Magicus, Magike, Magush: A Brief Study in Magic(k)

A History of the Words Themselves:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “magic” dates back to the 14th century, when it meant the “art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces.” Sounds about right, eh?  The word has its roots in the Old French “magique,” the Late Latin “magice,” the Greek “magike,”  from “magos” (“one of the members of the learned and priestly class”), and the Old Persian “magush” (“to be able, to have power”).

What I find most interesting in that particular set of definitions is the lack of darkness or evil associated with the word. In fact, according to that entry, “magic” is pretty much neutral. Even natural and priestly.

Let’s move on to “wizard.” According to the same site, the word wizard hails from the 15th century and means  “philosopher” or “sage.” It is associated with wisdom and perhaps the ability to see the future. Middle English wys “wise” (see wise (adj.)) + -ard. In the Middle Ages, the concepts of  “philosopher,” “sorcerer,” and “wizard” were all pretty much interchangeable.

So what about the Hermiones of the world? Is the word witch just as neutral? Well, it looks like things started out okay, but didn’t stay that way: From the Old English “wicce” meaning “female magician, sorceress.” That sounds pretty good. Just the female equivalent of those wise man wizards! But then there’s the fact that  “in later use…it came to mean ‘a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts.’ Yeah, not quite so neutral. Wise women –> Devil worshippers. And it’s the latter definition that has really stuck, at least in my neck of the woods. 

Compare Lithuanian zynyste “magic,” zynys “sorcerer,” zyne “witch,” all from zinoti “to know.” Now that’s what I call equality in language, ha. 

A Brief and Startlingly-Incomplete Timeline:

The earliest mention of magic that I am aware of dates back to the Fourth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c. 2613to 2494 BCE). Found in the Westcar Papyrus, the story is about a court magician named Dedi who performs various tricks for the king/pharaoh.

Early magic performances sound an awful lot like modern ones, complete with a predecessor to the shell game and to pulling a rabbit out of a hat (as they sometimes added baby chicks to the mix. It’s known as the “cups and balls” game.

This tradition of magic as entertainment persisted for thousands of years, and only suffered briefly (historically speaking) during the Dark and Middle Ages when the perspective on magic took a more serious turn and concerns about the Occult and Witchcraft began to surface.

The Malleus Malificarum or “The Witch Hammer” was published in 1486, and served as a guide during the Inquisition. You can read it in its entirety here. Be warned: most of it is pretty terrible. Those poor, poor women.

In 1584, nearly a hundred years later, Reginald Scott published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which he fired back at those who were persecuting the elderly, the simple, and the outcasts for succumbing to mere superstition. Scott also “outed” a great many of the more popular magic tricks by revealing how they were accomplished without any supernatural aid. It’s a thorough work and can be read here.

Within a couple hundred years, magicians and witches were considered very different things, and street magic (and performances at traveling fairs and the like) became popular once again. Enter Pinetti, Houdini, Vernon, and Copperfield, who in their respective times transformed the art of magic and inspired awe in countless audiences.

Aaaand now we have Criss Angel. No comment, ha.

A Personal Note:

I am currently reading the Harry Potter series for the first time (I know, I know…it’s dreadful that it has taken me this long) and, as I venture into the last installment, I am already sad that something so great is about to end for me. Along the way I have also become an unabashed Hermione fan-girl:


Isn’t she just the best?? 

I became fascinated with magic and the concept of witches as a fairly young girl and read everything I could get my hands on (and get my mother’s approval to read) for years. Interestingly enough, the one book from childhood that I remember the most strongly was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. And it doesn’t have a real witch or any actual magic in it! What stuck with me, however, was the idea that a woman who was perceived as different could get labeled as dangerous and fall under attack. After years of literary study, this concept seems simplistic to me now, but at the time (and to a girl who always felt more than a little bit different from her peers), it was eye-opening. Those Puritans, man.

Also, I just bought this book and am SO EXCITED about it!

**This post was originally published on September 15, 2014**

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