Below are definitions of magic words, esoteric and exoteric alike, that are scattered through this issue.
ZABAR’S, KRESGE, CALDOR, WAL-MART
Composed of names of American retailers, this spell for conjuring zombies was chanted by Bart Simpson in Matt Groening’s animated series The Simpsons. (Season 4, Episode 64, “Dial Z For Zombies,” 29 October 1992).
The magic words of professional magician Howard Thurston (1869–1936). With its possible origins in the names of builders/craftsmen cited in the Old Testament, the phrase Hiram Abif appears, from 1730 onwards, within the allegorical tales of Freemasonry as the name of the architect of King Solomon’s Temple.
These words for changing from reality to non-reality are of Micmac (Maritime Algonquin) origin. Similarly, kesk matiket means “magician,” and kesk mta’q means “making a magic sound.” (Source: Micmac elder Michael W. Francis, quoted in Beverley Diamond, M. Sam Cronk, and Franziska von Rosen, Visions of Sound, 1994).
Matba is a spell for obtaining small coins, and is found in The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, Book III, a grimoire translated by S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers in 1898. The earliest German source of this grimoire dates from 1608. As a talisman to be carried in one’s money purse, matba, which Mathers translated as “let it be forthcoming,” was to be written on a small square of paper.
In Konstantin Pavlov’s 1981 poem “Why!,” perciphedron is a magic word written in white letters on the belly of a fish named Kronzhig, who lies on the bottom of the ocean and emerges from the deep every century to shriek her own name.
SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS
Translating approximately as “The sower Arepo holds the wheels with difficulty,” or “The sower Arepo leads with his hand the plow,” this palindromic charm was discovered as graffiti in Pompeii and dates back to the first century CE. Written above one another in descending order, the words form a “magic square” where the sentence reads the same left to right, bottom to top, top to bottom, and backwards.
Likely derived from the Greek word theos, meaning “god,” Syos was used by magicians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to establish the cardinal directions. “Having reached the potter’s earth, he plants his heel upon it and turning successively to the East, South, and North, repeats the magic word ‘Syos’ to each of those cardinal points.” (Source: Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols., 1923–58).
The charcter known as Mxyztplk (later changed to Mxyzptlk) first appeared in 1944 in DC comics Superman #30. A visitor from another dimension, he tells Superman that there is no way he can be tricked into saying the magic word Klptzyxm that will return him to his own universe. Carelessly saying the word, Mxyztplk vanishes.
TURIUS UND SHURIUS INTURIUS
This late sixteenth-century phrase originated in the Netherlands and figured in the witchcraft trials of the 1700s. In Amsterdam, “a crazy girl confessed that she could cause sterility in cattle, and bewitch pigs and poultry by merely repeating the magic words Turius und Shurius Inturius! She was hanged and burned.” (Source: Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841).
Xatanitos is an antiquated word for use during card shuffling and for luck involving five cards. This word comes from an Egyptian book of magical talismans entitled The Black Pullet, “translated from the Language of the Magi” in the eighteenth century. (Source: Arthur Edward Waite, The Book of Ceremonial Magic, 1913).
Craig Conley left academia to be an independent scholar and lexicographer.
He is author of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary (HarperCollins, 2005) and three
other unusual lexicons. He currently resides in North Carolina. For more information,
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