Language and the Craft

Elizabeth Barrette
Impressions by Elizabeth Barrette, PanGaia editor.

Language and the Craft
by Elizabeth Barrette


Click for full description.“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
– Mark Twain

It is language that makes us human. Language allows us to communicate with each other and preserve ideas. The beginning and end of all things is the Word. Most especially, the Word controls and shapes power.

The creative force of words appears in many different religions. Origin myths often attribute the world’s existence to the divine Word. According to Egyptian mythology, Ptah created the world with speech, the word taking form in his heart and then emerging from his mouth to do its work.

According to Christian mythology, the Word of God guided creation, a motif repeated in C.S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew when Aslan sings Narnia into manifestation. According to Miwok mythology, Silver Fox and Coyote danced and sang, and beneath them Earth took shape.

Language can shape not only the world, but the worldview. Each language has a unique way of describing things, events, and ideas — which influences how native speakers observe them. When a language dies out for lack of speakers, we lose a precious piece of diversity.

When you learn a new language, however, you expand your options for perception and expression. This also brings you closer to the language’s home culture, a key reason why some Pagans choose to learn the historic language of their religion. Irish, Welsh, and Gaelic enjoy increasing popularity in part because of Druidic and Avalonian practitioners.

Similarly, language can define the layer of reality in which you travel. Visit a foreign country, or neighborhood of immigrants, or even an ethnic restaurant where the staff speak a language other than the local one — and you enter a different world. If you make an attempt to communicate with people in their own language, rather than expecting them to join you in yours, a magical transformation occurs: you suddenly become more “real” to them, more a “person,” and they are likely to treat you more favorably. On the other hand, conversing in a language not shared by everyone present can be a brutal way of excluding someone.

Even a subset of language, known variously as a lexicon or jargon, can identify people as belonging or not belonging to a particular group. Think of all the specialized terms — athame, cone of power, esbat, etc. — that characterize Pagan conversation. Those can create quite a barrier to someone outside the community. Learning their meanings thus becomes a rite of passage for newcomers.

This leads naturally to the idea of magical languages. Various natural languages over the centuries have gained a reputation of belonging to scholars, wizards, witches, priests, and other not-quite-worldly folk. Latin and Arabic, for example, contain many original texts of occult lore. Then there are the inventions, ranging from simple alphabets to whole languages, which people have created to contain magical writings; Theban is a fairly popular magical alphabet, for example. Fantasy fiction sometimes mentions, and may include tidbits of, a language whose very words convey magical power. The magic of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories functions in this way.

Closely related to the idea of magical language is the idea of true names. According to this premise, knowing the true name of a person or thing gives you power over it. For this reason, some Pagans take a secret craft name which they reveal to no one, or at most to their covenmates. They may also inscribe names on their magical tools as a means of instilling power. Similar practices appear in traditions around the world.

Another small-scale example is that of magic words. Sometimes these are borrowings from another language, or archaic relics like “mote” in “So mote it be.” Their use indicates a situation outside the usual. Other times, the magic words seem like “nonsense” syllables that nevertheless purport to cause wondrous effects, simply by virtue of their sound. Over time, they may work their way into common knowledge, usually losing most of their power in the process, like “abracadabra” and “hocus pocus.”

Languages also tend to include some words with magical effects, which are either not recognized as such or are acknowledged only in jest. Consider the premise “As I will, so mote it be,” companion to the premise that “This is so because I say it is so.” Performative statements such as “I promise” or “I hereby consecrate” do exactly that. The word is the deed, literally. That’s magic. The word “please” can change a person from unwilling to willing in regards to a request, quite an impressive feat for a single syllable. That’s magic too.

Years ago, I heard a filk song by Stephen Savitzky, “The World Inside the Crystal,” which describes cyberspace as a place “Where we play with words and symbols / And creation is the game / For our symbols have the power / To become the things they name.” No wonder we speak of “computer wizards,” for they have created a whole new realm, entirely out of magic words in esoteric languages that ordinary people do not understand.

So you see, there are many words of power, and many powers of words. All of them demand thought and caution, because careless words can wreak devastating havoc. This brings us to the final aspect of word magic, enshrined in the saying, “To know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent.” Yes indeed, the last piece of magical power is to keep your mouth shut.

Why? Because the power is in the words, and if you keep blathering after you’ve described what is to be, then that power can leak out and get lost. Likewise, loose talk about magical techniques can put them into the control of people who aren’t ready to exercise due responsibility, with potentially disastrous results. So take care with the words you say, and the words you do not say, for thereby you may change worlds.

With that in mind, we present an issue devoted to exploring the wise and wonderful uses of “Words of Power.”

For starters, we have an interview with Raymond Buckland, one of the best-known authors in the Pagan field. He has written over forty books and done much to encourage the growth of Wicca in the United States.

Several of our features deal with the importance of names.

In “the Emerging IndoPagans,” Devi Spring explores the overlap between Paganism and Indian mythology, as a growing number of people blend these traditions and seek a name for their practices. Archer asks a question that has recurred many times within Paganism in “Why Do We Call Ourselves Witches?” Kenaz Filan tackles the very touchy subject of race relations in “The Notorious N Word.” Myshele Goldberg analyzes the core principles of name magic in “A Rose by Any Other Name.” Each of these articles takes a different angle on the names we use for ourselves and others, and the power those names can hold.

Of course, words can also change over time. Jen Hamilton’s article “A Choice of Oaths” examines the history and evolution of the famous Hippocratic Oath. She also proposes a new version that holds to the spirit of the oath while removing some of the more … peculiar … points of the original.

Word magic also includes specific formats. In her article “Magical Poetry,” Holly Buck reveals the wonder of verse. Finally, our short story this issue is the vivid “Theory of Everything” by Matt McHugh. What if describing reality in sufficiently precise terms allowed you to change reality … ?

For departments, check out the thoughtful essay on Unitarian-Universalist Paganism in “Point of View.” Our “Toe to Toe” debate considers whether secrecy is a good thing or a bad thing.

We also have several poems to offer this issue. Ursula Fanthorpe’s “Genesis” delves into the creation of a world that most of us know and love — and it all started with a strange language looking for a home. Benn Mac Stephan blazes an unconventional trail in his poem “No Masters, No Druids.” Rowena advises us that “All Words Are Spells.” Tim Harkin wraps up the set with his lovely poem “In Praise of Brighid,” who is of course the patron goddess of poetry.

Winter is coming to a close. Spring is just around the corner. Pull up a chair, and let the magic of words take you away from the capricious weather.

— Elizabeth Barrette is the Managing Editor of PanGaia. She lives in Charleston, Illinois.


» Originally appeared in PanGaia #46 - Words of Power

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