Have you ever wondered why we say the words we say and why we say them? This curiosity of mine has led me to search out these unusual words to find out how they came to be used by us in modern speech.
But most of us will never take the time to research this interesting word and its true origins. We will just associate it with the word that a magician uses when pulling a rabbit out of a hat or some other random magic trick.
“Abracadabra” in particular is very old. And we can’t understand its true origins unless we go way back in time.
The first known use of the English version of the word seems to fall sometime in the 2nd century C.E. in a book called “Liber Medicinalis”, written by Serenus Sammonicus, who was the physician of the Roman Emporer, Caracalla. One of the remedies of Serenus was that malaria sufferers wear an amulet engraved with the word arranged in the shape of a triangle. This amulet was believed to ward off all manner of ailments and diseases.
This amulet, Serenus notes, should be worn around the neck for nine days. On the morning of the tenth day, the patient should rise before dawn and discard the amulet in a flowing river, whereupon he or she will be cured. There’s that number “9” again. It was indeed a sacred number to many ancient cultures.
It was believed that the eleven letters of abracadabra diminish day by day, so does the power of the illness until, by day ten, when only one letter is left, it has been weakened enough to be cast off.
If we look to the Hebrew/Aramaic origins, we see a relation to ‘avra kadavra’, which means “It will be created in my words” or “I speak therefore I create”.
But not until we go all the way back to the ancient Egyptian Empire do we get a sense of its true origins, which lie with the worship of the Bull God, Apis.
What is interesting is the fact that the Bible seems to reference this bull god as well:
He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt’.
even when they made an idol shaped like a calf and said, ‘This is your god who brought you out of Egypt!’
In Egypt, the bull was worshiped as Apis, the embodiment of Ptah and later of Osiris. A long series of ritually perfect bulls were identified by the god’s priests, housed in the temple for their lifetime, then embalmed and encased in a giant sarcophagus. A long sequence of monolithic stone sarcophagi were housed in the Serapeum and were rediscovered by Auguste Mariette at Saqqara in 1851. The bull was also worshipped as Mnevis, the embodiment of Atum-Ra, in Heliopolis. Ka in Egyptian is both a religious concept of life-force/power and the word for bull.
Young bulls were set as frontier markers at Dan and Bethel, the frontiers of the Kingdom of Israel.
Much later, in Abrahamic religions, the bull motif became a bull demon or the “horned devil” in contrast and conflict to earlier traditions. The bull is familiar in Judeo-Christian cultures from the Biblical episode wherein an idol of the golden calf is made by Aaron and worshipped by the Hebrews in the Book of Exodus. The text of the Hebrew Bible can be understood to refer to the idol as representing a separate god, or as representing Yahweh or Jehovah himself, perhaps through an association or religious syncretism with Egyptian or Levantine bull gods, rather than a new deity in itself.
Apis was pictured with the sun-disk between his horns, being one of few deities associated with her symbol. The sun-disk was shown on his head with his horns below and the triangle on his forehead, suggesting the ankh symbol, or one of the earliest forms of the cross.
The planet Saturn definitely plays an integral part with Apis as well.
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh depicts the killing by Gilgamesh and Enkidu of the ‘Bull of Heaven‘, Gugalanna, first husband of Ereshkigal, as an act of defiance of the gods. From the earliest times, the bull was Saturnian in Mesopotamia (its horns representing the glorious revolving crescents on Saturn).
The worship of Apis was eventually associated with the sun, which is where we finally get to the original source of “Abracadabra”.
In 1822, Samson Arnold Mackey suggested that abracadabra is actually a sentence formulated by ancient astronomers to describe the constellation of the bull, meaning literally “the Bull, the only Bull”: “The ancient sentence split into its component parts stands thus: Ab’r-achad-ab’ra, i.e., Ab’r, the Bull; achad, the only—Achad is one of the names of the Sun, given him in consequence of his Shining alone,—and he is the only Star to be seen when he is seen—the remaining ab’ra, makes the whole to be, The Bull, the only Bull.” https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Mythological_Astronomy_In_Three_Part.html?id=kCom9y5CDOMC
There is your etymological lesson for the day. I hope you enjoyed it!