The spell is a magical act intended to cause an effect on reality using supernatural means of liturgical or ritual nature. When the goal of such spell is to attempt to determine the future it is usually named divination or augury and when it tries to put someone’s will under control, enchantment or incantation. Spells are a substantial component of many Pagan religions and can also be found in some monotheistic religions. Others, like Islam and Christianity, explicitly forbid this practice. Medieval collections of spells were called grimoires.
Spells were probably developed during the Neolithic magical belief period and have been practiced since then both in accepted and clandestine environments. They were common in Pagan societies as part of massive official holidays promoted by authorities: this activity is well documented in a number of historical sources and has even survived in vodunist or shamanic religion areas. On the opposite, practitioners were harshly prosecuted in other places and ages, specially in areas whose state religion was Christianity. Nowadays practitioners are protected under the freedom of belief, a fundamental right regarded by most democratic countries, although hoaxes based on the gullibility and need to believe of many people are usually punished as frauds.
Typically, a spell is a symbolic representation of the purported effect performed under the invocation of a deity. It can even be an unwilling instantaneous action with no spectific shape, like some forms of Evil Eye. But in more developed Pagan beliefs, spells have the following general structure:
- Preparation, when all needed products are disposed in the appropriate location and the involved individuals perform preliminary activities like fasting, praying, etc.
- Overture to start the ritual or liturgical performance, create an appropriate, solemn “magical environment” and reinforce the communion effect among participants.
- Invocation, when the cooperation of supernatural forces is requested to take the spell to reality.
- Execution, where all ritualized magical acts belonging to the spell are precisely performed.
- Sacrifice, when a symbolic or tangible gift is offered to participating deities.
- Closure, to solemnize the end of the act and dissolve the “magical environment” created during the overture.
There is similarity between this structure and the liturgy of more modern monotheistic religions, from which these practices are derived. A neat example of such a parallelism is the Catholic Mass.
When the goal of the spell and the means used to achieved it are regarded as immoral, illegal or pernicious by a certain society, it is defined as black. If a society accepts both the goal and the means as innocuous, it is defined as white. Nowadays, a number of Neopagan religions like Wicca have recovered the usage of spells and vindicate it. Many people perform them privately for themselves, for others or for a price, usually following the instructions of occultist books or other sources, commonly seeking health, wealth and love although sometimes also for revenge or hate.
Most experts agree that the spell was originally created by the human need to create causal associations many millennia prior to the development of the scientific method. The relationship between seed and plant or sex and baby were fully mysterious wonders for thousands of years. In absence of the scientific method, a direct relationship minor act -> major result of an apparent magic nature is established and progressively enshrouded behind sophisticated liturgies until it loses the original meaning and, by association, new superstitious relationships develop new, more obscure spells until a religion is born.
- The Skeptic’s Dictionary entry for Magical Thinking
- The Cauldron’s Grimoire Online Collection of Spells
- Thelemapedia The Encyclopedia of Thelema & Magick