“Spell” has many meanings;
the act of reciting letters aloud e.g.
“The children are participating in a spelling bee.”
working to cover for, or in place of another person e.g.
“John will spell Amy while she rests.”
and an unspecified period e.g.
“Come sit a spell.”
That’s all well and good but today, we are here to discuss the etymology of the magical kind of spell.
A spell is a tool used by magic practitioners to bend the will of others. In today’s magical community understanding, spells can be used for betterment, as a protective spell that prevents a child from running with scissors. Or for gray area spells, as a battlefield spell calling Mór-Ríoghain to incite the villagers to fight, instead of hiding from the invading Berserkers. Or as a maleficent spell to inspire your ex to party all night, oversleep and lose their job… Although we might call that a curse, the earliest English speakers would argue that it was not a curse, but just a spell.
Magic action was once categorized as either a spell, a charm, or a curse. According to older trains of thought, charms were entirely acceptable because they did not act on a person, but rather on objects and animals. On the other hand, spells were dark magic because they manipulated free-will. The word curse did not enter the lexicon until Old English sometime between the 5th and 11th centuries. It has no Germanic, French, or Latin roots. In fact, the etymology of curse remains an unknown and academic argument. (Read Blessing and Cursing Part 3 for more details about the ongoing curse disagreement.)
In Old English, curses were a special type of spell that manipulated fate to cause lasting damage. Spells, on the other hand, were short-lived human manipulations. Manipulating your ex’s new partner so they lose all self-esteem and dump your ex and then descend into depression, fits the Old English (and Modern English) definition of a curse. The curse is defined by ill-will directed toward the object of the curse, and through the cursed, thus changing fate while nurturing the desire for long-term suffering.
The old thinking went something like: Midwives and healers are great at charms. Good witches are great at spells. Corrupt leaders and bad witches are great at curses and spells.
Over the centuries binary thinking displaced directional thinking, especially concerning the supernatural. With an infallible, single-deity religion casting the world in a mold of good vs. evil, people had to make sense of the plurality of their lives by fitting everything into either the good or the evil category. Eventually, witches landed in the shadows on the evil side of things.
White magic = midwives and healers = charms = good.
Black magic = witches = spells.
Very black magic = the evil witches = curses.
As binary thinking progresses, the difference between curses, spells, and charms continues to diminish. By the time Modern English emerged, all magic was categorized in the evil category and modern midwives and healers were in the process of changing their titles to nurses and doctors who practice medicine in the good category, as opposed to magic in the evil category.
Like most English words, spell derives from Middle English and before that, Old English. Before the 5th century, it was the Old High Germanic word for talking, storytelling, gossiping, and preaching; spellon, and before that, it was the Proto-Indo-European spel-. Evidence of the root word can be found in the words gospel, and magic spell.
All of which is to say; your words have power. Speak carefully and deliberately. Make sure you mean what you say.
I mean it when I say, Thank you for joining us today. Historical Witchcraft is a bright spot in my week and I hope it is for you too.
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