Scholarly serendipity struck this week. While I was in the process of preparing a workshop related to questions of text layout and design in the Latin verse inscriptions (watch this space!), my colleague Ian Rutherford asked me an intriguing question:

I’m giving a talk to some 13 year-olds about magic on Friday. I didn’t know that abracadabra goes back to Sammonicus. See wikipedia. Is this true?

Being stuck in a bit of a 1980s time warp (my domestic internet connection had been down for quite some time and I was confined to the house to wait for the umpteenth engineer to sort it out, so my only connection to the outside world was a lousy GPRS phone signal or – the horrors!! – leaving the house), my profound response was:

I had no idea!

Ian’s response:

But is Sammonicus a poem?  How can you write that in a poem?  It’s in the Bod<leian library>; I haven’t managed to get there.

I had never heard of Sammonicus before, and, confined to a pre-internet age, I couldn’t really find out much either – I suspected it wasn’t a poem.

But I was wrong, as I was soon to find out, when Ian managed to go the Bodleian after all and sent me a copy of the text. The passage in question (from a didactic medical poem, written in hexameters)  reads as follows (Sammonicus, Liber medicinalis 931–9 [no. LI]):

Hemitritaeo depellendo

mortiferum magis est quod Graecis hemitritaeos
uulgatur uerbis; hoc nostra dicere lingua
non potuere ulli, puto, nec uoluere parentes.
Inscribes chartae quod dicitur abracadabra
saepius et subter repetes, sed detrahe summam     935
et magis atque magis desint elementa figuris
singula, quae semper rapies, et cetera + figes,
donec in angustum redigatur littera conum:
his lino nexis collum redimire memento.

On shaking Tertian Fever [hemitritaion]

Rather more deadly is what in Greek words is commonly called hemitritaion [half-of-three, i. e. a fever whose attacks last for approximately 1 1/2 days = 36 hours; ‘tertian fever’ in English]. This no one could express in our language, I believe, and neither did parents wish for that.

Write on a sheet (of papyrus) the word ABRACADABRA, repeat it rather more often underneath, but omit the last letter, so that more and more individual letters will be missing from the lines, the elements that you remove, which you continually snatch away, while you commit to writing the others, until a single letter is to be rendered as the narrow end of a cone. Remember to attach this to the neck with a linen thread.

[Sammonicus then continues to recite further miracle cures, including the application of lion fat as well as corals and saffron (wrapped in cat skin) – I will skip this as less relevant to me and thus deservedly incur the disappointment and wrath of medical historians…]

The various possible results of the writing process has been traced as follows by Alf Önnerfors:

coneSo – why serendipity?

Well, the idea appears to be that, just as the word abracadabra gradually disintegrates and virtually disappears, the fever should magically disappear as well.

This is, of course, an extreme case of text layout that is charged with meaning – extreme even by Roman standards. But what is striking is just how conscious texts (on numerous occasions) were laid out and clearly related to a meaning that is to be found beyond the mere words.

My colleague María Limón (Seville) has just finished a great book discussing the layout of inscribed Latin poetry, and I can’t wait to hear what she will have to say at the Reading-based workshop later this year.

Meanwhile I will keep my eyes open for further evidence for texts that talk about the deliberate formal design and layout of Latin texts – a topic that has fascinated me on a number of occasions before.

It’s clearly not just another hocus-pocus!

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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2 Responses to Abracadabra

  1. Dear Sir, have you never heard about ablanathalba?


  2. You mean the gnostic charm? Yes, I have heard about it! In fact, there are quite a few figurative charms and spells out there – I decided to keep it simple! 😉


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