Superstitions Connected with Abracadabra

Abracadabra is a magical incantation that is now associated chiefly with stage conjurers and pantomime witches, but it has in fact a much longer history as a cabalistic charm. First mentioned in the writings of the Gnostic physician Quintus Serenus Scammonicus in the second century BC, abracadabra comprises the abbreviated forms of the Hebrew words Ab (father), Ben (son), and Ruach A Cadsch (Holy Spirit), though an alternative derivation relates the word to Abraxas, a god with snakes for feet who was worshiped in Alexandria in pre-Christian times.

The charm was said to have special powers against fevers, toothache, and other medical aliments as well as to provide protection against bad luck. Sufferers from such conditions were advised to wear metal amulets or pieces of parchment folded into a cross and inscribed with the word repeated several times, with the first and last letter removed each time until the last line reads just A. According to the thinking behind the charm, the evil force generating the illness would decrease as the word grew shorter. once the charm had proved effective (after a period of nine days), the wearer was instructed to remove the parchment cross and to throw it backwards into an eastwards-flowing stream before sunrise.

Such charms were, according to Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722), widely worn in London in the seventeenth century as protection against the plague. Simply saying the word out loud is also said to summon up strong supernatural forces, hence its use by contemporary stage performers and entertainers.

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