Testing ABRACADABRA: Sammonicus’ Magical Amulet

The late 2nd– early 3rd Century Roman author Quintus Serenus Sammonicus is particularly notable amongst researchers of ancient magic and medicine for being the first to propose the use of the word ABRACADABRA, and in treatment of tertian fever. The traditional ubiquity of this word in association with modern magic tricks has highlighted this use, though it would not have seemed unusual as a Roman phylactery.

The instructive text reads:

“Rather more deadly is what in Greek words is commonly called hemitritaion. This no one could express in our language, I believe, and neither did parents wish for that. Write on a sheet (of papyrus) the word ABRACADABRA, repeat it rather more often underneath, but omit the last letter, so that more and more individual letters will be missing from the lines, the elements that you remove, which you continually snatch away, while you commit to writing the others, until a single letter is to be rendered as the narrow end of a cone. Remember to attach this to the neck with a linen thread.”

There are already two excellent blogs about it here and here, considering it from different perspectives. I’m here to add a third.

In the interests of research, blog writing, and Friday afternoons I have opted for a spot of experimental archaeology and I will re-create Sammonicus’ charm.

Method
Using papyrus (yep I have some hanging around for just this purpose) and a black ink pen, I drew the ABRACADABRA word series on two sizes of rectangular cut papyrus. The, arguably, small sizes chosen is informed mainly by the imminent need to attach it to my neck and the efficient use of the papyrus. There is no reason that this couldn’t be much larger, though doing so would change how I might conceive the attachment.

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Figure 1: Abracadabra! Two magical papyri appear before your very eyes. 

Thoughts on writing

  • I am writing this on modern replica papyrus, so a decent analogue although I’ve never been able to compare with original papyrus as to its tensile strength and ink-taking properties
  • I used a modern, graphic design pen with black ink and a fine nib so writing the text was easy. Probably far too easy, it would be more difficult to do so with a stylus. Perhaps greater familiarity with a stylus and ink would also render using those tools easier, so I am being bit essentialist with this thought. Bad.
  • I was not particularly careful with my lettering and opted for haste; it took less than a minute to write the text.
  • Familiarity with the Latin alphabet is helpful. Being illiterate might increase the complexity of this somewhat, but the shapes are not impossible to copy without having had prior knowledge.
  • Familiarity with the word (again – modern usage) is helpful.
  • It could be written just as easily in Greek letters.

Thoughts on the text

It is not a palindrome if read conventionally, but the diminishing triangular format produces a repetition of the word written on the right hand side if read using the exterior letters from the apicial A upwards and to the right. This creates a palindrome of ABRACADABRARBADACARBA on the upper and right sides of the triangle. The left side is a repeating vowel series of the letter A, which is also thus at the start, end and centre point of the palindrome. Both palindromes and vowel series are frequently components of Roman magical literary practice. So too is triplication (three sides).

This is also a very simple spell in the grand scheme of things. Simple, repeatable, memorable even, and easily communicated verbally.

Attachment

There is certainly a lot of scope in the instructions for individual creativity in how to wear this thing. Perhaps one major consideration is whether the next is folded or rolled up in any way. Both are certainly possible, as is leaving it open. I assumed that the text would be rolled, as this is the case with curse tablets and gold phylacteries. The latter were sometimes inserted into a gold or bronze tube (a.k.a amulet case) to protect the text and/or supernaturally enhance it. A textile pouch could also easily cover and protect the contents in such a way to allow them to be hung around the neck. Given that this text is made from papyrus as is designed to treat Tertian fever (i.e. it lasts about 36 hours) it, perhaps, was not designed for durability in mind and damaging exposure to the elements may be minimal.

In this scenario, I consider the charm to be without cover, leaving only the issue of affixing. Without too much effort, I came up with at least five different ways of attaching the papyrus to a linen thread (note that I used faux leather cord): by threading through cuts in the sheet; by using a hitch; by wrapping the thread around the sheet; by putting the thread through the centre of a rolled sheet; by knotting the thread to the sheet. Beyond these methods, the papyrus could also be wrapped or tied directly against the skin. Inevitably, other options were available and many of these could be used in combination.

 

 Figure 2: Some possible methods of attaching a papyrus sheet to a thread.

The use of knotting or wrapping could be particularly important as a binding gesture. I experimented only with the larger sheet, but all methods would be applicable to the smaller sheet as well, indeed it could be more effectively hidden if required.

Sammonicus was not specific on where about the neck to attach it. Clearly it could be worn as a pendant (around the neck and against the chest), or much closer as a choker; the position of the text may be important but this can be moved around the body. The former scenario affords an opportunity to hide the charm beneath clothing if so desired.

 Figure 3: Hung loose at the chest, tight against the neck, and loose in a textile bag. Again, many other variants are possible. 

 

Sensory experience

The creation of such a charm requires sufficient light to write the text, and the cutting, ripping, rolling, or folding of the finished document to facilitate its attachment. Such an object could certainly be purchased ready-made, or pre-made and stored in advance of illness.

It is lightweight against the body in this form, though would be heavier if encased in a metal tube. Generally, it is unobtrusive, though I can imagine it might be uncomfortable in the throes of a raging fever.

I didn’t test it specifically, but it seems apparent that bodily fluids, particularly sweat (from the fever), could penetrate an un-covered charm like this to its physical detriment. The sweat might adhere the papyrus to the body, perhaps intentionally?

Final thoughts

I strongly suspect that the lack of clear instructions on how to use the charm was not particularly important, as the all-important arcane knowledge of this practice was based on the use of the mystical word written in a non-normative way. Individual creativity could have played a key role in this and afforded an opportunity for personal choice to influence the space and place in which it was utilised.

Equally, it could easily be combined with other magical or medicinal practices and/or rituals. Like I mentioned above, this one is pretty straightforward, easy to remember, and easily communicated. It is certainly unclear whether this charm is designed to prevent the onset of fever, cure it once it has arrived, or a combination of the two – again, perhaps the ambiguity is important as it was up the individual practitioner?

 

 

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