla., 1965. Translations of healing incantations from the pre-Spanish Maya culture.
Spiro, Melford E. Burmese Supernaturalism: A Study in the Explanation and Reduction of Suffering. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967. A careful study of the Burmese spiritual world, including translations of incantations used in this Buddhist culture.
Winstedt, R. O. Shaman, Saiva and Sufi: A Study of the Evolution of Malay Magic. London, 1925. Includes translations of many incantations in a study of religious practices in Malay culture, which mixes Islamic, Hindu, and indigenous religious influences.
Theodore M. Ludwig (1987)