Magic was originally sorcery and conjuring tricks performed by an ancient Persian astrologer called a magus. The wisemen who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were three magi. Magi began as Median priests in charge of cult rituals. Magus is the classical Latin form of ancient Greek μάγος magos from Old Persian maguš ‘cult priest.’ In the history of Christianity most magical practices have been considered sacrilege and abomination. The name of the practices entered English from French magique, a word derived from classical Latin magica ‘occult doings,’ itself from the Hellenistic Greek phrase μαγικὴ τέχνη magike techne ‘the magic arts.’
Sorcery goes back to an ancient Roman fortune-teller and the casting of lots. It shares an etymon (word root) with our common verb, to sort.
In European history, the casting of lots, deciding a winner by means of a lottery, goes back at least to Homeric Greece, where, in a multi-person dispute, pieces of wood (lots), each with an indivual contestant’s mark on it, were tossed into a war helmet. The helmet was shaken violently. The first wooden lot to fly out of the helmet and be cast on the ground was the winner.
In Latin, the word for a lot or fate or response from an oracle was sors, sortis. One of the derived Latin verbs was sortiri ‘to divide or obtain by winning a lottery.’ From its French reflex sortir, English has to sort, original meaning ‘to assign by category,’ and eventually to sort out ‘to arrange in order items first presented in disarray.’ Assorted colours first meant colours picked out for a specific application. Assorted did not originally mean randomly mixed but rather selected. Latin sors appears in all the Romance languages, most felicitously perhaps in the Spanish wish for good luck, Buena Suerte!
The only common use in modern English is in the phrase ‘the casting of lots.’ This harks back to Old English hlot weorpan ‘to throw lots,’ similar to German das Loos werfen, Latin sortes conicere, Greek κλῆρον βάλλειν kleron ballein ‘to throw lots.’ From French, English still has to draw lots (French tirer au sort).
While sorcery was first the mere casting of lots, eventual sorcerers dabbled in a variety of hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo and pseudo-mystical flim-flam.
Lots are drawn in an ancient Roman magic ceremony in this mural from The Villa of The Mysteries at Pompei, 79 CE.
Thaumaturgy & Necromancy
These two Greek-derived words always lend a spurious sound of legitimacy to magical claptrap. Thaumaturgy is simply wonder-making < Greek θαυματουργός thaumatourgos ‘magician, conjuror, wonder-worker’ < θαῦμα, θαυματος thauma, thaumatos ‘wonder, miracle, marvel’ + Greek ἒργον ergon ‘work.’ The ‘work’ etymon lurks in many English words like surgery, allergy, synergy and ergonomics.
To skeptics of Christianity’s bag of miracles and tricks, Jesus walking on water may be deemed a thaumaturgical performance.
Necromancy’s prime meaning is predicting the future by communication with dead people. Just why the recently defunct members of our wayward species would know the future is never explained. While it is supposedly true that That Old Busybody Jehovah can make anything happen, think about it briefly. I do realize that thinking is anathema to the true believer — but humour me: If our defunct ones’ brains have already been nibbled to poopoo by worms, surely the deads’ prognosticatory prowess would have diminished at least marginally?
Necromancy means literally in Greek ‘dead magic.’ It first appeared in the writings of one of the brighter fathers of the early church, a third-century Christian scribe named Origen where the Hellenistic Greek form νεκρομαντεία necromanteia pops up signifying ‘predicting the future by communication with the dead.’ The word is made up of ancient Greek νεκρός dead body or person + μαντεία manteia ‘divination.’
The necro- combining form is widely used in English scientific vocabulary. Think of medicine’s necrotic tissue, when organized masses of cells die. Polis is the Greek word for city. A necropolis is a city of the dead, a cemetery. A necrology is a list of people recently dead or an obituary. Necrophilia is having sex with dead bodies (To observe this: visit Washington or Ottawa).
Our rarest, silliest word in this column is the obsolete adjective stoicheiotical ‘pertaining to magic’ which enjoyed the briefest span of popularity among a few seventeenth-century English writers. It was a literal borrowing from medieval Greek στοιχειωτικός stoicheiotikos ‘possessing an elemental, primitive, basic enchantment,’ its ultimate etymon στοιχεῖον ‘foundation post, hence beginning, rudiment, first element.’
The cognates of this Greek word στοιχεῖον are of interest, for it shares a Proto-Indo-European morpheme with Old English staca, Dutch staak, German Stake, Spanish estaca, Italian stacca. That PIE morpheme is *stak, a variant of PIE *stek, so that English verbs like stick are cognate too. One of the morpheme’s interesting Spanish lemmata (a lemma is a fully independent word form) is a grisly term borrowed into English descriptions of bullfights, namely the estocada or estocade, the final thrust by a matador (Spanish ‘killer’) with the sword, a plunge meant to kill the bull.
Tolkien uses it in The Two Towers as dwimmercraft but gives it darker than usual meaning. In Old English it was dweomercraeft ‘skill [craft] in the arts of illusion and magic’ from earlier Old English words like gedwimere ‘juggler, sorcerer.’ Dwimmercrafty is the even rarer adjective.
To check out the origin of the word wizard, click here.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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