An International Journal on Charms, Charmers and Charming
Issue 6, 2017
Editor: James Kapalo and Jenny Butler
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James Kapalo and Jenny Butler
This special issue of Incantatio is dedicated to the theme of tradition and innovation and comprises a selection of
papers presented at the 9th conference of the Charms, Charmers and Charming International Committee of the ISFNR held
at University College Cork on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th May, 2016. The papers presented here engage with the theme
from a range of perspectives; historical change and the impact of modernity (Dillinger, Radchenko); theoretical and
methodological innovation driven by the digital and virtual worlds (Ilyefalvi, Sawden) and the evolving ways in which
charms and charmers have been viewed and represented in different societies over time (Milne, Tausiet, Leitão) are
explored and reflected on from different disciplinary perspectives.
Charms and the Divining Rod: Tradition and Innovation in Magic and
Pseudo-Science, 15th to 21st Centuries
Traditional culture is one of the key fThe rise of treasure hunting as a typical element of popular magic in the 15th century coincided with the beginnings of dowsing. Treasure hunters did not rely on the divining rod exclusively, they also used a variety of charms addressing the spirit world. In contrast to that, miners who used the divining rod treated it more like a technical instrument in a modern sense. With the success of mining as a motor of technical and economical innovation, the divining rod enjoyed a breath-taking career. In the 18th century, it had become the divinatory object par excellence that could be used to find virtually anything. The 19th century witnessed the breakdown of the traditional magico-religious treasure hunt. Instead of trying to talk to the spirit world in order to find treasures, treasure hunters became interested in historical narratives that provided clues which helped to discover hidden or lost objects. Even though dowsing was eliminated from professional mining, it managed to survive. The very fact that dowsing was largely non-communicative – it was even claimed that the ability to dowse depended entirely on the individual, inner and non-transferable qualities of the dowser – seemed to be the key to its continuing success in the area of fringe science and fringe medicine. Only in recent years, the new interest in spirituality combined dowsing and the use of incantations again.
Keywords: charm, divining rod, dowsing, treasure, water witching
Dealing with Danger: The Practices of Keeping and Discarding Magical Letters
Disposing of a piece of paper with a textual apotropaios might be even more problematic than storing or sharing it. A perfect example is a type of amulet named “heavenly letters”, “luck letters” or “chain letters”. Such a letter is often framed by its owner as an object or sacred/magic artifact which can act and produce non-beneficial effect on its own, without any human agency: one does not necessarily need to read or otherwise handle a luck letter to receive bad luck, while to receive good luck certain actions must be undertaken. Most often bad luck or a curse affects those who ignore or neglect a luck letter, and some of the later examples of this genre define at length different punishments for those who tear it or throw it away. Finding themselves in this situation, people turn to contemporary traditions of discarding sacred or malign artifacts. However, people often choose an intermediate strategy of giving a letter away, taking it to a specialist or discreetly passing it to a neighbor. The latter case is considered a malign magical activity. The intertwining between a luck letter as an autonomous force with a potential negative effect, “lay” senders and receivers and “specialists”, all bound together with the problem of discarding a magical object forms a complex and dynamic network of actors.
Keywords: apotropaios, chain letter, framing, heavenly letter, textual amulet, written folklore
Textualization Strategies, Typological Attempts, Digital Databases: What is the Future of the Comparative Charm Scholarchip?
In the article I present an overview of transformations in approaches to textualizing and typologizing folklore texts over the past 150 years using the example of incantations from anthologies to digital databases with a view to highlighting the new horizons digital databases can open up for research. In the first part of the article, I show how the textological characteristics of the incantation genre and the often implicit questions of researchers influenced the textological strategies of classic incantation editions. These primarily typological considerations largely determined subsequent potential interpretations. Using the dimensions of comparability established by Lauri Honko (phenomenology of tradition, the historicity of tradition, and ecology of tradition) I summarize recent attempts at classification by international folklore studies of charms pointing out the pitfalls and shortcomings of typologies as well as the fundamental incompatibility of the different typological conceptualizations. In the second part of the article, after briefly describing the responses of computational folkloristics to the textological, typological and comparatist problems of folklore texts I come to the conclusion that the elaboration of an international guide to textology, standardizing the textualization techniques of digital editions of incantations, would be more important for comparative studies than the creation of further national and international incantation catalogues. To this end and to generate discussion and debate I conclude with the outline of a set of possible multidimensional textological features to be taken into consideration in the creation of future digital databases of verbal charms.
Keywords: comparative methods, computational folkloristics, digital databases, digital editions, dimensions of comparability (Honko), international charm index, textualization of verbal charms, typology
The Terrors of the Night: Charms against the Nightmare and the Mythology of Dreams
Louise S. Milne
This article takes a semiotic and structuralist approach to understanding the characteristic nightmare package of imagery, or image-constellation, which appears also in charms, curses and lullabies to do with disturbed sleep. Elements of the nightmare package – its mythos – is related to a spectrum of charms and related belief-narratives. Charms against the nightmare are investigated, as are sleep charms as representative of the nightmare narrative of threat coming close to fruition. Detail is provided on spiritual beings believed to attack the sleeper, as well as on charms as methods to ward off such attacks. Psychological explanations are considered, such as the nightmare antagonist being a disguised avatar of the self.
Keywords: body, dreams, dream imagery, lullabies, mara, metaphor, nightmare, sleep, spells
A Shared Inheritance: The Interrelationship between Divination and Charming in 21st Century Canada
This paper explores the relationship between divination and charming in twenty-first century Canada. Drawing upon my ongoing research with Canadian divination practitioners, primarily in the province of Alberta, I focus on the ways in which these connections are created and utilised within contemporary divinatory acts. Doing so provides insights into how and why these practices are being adapted to new contexts, the individuals who undertake them, and the communities that they serve. By recognising this ongoing process of integration, it is possible to gain insights into the needs that these combined acts meet within modern communities and identify the gaps in current social structures, particularly in relation to health and healing, that lead individuals to seek out and adapt these traditional practices for a modern audience.
Keywords: Canada, contemporary practices, divination, healing, hidden knowledge, survival of charming
Threefold Stories, Threefold Charm: Becquer's Poetic Ethnography of Witchcraft
Some striking examples of magic charms are to be found in three of the tales included by the Spanish writer G. A. Bécquer in his Cartas desde mi celda (Letters from my cell, 1864). Taking a supposed real-life contemporary event as his starting-point – the brutal death at the hands of the villagers of Trasmoz (Aragon) of an old woman accused of witchcraft – he weaves three separate but interconnected stories. Straddling the fields of literature and anthropology, history and fable, the poet is revealed as an astute ethnographer as he examines the basis of the powers attributed to witches in two medieval legends. The central character in the first, which unfolds in Islamic Spain, is a necromancer who obtains the power he longs for by studying books of magic. The second, set in the period after the Christian Reconquest, tells the story of a pretty young woman, a “Cinderella in reverse”, who gets the husband of her dreams thanks to the help not of a fairy godmother but of a cunning sorceress. The spells at the heart of these tales represent three classic reasons for invoking magic: to protect oneself from enemies, to gain power and wealth, and to win love, or at least to subjugate another’s will. The mutual influence of historical charms, which we know about primarily through judicial documents, and literary spells is further proof of the permeability between popular and learned culture. Bécquer, an ardent admirer of Shakespeare, was greatly influenced by Macbeth, and for both poets, despite the enormous power of words, witchcraft was first and foremost, “a deed without a name”.
Keywords: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, poetic ethnography, Spain, Spanish literature, witchcraft
Seeking Voices and Finding Meaning: An Analysis of Portuguese Verbal Divination
Jose Vieira Leitão
Among the numerous charms and incantations collected by late 19th and early 20th-century Portuguese folklorists and ethnographers, there are a small number which are intended to be used in verbal divination. These procedures, at times referred to as andar às vozes (seeking voices), while being words of power in themselves, are effectively meant to attribute power and significance to whatever random words or sounds are heard immediately after being recited. Being divination procedures, they present a question and answer structure between a performer and a supernatural entity. In these processes, certain cues or ‘manifestation avenues’ are offered for the called upon supernatural entity to manifest and provide an answer to the performer. As such, the analysis of these (and other) divination procedures can help map the relationships between performers and supernatural entities. Particularly, these can help discern what the accepted manifestations of spirits are during any such divination for a performer, and what implications this may have for other aspects of folk magic.
Keywords: absorption hypothesis, cognitive science of religion, divination, domination magic, manipulation magic, J. Leite de Vasconcelos, love magic, saints
"Charms, Charmers and Charming: Innovation and Tradition"
(May 6–8, 2016, University College Cork, Ireland)
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