Primitive Psycho-Therapy and Quackery
by Robert Means Lawrence
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Transcriber's Notes: [Rx] in this text represents the symbol used today to designate a prescription. [ounce] represents a symbol for ounce, a symbol that looks like a short 7 on top of a 3. Words in Greek in the original are transliterated and placed between plus signs. Words italicized in the original are surrounded by underscores. A complete list of corrections follows the text.







Published October 1910

They have observed but little, who have not remarked how much Imagination contributes to give success to the curative power of a medicine. VICESIMUS KNOX, D.D. Winter Evenings, I, p. 154.

The mind has the same command over the body, as the master over the slave. ARISTOTLE.


Certain historic modes of healing, including the use of medical amulets and charms, which have been regarded from early times as magical remedies, belong properly to the domain of Psychical Medicine. For the therapeutic virtues of medical amulets are not inherent in these objects, but are due to the influence exerted by them upon the imaginative faculties of the individuals who employ them. They afford powerful suggestions of healing. In this volume the writer has sought to emphasize the fact that the efficiency of many primitive therapeutic methods, and the success of charlatanry, are to be attributed to mental influence. The use of spells and incantations, the practice of laying-on of hands, the cult of relics, mesmerism, and metallo-therapy, have been important factors in the evolution of modern mental healing. The method of their operation, a mystery for ages, is revealed by the word suggestion. Thus may be traced some of the steps in the development of psycho-therapy. One ruling force, namely, the power of the imagination, has always been the potent therapeutic agent, whether in the word of command, in medical scripts, or in the methods of quackery. R. M. L.

177 BAY STATE ROAD, BOSTON, MASS. May 20, 1910.




















XIX. QUACKS AND QUACKERY (continued) 223
















Among the various subjects which belong to the province of medical folk-lore, one of the most interesting relates to amulets and protective charms, which represent an important stage in the gradual development of Medicine as a science. And especially noteworthy among medical amulets are those inscribed with mystic sentences, words, or characters, for by their examination and study we may acquire some definite knowledge of the mental condition of the people who made use of them.

Satisfactorily to explain the derivation of the English word "amulet" has taxed the ingenuity of etymologists, and its origin is admittedly obscure. According to some authorities, the Latin amuletum was derived from amoliri, to avert or repel; but the greater weight of evidence points to the Arabic verb hamala, meaning "to carry." The definitions usually given embody both of these ideas; for amulets, in the ancient medical conception of the term, were any objects, ornamental or otherwise, worn on the bodies of men or animals, and believed to neutralize the ill effects of noxious drugs, incantations, witchcrafts, and all morbific agencies whatever.[4:1] To the Oriental mind amulets symbolize the bond between a protective power and dependent mundane creatures; they are prophylactics against the forces of evil, and may be properly characterized as objects superstitiously worn, whose alleged magical potency is derived from the faith and imagination of the wearer.[4:2]

The use of amulets has been attributed to religious sentimentality or religiosity. The latter word has been defined as "an excessive susceptibility to the religious sentiments, especially wonder, awe, and reverence, unaccompanied by any correspondent loyalty to divine law in daily life."[4:3]

Any one desirous of moralizing on the subject may find a theme presenting aspects both sad and comical. When, however, one reflects that amulets, in some one of their protean forms, have been invested with supernatural preventive and healing powers by the people of all lands and epochs, and that they have been worn not only by kings and princes, but by philosophers, prelates, and physicians of eminence as well, it is evident that the subject deserves more than a passing consideration.

It would be vain to seek the origin of their employment, which lies hidden behind the misty veil of remote antiquity. The eastern nations of old, as is well known, were much addicted to the use of amulets; and from Chaldea, Egypt, and Persia the practice was transmitted westward, and was thus extended throughout the civilized world. Among the great number of popular amulets in ancient times, many were fashioned out of metals, ivory, stone, and wood, to represent deities, animals, birds, and fishes; others were precious stones or cylinders inscribed with hieroglyphics; necklaces of shell or coral, crescent- or hand-shaped charms, and grotesque images. Their virtues were derived either from the material, from the shape, or from the magic rites performed at the time of their preparation. According to a popular belief, which prevailed throughout the East in the earlier centuries of the Christian era, all objects, whether inanimate stones and metals, or brutes and plants, possessed an indwelling spirit or soul, which was the cause of the efficiency of all amulets.[5:1] They were therefore akin to fetishes, in the present acceptation of the term; for a fetish, as defined in the classification of medicines and therapeutic agents in the collections of the National Museum at Washington, D. C., is a material object supposed to be the abode of a spirit, or representing a spirit, which may be induced or compelled to help the possessor.

According to Juvenal ("Satires," Book III, v, 1), Grecian athletes wore protective charms in the arena, to counterbalance the magical devices of their opponents. It is probable that the ethics of modern athletic contests would not countenance such expedients. But so implicit was the confidence of the Roman citizen in his amulet, that a failure to avert sickness or evil of any sort was not attributed to inherent lack of power in the charm itself, but rather to some mistake in the method of its preparation.[6:1]

In the time of the Emperor Hadrian (A. D. 76-138), and of his successors, the Antonines, the resources of occult science, known only to the initiated few, were believed to be sufficiently powerful, through the agency of spells and charms, to control the actions of evil spirits.[6:2] The early Christians readily adopted the pagan custom of wearing amulets as remedies against disease, and as bodily safeguards, in spite of the emphatic condemnation of the Church.

Origen (A. D. 186-253), a native of Alexandria, wrote that in his time it was customary for a person ailing from any cause to write certain characters on paper or metal, and fasten the amulet, thus improvised, upon the part of the body affected.[7:1] Passages from the books of the Gospel (literally "good spell") were especial favorites as such preservatives; they were usually inscribed on parchment, and were even placed upon horses.[7:2] Amulets were also employed to propitiate the goddess Fortune, and to thwart her evil designs. So insistent was the belief in the virtues of these objects, and to such a pitch of credulity did the popular mind attain, that special charms in great variety were devised against particular diseases, as well as against misfortunes and evil of whatever kind.[7:3]

Medieval astrology was a chief factor in promoting the use of amulets. Magic lent its aid to such an extent that, in certain lands, a chief part of Medicine consisted in the selection of suitable amulets against disease, and in their preparation.[7:4]

The almost universal dependence upon amulets, as prophylactics or healing agencies, originated through popular ignorance and fear.

With the advent of Christianity, many former superstitious beliefs were abandoned. Yet the process was very gradual.

The newest converts from paganism, while renouncing the forms which they had of necessity abjured, were disposed to attribute to Christian symbols some of the virtues which they had believed to inhere in heathen emblems and tokens.[8:1] The amulets and charms used by prehistoric man were silent appeals for protection against the powers of evil, the hostile forces which environed him.[8:2]

The doctrines of the Gnostics have been held by some writers to be responsible for the introduction of many amulets and charms in the early centuries of this era. Notwithstanding the fact (says Edward Berdoe in his "Origin of the Art of Healing") that the spirit of Christianity in its early day was strenuously opposed to all magical and superstitious practices, the nations which it subdued to the faith in Christ were so wedded to their former customs that they could not be entirely divorced from them. Thus, in the case of amulets, it was found necessary to substitute Christian words and tokens for their heathen counterparts.

Amulets and charms were much in vogue in ancient Egypt, and so great was the traditional reputation of the people of that country, as expert magicians, that throughout Europe in medieval times, strolling fortune-tellers and Gypsies were called Egyptians, and by this name they are still known in France. A written medical charm usually consisted of a piece of skin or parchment, upon which were inscribed a few words or mystic symbols. This was enclosed in a small bag or case, which was suspended from the wearer's neck.

The physician of the fifteenth century was wont to write his prescription in mysterious characters, and bind it upon the affected portion of the patient's body.[9:1]

In the rabbinical medicine, occult methods, involving astrology and the wearing of parchment amulets and charms, were more in evidence than the use of drugs; and among the inhabitants of ancient Babylon, traditional spells for driving out the demons of sickness were much employed.[9:2]

The forms of words embodied in charms and incantations were originally intended to be sung, and usually contained some rhyme, jingle, or alliterative verses.

The origin of these may be ascribed to the use of lullabies and cradle-songs, as a means of soothing infants, and lulling them to sleep. But formerly sick persons of all ages were comforted by these simple melodies. Dr. Joseph Frank Payne, in the "Fitz-Patrick Lectures," delivered at Oxford in 1904, remarked that many of the nursery rhymes of to-day are relics of literary forms which had formerly a deeper and sometimes a more formidable meaning.

For a goodly proportion of these magical therapeutic formulas had evidently a definite purpose, namely, the expulsion of the demons, who were believed to be the originators of disease.

Charm-magic, or the cure of disease through the instrumentality of written medical charms, may be properly classed as one method of utilizing the therapeutic force of suggestion. In ancient Assyria sacred inscriptions were placed upon the walls of the sick-room, and holy texts were displayed on either side of the threshold.

The Roman writer, Quintus Serenus Samonicus, author of "Carmen de Medicina," is said to have recommended as a cure for quartan ague, the placing of the fourth book of the Iliad under the patient's head.[10:1] Charm-magic has been regarded as a survival of animism, the theory which endows the phenomena of nature with personal life. It has also been defined as the explanation of all natural phenomena, not due to obvious material causes, by attributing them to spiritual agencies.

According to this view, the majority of superstitious fancies are of animistic origin. These include, not only many methods of primitive psycho-therapy, but also the belief in goblins, haunted houses, and the veneration of holy relics.

Magic writings have been and often are efficient psychic remedies for functional affections, in direct proportion to the user's faith in them. A certain sense of mystery seems essential. Given that, and plenty of confidence, and it matters not whether the inscriptions are biblical verses, unintelligible jargon, or even invocations of the Devil.

As an illustration of the attitude of the clergy towards the practice of heathen medical magic in Britain during the seventh century, we quote the words of an eminent French writer, St. Eligius, Bishop of Noyon (588-659), as recorded by the English ecclesiastical historian, Rev. Samuel Roffey Maitland (1792-1866), in his series of essays, entitled "The Dark Ages":—

Before all things I declare and testify to you that you shall observe none of the impious customs of the pagans, neither sorcerers, nor diviners, nor soothsayers, nor enchanters, nor must you presume for any cause, or for any sickness, to consult or inquire of them; for he who commits this sin loses unavoidably the grace of baptism. In like manner pay no attention to auguries, and sneezings; and when you are on a journey pay no attention to the singing of certain little birds. But whether you are setting out on a journey, or beginning any other work, cross yourself in the name of Christ, and say the Creed and the Lord's Prayer with faith and devotion, and then the enemy can do you no harm. . . . Let no Christian place lights at the temples, or the stones, or at fountains, or at trees . . . or at places where three ways meet, or presume to make vows. Let none presume to hang amulets on the neck of man or beast; even though they be made by the clergy, and called holy things, and contain the words of Scripture; for they are fraught, not with the remedy of Christ, but with the poison of the Devil. Let no one presume to make lustrations, nor to enchant herbs, nor to make flocks pass through a hollow tree, or an aperture in the earth; for by so doing he seems to consecrate them to the Devil.

Moreover, as often as any sickness occurs, do not seek enchanters, nor diviners, nor sorcerers, nor soothsayers, or make devilish amulets at fountains or trees, or cross-roads; but let him who is sick trust only to the mercy of God, and receive the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ with faith and devotion; and faithfully seek consecrated oil from the church, wherewith he may anoint his body in the name of Christ and according to the Apostle, the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.

From very early times, says Lady Wilde, the pagan physicians of Ireland, who were famous as skilled practitioners, were prominent among the Druids. Although thoroughly conversant with the healing properties of herbs, they appreciated keenly the influence exerted upon the minds of their patients by charms, fairy cures, and incantations. Therefore their methods of treatment were of a medico-religious character, the psychic element being utilized in the form of various magic rites and ceremonies, which were important healing factors. The ancient Druidic charms are still in use among the Irish peasants, the titles of pagan deities being replaced, however, by the name of Christ and words of the Christian ritual. In this form they are regarded as magic talismans, when repeated over the sick, and the peasants have a strong faith in these mystic formulas, which have a powerful hold upon their imaginations, having been transmitted to them through many generations of a credulous ancestry.[13:1]

The peasants of Ireland do not wholly depend upon the skill of their fairy-women. On the contrary, every housekeeper has an intimate knowledge of the healing virtues of common herbs. The administration of these is always accompanied with a prayer. After domestic resources have been exhausted, especially if the ailment is believed to be of supernatural origin, recourse is had to the witch-doctress.

In a volume entitled "Beware of Pickpockets" (1605), being a warning against charlatans, occurs this passage:

Others, that they may colourably and cunningly hide their grosse ignorance, when they know not the cause of the disease, referre it unto charmes, witchcrafts, magnifical incantations and sorcerie. Vainely and with a brazen forehead, affirming that there is no way to help them but by characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations and others impious and godlesse meanes. Others set to sale at a great price, certain amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical characters, shamelessly boasting that they will cure all diseases and worke I know not what other wonders.

The employment of amulets involves the idea of protection against divers kinds of malicious spirits, including the demons of disease, ghosts, fairies, and evil-minded sprites, surly elves, fiends, trolls, pixies, bogies, kelpies, gnomes, goblins, witches, devils, imps, Jinn, et id omne genus. Amulets served as preventives against bodily ailments or injuries, misfortune and ill-luck generally.

Medieval practitioners, while utilizing material remedies to some extent, relied more on the resources of occult science, whether in the form of incantations or the revelations of astrology. The adept consulted the stars to determine the prognosis of a case of fever, for example. If he prescribed drugs only, his reputation suffered in the popular estimation. In order to be abreast of the times, the shrewd medieval physician needed to be well versed in star-craft, or at least to make a pretense thereto. It is probable that many patients would have despised a practitioner who looked only to his Herbal and store of drugs, and neglected Capricornus and Ursa Major.[14:1]

In "Chambers's Cyclopaedia," published in 1728, an amulet is defined as a kind of medicament, hung about the neck, or other part of the body, to prevent or remove disease. And a charm is described as a magic power or spell, by which, with the assistance of the Devil, sorcerers and witches were supposed to do wondrous things, far surpassing the power of Nature. According to popular opinion, medicines were of some value as remedies, but to effect radical cures the use of magic spells was desirable.

John Atkins wrote, in "The Navy Surgeon, or a Practical System of Surgery" (1737), that the best method of employing medical amulets consisted in adapting them to the patients' imaginations. "Let the newness and surprise," wrote he, "exceed the invention, and keep up the humor by a long roll of cures and vouchers; by these and such means, many distempers, especially of women, who are ill all over, or know not what they ail, have been cured more by a fancy to the physician than by his prescription. Quacks again, according to their boldness and way of addressing, command success by striking the fancies of an audience."

Edward Berdoe, in the "Origin and Growth of the Healing Art," comments on the universality of amuletic symbols and talismans. They are peculiar to no age or region, and unite in one bond of superstitious brotherhood the savage and the philosopher, the Sumatran and the Egyptian, the Briton and the native of Borneo. When a medical written charm is wholly unintelligible, its curative virtue is thereby much enhanced. The Anglo-Saxon document known as the Vercelli manuscript by some means found its way to Lombardy. Its text being undecipherable, the precious pages of the manuscript were cut up, to serve as amulets.

Apropos of this subject, Charles M. Barrows, in "Facts and Fictions of Mental Healing," remarks that whatever acts upon a patient in such a way as to persuade him to yield himself to the therapeutic force constantly operative in Nature, is a means of healing. It may be an amulet, a cabalistic symbol, an incantation, a bread-pill, or even sudden fright. It may be a drug prescribed by a physician, imposition of hands, mesmeric passes, the touch of a relic, or visiting a sacred shrine.

Dr. Samuel McComb, in "Religion and Medicine,"[16:1] remarks that the efficacy of the amulets and charms of savages depends upon the fact that they are symbols of an inner mental state, the objects to which the desire or yearning could attach itself—in a word, they are auto-suggestions, done into wood and stone.

Professor Hugo Muensterberg has said that the less a patient knows about the nature of suggestion, the more benefit he is likely to experience therefrom; but that, on the contrary, a physician may obtain the better results, the more clearly he understands the working of this therapeutic agent.

It is also doubtless true that much good may result from the employment of suggestion by a charlatan, in the form of a written medical charm, both parties being alike profoundly ignorant of the healing influence involved.

In the Talmud, two kinds of medical amulets are specified, viz: the "approved" and the "disapproved." An approved amulet is one which has cured three persons, or which has been made by a man who has cured three persons by means of other amulets.[17:1] A belief in the healing power of amulets was very general among the Hebrews in the later periods of their history. No people in the whole world were more addicted to the use of medicinal spells, exorcisms, and various enchantments. The simpler amulets consisted of pieces of paper, with a few words written upon them, and their use was quite general. Only one of the approved kind was permitted to be worn abroad on the Sabbath.[17:2]

The Talmud therefore permits the use of superstitious modes of healing, the end sought justifying the means, and the power of mental influence being tacitly recognized. This principle is faithfully carried out to-day, says a writer in the "Journal of Biblical Literature,"[18:1] in all rural communities throughout the world. The Hebrew law-makers did not make a concession to a lower form of religion by endorsing magical remedies, but merely shared the contemporary belief in the demoniac origin of disease. The patient was regarded as being in a condition of enchantment or fascination,—under a spell, to use the popular phrase. To dissolve such a spell, recourse was had to amulets, written charms, or the spoken word of command.


[4:1] Carolus Christianus Krause, De Amuletis Medicis Cogitata Nonnulla, vol. iii, p. 4. Lipsia, 1758.

[4:2] Jo. Christianus Teutscherus, De Usu et Abusu Amuletorum. Lipsiensis, 1720.

[4:3] Century Dictionary.

[5:1] John William Draper, History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, vol. i, p. 392.

[6:1] Chambers's Journal, vol. xvi, p. 57; 1861.

[6:2] George F. Fort, Medical Economy during the Middle Ages, p. 78.

[7:1] The Reliquary, vol. vii, p. 162; 1893.

[7:2] James Townley, The Reasons of the Law of Moses, vol. ii, p. 944.

[7:3] Exercitationum Anatomico-Chirurgicarum Decades Duae. De Amuletis. Lugd: Batavorum, 1708.

[7:4] Encyclopedie des Gens du Monde, art. "Amulette."

[8:1] The Catholic Encyclopaedia.

[8:2] Elwood Worcester, D.D., Religion and Medicine.

[9:1] C. J. S. Thompson, The Mystery and Romance of Alchemy and Pharmacy, p. 124.

[9:2] Encyclopaedia Biblica, art. "Medicine."

[10:1] William George Black, Folk-Medicine.

[13:1] Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland.

[14:1] George Roberts, The Social History of the People of the Southern Counties of England.

[16:1] New York, 1908, p. 94.

[17:1] Joseph Barclay, The Talmud.

[17:2] John Kitto, A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature.

[18:1] Vol. xxiii, 1904.



A talisman may be described as an emblematical object or image, accredited with magical powers, by whose means its possessor is enabled to enlist the aid of supernatural beings. Frequently it is a precious stone, sometimes a piece of metal or parchment, whereon is engraved a celestial symbol, such as the representation of a planet or zodiacal sign; or the picture of an animal or fabulous monster. Mystic words and occult phrases are oftentimes substituted, however, for such devices. It is essential that talismans should be prepared under suitable astrological conditions and planetary influences; otherwise they are of no value. Like amulets, they were formerly worn on the body, either as prophylactics or as healing agents. Tradition ascribes their invention to the Persian philosopher Zoroaster, but their use was probably coeval with the earliest civilizations: descriptions of cures wrought by medical talismans are to be found in the works of Serapion, a physician of the ancient sect of Empirics, who lived in Alexandria about 250 B. C.; and in those of Almansor (born 939), the minister of Hesham II, Sultan of Cordova.

Talismans were fashioned out of various metals, and their mystic virtues differed according to their forms and the symbols which they bore. Silver moon-shaped talismans, for example, were much in vogue as preservatives from fleshly ills; and they were also believed to insure travellers against mishaps.

In medieval times talismans and amulets were generally used as remedial agents. A mystical emblem, representing the inexpressible name of God, which was preserved at the Temple in Jerusalem, is found on many engraved gems. And two triangles, crossing each other, are said to have been the diagram of the Gnostics, with which many marvellous cures were performed.[20:1]

The pentacle, or wizard's foot, a mathematical figure, used in magical ceremonies, was considered to be a defence against demons. We read in Sir Walter Scott's "Marmion":

His shoes were marked with cross and spell: Upon his breast a pentacle.

This symbol, says C. J. S. Thompson, in "The Mystery and Romance of Alchemy and Pharmacy," consisted of a five-rayed star, and was often chalked upon the door-steps of houses, to scare away fiends. Thus it served the same purpose as the familiar horse-shoe, when the latter was placed with the prongs downward.

The belief in the pentacle's demon-repelling power has been attributed to the fact that it resolves itself into three triangles, and is thus a triple emblem of the Trinity. Paracelsus, according to the above-mentioned writer, ascribed a similar, although less marked virtue, to the hexagram.

The Tyrolese physician, Joseph Ennemoser, in his "History of Magic" (1844), observed that in his time a peculiar influence was attributed by mesmerists to certain metals and precious stones. And he expressed the belief that the popular faith in talismans, prevalent in the early ages, originated through similar ideas. The Buddhists credited the sapphire with magical power. Probably the magnetic polarities of jewels, rather than their brilliancy, constitute their chief potency as talismans. Yet the latter quality doubtless strongly influences the imagination.

Talismans were formerly divided into three classes, astronomical, magical, and mixed.

The first-named consisted usually of a magical figure, cut or engraved under certain superstitious observances of the configuration of the heavens.

It has been defined as the seal, figure, character, or image of a heavenly sign, constellation, or planet, engraved on a sympathetic stone, or on a metal corresponding to the star, in order to receive its influences.[22:1]

Magical talismans were inscribed with mysterious symbols, words of superstitious import, and the names of unknown angels; they were well adapted to inspire with awe the minds of the ignorant. The so-called mixed talismans bore various unintelligible devices and barbaric names. Some of the most ancient protective and healing charms were fashioned out of roots, twigs, and plants. Whatever its form, the talisman was believed to exert an extraordinary influence over the bearer, especially in warding off disease or injury.

In its widest sense, the word talisman is synonymous with amulet.

The Dutch historian, Johann Busch (1400-1477), told of his meeting a woman, the wife or daughter of a soldier, on some public festal occasion at Halle in Prussian Saxony. Observing that she wore a little bag suspended from her neck, he asked her what it contained. Thereupon the woman showed him a bit of parchment bearing divers mystic inscriptions, and the statement that Pope Leo guaranteed the bearer thereof against bodily injuries, fainting spells, and drowning. Then followed the words, Christus vincit; Christus regnat, together with the names of the twelve apostles, and those of the three Wise Men, Balthasar, Melchior, and Kaspar.[23:1]

This doubtless was a fair specimen of the inscribed amulets, worn by German peasants in the fifteenth century.

Even nowadays the names of the three magi are often to be seen, as talismanic symbols, upon the doors and walls of dwellings in certain Roman Catholic countries; a fact noted by the present writer, while sojourning in the Austrian Tyrol a few years ago.


[20:1] M. F. Blumler, A History of Amulets.

[22:1] The Century Dictionary.

[23:1] Johann Heinrich Zedler, Grosses Universal Lexicon, art. "Talismans." Leipzig und Halle, 1744.



They ware in their foreheads scrowles of parchment, wherein were written the tenne commaundements given by God to Moses, which they called philaterias. JOHN MARBECK, Book of Notes and Common-Places: 1581.

There were Phylacteries for the head, reaching from one ear to the other, and tied behind with a thong; and Phylacteries for the hand, fastened upon the left arme, above the elbow, on the inside, so that it might be near the heart. THOMAS GODWIN, Moses and Aaron: 1616.

Among the Greeks of the first century A. D. the word phylacterion (from phylassein, to guard, and equivalent to the Roman amuletum) signified a portable charm, which was believed to afford protection against disease and evil spirits. Such charms, in their simplest form, consisted of rolls of parchment or ribbon, inscribed with magical spells, and were hung around the wearer's neck, or attached to the hem of his garment. Among the Hebrews and early Christians similar protectives were used, although the latter substituted Gospel texts for the magic formulas. Some authorities have maintained that phylacteries were not strictly amulets, but it is certain that they were held in superstitious regard.[25:1] More elaborate phylacteries consisted of tiny leathern boxes, cubical in form, and containing four sections of the Mosaic Law, written on parchment and folded in the skin of a clean beast. These were carried either upon the head or left arm.[25:2]

The custom of wearing portions of the Gospels, suspended from the neck, was common in the East. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) sent to Theodelinda, Queen of the Lombards, a box containing a copy of the Gospels, as a charm against the evil spirits which beset children.[25:3] The origin of this practice is found in Deuteronomy VI, 6-9: "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates."

In the rabbinical Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Bible, canto VIII, written about A. D. 500, occurs this passage: "The congregation of Israel hath said, I am chosen above all people, because I bind the Phylacteries on my left hand and on my head, and the scroll is fixed on the right side of my door, the third part of which is opposite my bed-room, that the evil spirits may not have power to hurt me."

Thus it would appear that the saying quoted by Grimm, "Christians place their faith in words, the Jews in precious stones, and the Pagans in herbs," is not wholly correct, for the Jews added to a trust in stones, a faith in the long, embroidered, text-inscribed phylactery.[26:1]

At the beginning of the Christian era, the belief was general among the Jews and pagans, that by means of magical formulas the evil influence of the Devil and demons could be successfully resisted. Therefore the Hebrew exorcists found easily a fertile soil for the cultivation of their supernatural art. This, says a writer in the "Jewish Encyclopaedia," was the atmosphere in which Christianity arose, with the claim of healing all that were oppressed of the Devil. The name of Jesus became the power by which the host of Satan was to be overcome. But pharisaism diagnosed the disease of the age differently, and insisted that the observance of the Law was the best prophylactic against disease. The wearing of phylacteries indicates that they were regarded by the Jews as amulets. Belief in the power of the Law became the antidote against what may be termed "Satanophobia," a pessimistic and habitual dread of devils and demons.

The wearing of phylacteries is a fundamental principle of the Jewish religion. They are to be preserved with the greatest care. Indeed, the Rabbis assert that the single precept of the phylacteries is equal in value to all the commandments.[27:1] The Talmud says: "Whoever has the phylacteries bound to his head and arm, and the fringes thrown over his garments, and the Mezuza[27:2] fixed on his door-post, is safe from sin; for these are excellent memorials, and the angels secure him from sin; as it is written, 'The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.'"[27:3] Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher of the twelfth century, extolled the sacred influence of the phylacteries. For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is obliged to be meek and God-fearing, and must not suffer himself to be carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but must turn his attention to the words of truth and uprightness.

In order to emphasize their religious zeal, the Pharisees and scribes, in our Lord's time, were wont to "make broad their phylacteries."[27:4] Josephus, the historian of the first century, speaks of the wearing of phylacteries, as an established and recognized custom. According to the Cabala, they were significant of the wisdom and greatness of God, and their use distinguished the cultured and pious from the common people, who were ignorant of the Law.

Great care was taken in the preparation of phylacteries, and no Christian, apostate, or woman was allowed to write the inscriptions upon them. Even at the present time, there are Jews in Russia and Poland, who wear them during the whole day.[28:1]

It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot. Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one of them: "Hea says: 'Go, my son! take a woman's kerchief, bind it round thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots; do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters; sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall find him a happy habitation.'"[28:2]

While the practice of wearing phylacteries may not have originated in a superstitious belief in their virtues as "appurtenances to make prayers more powerful," it would appear that they came to be regarded not only as protective charms, which is indicated by their name, but also as magical remedies, having occult healing properties.[29:1] Their power was supposed to inhere in the written words, enclosed in the small leathern case.

At the present day, verses from the Scriptures, the Koran, and other sacred writings are sometimes worn upon the person and are also placed upon horses or camels, by Arabs, Turks, Grecians, and Italians, with the avowed purpose of averting malignant glances.[29:2]


[25:1] Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[25:2] Samuel Burder, Oriental Customs, vol. ii, p. 226.

[25:3] Smith and Cheetham, A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities.

[26:1] William George Black, Folk-Medicine, p. 165.

[27:1] Joseph Barclay, The Talmud.

[27:2] Scroll of parchment, inscribed with passages of Scripture.

[27:3] Psalm xxxiv, 7.

[27:4] James Hastings, D.D., A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, 1908, p. 360. Matthew, xxiii, 5.

[28:1] Philip Schaff, D.D., A Religious Encyclopaedia.

[28:2] Biblical Things not generally known, 1879, pp. 177-8. Marduk, the Chaldean Hercules.

[29:1] James Hastings, A Dictionary of the Bible.

[29:2] Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye.



In every word there is a magic influence, and each word is in itself the breath of the internal and moving spirit. JOSEPH ENNEMOSER: The History of Magic.

There is magic in words, surely, and many a treasure besides Ali Baba's is unlocked with a verbal key. HENRY VAN DYKE: Little Rivers.

For it was neither herbs, nor mollifying plaster that restored them to health, but thy word, O Lord, which healeth all things. WISDOM OF SOLOMON, XVI, 12.

The power of words in stimulating the imagination is well expressed in the following sentences:—

Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of the things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colors, and painted more to the life in his imagination, by the help of words, than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. In this case the poet seems to get the better of nature. He takes indeed the landscape after her, but gives it more vigorous touches, heightens its beauty, and so enlivens the whole piece, that the images which flow from the objects themselves, appear weak or faint in comparison with those that come from the expressions.[30:1]

The medical science of the ancient Romans was largely theurgical, and was founded on a pretended influence over spiritual beings, whether gods or demons. Their system of therapeutics included prayers, invocations, and magical sentences. In speaking of verbal charms, Lord Bacon commented on the fact that amongst the heathen nations, either barbarous words, without meaning, were used, or "words of similitude," which were intended to feed the imagination. Also religious texts, which strengthen that faculty. Mystical expressions were favorites, as were also Hebrew sentences, as belonging to the holy tongue. No examples of magical formulas are found in the Bible, but Rabbinical literature contains a large number of them, the majority being designated as "heathen," and their use forbidden.[31:1]

A belief in the potency of written or spoken words, for the production of good or evil, has been characteristic of all historic epochs and nations. The exorcist of ancient Egypt relied on amulets and mysterious phrases for the cure of disease; and a metrical petition traced on a papyrus-leaf, or a formula of prayer opportunely repeated, "put to flight the serpents, who were the instruments of fate."[31:2]

The efficacy anciently attributed to verbal charms appears to have been partly due to a current opinion that names of persons and things were not of arbitrary invention, but were in some mysterious manner evolved from nature, and hence were possessed of a certain inherent force, which was potent either for good or evil.[32:1]

Our Lord, when on earth, went about healing the sick by the sole power of words. A notable instance of this is the case of the centurion of Capernaum, who deemed himself unworthy of the honor of having Christ enter his dwelling, in order to cure his servant, who lay sick of the palsy. "But speak the word only," he said, "and my servant shall be healed." And the Master replied: "Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." And his servant was healed in the self-same hour. That evening, we are told, many that were possessed with devils were brought unto him; and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick.[32:2] The popularity of Scriptural texts in primitive therapeutics is doubtless largely due to the many wonderful cures wrought by words, which are recorded in the Bible.

Usually, in the Gospels, the healing word is addressed to the patient, but occasionally to his master, or to one of his parents. Whenever the belief in the power of sacred words appears outside of Holy Writ, it is generally expressed in the guise of a superstitious formula. This belief is found, however, in the mystical tenets of the ancient Jewish sect, known as the Essenes. It is also clearly stated in the Zend Avesta, as follows: "One may heal with herbs, one may heal with the Law, one may heal with the Holy Word; amongst all remedies, this is the healing one, that heals with the Holy Word; this one it is that will best drive away sickness from the body of the faithful; for this one is the best healing of all remedies."[33:1]

The religious and devotional sentences, which are so commonly seen above the entrances of dwellings in Germany and other European lands, and the passages from the Koran similarly used among Moslems, are not necessarily evidence of the piety of the members of a household. For, as has been remarked, these sentences are often regarded merely as protective charms.[33:2]

According to an old Welsh custom, fighting-cocks were provided with prophylactic amulets before entering the arena. These amulets consisted of biblical verses, inscribed on slips of paper, which were bound around the cocks' legs. A favorite verse thus used was Ephesians, VI, 16: "Taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked."[33:3] Some of the old English medical verse-spells are sufficiently quaint exponents of popular credulity.

The following, for example, was in vogue as a remedy for cramp in the leg:—

"The Devil is tying a knot in my leg, Mark, Luke and John, unloose it, I beg."[34:1]

Mr. W. G. Black, in his "Folk-Medicine" (p. 170), remarks that many of the magic writings used as charms were nothing else than invocations of the Devil; and cites the case of a young woman living in Chelsea, England, who reposed confidence in a sealed paper, mystically inscribed, as a prophylactic against toothache. Having consented, at the request of her priest, to examine the writing, this is what she found: "Good Devil, cure her, and take her for your pains." This illustrates the somewhat trite proverb, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'twere folly to be wise," and is a proof of the wisdom of the popular belief that the inscription of a healing formula should not be seen by the wearer, inasmuch as its mystic words are ordinarily invocations of spiritual Beings, and are not therefore adapted for comprehension by the human intellect!

The mere remembrance of some traditional event in the life of our Lord has been accounted of value in popular leech-craft, as in the following charm against ague, taken from a diary of the year 1751, and still used in Lincolnshire within recent times: "When Jesus came near Pilate, he trembled like a leaf, and the judge asked Him if He had the ague. He answered that He neither had the ague nor was He afraid; and whosoever bears these words in mind shall never fear the ague or anything else."[35:1]

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History,[35:2] gives the text of two letters alleged to have formed a correspondence between our Lord and Abgar, King of Edessa. They were said to have been originally written in Aramaic or Syro-Chaldaic characters, and were discovered beneath a stone some eighty miles from Iconium, the modern Konieh, in Asia Minor, in the year 97, and afterwards lost. Regarded as authentic by some learned authorities, they were nevertheless rejected as apocryphal by a church council at Rome, during the pontificate of Gelasius I, in the year 494. According to Eusebius, King Abgar, who was afflicted with a grievous sickness, learning of the wonderful cures wrought by our Lord, wrote Him a letter begging Him to come to Edessa. And the Master, although not acceding to this request, wrote a reply to the king, promising to send one of His disciples to heal him. And in fulfilment of that promise, after His resurrection, Thomas the Apostle, by divine command, sent Thaddeus, one of the seventy disciples, to Abgar. Such is the popular tradition. Full particulars of the visit of Thaddeus, together with copies of the letters taken from a Book of Records preserved at Edessa, may be found in a work entitled, "Ancient Syriac Documents," edited by W. Cureton, D.D. Copies of these letters were used as charms by the early Christians, and for this purpose were placed upon their door-lintels; they were still to be seen within recent years in many a cottage of Shropshire and Devon, where they are valued as preservatives from fever.[36:1] In the opinion of not a few scholars they are ingenious literary forgeries; but strong evidence in favor of their authenticity is afforded by the discovery, announced by Professor Bohrmann to the archaeological congress at Rome, April 30, 1900, of copies of the same letters, inscribed in Doric Greek, in the stone-work above the gateway of the Palace of the Kings at Ephesus. The translated text of the rediscovered letters is as follows:

From Abgar to Christ: I have heard of Thee and the cures wrought by Thee without herb or medicine, for it is reported that Thou restoreth sight to the blind and maketh the lame to walk, cleanseth the leper, raiseth the dead, chaseth out devils and unclean spirits, and healeth those that are tormented of diseases of a long continuance. Hearing all this of Thee, I was fully persuaded that Thou art the very God come down from heaven to do such miracles, or that Thou art the son of God and performeth them. Wherefor I have sent Thee a few lines entreating Thee to come hither and cure my diseases. Hearing that the Jews murmur against Thee and continue to do Thee mischief, I invite Thee to my city, which is but a little one, but is beautiful and sufficient to entertain us both.

Christ's reply to Abgar: Blessed art thou for believing me when thou hast not seen, for it is written of me that they that have seen me shall not believe, and that they that have not seen me shall believe and be saved. But concerning the matter thou hast written about, this is to acquaint thee that all things for which I was sent hither must be fulfilled and that I shall be taken up and returned to Him that sent me. But after my ascension I will send one of my disciples that shall cure thee of thy distemper and give life to all them that are with thee.[37:1]

John Gaule, in the "Magastromancer,"[37:2] declares that sacred words derive their force from occult divine powers, which are conveyed by means of such words, "as it were through conduit-pipes, to those who have faith in them."

Among the Hindus, the mantra is properly a divinely inspired Vedic text; but quite generally at the present day it has degenerated into a mere spell for warding off evil; the original religious or moral precept being accounted of little force, when compared with the alleged magical potency of its component words.[37:3]

The exorcism of morbiferous demons was the chief principle of primitive therapeutics, and as a means to this end, the written or spoken word has always been thought to exert a very great influence. Possibly indeed in remote antiquity the art of writing was first applied in inscribing mystic words or phrases on parchment or other material, for use as spells.[38:1]

In treating the sick, the Apache medicine-man mumbles incoherent phrases, a method adopted quite generally by his professional brethren in many Indian tribes. He claims for such gibberish a mysterious faculty of healing disease. Much of its effectiveness, however, has been attributed to the monotonous intonation with which the words are uttered, and which tends to promote sleep just as a lullaby soothes an ailing child.[38:2]

It is noteworthy, however, that meaningless words have always been the favorite components of verbal charms, whose power, in the opinion of medieval conjurers, was in direct ratio to their obscurity;[38:3] and this fact is well shown in the incantations used by savages.

According to the late Dr. D. G. Brinton, the principle involved is, either that the gods are supposed to comprehend what men fail to understand; or else that the verbal charm represents "the god expressing himself through human organs, but in a speech unknown to human ears."[39:1] Reginald Scott expressed a popular modern idea of the force of certain words and characters, when he said that they were able of themselves to cure diseases, pull down, save, destroy and enchant, "without the party's assistance."[39:2]

The term incantation signifies a most potent method of magical healing; namely, "that resting on a belief in the mysterious power of words solemnly conceived and passionately uttered."[39:3]

In the belief of the Australian aborigines, "no demon, however malevolent, can resist the power of the right word."[39:4] Ignorant people are usually impressed by obscure phrases, the more so, if these are well sprinkled with polysyllables. Cicero, in his treatise on Divination (LXIV) criticizes the lack of perspicuity in the style of certain writers, and supposes the case of a physician who should prescribe a snail as an article of diet, and whose prescription should read, "an earth-born, grass-walking, house-carrying, unsanguineous animal." Equally efficacious might be the modern definition of the same creature as a "terrestrial, air-breathing, gastropodous mollusk." The degree of efficiency of such prescriptions is naturally in inverse proportion to the patient's mental culture. An average Southern negro, for example, affected with indigestion, might derive some therapeutic advantage from snail diet, but would be more likely to be benefited by the mental stimulus afforded by the verbose formula.

The Irish physicians of old had a keen appreciation of the healing influences of incantations upon the minds of their patients, and the latter had moreover a strong faith in the ancient Druidic charms and invocations. It is probable that in very early times, invocations were made in the names of favorite pagan deities. After the introduction of Christianity by Saint Patrick, the name of the Trinity and the words of the Christian ritual were substituted. Such invocations, when repeated in the presence of sick persons, are regarded by the Irish peasants of to-day as powerful talismans, effective through their magic healing power. So great is the faith of these simple people in the ancient hereditary cures, that they prefer to seek medical aid from the wise woman of the village, rather than from a skilled practitioner.[40:1]

The influence of the mind upon the physical organism, through the imagination, is well shown by the seemingly marvellous cures sometimes wrought by medical charms. But the efficacy of magical medicine has been usually proportionate to the degree of ignorance prevalent during any particular epoch. Yet some of the most famous physicians of antiquity had faith in superstitious remedies. The medical literature of the last century before Christ, and from that period until late in the Middle Ages, was an actual treasury of conjuration and other mummeries. Even the great Galen, who was regarded as an oracle, openly avowed his belief in the merits of magic cures.[41:1]

Galen wrote that many physicians of his time were of the opinion that medicines lost much of their efficacy, unless prescribed by their Babylonian or Egyptian names. They fully appreciated mental influence as a factor in therapeutics. Hence, instead of regular prescriptions, they sometimes wrote mystic formulas, which their patients either carried as charms, or rolled into pellets, which were then swallowed.[41:2]

In a "Book of Counsels to Young Practitioners" (1300) are to be found some interesting items regarding contemporary manners. Fledgling doctors are therein advised to make use of long and unintelligible words, and never to visit a patient without doing something new, lest the latter should say, "He can do nothing without his book." In brief, a reputation for infallibility must be maintained.

It is not surprising that curative spells were popular in the dark ages. A modern-writer[42:1] has been quoted as saying that these were to be used, not because they could effect direct physical changes, but because they brought the patient into a better frame of mind. We know that nervous affections were very prevalent in those times among the ignorant masses of the people, and verbal charms were doubtless of value in furnishing therapeutic mental impulses. The Germanic sooth-saying physicians maintained that every bodily ailment could be cured by the use of magical spells and enchanted herbs. The medieval charlatan oculists inherited ancient medical formulas, by means of which they professed to treat with success ophthalmic disorders. Their methods included the recitation of ritualistic words, accompanied with suitable gestures, and passes over the affected eyes.[42:2]

In Cotta's "Short Discoverie of the Unobserved Dangers of several sorts of Ignorant and Unconsiderate Practisers of Physicke in England" (1612) occur the following passages, quoted also by Brand, in "Popular Antiquities of Great Britain."[42:3]

If there be any good or use unto the health by spels, they have that prerogative by accident, and by the power and vertue of fancie. If fancie then be the foundation whereupon buildeth the good of spels, spels must needs be as fancies are, uncertaine and vaine. So must also, by consequent, be their use and helpe, and no lesse all they that trust unto them. . . . How can religion or reason suffer men that are not void of both, to give such impious credit unto an insignificant and senseless mumbling of idle words contrary to reason, without president of any truly wise or learned, and justly suspected of all sensible men?

In the early part of the seventeenth century, many diseases were regarded in the light of magic seizures. Therefore they were not amenable to treatment by materia medica. More could be accomplished through the patient's faith and imagination.

"Physicians," wrote the German scholar, Valentine Schindler, "do not discover and learn everything that they ought to know, in the universities; they have often to go to old wives, gypsies, masters of the Black Art, old peasant-folk, and learn from them. For these people have more knowledge of such things, than all the colleges and universities."[43:1]

The influence of technical language on the uneducated patient is exemplified in the effect produced on his mind by the mention of Latin names. The writer was impressed with this fact while engaged in dispensary practice some years ago. Such a patient, affected with mumps, for example, appears to experience a certain satisfaction, and is apt to be somewhat puffed up mentally as well as physically, when he learns that his ailment is Cynanche Parotidaea; and he expects a prescription commensurate with its importance.

The effective force of a verbal charm is increased by the rhythmic flow of its words; the solemn recitation or murmuring of mystic phrases. "Hence," said Jacob Grimm, "all that is strong in the speech wielded by priest, physician, or magician is allied to the forms of poetry."[44:1] In many a myth and fairy-tale, a cabalistic metrical verse pronounced by the hero causes wonderful results.[44:2]

As already intimated, the manner of reciting prayers, charms, and formulas was anciently deemed to be of more moment than the meaning of their constituent words. In Assyria, for example, healing-spells were repeated in a "low, gurgling monotone"; and in Egypt the magical force of incantations was largely due, in the popular mind, to their frequent repetition in a pleasing tone of voice.[44:3] The temper of mind which prompts words of good cheer, is in itself a healing charm of no mean value. For we read in the Book of Proverbs: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones."[44:4]

In this progressive age, when men of science are seeking remedies against the so-called "dust nuisance," which at times renders walking in our streets a penance, it may not be amiss to call to mind an ancient spell for the removal of particles of dust or cinders from the eyes. This consisted in chanting the ninety-first psalm thrice over water, which was then used as a lotion for the eye.[45:1]

Popular faith in spells as therapeutic agents, an inheritance from Chaldea and Egypt, was still strong even at the dawn of modern times; and the force of medical charms was supplemented by various magic rites and by the ceremonial preparation of medicines.[45:2] The use of curative spells and characts comes within the province of white magic, which is harmless; so called to distinguish it from black magic, or the black art, which involves a compact with the Evil One. In rude ages the practice of the former as a means of healing, may be said to have found its justification in its philanthropic purpose.

According to Mungo Park, the natives of all portions of the Dark Continent are accustomed to wear written charms, called saphies, grigris, or fetiches, whose chief use is the warding-off or cure of disease. Although not themselves followers of Mohammed, the savages have entire confidence in these charms, which are supplied by Moslem priests; but their confidence is based upon the supposed magic of the writing, irrespective of its religious meaning.[46:1] The failure of a charm to perform a cure is attributed to the ingratitude and fickleness of the spirits.[46:2] In Algeria it is not an uncommon experience of physicians who have prescribed for native patients, to meet such an one some days after, with the prescription either suspended from his neck, or carefully hidden in his garments.[46:3] Evidently the sole idea of such a patient, in applying for advice, was to obtain a written formula to serve as an amulet. The Moslems of Arabia and Persia have a custom of applying to any stranger, preferably a European, for their protective written charms, which are the more highly esteemed if totally unintelligible to themselves. Such a practice, however, is not sanctioned by orthodox followers of the Prophet, who is said to have justified the use of healing-spells only upon condition that the inscribed words should be none other than the names of God, and of the good angels and jinn.[46:4]

The Hon. John Abercromby, in the second volume of his work entitled "Pre- and Proto-historic Finns,"[46:5] gives a vast number of the magic songs, or charms, of Finland, among which are to be found a collection of formulas, under the caption, "words of healing power," which were recited for the cure of physical ailments of every description. For the purpose of comparison the author has also grouped together many specimens of spells and incantations in vogue among the neighboring peoples, as the Swedes, Slavs, and Lithuanians. He is of the opinion that most of the magical Finnish songs were composed since the twelfth century, and in the transition period, before Christianity had fully taken the place of paganism. During this period the recitation of metrical charms was no longer restricted to the skilled magician, but became popular in every Finnish household. Hence apparently the gradual evolution of a mass of incantations for use in every conceivable exigency or emergency of life. A chief feature of many of these medical charms consists in vituperation and personal abuse of the particular spirit of sickness addressed.

The peasants of Greece have long been addicted to the use of charms for the cure of various ailments. Following is the translation of a spell against colic which is in vogue amongst them: "Good is the householder, wicked is the housewife; she cooks beans, she prepares oil, vine-cuttings for a bed, stones for a pillow; flee pain, flee colic; Christ drive thee hence with his silver sword and his golden hand." According to Dr. N. G. Polites, this charm originated in a tradition that Christ when on earth begged a night's lodging at a house, the mistress whereof was ill-tempered and unkind to the poor, while her husband was hospitably disposed toward needy wayfarers. The husband being absent, his wife bade Christ take shelter in the barn, and later provided him with some beans for supper, while she and the master of the house fared more sumptuously. In the night the woman had a severe colic, which the usual domestic remedies failed to relieve; and her husband appealed to the poor wayfarer, who at once exorcised the demon of colic.[48:1]

Written charms were usually worn exposed to view, in order that evil spirits might see them and read their inscriptions. In course of time they developed into ornaments. Wealthy Hebrews were wont to carry amulets made of gold, silver, bronze, and precious stones; while their poorer brethren were contented with modest bits of parchment, woolen cloth, or lace.[48:2] In eastern countries a common variety of charm consists of a small piece of paper or skin, duly inscribed. Manifold are the virtues ascribed to such a charm! It may enable the bearer to find hidden treasure, to win the favor of a man or woman, or to recover a runaway wife.[48:3]

A written medical prescription of to-day, after having been filled and copied by a druggist, is usually considered to have fulfilled its mission, but the annals of popular medicine afford ample evidence of the narrowness of such a view! The practice of swallowing the paper whereon a recipe is written, as a veritable charm-formula, is of great antiquity, and is still in vogue in many lands. The idea involved in this singular custom is of course a superstitious regard for writing as a magical curative.

In endeavoring to trace the origins of this and other analogous usages, one must study the records of the most ancient civilizations. Among various African tribes, written spells, called saphies, are commonly used as medicines by the native wizards, who write a prayer on a piece of wood, wash it off with water, and cause the patient to drink the solution.[49:1] Mungo Park, while in West Africa, was once asked by his landlord, a Bambarra native, to prepare such a charm, the latter proffering his writing-board for the purpose. The traveller complied, and the negro, while repeating a prayer, washed the writing off with water, drank the mixture, and then licked the board dry, in his anxiety to derive the greatest possible benefit from the writing.[49:2]

The eating of the paper on which a prescription has been written is still a common expedient for the cure of disease in Tibet, where the Lamas use written spells, known as "edible letters."[50:1] The paper containing cabalistic words and symbols, taken internally, constitutes the remedy, and through its influence on the imagination is probably more beneficial to the patient than are most of the so-called "bitters" and patent medicines of the present day.

So likewise, when a Chinese physician cannot procure the drugs which he desires in a particular case, he writes the names of these drugs on a piece of paper, which the patient is expected to eat;[50:2] and this mode of treatment is considered quite as satisfactory as the swallowing of the medicine itself. Sometimes a charm is burned over a cup of water, and the ashes stirred in, and drunk by the patient, while in other cases it is pasted upon the part of the body affected.[50:3]

In eastern countries generally, remedial qualities are ascribed to water drunk out of a cup or bowl, whose inner surface is inscribed with religious or mystical verses; and specimens of such drinking-vessels have been unearthed in Babylonia within recent years. The magic medicine-bowls, still used in the Orient, usually bear inscriptions from the Koran.[50:4] In Flora Annie Steel's tale of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, "On the Face of the Waters" (p. 293), we read of a native who was treated for a cut over the eye by being dosed with paper pills inscribed with the name of Providence.

Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh (1810-1882) reported the case of a laboring man affected with colic, for whom he prescribed some medicine, directing him to "take it and return in a fortnight," assuring him that he would soon be quite well. At the appointed time the man returned, entirely relieved and jubilant. The doctor was gratified at the manifest improvement in his patient's condition, and asked to see the prescription which he had given him; whereupon the man explained that he had "taken" it, as he had understood the directions, by swallowing the paper.

In Egypt, at the present time, faith in the power of written charms is generally prevalent, and forms one of the most characteristic beliefs of the people of that country.

E. W. Lane, in "Modern Egyptians," says that the composition of these characts is founded chiefly upon magic, and devolves usually upon the village schoolmasters. They consist of verses from the Koran, and "names of God, together with those of angels, genii, prophets, or eminent saints, intermixed with combinations of minerals, and with diagrams, all of which are supposed to have great secret virtues."

One of the most popular Egyptian methods of charming away disease is similar to a practice already mentioned as in use among less civilized peoples.

The sacred texts are inscribed on the inner surfaces of earthenware bowls, in which water is stirred until the writing is washed off. Then the infusion is drunk by the patient, and without doubt the subsequent benefit is exactly commensurate with the strength of his faith in the remedy.


[30:1] Joseph Addison, On the pleasures of the Imagination.

[31:1] The Jewish Encyclopaedia.

[31:2] G. Maspero, The Dawn of Civilization, p. 214.

[32:1] Larousse, Dictionnaire, art. "Charme."

[32:2] Matthew, viii, 8, 13, 16.

[33:1] Encyclopaedia Biblica, art. "Medicine," T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black.

[33:2] Elworthy, The Evil Eye, p. 400.

[33:3] Elias Owen, Welsh Folklore, p. 245.

[34:1] Robley Dunglison, Medical Dictionary, p. 202.

[35:1] Notes and Queries, 4th series, vol. vii, p. 443. For other versions of this charm see W. G. Black, Folk-Medicine, p. 82; Pettigrew, Medical Superstitions, p. 57.

[35:2] Book i, ch. 13.

[36:1] Notes and Queries, 5th Series, vol. i, pp. 325, 375.

[37:1] Boston Transcript, May 2, 1900.

[37:2] London, 1652, p. 231.

[37:3] Monier-Williams, Religious Thought in India, p. 197.

[38:1] C. W. King, Early Christian Numismatics, p. 179.

[38:2] Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, D. C., 1887-8, p. 453.

[38:3] R. M. Lawrence, The Magic of the Horse-Shoe, p. 300.

[39:1] Religions of Primitive Peoples, p. 93.

[39:2] A Discourse concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits, p. 70; 1665.

[39:3] M'Clintock and Strong, Cyclopaedia, art. "Incantation."

[39:4] D. G. Brinton, Religions of Primitive Peoples, p. 91.

[40:1] Lady Wilde, Ancient Charms, Cures, and Usages of Ireland.

[41:1] Dr. Hugo Magnus, Superstition in Medicine.

[41:2] Otto A. Wall, M.D., The Prescription.

[42:1] H. D. Traill, Social England, vol. ii, p. 112.

[42:2] George F. Fort, Medical Economy of the Middle Ages, p. 195.

[42:3] Vol. iii, p. 322.

[43:1] Johannes Janssen, History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages.

[44:1] Teutonic Mythology, vol. iii, p. 1223.

[44:2] Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, vol. i, p. 101.

[44:3] T. Witton Davies, Magic, Divination, and Demonology, p. 127.

[44:4] Proverbs, xvii, v. 22.

[45:1] London Spectator.

[45:2] M'Clintock and Strong, art. "Incantation."

[46:1] Travels, p. 56.

[46:2] Mary H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa, p. 304.

[46:3] Melusine, t. ix, p. 132; 1898.

[46:4] Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, art. "Da'wah."

[46:5] London, 1898.

[48:1] Academy, vol. xxxi, p. 291; 1887.

[48:2] Michael L. Rodkinson, History of Amulets, Charms, and Talismans.

[48:3] George H. Bratley, The Power of Gems and Charms.

[49:1] Sir John Lubbock, The Origin of Civilization.

[49:2] Travels, vol. i, p. 357.

[50:1] L. Austin Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet, p. 401.

[50:2] Edward Berdoe, Origin and Growth of the Healing Art, p. 133.

[50:3] Hampton C. Du Bose, The Dragon, Image and Demon, p. 407.

[50:4] Austen H. Layard, Nineveh and Babylon, p. 417.



At the present day the remarkable benefit which often results from hygienic and mental influences combined is well shown in the so-called Kneipp cure, originated by Sebastian Kneipp, formerly parish priest of Woerishofen in Bavaria. Briefly, its chief principles are simple diet, the application of water by means of wet sheets, douches, hose, or watering-pots; the covering of the wet body with dry underwear; and stimulation of the imagination, together with physical invigoration, by long walks afield barefoot, or with sandals; and lastly, music and mental diversions. In a word, a modernized Esculapian treatment.

The remedial virtue of verbal charms and incantations is derived from the human imagination, and upon this principle is founded the art of mental therapeutics. The idea of a cure being formed in the mind reacts favorably on the bodily functions, and thus are to be explained the successful results oftentimes effected under the methods known as Christian Science, Mind Cure, and Faith Cure.[53:1] Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the first-named system, avows that Christian Healing places no faith in hygiene or medicines, but reposes all trust in mind, divinely directed.[54:1] She declares that the subconscious mind of an individual is the only agent which can produce an effect upon his body.[54:2] There is undoubtedly much that is good in the doctrines of the Christian Scientists; but a fatal mistake therein is their contempt for skilled medical advice in sickness. God has placed within our reach certain remedies for the relief or cure of many bodily ailments; and whoever fails to provide such remedies for those dependent upon him, when the latter are seriously ill, is thereby wickedly negligent. Mental influence is oftentimes extremely valuable, but it cannot always be an efficient substitute for opium or quinine, when prescribed by a competent practitioner. We read in Ecclesiasticus, XXXVIII, 4, 10, 12: "The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth, and he that is wise will not abhor them. . . . My son, in thy sickness be not negligent, but pray unto the Lord, and He will make thee whole. . . . Then give place to the physician, for the Lord hath created him. Let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him."

In treatises on suggestive therapeutics stress is laid upon the exaltation of the imaginative faculty induced by hypnotism; and it is well known that during induced sleep this faculty accepts as real impressions which would not pass muster if inspected by the critical eye of the waking intelligence. The whole secret of cures alleged to have been wrought by animal magnetism or mesmerism, may be explained by mental influence; and so likewise those affected by metallic tractors, anodyne necklaces, and a host of other devices. We have indeed an intelligible explanation of the rationale of many therapeutic methods in vogue at different periods of the world's history.

But, to recur to Christian Science, or Eddyism, it is certain that the alleged cures of organic affections, by the methods of that system, are not genuine. The many cases benefited by those methods have been and are such as are amenable to mental healing, of whatever kind. A writer in the "American Medical Quarterly," January, 1900, avers that Eddyism is an intellectual distemper, of a contagious character; that it is epidemic in this country, and that, in its causation, its rise and spread, it presents a close analogy to the great epidemics of history.

The ancient magicians, in their various methods of treating the sick, strove ever after sensational means of healing, and their example has been closely followed by the quacks of every succeeding age. They failed to appreciate that a tablet of powdered biscuit, discreetly administered, may be as beneficial therapeutically as any relic of a holy saint, because the healing force in either case is wholly mental, and resides in the patient. The exceptional notoriety achieved by Paracelsus was largely due to his shrewdness in pandering to the love of the marvellous, while utilizing also bona-fide materia medica.

Indeed, however strong may have been the belief in magical agencies as healing factors, the most eminent early practitioners were ever ready to avail themselves of material remedies. For they maintained that the actions of the physician should not be hampered by metaphysical considerations.[56:1] Not only did the magicians employ precious stones and metals as remedies, on account of their intrinsic value and the popular belief in their virtues, but they also prescribed the most loathsome and repulsive substances. The early pharmacopoeias and the works of noted charlatans, together with the annals of folk-medicine, afford ample evidence of this fact.

Apropos of this subject, we quote from a lecture given by Dr. Richard Cabot at the Harvard Medical School, February 13, 1909:—

In one of our great hospitals here it has been the custom for a long time to use for treatment by suggestion a tuning-fork which is known at that hospital as a magnet. It is not a magnet; it is merely an ordinary, plain, rather large tuning-fork. But people have, as you know, a very curious superstition about the action of magnets, and believing this tuning-fork to be a magnet, they attribute occult and wonderful powers to it. When placed upon a supposedly paralyzed limb or on the throat of a person who thinks he cannot speak, it has wonderful powers just because it is supposed to be a magnet, when in fact it is a tuning-fork. I remonstrated once with the gentleman who uses this tuning-fork because, so far as I could see, it was a lie, like all other forms of quackery; but he said, "Why, no, it does a great deal of good; it cures the patients." I replied that I had no doubt of that. So does skunk oil and Omega oil; so does the magic handkerchief which Francis Truth has touched; so does the magic ring, the electric belt, and the porous plaster. They all cure, but they all deceive people, in so far as one supposes that something is going on which is not revealed, something like imaginary electricity in the ring, something like the supposed medical activity in the porous plaster. In another great hospital in this city electricity is used in the same way. Electricity has medical action of course, in some cases, but it is used also in a great number of cases where it is not supposed to have any medical action because it has so strong a psychical action. When one sees a brass instrument that looks like a trident approaching one's body, and feels long crackling sparks shoot out of its prongs against one's body, it naturally makes a very strong impression upon one's mind.

How psychological methods may be employed in everyday life was the subject of an address by Professor Hugo Muensterberg, of Harvard University, before the Commercial Club of Chicago, December 13, 1908. The success of these methods in the field of medicine is attested by the constantly increasing number of cures of nervous and other affections. "There is no magic fluid," he said, "no mysterious power afloat; it is just a state of mind. Every one can suggest something to every one else. It is the idea that is strong enough to overcome the idea in another mind that produces the effects wondered at. Hypnotism is only reenforced suggestion. It is a tool which no physician should be without."

Psychological knowledge, according to the same authority,[58:1] is gradually leaking into the world of medicine. The power of suggestion, with its varied methods, is slowly becoming a most important therapeutic agent in the hands of reputable practitioners. The time has arrived when medical students, about to enter upon professional life, should be equipped with a knowledge of scientific psychology. Physicians do not now deserve sympathy, if they are dumfounded when quacks and pretenders are successful where their own attempts at curing have failed. It is evident, however, that reform in this field is at hand, and it may be admitted that even those knights-errant have helped, after many centuries, to direct the public interest to the paramount importance of psychology in medicine.

We may cite the invocations of the Egyptian priests to obtain a cure from each god for those submitted to his influence; the magic formulas, which taught the use of herbs against disease; the medicine of Esculapius's descendants, the Asclepiads, an order of Greek physicians, who practised medicine under the reputed inspiration of that deity, and were bound by oath not to reveal the secrets of their art. Is it necessary to speak of the king's touch, of the miraculous cures at the tomb of the French ascetic priest, Francois Paris (1690-1727), and especially of Lourdes, and other noted pilgrimage resorts? Many professional healers may be mentioned, "of whom some were honest and believed themselves to be endowed with supernatural powers like certain magnetisers, and who used suggestion without knowing it, as for example the Irishman Greatrakes (1628-1700), the German priest Gassner (1727-1779), and many others whose fame does not extend beyond the region where they exercised their mysterious power."[59:1]

In the same category, as regards their modus operandi, may be classed medical charms and healing-spells. These serve also to inspire hope, or the expectation of cure, in the patient's mind, and thus act as tonics; they may also be useful as a means of diverting the mind of a hypochondriac, and changing the current of his thoughts, in which sense they may be classed as mental alteratives.

Allusion has been made to the magical spells, of ancient repute among the Hindus, which are known as mantras. They are available for sending an evil spirit into a man, and for driving it out; for inspiring love or hatred; and for causing disease or curing it. The Hindus do not repose confidence in a physician, unless he knows, or assumes to know, the proper mantra for the cure of any ailment. And this is the reason why European practitioners, who are not addicted to the use of spells, do not find favor among them. The medical men who pretend to be versed in occult lore, whether charlatans or magicians, are ready to furnish suitable mantras at short notice, whether for healing, for the recovery of stolen property, or for any other conceivable purpose.[60:1] The ethics of quackery are probably on the same plane everywhere; and not only are the spells forthcoming, if sufficient compensation be assured, but they are also more or less effective, through the power of suggestion, as therapeutic agents.

In nervous affections, where the imagination is especially active, amulets and healing-spells exert their maximum effect.[60:2] No one, however cultured or learned, is wholly unsusceptible to the physical influence of this faculty of the mind; and it has been well said that everybody would probably be benefited by the occasional administration of a bread-pill at the hand of a trusted medical adviser.[61:1] But faith on the patient's part is essential. Pettigrew, in his work on "Medical Superstitions," illustrates this by an example whose pertinence is not lessened by a dash of humor. A physician, who numbered among his patients his own father and his wife's mother, was asked why his treatment in the former case had been more successful than in the latter. His reply was that his mother-in-law had not as much confidence in him as his father had, and therefore had failed to receive as much benefit. Similarly, if a verbal charm is to cure a physical ailment, the patient must first form a mental conception of the cure, and believe in the charm's efficacy. But faith in healing-spells of human devising is sometimes cruelly misplaced, as is shown in the following anecdote, taken from the writings of Godescalc de Rozemonde, a Belgian theologian. A woman, suffering from a painful affection of the eyes, applied to a student for a magical writing to charm away the trouble, and promised him a new coat as a recompense. The student, nothing loath, wrote a sentence on a piece of paper, which he rolled in some rags and gave to the woman, telling her to carry the charm always about her, and on no account to read the writing. The woman gladly complied, was cured of her eye-trouble, and loaned the charm to another woman, similarly affected, who also soon experienced relief. Thereupon a natural curiosity prompted them to examine the mystic spell, and this is what they read: "May the Devil pluck out thine eyes, and replace them with mud!"

In "Folk-Lore," for September, 1900, there is an interesting article, giving an account of popular beliefs current in a remote village of Wiltshire, England, where medicines are usually regarded as charms. A man who had pleurisy was told by his doctor to apply a plaster to his chest. On the doctor's next visit, he was informed that his patient was much better and that the plaster had given great relief. Failing, however, on examination of the man's chest, to find any sign of counter-irritation of the skin, he was somewhat puzzled; but he soon learned from the mistress of the house, that having no chest at hand, she had clapped the plaster on a large box in the corner of the sick-chamber.

Dr. Edward Jorden (1569-1632), an English physician, wrote regarding the oftentimes successful results of treatment by means of incantations, and leechdoms or medical formulas, that these measures have no inherent supernatural virtue; but in the words of Avicenna, "the confidence of the patient in the means used is oftentimes more available to cure diseases than all other remedies whatsoever."

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