This question partially links back into an earlier question about the age of the Old Craft and its answer is influenced by how we define what magic spells are.
There are spells appearing throughout the ages in one form or another, though if I were to remain pure to my definition of last week many would be hard to identify as such. This is because older examples are often more complex in nature and oft times involvement of the Gods and may be conflated with ritual. Instead I am going to broaden out my definition to any action or series of actions which are intended to bring about the practitioners desired outcome or state of being regardless of the actions taken or powers/deities invoked.
Most of what we find on the Internet and within modern books of spells are not all that old. In many cases we could be looking at a few decades, maybe a century or so, but the frame work and correspondences used in writing them centuries old. Some practitioners look to historical and archaeological sources to influence their practice, whilst others attempt to reconstruct ancient cult practices and associated magical workings. Let’s start to cast our eye back …
Another Walk Through Time
We don’t really associate the Victorians with spells and witchcraft but perhaps we should. The Victorian and Edwardian era’s were a time of occult revival and hidden folk tradition and much of today’s practice finds its roots in these years of parlor games and fascination with the Mysteries. I stumbled across this video from the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft in which a sung spell from this time is performed. I found the video interesting because even though singing features in my own devotions I do not use it in my spell work. I can appreciate the energy and discreet nature of singing as one sews or washes the linens and would like to do more with this type of Craft.
The discreet nature such things is central to folk traditions. The blending of skills associated with the Craft with the dominant religion meant that those who worked for their community between the world’s could do so in relative peace. Saints names, use of common prayers (such as the Paternoster or Hail Mary) and fragments of psalms can be combined with herb and cunning craft to great effect and would render the action almost invisible to the authorities. Almost but not quite as the moment a hysteria began or social structures began to weaken any action which may have a possible link to Witchcraft was denounced and persecuted, often with extreme prejudice. Many victims of Witch Hunts, particularly in England and America, seem to have been derived as much by a desire to drive witchcraft out of their communities as an excuse to persue personal vendettas and to rid society of its ‘undesirables’ be they old, female, strange or something else outside the perceived social norm. This shouldn’t be seen as restricted to one element of society however. There are plenty of eminent historical occultist who’s blend of Abrahamic religion with occult practices were able to operate in some of the greatest courts of the world such as the 16th century occultist Dr John Dee.
When most people picture a ‘ye olde spellbooke’ the image they have in mind is more consistent with the Grimoire and alchemical texts. Realistically these represent ceremonial magic and the preserve of the wealthy educated few rather than the fare of most Witches of the time, who were more than likely to be poor and illiterate, however they are a part of the rich western occult tradition. Most people today wouldn’t recognise them as relating to modern spell craft but many of the associations and correspondences preserved in these texts are the basis for modern witchcraft practices. Many of these texts are based on even older classical texts which have survived to reach us through diverse routes such as, but not limited to; Crowley, the Golden Dawn and Gardener.
The coming of Christianity wasn’t the beginning of magical practices in the West however. Many different cultures had magical and ritual traditions and as populations migrated and cultures encountered one another these traditions were exchanged and blended.
Staying in Britain, as the Anglo-Saxon and then Norse cultures established themselves they brought with them their own magical systems and spells. If we look for something that typifies this tradition most we need look no further than the Nine Herb Charm of Woden. This extended charm extolling the virtues of the nine sacred healing herbs exists as an example of a healing spell. A poem spoken in the form of a charm along side the use of healing herbs is an example of something said compliments an action taken, very recognisable today as the formula of a spell.
The Northmen illustrate a slightly different approach. Because of their preference for inscribing their writings into metal and stone we find evidence of “something written and something done”. The Futhark or Runes were both a form of written language and magical language and inscriptions could serve as written charms invoking the Gods and the power of the Rune itself. This shouldn’t be taken to imply that there was no tradition of spoken variation of Rune magic however. Various Sagas reference to the uttering of sacred Runes by the Völva and Seidmadr and the operation known as Galdr, from the Old Norse meant ‘incantation’, is something which is still used today by people following Northern Traditions.
Because of the nature of preservation we need to cast out minds back and eastward to find other magical traditions. The classical cultures of the Greeks and Romans were rich in magical and mystery traditions, too many to examine and recount in a short sitting but there are two particular area which can be found in Britain, the Defixio or Curse Tablets, and relevant to my own practice, the Greek Magical Papyri or PGM.
Lead curse tablets are found at Roman sacred sites across the former empire. Spells or pleas to the Gods are etched onto lead sheets, folded and deposited with offerings at temple sites, shrines and other sacred spaces. Most of these involve cursing the theft of personal property such as this one to Hekate and other chthonic deities.
“I make an exception for the writer and the destroyer, because he does this unwillingly, forced by the thieves. I register and hand over to Pluto and to the Fates and to Persephone and to the Furies and to every harmful being; I hand them over to Hekate, eater of what has been demanded by the gods; I hand over to the goddesses and gods of the underworld, and to Hermes the helper; I transfer the thieves who stole from the little house in the quarter called Acheloou – (who stole) chain, three spreads (one woolen, white, new), gum Arabic … tools, white piles of dirt, linseed oil, and three white (objects): mastic, pepper, and bitter almonds. I hand over those who know about the theft and deny it. I hand over all of them who have received what is contained in this deposition. Lady Hekate of the heavens, Hekate of the underworld, Hekate of the Crossroads, Hekate of the triple-face, Hekate of the single-face, cut out the hearts of the thieves or the thief who took the items contained in this deposition. And let the earth not be walkable, the sea not sailable; let there be no enjoyment of life, no increase of children, but may utter destruction visit them or him. As inspector, you will wield upon them the bronze sickle, and you will cut them out. But I exempt the writer and the destroyer.”
– trans. John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Oxford, 1999. p. 182-3.
The PGM also contain many different spells and operations from necromatic rituals and love ‘curses’. Whilst Defixio tablets would be an option available to anyone who could afford to visit the temple and make such depositions the PGM represents a more elite magical tradition which required more complex offerings and operations if not initiation into the mysteries surrounding the Papyri
The oldest recorded spells are found amongst our oldest cultures. Most famously the Ancient Egyptians recorded in their Book of the Dead (to use the venacular) spells, rituals and incantations which would ensure a successful passage through the Underworld into the life thete after. The use of magic or Heka is found amongst many texts both funerary and religious but secular texts also give insight into how seriously the Ancient Egyptians viewed the threat of magic with the use of effigies and incantations featuring centrally in the trial of the women of Rameses III harem.
There is no reason to assume that other ancient cultures didn’t have their own spells and incantations because we don’t find them. Not all oral traditions are put into writing and not all written sources survive the ravages of time. The idea of controlling ones environment and fate is one thing that has driven the human race to adapt and create and our ancient ancestors were far more likely to turn to occult methods to achieve this than us modern and technologically advanced people today. Spells are as likely as ancient as the concept of religion and the supernatural and we would be hard pressed to give an exact date for that.
How Ancient are Witches Spells?
So to sum up, most of the spells you will find online and in books barely qualify as old, let alone ancient. If you choose, as I sometimes do, to adapt spells and incantations from older cultures (for example the Ancient Romans or Greeks) you are tapping into ancient traditions but the spell in of itself is a modern representation of it. The concept of using occult means to control the forces of nature and fate is as old as religion itself but we can only ever be a pale imitation of the past and a shining example to the future.