By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! What connects witchcraft, dreams, paper clips, and trees? The answer is magical, as we’ll find out in this year’s Halloween video!
The word magic had a long way to travel before making it into English. The earliest citations for the word in the Oxford English dictionary are in the Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer. The word was borrowed through French and Latin ultimately from Greek, where it got its adjective form magikos. But the root of this word wasn’t originally Greek. The Greek noun form magos comes from an Old Iranian word magush, probably through Old Persian from Old Median. Magos makes it into English too, as the word mage, and in the plural form as magi, which is probably mainly known now from the three Magi visiting the baby Jesus in the nativity story. Ultimately the word can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European *magh- “to be able, have power”, the source of a number of other English words such as the auxiliary verb may, might, both the verb and the noun, and machine, so basically words about ability or power.
Now the shift in meaning of this word is the important thing here. The Old Iranian word magush referred to a priest or perhaps originally a priestly caste. This was the original sense in Greek too, referring specifically to the Zoroastrian priests of the Persians, but it gradually came to have the connotation of “magician” rather than “priest”, and it’s in that sense that we have the English word magic. Well, one religion’s holy priest is another religion’s dangerous magician. And this distinction was applied within religions too, with for instance early mainstream Christians denouncing the Gnostics as adherents of magic, and later Protestants referring dismissively to Catholic magic.
In fact the definition of “magic” is pretty tricky even today — and so I’ve brought in someone much more knowledgeable about it to help me. Andrew Mark Henry, of Religion for Breakfast, has thought a lot about this: so, Andrew, what’s the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘religion’? And where does ‘science’ fit into it all?
Thanks Mark—those are some tough questions! Because as you already said, magic and religion are very subjective terms. One person's religion is another person's scary deviant magic. In fact, for the Romans, the Latin word “magia” had very pejorative connotations. Roman authorities used it as a term to label the rituals that they didn't like or that they found violent, secretive, or deviant.
This long history of magic being considered a dark, subversive category of rituals has influenced how modern scholars have tried to define it in relation to science and religion. In the 1920s, the archbishop Alexander Le Roy states that “Magic is the Perversion of science as well as of religion.” And in the 1960s, the archaeologist Alphonse Barb declared that magic is a degenerate form of religion. Just like how food slowly rots away, magic is the end result of pure religion slowly rotting under weight of human selfishness.
The thing is, these aren’t academic ways to define magic. It has only been in recent decades that scholars have tried to craft objective definitions of magic with varying degrees of success. The archaeologist Drew Wilburn for example defines magic as “mechanistic ritual” that “adopts elements of religious practices,” sometimes exoticized forms of religious practice, to serve personal ends such as trying to heal a sickness, curse a rival, or exorcise a demon. Other scholars highlight the materiality of magic…the fact that magical ritual often involves objects like amulets, wands, or tablets as a way to channel supernatural power.
As for science, magic is deeply intertwined with the history of science. I often joke that Isaac Newton wasn’t the first great scientist, but the last great magician because he wrote tons of books on the occult…astrology, alchemy, stuff like that. Many of the famous names of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were also into the occult. And it makes sense on some level that magic and science historically overlap. Crafting a magical potion, for example, has elements of science…experimentation, expert knowledge, the attempt to change nature through the manipulation of certain ingredients. It is here in the modern period that we have strictly differentiated between magic, science, and religion...the lines between these three categories of knowledge were much more blurry for people in the past.
Thanks, Andrew—that’s helpful, but as you say, I guess there’s no definitive way to distinguish between magic and religion and other forms of knowledge, especially in the ancient world—and that brings us back to the Magi. The word magush or its Greek form magos referred to a priest of the Zoroastrian religion. To this day, a certain type of Zoroastrian priest is called a mobad, which is a contraction of magu-pati meaning something like “priest-master”. The details are a little unclear, since most of the evidence we have of them is from the foreign perspective of Greek writers, but it seems the magush caste were priests in an older Iranian polytheistic tradition, but sometime around the eight century BCE they adopted the monotheistic Zoroastrian religion. It seems that with the unification of the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great the specifically Median magush caste spread more generally throughout Iran. The later 5th century Greek physician and historian Ktesias referred to Zarathustra, who was the founder of Zoroastrianism, and whose name became Zoroaster in Greek, as a magos himself. Whatever the exact details might be, the magushes came to be associated with Zoroastrianism. It’s important to keep in mind that Zoroastrianism wasn’t a completely new religion, but a modification of older traditions. Scholars aren’t certain when the prophet Zarathustra lived, but it’s estimated to be in the 2nd millennium BCE, or perhaps a little later around the 7th or 6th century BCE, closer to the time of Cyrus the Great. He was a religious reformer, who promoted the idea of one god, Ahura Mazda, and the importance of human free will and personal ethics over ritual and sacrifice. Ahura Mazda’s name, by the way, which means literally “wise spirit or lord”, comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European roots *ansu- “spirit” which also produced the words Æsir and Asgard, the names of the Old Norse gods and their abode respectively, *men- “to think”, and *dhe- “to set or put”. Over time, the other old Iranian gods came to be demonized, and were referred to as daevas. Daeva is cognate with Sanskrit deva, one of the terms for a deity in Hinduism, and goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *dyeu- meaning “to shine”, but also used to refer to a sky father god *dyue-pəter, which spread with the Indo-European languages, becoming Jupiter in Latin, Zeus in Greek, and Tyr or Tiw in the Germanic pantheon, now reflected in the word Tuesday. It’s also the root behind words such as divine, deity, and Latin deus “god”, as in deus ex machina, literally “god from the machine”, referring to an unlikely solution to an unsolvable problem to resolve a plot. And as we’ve seen already , machina and English machine come from the same root as magic.
The other important concept of Zoroastrianism to keep in mind are the principles of Asha and Druj, meaning roughly “Truth” and “The Lie”, and the ongoing struggle between these forces, essentially a dualistic battle between good and evil. The word asha or arta comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *ar- “to fit together”, which also gives us such words as order, harmony, rhyme, and rite, as in a religious rite. The word druj or drug comes ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *dhreugh- meaning “to deceive”, a concept we’ll return to. Fittingly for this time of year, this root also leads to the Old Norse draugr, a kind of undead creature similar to a revenant or zombie, probably via the idea of a phantom. The word also gives us the English word dream, which makes sense if you think of dreams as deceptive. This brings us to the connection between dreams and magic, as one of the roles of the magush or magi seems to have been dream interpretation.
Another word we have for dreams, at least bad dreams, is nightmare, which also has its origins in Old English. Actually, the compound word nightmare doesn’t show up until the late 13th century, but is made up of the Old English words niht and mare. But Old English mare and the word nightmare itself didn’t originally refer to a bad dream. The Old English mare originally referred to a kind of female incubus, who would sit upon people’s chests while they slept, producing a feeling of suffocation, and that was the original meaning of the compound nightmare as well. By the 16th century, the word nightmare could also refer to the feeling of suffocation, and it wasn’t until as late as the 19th century that nightmare could refer to any bad dream. Now Old English mare can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *mer- which meant “to rub away, harm”, a sense we can still see in the derivative mortar, as in a mortar and pestle. That root also led to a number of words having to do with death, such as mortal and murder. Interestingly, it’s also the source of the first element of Mórrígan, the Irish goddess associated with both war and fate, specifically with the foretelling of death or victory in battle, who may have been the source of the figure in Arthurian legend Morgan le Fay, a magical enchantress.
Now when we think about dreams and nightmares and supernatural beings who attack you in your sleep, we might also think of the character Freddy Krueger in the 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street, who attacks his teenage victims in their dreams. This film, along with the 1978 film Halloween (with a newly released 2018 sequel), appropriate for this time of year, featuring Michael Myers who also targets teenagers, are perhaps two of the best known examples of the genre of slasher films, a subgenre of horror films. Horror films, which drew their inspiration from Gothic literature like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, were kicked off by early film pioneer Georges Méliès, who used a variety of visual effects techniques such as as substitution splices, multiple exposures, and time-lapse photography to achieve the supernatural events in his horror films, which he also used in his early science fiction films. Méliès, who had also been a stage magician, bringing us back to magic again, also developed the trick film genre, using those same film techniques, what we might call trick photography, to allow a magician in a film to be able to do the seemingly impossible. And so magic tricks also bring us back to the idea of deception that we saw with the root of the words dream and druj.
The word trick comes into English from Old French trique “trick, deceit, treachery, cheating” and trichier “to cheat, trick, deceive”, and is thus related to the word treachery, but the origin of the Old French words is uncertain. They might come from Latin tricari “to trifle, dally, play tricks”, from the plural noun tricae “perplexities, wiles, tricks”, which also gives us the word extricate, literally “to get out of perplexities”. Alternately, it might instead come into French from a Germanic source related to Dutch trek “drawing, pull” which also has the sense “trick, cunning” and is traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European root *dhragh- “to draw, drag on the ground”. There’s a related rhyming variant of this root *tragh- “to draw, drag, move” which comes into Latin as trahere “to pull, draw” which comes into English in a number of different forms, such as traction, tractor, train, attract, contract, and treat. The sense development for treat goes like this: the Latin frequentative form of trahere is tractare “to manage, handle, deal with, discuss”, which comes into Old French as traitier “to deal with, act towards, set forth (in speech or writing)”; this comes into Middle English with the sense “negotiate, bargain, deal with”, and we can see this sense in the related word treaty; and from this developed the later senses of “to heal, cure” and “to entertain with food or drink” and “anything that gives pleasure”. So if this tricky etymology is correct, Halloween trick-or-treating doesn’t really offer a choice as it’s etymologically redundant!
Now getting back to magic tricks, which deceive the audience for the purposes of entertainment, the stage magician often achieves this through misdirection and sleight of hand, often using a magic wand to draw the gaze of the viewer. Now of course beyond the worlds of stage magic and fiction, with Harry Potter’s wand and Gandalf’s staff, there are ancient traditions of wands used for magical purposes, probably based on the sceptres that were widespread symbols of rulership. For instance, in Homer’s Odyssey, the witch Circe uses a magic rod (called a rhabdos Greek) to transform Odysseus’s men into swine, and in the biblical book of Exodus when Moses and Aaron try to coerce Pharaoh into freeing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the first wonder is Aaron throwing down his rod (which is translated into Greek as rhabdos in the Septuagint) and transforming it into a serpent.
Another bit of stage magic that also has a real historical foundation is the crystal ball, now the cliché of the amusement park fortune-teller. In the 16th century, John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, and occult philosopher, who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, gazed into crystals in an attempt to see visions of angels. This is part of a larger category called scrying, in which the practitioner stares into a reflective, refractive, or luminescent surface or object, such as water, a mirror, or fire, in order to gain some sort of prophecy or revelation. And in a sense, this is kind of similar and sometimes overlaps with dream interpretation otherwise known as oneiromancy.
One famous example of this comes from the biblical book of Genesis, the famous Joseph who had the coat of many colours. Joseph was given that coat because he was the favourite son of his father Jacob, who was also by the way prone to receiving dream visions, having earlier received the vision of a stairway to heaven, no not that stairway to heaven, Jacob’s Ladder. Well, in addition to receiving that technicolour sign of his father’s favouritism, Joseph also had two dreams which symbolically showed his brothers bowing down to him. So his brothers were naturally jealous of him, and sold him into slavery, and convinced their father that he was killed by wild beasts. Through a series of adventures in Egypt, in which Joseph accurately interpreted the prophetic dreams of fellow prisoners, and later interpreting the dream of the Pharaoh predicting seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, thus advising him to store up surplus grain, Joseph was made the vizier of Egypt. Now during that famine, many people came to Egypt to purchase grain, including his brothers. So Joseph devised a trick for them, planting a silver cup in the sack of one of his brothers and then pretending it was stolen. When Joseph’s steward found the cup in the possession of the brothers he said it belonged to his master, and was the cup Joseph used for divination, in other words, scrying. Well in the end Joseph was reunited with his brothers and father, but his prophetic dream had come true, his brothers did bow down do him as vizier.
And this isn’t the only ancient story of a cup being used for scrying. In Persian mythology is the Cup of Jamshid, a magical cup that contained the elixir of immortality and was also used for scrying. Many Persian literary texts describe this cup being used by Jamshid and other mythological kings, including in Shahnameh the great national epic of Greater Iran, which tells of the mythological and historical past of the Persian empire, including the life of the prophet Zarathustra. Which brings us back once again to Zoroastrianism and prophecy.
The word prophecy comes from Greek pro “before” + phanai “to speak”, and a particularly deceptive form that essentially tricks its recipient is the self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the most famous literary examples of this is in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Macbeth gets the prophecy from the witches that he will become king and then goes on to make it happen by killing the king and usurping the throne. In Oedipus the King by the Greek playwright Sophocles, in order to avoid the prophecy that the baby Oedipus will grow up to kill his father, his parents leave the baby to die on a mountain top, but he is rescued and given to surrogate parents, with the result that when Oedipus grows up and gets the prophecy that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother, he leaves his supposed parents to avoid it, and ends up fulfilling both prophecies. Or if you want a more recent example, to return to Harry Potter again, in reaction to the prophecy that a child born on a certain day will kill him, Voldemort tries to murder the infant Harry, thus making Harry the one who is eventually able to defeat Voldemort. Now one of the reasons that self-fulfilling prophecies work is that they give the receiver the confidence to make those events happen, as in the case of Macbeth. The word confidence, by the way, comes from the Latin intensive prefix com- and the word fidere “to trust”, and lies behind the term confidence trick, sometimes shortened simply to con, thus bringing us back to the theme of deception, which is well known in the gambling con in which the victim is allowed to win several times to build up his confidence before taking him for all he’s worth.
A famous historical example of a self-fulfilling prophecy involves Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who I mentioned earlier. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus’s grandfather Astyages, had prophetic dreams which were interpreted by the Magi as meaning his grandson would usurp his throne. Fearing this, he ordered his general Harpagus to kill the baby, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, and passed the job on to a cowherd, who also couldn’t go through with it, and brought the baby up as his own. Years later when Cyrus had grown up and all of this was revealed, Astyages punished Harpagus by killing his son, but after the Magi backpedaled and said that they had misinterpreted the dream, Cyrus was spared. In revenge, Harpagus encouraged Cyrus to revolt against Astyages and take over, and he did just that. So I guess the moral of the story is, watch out for those Magi dream interpretations!
And returning to the Magi and the word magush, its first attestation is in the Behistun inscription by Darius the Great, the fourth king of the Achaemenid Empire, which is a bit of propaganda that tells of how he came to the throne. Basically, when Cyrus died, he was succeeded by his son Cambyses II. According to Herodotus, Cambyses had a dream in which he saw his younger brother Bardiya sitting on the royal throne, and had him secretly killed. Then, according to Darius, a magush named Gaumata impersonated the dead Bardiya, and eventually came to the throne. Darius soon after usurped the throne from the impostor Gaumata. Of course it’s entirely possible that Darius made this up to legitimize his claim to the throne with Gaumata being an impostor, and he further legitimizes his claim by stating in the Behistun inscription that he became king by the grace of Ahura Mazda. Whatever the truth may be, we certainly see several more examples here of our recurring theme of deception, not to mention prophetic dreams.
With these sorts of stories circulated by Greek authors, it’s not too surprising that the Magi gained the reputation for not only being magicians but also for being devious and deceptive. Furthermore, unlike Greek priests, the Magi would whisper their prayers and ritual texts in a low voice, and in the unfamiliar Avestan language of the Zoroastrian religious texts, which may have sounded to the Greeks like incantations. Interestingly, the native Greek word for magic, goeteia, with goes meaning “sorcerer” or literally “one who howls out enchantments” comes from the Greek verb goan “to wail, groan, weep” from a Proto-Indo-European root that meant “to call, cry”. The Greeks had other words for particular types of magic, such as nekromanteia “necromancy” or the communication with the dead for prophetic purposes, from nekros “dead body” and manteia “divination, oracle”, derived from mainesthai “to be inspired” from *men- “to think”, one of the Proto-Indo-European roots that lies behind the name Ahura Mazda. And the word pharmakeia, from which we get the word pharmacy, referred the practise of using of drugs, poisons, and medicines. But the word mageia soon became a more general term for magic in Greek.
Nevertheless, the Greeks were often also quite skeptical about magic. Herodotus recounts the story of Darius’s successor Xerxes, who when sailing his fleet to attack Greece, was hindered by a storm, but the Magi were able to quell the storm with their sacrifices and incantations allowing them to proceed. Or, as Herodotus dryly wrote “perhaps it abated of its own accord”. And in that self-fulfilling prophecy play Oedipus the King, Sophocles has Oedipus use the word magos as a term of abuse directed at the soothsayer Tiresias when he gave him a prediction he didn’t like. So the word also came to have the sense of a “charlatan” in Greek. The Magi in the biblical nativity narrative probably originally implied the use of magic and astrology, since they predicted and located the Christ child from the stars. But in later Christian traditions, the Magi are often rendered as “the three kings” or “the three wise men”, reflecting later Christianity’s discomfort with magic, which they held to be the work of the devil.
In any case, the Greek words magos and mageia were subsequently borrowed into Latin as magus and magia, initially with the specific reference of Persian practises, as for instance by the Roman orator Cicero, but soon in the more general sense, as for instance by the poet Virgil. Interesting, Virgil came to have a rather magical reputation himself. A practise arose of using Virgil’s writings for a form of bibliomancy, that is divination using books, called specifically Sortes Virgilianae or Virgilian Lots. Basically the way it works is you take a text and randomly pick a passage from it, by for instance balancing a book on its spine and letting it fall open to a random page, and that passage would give you your prediction or answer your question. Virgil wasn’t the first author to be used this way: the Greek poet Homer is the source for the Sortes Homericae, with the philosopher Plato reporting a similar form of this being used by his former teacher Socrates to predict his execution day, but the practise continued into the Roman era. Later on, Christians would use the Bible for the Sortes Sanctorum. But the Sortes Virgilianae was the most popular technique, with one early example being Hadrian’s use of it to judge the emperor Trajan’s attitude towards him, when it correctly predicted that he would be adopted by the emperor as his heir. The practise continued through the middle ages and into the early modern period, and correctly predicted the death of King Charles I when the Viscount Falkland suggested the king try this as a light-hearted pastime when they came across a finely printed and bound edition of Virgil. To mitigate the damage the viscount tried it himself, hoping to hit upon some irrelevant passage and discredit the king’s prediction, only to correctly predict his own death. I guess with divination you should be careful what you ask! The really surprising thing here though is that in the middle ages, Virgil came to be thought of as a magician himself, and numerous stories and legends, that had nothing to do with the poet’s own biography, sprang up about Virgil being an astrologer able to predict the future and a wizard able to perform great feats of magic. Some of the things that sparked this belief, were the mystic element in book six of the Aeneid, and the prophetic nature of his fourth Eclogue which Christians took as prophesying the coming of Christ. Even his name was seen as being a clue, since the name Virgil is similar to the Latin word virga “wand”, and he was said to have a maternal grandfather named Magus — well his mother did indeed come from a Roman family with the name Magia, though it’s not related to the word magush. In medieval Wales this reputation was so strong that the Welshified version of his name became a generic term for magician, which today is the modern Welsh word for pharmacist!
Now that Latin word sortes or sors in the singular form comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *ser- “to line up”. In Latin the word was originally used to refer to the little pieces of wood used to draw lots, but later came to refer to what is alloted by fate and thus “fortune” and then to any kind of fortune-telling. From that it later developed the sense “rank, class, order”, and it’s that sense that we see in the English word sort. The word sortition refers to the drawing of lots, like a lottery, and the word lottery is related to the word lot, coming from a Germanic root, and thus brings us back to the theme of gambling which we last saw in the gambling con. The other way this root makes it into English are the words sorcery and sorcerer from Old French sorcerie and sorcier, originally one who predicts or influences fate or fortune, but broadening to mean one who uses magic. The more precise word now for fortune-telling by drawing lots is cleromancy, another of those -mancy terms like necromancy, bibliomancy, and oneiromancy. The first element of cleromancy is Greek kleros “lot, allotment”, from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to strike, cut” from the idea of “that which is cut off”. Also from Greek kleros is Greek klerikos, Latin clericus, and English cleric, clerk, and clergy. So how did we get to here from there? Well from the sense “allotment” kleros also came to mean “inheritance” which is how it was used in the Greek translation of the biblical book Leviticus in reference to assistants to the temple priests: “Therefore shall they have no inheritance among their brethren: the Lord is their inheritance”. So the word came to refer to matters having to do with priests, and eventually priest and the priesthood itself. In the middle ages, clerks, sometimes now pronounced clarks, were the only well-educated people available, and so in addition to their religious duties also used their skills as accountants, and from that we get the modern sense of clerk, which has broadened further to include clerical bureaucratic duties and even store clerks. The word cleric was re-borrowed into English to replace clerk which had thus become ambiguous. But clergy brings us back to the theme of priests, like the original role of those Magi, though the clergy probably don’t engage in cleromancy, in spite of the etymology. Probably.
So far we’ve talked about priests and other male magicians—but what about witches? The word witch obviously carries a lot of baggage with it. For one thing, it’s a gendered word referring specifically to women, and beyond its main magical sense witch or old witch can be used as a contemptuous term for a disliked woman. Though it should be noted that in more recent times there has been an attempt to reclaim the word witch in a more positive context, as for instance is sometimes done by the neo-pagan world of Wicca, and in the Harry Potter world: Hermione is indeed the most gifted witch of her generation. Witches in the middle ages and early modern periods were suspected of many things, including preventing conception in women and attacking male fertility, sometimes actually stealing men’s penises, storing them in large chests or in birds’ nests in trees. Historically many women have been persecuted for the supposed crime of witchcraft, justified in part by the 15th century Christian treatise Malleus Malificarum, The Hammer of Witches, and you can tell it’s specifically women targeted there because of the feminine Latin ending -arum. It’s hard to know how many women were persecuted, tortured, and burned during the witch-hunts of the 15th-18th centuries, but some estimates place it at 60,000 to 200,000 to even as high as several million. And it is perhaps little surprise that the word wicked is derived from the same Old English root that produced the word witch. I guess you could say that wicked witch is etymologically redundant. Witch comes from the Old English word wicce meaning “witch”, which has the masculine form wicca meaning “male witch, wizard”, from which we get the modern word wicca in reference to neopaganism. It should be pointed out that there is no historical line of connection for this word from Old English to the present, with the word having been reintroduced into modern English in the early 20th century. The further etymology of the word witch is very disputed with many suggestions being made. The Brothers Grimm, who I suppose would know a thing or two about witch stories, proposed that Old English wicce and wicca come from the Proto-Indo-European root *weik- “to separate, divide” reflecting the practise of cleromancy, which according to the Roman ethnographer Tacitus was a part of early Germanic religious practise. But Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins proposed that it comes from the root *weg- meaning “be strong, lively” in the sense of “to wake, rouse” reflecting the practise of necromancy, in other words “one who wakes the dead”. If true witch would be cognate with wake, watch, and wait, as well as vegetable, which is probably not the sort of thing you give out to trick-or-treaters dressed up as witches! And though there are numerous other suggested etymologies, I’ll give you just one more, that it might be traced back to a homophonous root *weik- which in this case means “consecrated, holy” and has a number of other derivatives connected to religion and magic. For instance German Weihnachten literally “holy night” used specifically in reference to Christmas (but we’d better leave Christmas aside because this is Halloween). And Latin victima (and English victim) in reference to animals used in religious sacrifices. But most interestingly for our purposes the words guile and wile, both referring to deceit or trickery, which would then be akin to Old English wigle “divination, sorcery”, but which also bring us back to our ongoing theme of deception.
But there are a lot more terms for male magic practitioners. In the Harry Potter world, that would be wizard, but wizard has more of a positive connotation, so for a better parallel to witch, let’s first turn to the word warlock. Interestingly, the word didn’t originally have any connection to magic. In Old English wærloga meant “traitor, liar, oath-breaker”, reminding us again of the theme of deception, and by extension it was sometimes used to refer to the devil. It’s only later on in the 16th century in Scots that the word came to be used as the male equivalent of a witch. Etymologically it breaks down into two elements, the second of which is leogan “to lie”, which also gives us the word lie. The first element is wær “faith, fidelity, agreement” from the Proto-Indo-European root *wērə-o- “true, trustworthy”, which also leads to the Latin word veritas, sometimes thought of by the Romans as the personification of truth, and related to such English words as verify and veracity. So literally a warlock is a “truth-liar”.
Now this brings us to the concept of truth, the opposite of lies and deceptions, opposing ideas which you’ll remember as the opposing forces in Zoroastrianism asha and druj. There are a number of words in English that mean truth, including the now somewhat archaic word sooth. The Old English form soð was actually quite common, and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *es- that supplies several of the forms of the irregular verb to be, such as is and am, as well as words such as yes, essence, and sin. Though the word sooth today is somewhat obscure, the compound soothsayer, meaning a fortune-teller or prophet, is rather more well known, being used for instance to describe Tiresias in the Oedipus story, along with seer, literally one who sees. The word truth itself has a fascinating etymology. It goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *deru- “to be firm, solid, steadfast”, which also has the specialized senses of “tree” and “wood”, especially “oak”, including the word tree itself. It’s also the second element in the word Ásatrú, a term used to refer to a neo-pagan group focused on the Old Norse mythological tradition, which means literally “faith or allegiance to the Æsir” the pantheon of Norse gods, and we’ve already seen that first element as the root lying behind the name of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. The Norse by the way also had their own tradition of magic called seiðr, associated with the gods Odin and Freyja. The word seiðr comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *sai- meaning “to bind, tie”, which also has the derivatives sinew and secular, which originally as Latin saeculum meant “age, span of time”, and came to mean “worldly, not religious”. Other derivatives of *deru- “solid, tree” are dryad, a tree nymph in Greek mythology, and druid, the high-ranking priestly class who also wielded considerable secular power, among some Celtic peoples. So the druids are another example of a priestly class, like the Magi and the clergy, who were also mistrusted by external cultures, in this case the Romans during the Roman Britain period. The second element of the word druid comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *weid- “to see”, which has such other derivatives as vision, view, and evident, as well as wise, wisdom, and wit, so a druid is someone who is wise about trees. And from the word wise, we also get, in the Middle English period, the word wizard, literally a “wise man”, but it soon gained the more specific sense of a magician. Also from this root we get the Old English term witenagemot, referring to the council of advisers to the king in Anglo-Saxon England, who technically were in charge of electing the kings. Though this political body didn’t survive past the Norman Conquest of England, it seems to have been the inspiration behind JK Rowling’s wizengamot, the wizard court of law in the Harry Potter world, obviously also playing off the word wizard. But as we’ve seen the word wizard comes from this same root anyway. And in any case, the wizards we know today, such as Albus Dumbledor and Gandalf, are also quite wise, and indeed witty.
And all this talk about wizards and magic brings us to our conclusion, tying many of these elements together, specifically to the deck building game Magic: The Gathering published by the games company Wizards of the Coast, who by the way are also the current publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, after they bought out its original company TSR. In various versions of D&D different levels of magicians or magic users as they were called in the game were known by specific words, many of which we’ve covered in this video, such as seer, magician, enchanter, warlock/witch, sorcerer, necromancer, and wizard. The game Magic: The Gathering—which also has magic users known as ‘mages’, by the way—was developed by Richard Garfield, who had been a combinatorial mathematics doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, and apparently he created it so that he and his friends would have something to do while they waited for everyone to turn up for their D&D games. Garfield has two other claims to fame: his great-great-grandfather was James A. Garfield, a rather minor US president, having been assassinated within his first year in office; and his grand-uncle Samuel B. Fay invented the paper clip. Unless you ask the Norwegians, who have their own candidate for this honour, Johan Vaaler, whose version of the paper clip was adopted as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis, after pins or badges bearing national symbols were banned. As for Magic: The Gathering itself, it originally had an aspect of gambling since according to the original rules one was supposed to ante up a card in order to play, which the winner would be able to claim at the end of the game, and even now the packs come with random assortments of rare cards which can be quite valuable. So whether it’s card tricks or Tarot cards or the 3-card Monty con or Magic: The Gathering, or all the way back to exotic Zoroastrian priests and self-fulfilling prophecies, falsely accused witches and crystal-ball gazing wizards, it seems perhaps that for magic, luck, deception, and shifting perceptions have always been on the cards.
Thanks for watching! My special thanks to my friend and fellow YouTuber Andrew of Religion for Breakfast, who suggested this topic, and helped me out with the crucial definition of ‘magic’! Why not check out his video “What is the History of Magic Wands” for more on that topic. If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe, & click the little bell to be notified of every new episode. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can visit our website alliterative.net for more language and connections in our podcast, blog, and more!