Casting a Spell

A major tool in magick is the spell - but what is it?

Basically, one casts a spell by various means in order to effect a specified magickal change in or to something. This is one of those occasions where looking at the origin and evolution of the words can lead to some interesting insights and possibilities.

Words are magickal and what they represent in the mind is magickal. They act to bind together facets of mind into something coherent and meaningful in which they can enjoy some sort of autonomy (for a while). And equally important, words can transfer information, knowledge, meaning, emotion, intent etc from mind to mind. They can even transfer all of that across time and space in the form of writing, which to illiterate peoples appears truly wondrous. To hear the dead speaking in our minds to us across the centuries…

The evolution of words is also the evolution of the psyche and society that uses them. They are tied together inextricably. So although one might decry the loss of 'purity' of the language, with words now taking on multiple meanings, we have also gained the ability to encode a great deal of context sensitive information into a single word. In terms of this capability English is probably foremost as it has undergone the most radical changes over the recent centuries. One result is that although we might believe we are saying one thing, we are also often unconsciously adding subtexts that may well be meaningful to unconscious aspects of our mind as well as the minds of other people. Indeed, this is superficially recognised in classical psychiatry whether of Jung or Freud, to name but two of the most famous schools. As English speakers we also have the greatest vocabulary to choose from - more than half a million words with most educated people having working knowledge of less than ten percent of this.

So when looking into etymology, especially with regard to words that have deep roots and significance in the collective psyche, one is looking directly into the 'occult', that is, the 'hidden'. One can consider it as 'fossil knowledge' that has been buried deep in our language, or alternatively, perhaps it can be considered as knowledge refined over the centuries and encoded by our collective subconscious in the way we speak and write. I tend to assume that when various meanings coalesce into a modern usage it is not purely coincidence. In fact, one word may expand in use simply because it sounds like another even though they may originally be unrelated. The word has undergone an evolution or mutation that makes it more fitting for a changed environment. That environment can be cultural, technological, geographical or spiritual - and the environment of the English language has undergone vast changes in the past four centuries as it spread with Empire and augmented the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, what is true is one context remains true even when that context evolves and the use of the word changes. Or rather, the word accumulates layers of truths like sediment in the ocean of mind.

To return to the task in hand… what does casting a spell do? It may enchant by means of an incantation, which is both fascinating and glamorous as well as charming. Let's examine each word in detail.


There are several diverse meanings and roots which have come together to create the modern definitions, some actually very recent. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the magickal definition, "a set of words with magical powers, incantation, charm", is the fact that it was first recorded 1579CE. So it seems to be a relatively recent term that appeared after the Middle Ages when the language was undergoing a quite rapid evolution.

The earliest root of spell is the Proto-Indo-European word spel, meaning "to say aloud or recite". The later meaning, that of writing or saying the letters of a word, can be traced back to around 1400CE. Of course, this is not too surprising when one considers the prevalence of the spoken over the written word in societies where most people were illiterate. Whether it was a coincidence that the printing press appeared in the West around the time the word expanded its role one can only speculate. One of the most recent expansions of utility is traced to as recently as 1940CE in American English, namely using 'spell out' to mean, "explain step by step". That too may have had to wait until the complexities of life in the machine age called it forth as a metaphor.

Why is speech so important? A couple of reasons.

First, speaking has a unique effect on ones own mind. Some facets seem to have poor communications skills and quite often speaking aloud gets their attention more readily than thoughts. It's as if some facets can best hear via the ears, and are poor at intercepting the internal mental dialogue. That's why (auto)hypnotism courses are almost always audio recordings and not books or videos. Any visual components of hypnotic induction tend to be ones to lull that sense while keeping the audio channel open. The use of vision for communication (apart from waving ones hands etc) is only some 6000 years old - it is still not 'natural' for Humans to use this method.

Second, telling others of the spell magnifies its effect. It uses other minds as 'carriers' whether willing or not.

Returning this time to Old English we have the word spelian, of uncertain origin, meaning to "represent, substitute for, take the place of". It may perhaps be related to spilian, "to play". Now this may not seem at first sight to have much relevance to the magickal spell, but it does encourage some very interesting speculations.

For example, consider the experiment in 'ghost creation'1 undertaken by the Toronto branch of the Society for Psychical Research in the early 1970s CE. They discovered that the optimum atmosphere conducive to the manifestation of physical phenomena by their creation 'Philip' was one of playfulness with jokes, singing, music, poetry recital and casual conversation. In addition they had objects related to Philip, including a portrait and items associated with him. Bear this in mind as we progress…

It may also be relevant that in Chaos Magick part of the technique is to intentionally hide the spell by forgetting about it in order for the unconscious mind to do the real work. It could well be that the playfulness is one component of the mix that serves a similar purpose by fooling the conscious mind into not noticing the importance of what is happening, and hence not impeding it.

Then there is the practice of 'sympathetic magick' where an item substitutes for the real target and becomes the focus of the working. The most familiar example is the Voodoo doll, but it could equally be a photograph or belonging - anything, in fact, with a connection.


Superficially one might assume that casting simply means "to throw" or "to send forth", which is of course one aspect of what one does with a spell. However, there are several subsidiary definitions that may well play a significant role in the process and help explain why casting is a more appropriate word than, say, hurling or sending. The first is the use of the word to mean "forming", as in (say) "a sculpture is cast in bronze". Related to this one also has "arrange" and "devise" as qualifiers to forming. For example, one can "cast a book into several parts" or "cast a plan". Then there is also cast meaning to calculate, as in "cast a horoscope".

Clearly a spell is something which is formed and is carefully crafted and deliberately arranged for a calculated purpose or effect. It is not just an arbitrary impromptu process. It is, in fact, something that should be 'spelled out' in some detail.

If we carry on delving into the dictionary we come upon other unusual meanings that have gone out of fashion. Cast can also mean to "warp or twist", as in "floorboards cast by age". This is where we move into the realm of speculation. What, exactly, is being warped or twisted in the process of casting a spell? I would suggest that it is the words themselves, as a spell is almost always a verbal, or occasionally written, construct. So, it might pay to look into the possibility that the words are warped or twisted in some manner to heighten their effect. We will look at these possibilities further on.

Then there is "search", as in "to cast about". However, although this is a variation of "throw", what one is doing when casting about is throwing out our senses in order to find something. What that something may be we will return to when we get to examine fascinate.

Finally we have cast is in "cast of actors". Now this may not be of direct relevance to a spell unless there is a cast of deities involved to which one is appealing for aid in the delivery of effect. Was that one obvious…?

Enchanting, Incantation and Charm

Charming, of course, comes from the Latin carmen meaning a song or verse and took on its magickal connotations around 1300CE. One current useage, that of a charm being a "small trinket fastened to a chain" was first recorded 1865. However, that particular definition will play no further part in our analysis.

Enchant and incantation both derive from the Latin cantare, meaning to sing, with the prefix 'in' meaning 'upon' or 'into'.

Again, we have moved forward a little. A spell could involve something put into, or upon a song. The difference between the two is indicative of the purpose to which the song is put. The words of the spell could be put into the song, or laid upon the song. The latter would be the case, for example, when music is used to evoke a particular mental state or feeling in order to facilitate the spell itself, without being an integral part of it.

A chant is a special form of singing, notably "a short, simple series of syllables or words that are sung on or intoned to the same note or a limited range of notes". Crucially singing, chanting and music in general have consciousness altering properties. The various rhythms can alter brainwaves by a process called entrainment whereby the brainwaves start to follow the (low) frequencies of the music. Crucially, for groups, there is a convergence of mental states based around the music. Probably the most effective ancient method is the use of percussion, particularly drumming.

The most well known forms of magickal chanting specifically designed to alter consciousness are Mantras, that is, single words or short phrases chanted repeatedly. A variation on this is the Galdr of Nordic Heathenism whereby Runes, or Rune combinations, are intoned. Here the meaning is already encoded into the Rune as a series of associations. Ironically those meanings themselves were recorded in ancient times in poems, with each verse telling of an individual Rune, presumably as an aid in memorising and transmitting the lore.

Which brings us to poetry. Here we have another method of evoking particular emotional states by using a combination of evocative words coupled with a rhythmic delivery. This in turn is related to the kind of soft toned sinuous prose designed to induce hypnotic states.

So we see what the cast means when it implies something warped or twisted.


Meanwhile fascinate is derived from the Latin fascinum meaning "to bewitch" which has roots in the words fascis - to bind, Another possibly is that it was connected with the word fas that indicates "divine law or command, destiny, fate", which would make sense as the fasces was the axe with a bundle of rods bound to the haft which was the symbol of law and power in Rome. On the other hand, perhaps it is one of those occasions where two similar sounding words of different origins form a symbiosis in the minds of those using them.

Bear in mind that any successful outcome of a magickal working will always have a conventional explanation and mechanism (and here we include psi phenomena as being part of the natural world). This being so, and all other factors being equal, the course of events which has the highest natural probability will likely be the more successful. A bit like the joke concerning the man who kept praying to God for a lottery win. Eventually God tells him: "Meet me half way - buy a ticket!".

Determining the flow of events connected with the desired outcome of the spell vastly improves its efficacy if the spell is cast in accordance with that "divine law, destiny, fate". Of course, what is being referred to goes under several names depending upon the religious tradition e.g. Karma, Tao, Wyrd, Fate… It is this 'thing' that one casts about for with the senses both internal and external. By seeing a Way we create a Way.


Glamour itself is another word that has been (seemingly) distorted in its modern, late Nineteenth Century, usage. It entered the modern English language by way of the Scottish gramarye which means enchantment. However, even this is relatively recent, being traced to the Eighteenth Century. Before that we can go back to French, Latin and Greek where it refers to scholarship, especially of the occult kind, as well as study of the rules of language, which is where the modern word 'grammar' arises. So, we are back once again to words…

Words can cast a glamour because they are capable of overriding the information provided by all our other senses. The particular words to prefix the most common spell used to accomplish this magickal act are: "Let me explain…". All that is required to illustrate the power words have to twist 'reality' is to watch the television news with the sound off.

So next time you hear of something being 'glamorous' think carefully what is really being said.

For anyone who wishes to further investigate the linguistics of magick the Net2 often provides decent resources but a good dictionary, particularly an etymological dictionary3, is the best.

1 Conjuring up Philip by Iris M Owen with Margaret Sparrow, ISBN 0-7701-0005-8


3 The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford University Press


1Conjuring up Philip by Iris M Owen with Margaret Sparrow, ISBN 0-7701-0005-8


3The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford University Press