I Blame Harry Potter

I’ve been watching the Witches of East End series lately, which takes bits and pieces from Wicca and Norse religion and mixes them together in a brew not so much sinister as silly. But the part that bothers me most at the moment is that when the eponymous witches speak a spell, it’s almost always in Latin. Sometimes, under stress, they forget and descend into English, but often the spell doesn’t really start to work until they get hold of themselves and repeat the same words, only in Latin.

Since our family home schools and my wife believes in a classical education, our kids are learning Latin. Apparently I can rest assured that they’re being well prepared for any one of the magical professions. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether I should study Latin myself–the next time I break a glass, for instance, I could just mutter “E pluribus unum” and fully expect it to reassemble, good as new.

I suppose this idea can be ultimately traced back to the Catholic Church in Europe, back in the good old days of Latin Masses. After all, the priest was doing magic stuff up at the altar, right? So he must be using a magic language! But as far as contemporary usage goes, Harry Potter seems to be the culprit. Spells in the Potter universe never use language as mundane as ‘Lose that wand’ when ‘Expelliarmus’ will do, or ‘Turn on the light’ when you can intone ‘Lumos’. And ever since we’ve had to endure witches and wizards everywhere waving their wands while chanting Latin translation exercises. I suppose we’re lucky nobody’s come out with a story about porcine magic wielders, since they would inevitably use Pig Latin.

But I think this is a cheap trick. What spells should really require is poetry–good poetry. Poets and magicians overlapped a lot in the past, and more the further back you go. There’s Wainamoinen in the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, who sings the world into existence. One of the gods’ great victories over the giants was when Odin stole the mead of poetic inspiration. There are the bards of Celtic legend who could blast armies with their verse.

To illustrate, I offer a couple of spells in the lowly English language. One is out of Shakespeare:
“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, will outlive this powerful rhyme.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is an incantation, and quite a decent one at that…not to mention that it has apparently worked.

And here’s the tag end of a spell used in one of Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories, which I’ve translated from Appalachian dialect to more “standard” English:
“I made my wish before. I make it now. I never saw the day my wish was not true.”

That’s the real stuff. But if you’re still dead set on using another language to make everyday phrases sound impressive and magical, why not learn Babylonian? I’d wager many demons and spirits haven’t heard that in quite a while. They might prick up their ears and maybe, just maybe, give you a little more respect than they offer the dreary legions of magicians muttering Latin ad nauseum.

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