This mystical incantation is probably familiar to you as something magicians say on stage when pulling rabbits out of hats. But the magician’s catchphrase doesn’t trace its origins to the stage. Abracadabra was actually one of our earliest methods of warding off malaria.
Ancient Rome was ravaged by malaria—malarial DNA from a Roman site dating from around AD 450 is the oldest definitive evidence of the disease which some suspect played a role in the Roman Empire’s collapse. But evidence suggests the Romans had not connected the spread of malaria with the mosquito bite. The word malaria comes from the Italian words for “bad air.” Most ancient Romans regarded malaria as magical or religious, the work of a demon. Malaria specifically is mentioned more frequently than any other disease in the magical texts of Ancient Greece and Rome. Roman mythology even had its own deity to protect people from malaria, Febris.
Which brings us to abracadabra. Its earliest mention is in the texts of a third century Roman physician, Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. In his only surviving work, the Liber Medicinalis, he describes a cure to treat what we now know was malaria:
Inscribis chartae, quod dicitur Abracadabra:
Saepius et subter repetas, sed detrahe summae,
Et magis atque magis desint elementa figuris:
Singula quae semper rapies et coetera figes,
Donec in angustam redigatur litera conum.
His lino nexis collum redimire memento.
Serenus’ instructions ordered that cure-seekers write the word ‘Abracadabra’ on a piece of paper and repeat the word underneath, but remove some letters from the line above, over and over until the word became reduced to a single letter. It would look something like this:
Serenus then instructed the afflicted to bind the paper, wrap it in linen and wear it as a talisman around the neck for nine days, after which they should fling it over the shoulder into a river running eastward. The talisman was meant to create a shield against the “bad air” and fevers that seemed to be associated with swampy terrain. If that didn’t work, Serenus suggested that you could always smear some lion’s fat all over your body.
Serenus was a disciple of Basilides, who was a big fan of mystical numerology and is believed by some to have been the first to coin the phrase. Basilides was also the founder of a Christian sect that incorporated the teachings of the philosopher Pythagoras, known for his work in the mathematics of triangles, which could help explain the triangular shape of the Serenus’ talisman.
Of course, there is still some debate on the origins of the word: some trace it to the Hebrew “Ab, ruach, dabar” (“Father, Holy Ghost, word”) or “Abrai seda brai” (“Out, bad spirit, out”) instead. Abracadabra went on to be used as a talisman against many ailments well into the 17th century. In his book “Journal of a Plague Year,” Daniel Defoe wrote of Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness.
Science would eventually show that malaria isn’t the work of magic. In 1898, scientists definitively proved malaria was in fact transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. Malaria, of course, would go on to become one of history’s most deadly diseases. In 2015, malaria still killed nearly half a million people. With drugs, vaccines and insecticide spray ineffective in controlling its spread, some are now hopeful the answer to eliminating it may be genetic engineering.
But next time you find yourself down with the flu, surely uttering a few magical incantations won’t hurt.