Friday, December 14, 2018

A History of Hocus-Pocus

Page from Cornelius Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia that shows the triangular version of the word "abracadabra."We've blogged before about Cornelius Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia, and we've also blogged before about the word "abracadabra" within the context of Werner Pfeiffer's work. However, when Lebanon High School's AP English class visited us recently, we had a chance to revisit both. One of the high school students discovered in Agrippa's text a triangular diagram of "abracadabra," much like the one represented in Pfeiffer's book.

The front cover of the Agrippa book that shows the exterior luxury binding made by Sangorski & Sutcliffe.This makes sense; although the word was a synonym for nonsense in Pfeiffer's day, it has had an association with magic and healing since at least the third century AD. Roman physicians recommended that people inscribe the word in this triangular form on an amulet and wear it to ward off malaria. As late as the 1600s, people believed that the word had the power to fend off disease; Daniel Defoe, in his Journal of a Plague Year, notes derisively that Londoners were inscribing the word on their homes in the hopes that the Great Plague would pass them by.

Nowadays, it seems like the only appearances of the word, or variants of it, are in works of fiction; one series in particular, starring a bespectacled young wizard with a lightning scar on his forehead, comes to mind. However, our first edition of Agrippa's book still has some magic left in it, thanks primarily to the wizardry of the luxury binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe. To lay hands upon the work and be transported by its wonder, come to Special Collections and ask to see Rare BF1598.A3 O4 1533.

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