charms Magical words, phrases, chants (see chanting) and incantations used in the casting of spells. Charms have been common since ancient times. Some charms are verbal — a phrase, formula or prayer — while others are inscriptions on paper, parchment, wood or other materials and are worn on the body. Still other charms combine phrases with actions, such as spitting (see spittle).
Charms exist or can be composed for every desire and purpose: to secure or lose a lover; ensure chastity, fertility and potency; gain victory, riches and fame; and exact revenge. Other charms protect crops and farm animals, milking and churning butter and get rid of rats, vermin and weeds. One of the most important functions of the folk witch was to create charms that would repel or break the spells of other witches that were blamed for illness and bewitchment (see pellar).
Some of the oldest charms are magical words or phrases written on parchment and worn around the neck. The term abracadabra, which dates back at least to 2nd-century Rome, and probably is older than that, is supposed to cure fever.
The church promoted the use of holy charms, including rosaries and holy relics. The most common charm was the agnus dei, a small wax cake, originally make out of paschal candles, bearing images of the lamb and the flag. When blessed by the pope, the agnus dei protected the wearer against attacks by the Devil, thunder, lightning, fire, drowning, death in childbed and other dangers. In the 17th century, rosaries were similarly blessed as amulets against fire, tempest, fever and evil spirits.
Folk witches and wizards who were renowned as healers employed many charms. These “charmers,” as they were often called, used Christian prayers spoken or written in Latin, or debased Christian prayers. The church approved the use of prayers and the Scriptures as cures and as protection against evil but disapproved of the prescription of them by sorcerers and charmers — a rather contradictory position that blurred the line between religion and magic. In the 17th century, a Nottingham sorcerer, for example, sold copies of St. John’s Gospel as a charm against witchcraft. To break witches’ spells, he prescribed herbs plus the recitation of five Paternosters, five Aves and one Creed.
Some charms were simple little verses, such as this 19th-century English charm against witchcraft:
He who forges images,
he who bewitches the malevolent aspect,
the Evil Eye,
the malevolent lip,
the finest sorcery,
Spirit of the heaven,
Spirit of the earth conjure it!
Even witches had their good-luck charms, according to this old folk-magic verse:
The fire bites,
the fire bites;
Hogs-turd over it,
Hogs-turd over it,
Hogs-turd over it;
the Father with thee,
the Son with me,
the Holy Ghost between us both to be: ter
After reciting this verse, the witch spit once over each shoulder and three times forward.
Charms are recited during MAGiC-related activities, such as the gathering of medicinal herbs, the consecration of tools (see witches’ tools) and the boiling of a pot of urine to break a witch’s spell.
With the advance of science in the late 17th century, the efficacy of magic charms was challenged, and folk magic in general began to diminish, especially in urban centres. Charms, though, are still part of folk culture. Some linger even in the industrialized West, such as the popular charm to divine love, “He/she loves me, he/she loves me not . . . ,” spoken while pulling petals out of a daisy.
In Wicca, the term charm has been replaced by such terms as chant, incantation and rune. Some Witches carry “charm bags,” little drawstring pouches containing items used in spells.