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Grottos, caverns, and killing curses


At this time of year, here in England, you can find a ‘grotto’ almost anywhere. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Christmas Grottos – they are rooms (or sometimes entire floors) in places like department stores, shopping centres, or Christmas fêtes, where an actor dressed as Father Christmas gives out small gifts to children. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines the word ‘grotto’ as ‘from Italian grotta, ultimately from Latin crypta “vault, cavern,” from Greek krypte “hidden place”’.
I don’t know about you but that description reminds me more of ‘Open Sesame!’ than it does ‘Merry Christmas!’, so this week I thought I’d take a look at three famous magical incantations.

OPEN SESAME!
You may recognise the magic password ‘Open Sesame’ from the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The story, alongside Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is one of the most famous tales from the collection One Thousand and One Nights. The enchantment first appeared in 1785 as ‘Sésame, ouvre-toi’ in Antoine Galland’s French translation of the collection Les Mille et un nuits. While it’s unsure whether or not the plant was the inspiration behind the spell, to European audiences in the eighteenth century the sesame seed would have been thought of as very exotic. Today, however, sesame seeds are well known as a staple part of Middle Eastern cuisine, in dishes such as hummus.

HOCUS POCUS!
If you’re a nineties kid like me, you probably won’t be able to think of these magic words without associating them with Bette Midler. In its more modern usage, ‘hocus pocus’ refers to ideas or beliefs that are considered to be meaningless or nonsense – the colloquial phrase ‘it’s a load of hocus pocus’ has a similar meaning to ‘it’s a load of rubbish’. One suggested origin of the spell, when used by magicians or conjurers, is that it was a distorted (and perhaps joke) version of the Roman Catholic blessing from mass: ‘Hoc est corpus meum’, which means ‘This is my body’. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says this of the spell’s origin: ‘early 17th century: from hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used as a magic formula by conjurors’.

ABRACADABRA!
Did you know that ‘avada kedavra’, the killing curse in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, was taken from an earlier version of the ‘Abracadabra’ spell? Here’s what J.K. Rowling said about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004:
“Does anyone know where ‘avada kedavra’ came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of ‘abracadabra’, which means “let the thing be destroyed”. Originally, it was used to cure illness and the “thing” was the illness, but I decided to make it the “thing” as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.”

According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, the spell was ‘written out in a triangle shape and worn around the neck to ward off sickness’ - perhaps J.K. Rowling’s symbol for the Deathly Hallows, in which a triangle is used to depict an invisibility cloak which hides its wearer from death, was also inspired by the ‘abracadabra’ symbol. On the other hand, perhaps I’m just letting my imagination get the best of me… what do you reckon?

Avani Shah


09 Dec 2013
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