I is for… Incantation (and folk magic that uses it)

The Gaelic people really, really liked words. Spoken words – that’s what had power. Later, the written word arrives, with Ogham – which is about word-and-letter power, a lot like the runes. But it’s the spoken word that’s really powerful in Gaelic folklore.

We only have a few clues left about ancient druidic magic. Something that turns up in myth all the time is the rosc, which seems to get used for everything from healing to ensuring victory in battle[1]. That’s what the Morrigan’s prophecy is, at the Second Battle of Moy Tuireadh – a rosc. Blind druid Mogh Ruith speaks one, too, in his satire on his enemies before battle (which is awesome – he wishes them an infestation of midges in their piddling little forests). And talking of curses, one cursing ritual from Ireland was known as glam dicenn, and it had a reputation for causing serious harm via the magic of the spoken word. Some modern druids (and Gaelic-influenced witches) talk about glam dicenn as the whole of curse-related folk magic, with spellwork done with someone’s personal effects as well as using the spoken word. Incantations do seem to be the key thing, though.

So. Have a few examples…

Incantations in folk magic with European roots

This is a charm for healing a sprain, from the Carmina Gadelica. It seems to refer to St Brigid the healer:

Bride went out
In the morning early
With a pair of horses
One broke his leg
With much ado
That was apart

She put bone to bone
She put flesh to flesh
She put sinew to sinew
She put vein to vein
As she healed that
May I heal this

And this is where it gets interesting. Some scholars think that this charm has Indo-European roots. Because there are versions of it found in other places and other cultures, too. There are several Christian versions – here’s one from the Shetland Isles:

The Lord rade, [rode]
And the foal slade; [slid]
He lighted.
And he righted.
Set joint to joint,
Bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew.
Heal in the Holy Ghost’s Name!

Here’s a Germanic version that names pre-Christian deities:

Phol and Wodan rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Like limb-sprain:
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb — like they were glued.

And finally, here’s a very similar version from Braucherei, which is Christian folk magic from the Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’ (German) community in America[2]:

Our Lord rode, his foal’s foot slade,
Down he lighted, his foal’s foot righted,
Bone to bone,
Sinew to sinew,
Flesh to flesh,
Heal, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

And to go back to the Irish setting, a version of the charm is also found in the stories of the gods, the Mythological Cycle. Miach heals Nuada’s arm with the words “joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew”.

ADF is Indo-European Druidry. Charms like these, with possible roots in common, show the importance of the spoken, magical word in IE cultures. I’m not sure I use enough spoken word in my spiritual work, and I’d like to start to try. (I do like of the writing, yes I do.)

…And in American folk magic

Hoodoo, African American folk magic, uses scripture like the psalms for similar purposes (though the roots of the practice are culturally very different, and they would not recognise the term ‘incantation’ – but as a term for ‘magical spoken word’, it works for me). I recently spent a lot of time working on a hoodoo-style spell for justice. (I’m only discussing this because the spellwork is now done and dusted!) I know the psalms quite well, and I decided to have a go at using Psalms 129 and 130 as my spoken words for justice. It would work even better as a curse, as that’s what it’s intended as. Here’s a bit from Psalm 129:

Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.
Let them all be confounded and turned back…
Let them be as the grass upon the rooftops, which withereth before it groweth up.

Yeah. The Bible’s not all forgiveness and love. And it gets a lot stronger than that, in places.

“Why the Bible? Aren’t you a Pagan?” I hear my readers asking. Well, I think magical systems should be respected for what they are, rather than adapted wholesale to our own cultural needs. And hoodoo is Protestant magic. (From my observation, most folk magic is Christian.) I have a Bible that I bought and consecrated specifically for biblical magic, and it sits on my working altar when it’s set up for my (inexperienced, amateurish attempts at) hoodoo. There’s something very powerful about using the King James version of biblical passages in magic.

Here are some social reasons why Biblical Words Have Power:

1. It’s probably got a lot to do with the social power that our society has conferred upon biblical language, especially in its 17th-century English form – I never liked modern versions of the Bible very much.

2. For some of us, with Christian backgrounds, the Bible can also be what NLP calls an ‘anchor’ – a strong association that we have developed with something. I grew up hearing the Bible read from a distant, raised pulpit in sacred, ritual settings. Its words are literally associated with sacred power.

3. There’s also the symbolic value of psalms (and other passages) whose themes are about the concept that you’re working on, e.g. justice. Say the verses enough times, and they become a kind of mantra – where overall concept, not individual words, is the main thing.

4. And of course, hoodoo practitioners would say that the biblical words themselves have a sacred power inherent in them. I wouldn’t dispute that, myself, Pagan or not.

For me, even as a Pagan, it’s a combination of all of that. And, y’know, Christian esoteric practices do seem to keep calling me back.

Also? It works.

Incantation. Because Words Have Power.

I shall end with my favourite rosc – the Song of Amergin, where he announces himself to the land. (I am totally going to try doing that when I get off the plane in America in June.)

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – from several translations)

Isn’t that just the most awesome, self-assured thing you have ever read? I’m off to announce myself to my garden…


[1]  Woden’s Wandering Witch talks about the rosc in this excellent blog post on the subject.

[2] I never would have noticed this version if it hadn’t been for the wonderful folks at New World Witchery, who write and podcast about American folk magic traditions.

3 thoughts on “I is for… Incantation (and folk magic that uses it)

  1. This is a really excellent post! I love your exploration of the spoken charm as a spiritual exercise (akin to a mantra) and as a world-changing spell of itself. And, of course, the folklorist in me loves the multiplicity and variation (to steal from Alan Dundes) that you found in the bone-setting charm.

    One thing that might be fun to explore is the riddling nature of some of these sorts of charms, particularly the rosc. In the Song of Amergin, for example, you can find lots of interpretation and speculation about what his turns of phrase mean, and should they be taken together or as individual place markers, etc. I love riddles and their cousins, paradoxes, and tend to think of them as some of the best teaching and learning tools. Some of these ancient charms are still with us, I think, because people loved the puzzle-like quality of them.

    Whenever we do get you over here, I will be most intrigued by your own salutary rosc. Can’t wait to see what it is! :-)

    Thanks for a lovely post!

    • Thanks, Cory! Really interesting comment. I was thinking of saying a bit more about the content of the charms and roisc, but didn’t have the space in this post. It would be very interesting to come back to them, especially from a viewpoint of riddles and their interpretations. Thanks for the suggestion!

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