Are you a conjurer?

Wouldn’t you like to be a conjurer or enchanter? You would be a mysterious figure, feared and respected. People would come to you for help, ask your advice, be in awe of your power.

What is a conjurer anyway? It comes from a Latin word meaning “to swear together.” The original meaning of the English word was (according to Merriam-Webster) “to charge or entreat earnestly or solemnly,” but eventually it came to mean “to summon by invocation or incantation” and to “affect or effect as if by magic,” or even “to summon a devil or evil spirit by invocation or incantation.” Today, when we use the word “conjure” at all, we generally use it metaphorically.

It turns out that a belief in the magical power of words is embedded deeply in the English language, which originated during a time when nearly everyone still believed in magic. Invoke/invocation came from a Latin word meaning “to call.” It meant to petition for help or support, particularly an authority, and it came to imply incantation, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to enchant.” An incantation was a “use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as part of a ritual of magic; also, a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect.”

Even “enchant” itself refers to language, which isn’t hard to see if you look at the word, en-chant. Like the others, it also comes from Latin (“to sing”), and meant “to influence by charms and incantation: bewitch.”

These words imply a belief in the power of language to enchant or bewitch the hearer, and that if properly used, words could summon powers beyond those of the speaker. In its article on magic, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2003) says, “In some cases, the spell is the most highly regarded component of the magical rite or ceremony. The Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, for example, regarded using the right words in the right way as essential to the efficacy of the rite being performed. Among the Maori of New Zealand the power of words is thought to be so important that mistakes in public recitations are believed to cause disasters for individuals or the community.”

In medieval Christendom, a failure to recite the Lord’s Prayer properly, or even stumbling over a word, could be cited as evidence against someone suspected of witchcraft or sorcery. And of course, the Bible itself provided examples of the power of language in the creation story of Genesis 1 (“And God said… And it was so.”) and in the opening of the Gospel of John (”In the beginning was the Word…”)

Words were powerful, potentially dangerous, and had to be used with care. And of course one doesn’t have to believe in magic to appreciate the real power of words to do many of the things mentioned above — not that they directly create physical realities, but they shape the way we perceive and interpret reality… which in some ways is as influential as the shaping physical reality itself. Ideologies, wars, religions, political systems, laws, cultures, relationships, etc. – all are profoundly shaped and exist largely in the realm of language. Even in the modern world, those who wield language skillfully are in some sense conjurers and enchanters, calling forth realities that did not exist until they were spoken.

(I’ll look at a negative example of this next week.)

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