Abracadabra!’ cried the magician and with wave of his hand he manifests a pure white dove from his silk handkerchief. We all know the word “abracadabra,” but is it just a word that magicians say to create drama, or does it have some other meaning lost to modern society?

We know abracadabra as the ‘magic’ word used by stage magicians to cast the spell that makes their tricks work. It is the spoken incantation of the word that invokes the spell into action.

Image Author: Chambermagic -Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The Earliest Recorded Mention of Abracadabra

Its earliest known recorded mention was by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, the physician to Caracalla, an emperor of Rome. It is recorded in his book Liber Medicinalis (or, De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) as an aid to healing and warding off sickness.

How Abracadabra Was Used

He recommended that people suffering from malaria should wear an amulet with the word inscribed upon it to form a triangle:-

A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B – R – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B – R
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D
A – B – R – A – C – A
A – B – R – A – C
A – B – R – A
A – B – R
A – B

The word was spoken repeatedly but each time leaving the last letter off (as above). As the word diminished so did the illness.
During Medieval times it was believed to be a word of power and was also spoken to protect against witchcraft and written on paper or cloth and carried around or sewn into clothing.

Origins:  Hebrew or Aramaic?

There are many conflicting beliefs as to its origin. Some think it originated in the Aramaic language meaning, ‘avra kadavra’, meaning ‘it will be created in my words’.

Others think it may be Hebrew of origin from a phrase which means, ”I create what I speak” (I create’ (A’bra) ‘what’ (ca) ‘I speak’ (dab’ra).”)
Alternatively, it may be a Hebrew incantation to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ( ‘ab’ (father), ‘ben’ (son), and ‘ruach hakodesh’ (holy spirit).

The Gnostics

The Gnostic sect of Basilidein also used it as a magic incantation using it to invoke beneficial powers to ward against illness and bad luck. It was also inscribed on Abraxas stones which were sometimes worn as amulets.

Loss of Power

It became degraded as a positive magical incantation when an influential American Puritan Minister named, Increase Mather (associated with the Salem Witch Trials) was contemptuously dismissive of the use of the word.

During the Great Plague of London people wrote it on doors and over entrances in a desperate attempt to keep the Black Death out of their homes. Daniel Defoe, the famous writer, was dismissive of such futile attempts.

False Magic

In course of time ‘abracadabra’ became associated with conjurers and ‘false’ magic tricks. The term ‘legal abracadabra’ was used to describe how clever, smart talking lawyers could confuse jurors during legal trials. Eventually stage magicians and conjurers began using it to add spice and drama to their acts. From its ancient roots abracadabra changed from being a word of power and healing to become synonymous with the world of trickery and illusions.

© 12/05/13 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

© 12/05/13 zteve t evans

Abracadabra – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Phrase Finder – The meaning and origin of the expression: Abracadabra
Image - File:Poster Final.jpg – From Wikimedia Commons - Author: Chambermagic – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What Would You Do With A Magic Carpet?

The magic carpet appears in many myths and fairy tales in many different cultures around the world. In some versions the carpet flies, in others it materializes with its passenger at a destination. Sometimes it is the spoken word that arouses the action in the carpet and sometimes the command is from the mind of the person it is bearing.

Magic Carpet, oil painting by Viktor M. Vasnetsov – Public Domain

 One Thousand and One Nights

In later versions of the ancient collection of stories called One Thousand and One Nights there is the story of Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri-Banu. This story is narrated by Scheherazade, herself, a character in one of the tales.
She tells the story of how the Sultan of the Indies set his three sons the task of each finding and bringing back to him the most wonderful object in the world. The winner would win the hand of a beautiful princess who they all loved and she loved them equally.
Prince Husain, the oldest brother, traveled to Bisnagar, (Vijayanagara) in search of such an object. There in the market place he came across a merchant selling a carpet for a huge price. At first the prince was skeptical asking how the merchant could justify demanding such a huge sum. However, after the powers of the carpet were demonstrated he readily paid more than the asking price.
The carpet the prince bought teleports, rather than flies its owner where ever they want to go. It is commanded by the will of the owner – “upon other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place near hand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach” – So all Prince Ahmed had to do was think of where he wanted to go and the carpet would instantly materialize there with him aboard.


Aladdin is another character from One Thousand and One Nights and often associated with flying carpets. This is a myth from the modern world, notably, Disney rather than history.


King Solomon is also reputed to have had a magic carpet but his was of a different nature. It was said to be massive, some 60 miles wide and 60 miles long and made from green silk with wefts of gold. It was said, “when Solomon sat upon the carpet he was caught up by the wind, and sailed through the air so quickly that he breakfasted at Damascus and supped in Media.”
The wind was said to be obedient to Solomon’s will and would safely carry the carpet and its passengers to his desired destination at high speed. The carpet and it passengers were shielded from the sun by a huge canopy of birds.
Solomon was a very great king acclaimed for many great achievements. Legend tells that when he became proud of his great feats the carpet would give a mighty shake causing 40,000 people to fall to their deaths.

King Phraates II

The myth of the flying carpet is older than One Thousand and One Nights. In 130 BC, King Phraates II of the Parthanian Empire is said to have flown on a carpet from the top of the Zagros Mountains to confront the Seleucid king, Antiochus VII, raining down lightning and fire to kill him and his army. After this great victory he was given a triumphal celebration and is reputed to have floated on his carpet over the crowds accepting their applause.
King Phraates and Antiochus VII were historical figures and warred with each other resulting in the defeat of Antiochus VII. However the victory was achieved by more traditional military methods.

King Shapur I

In 260 AD King Shapur I was reputed to have used a flying carpet to abduct the Roman emperor Valerian. King Sharpur was said to have flown into Valerian’s bedroom while he was asleep and pulled him onto his carpet to take him prisoner.

The Marvellous Magic Carpet

So, in mythology and fairy tales, magic carpets were marvelous and wonderful objects. They could take you anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye, or take you on a magical tour of your own choosing.

A Question For You

If you had your own magic carpet that would obey your command, taking you to anywhere in the world, to any moment in time, where would you go?

References and Attributions
Magic carpet, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
One Thousand and One Nights 
Image – Riding a Flying Carpet, an 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. From Wikipedia – Public Domain Image


British Folk Songs: The Ballad of John Barleycorn

Barley has a long association with human society because of its uses for food, drink and medicine that goes back some 12,000 years.   Used for animal feed and to make bread for human consumption, it is also used to make popular alcoholic drinks such as beer, barley wine, whisky and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Beer is the oldest and the most common of all alcoholic drinks and after water and tea the third most popular beverage.  With its ancient importance, barley has given rise to many myths and is the source of much folklore and many people think that hidden in an old traditional folk song of the British Isles  called John Barleycorn, lies the story of barley.

Barley – Public Domain Image

The Ballad of John Barleycorn

A traditional British folk ballad, called John Barleycorn, depicts the lead character as the personification of barley and its products of bread, beer and whisky.   The song is very old and there are many versions from all around the British Isles.  The song does have strong connections with Scotland with possibly the Robert Burns version the most well-known though the song goes way back to before the times of Elizabeth 1st.

Different Versions

In the song, John Barleycorn is subject to many violent, physical abuses leading to his death.  Each abuse represents a stage in the sowing, growing, harvesting, malting and preparation of barley to make beer and whisky.

In many versions there is confusion because it is brandy that is consumed even though brandy is made from grapes, rather than whisky or beer made from barley.   John Barleycorn is also a term used to denote an alcoholic drink that is distilled such as a spirit, rather than fermented like beer.

In some versions of the song there is more emphasis on the way different tradesmen take revenge on John Barleycorn for making them drunk.  The miller grinds him to a powder between two stones.  However John Barleycorn often proves the stronger character due to his intoxicating effect on his tormentors and the fact hat his body is giving sustenance to others making humans dependent upon him.

Through the savagery inflicted upon John Barleycorn the song metaphorically tells the story of the sowing, cultivating and harvesting cycle of barley throughout the year.  The ground is ploughed, seeds are sown, and the plant grows until ready for harvest. It is then cut with scythes, and tied into sheaves, which are flayed to remove the grain.

Pagan and Anglo-Saxon Associations

Wikipedia says that some scholars think that John Barleycorn has strong connections with the pagan Anglo-Saxon character of Beowa also known as Beaw, Beow, or Beo or sometimes Bedwig. In Old English ‘Beow’ means ‘barley’ and ‘Sceafa’ means ‘sheaf.’ From Royal Anglo-Saxon lineage, Beowa is the son of Scyld who is the son of Sceafa in a pedigree that goes back to Adam.

Many scholars also think that there are strong associations with Beowa and Beowulf and the general agreement is that they are the same character.  Some scholars also think that Beowa is the same character as John Barleycorn while others disagree.

The Golden Bough

Wikepedia says, Sir James George Frazer, in his book, ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion’  asserts that many of the old religions of the world were derived from fertility cults which had at their core the ritual sacrifice of a Sacred king who was also known as the Corn King, who was the embodiment of the Sun god.  Each year he went through a cycle of death and rebirth in a union with the Earth goddess, dying at the harvest time to be reborn in the spring.

The Corn King

The Corn King was chosen from the men of a tribe to be the king for a year.  At the end of the year he would then dance, or perform thanksgiving and fertility rituals in the fields before being ritually killed.  So that the soil would be fertilised his body was dragged through the fields to enable his blood to run into the soil.  It may be that he may then have been eaten by the tribe in completion of the ritual.

As well as other uses, the barley was made into cakes which would be stored for the winter and were thought to hold the spirit of the Corn King.  Around the time of the winter solstice when the sun was at its weakest and as it started to strengthen, the cakes would be fed to children giving them the spirit of the corn king.


There are also theories that possibly an earlier form of John Barleycorn represented a pagan rite before the rise of Christianity. There are suggestions that the early Christian church in Anglo-Saxon England adapted this to help the conversion of the pagan population to Christianity.  This is a tactic that was used with Yule and other pagan festivals and traditions.   In some versions of the song, John Barleycorn suffers in a similar way to Christ, especially in the version by Robert Burns.

After undergoing ritualistic suffering and death, his body is ground into flour for bread and drink. Some scholars compare this with the Sacrament and Transubstantiation of Christian belief though not all agree.

Popular Culture

We will probably never know the true origins and meaning that are hidden in the story of John Barleycorn but the song and its mysteries still have a powerful effect on people today.  Many popular musicians and folk artists have performed versions of the song in the recent past and it is still a popular song today.

In 1970, the progressive rock group, ’Traffic’ made an album entitled, John Barleycorn Must Die, featuring a song of the same name which went on to become a classic.

The song is popular with recording and performing artists and a favourite with audiences. Folk rock bands Fairport Convention and Steel-eye Span and many other rock and folk artists have recorded versions of the song ensuring the story of John Barleycorn is still sung and celebrated, so that even though the meaning may be lost in time, the story lives on.

References and Attributions
File:Hordeum-barley.jpg From Wikimedia Commons 
Read the lyrics HarvestFestivals.Net - John Barleycorn
AudioEnglish.org -John Barleycorn
The Golden Bough - from Wikipedia
Sacred king from Wikipedia
Frazer, Sir James George -  The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
Traffic - John BarleyCorn  
Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music

North American Legends: Johnny Appleseed

In North American folklore apples are strongly associated with the legendary Johnny Appleseed who is affectionately remembered for his wandering lifestyle planting apple tree nurseries across the great American frontier.  His real name was John Chapman and he was born in Leominster, Massachusetts on September 26, 1774.

His father, Nathanial Chapman, had served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  Sadly, he lost his mother to tuberculosis during that war. When he was old enough to work he became apprenticed as an orchardist to a local orchard where he learnt the trade that made that him a legend in his own lifetime.

Johnny Appleseed – Author: H. S. Knapp – Public Domain Image


Folklore paints a picture of him dressed in rags with a tin pot on his head striding across the land with a pocketful of apple seeds.  These he planted on his way, for all to enjoy out of his sheer generosity.  In fact the planting of orchards, or more accurately apple tree nurseries, was his business and he grew apples trees as a business enterprise.  His plan was to plant nurseries along the frontier where ever he thought settlers would build new communities.  When his trees were between one and two years old he would sell them to the settlers for six cents each.  He travelled and planted apple tree nurseries in many places along the Ohio Valley with bases in Western Pennsylvania and in Ohio, in Richland County.

One of the folk stories about Johnny Appleseed tells how during the War of 1812 many Indians took the British side looking to avenge themselves against the settlers who they believed had done injury to them.  Although they attacked many settlements they did not threaten or interfere with Johnny Appleseed.   However, he would often warn the settlements of imminent Indian attacks.

A legend tells of how he made a desperate run of 26 miles through the wilderness from Mansfield, Ohio to Mount Vernon in a bid to bring help to the beleaguered settlers besieged by Indians.  It is said that as he ran he blew a horn to warn other settlers of the danger along the way.  Thanks to his desperate run and courage the settlers at Mansfield were reinforced and saved.


Chapman followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and was a member of the Church of New Jerusalem, which was based on Christian teachings and followed Pacifist principles and advocated individualism and simple living.

As he travelled he would spread the message of his church to those he visited and would tell stories to the children in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep on the floor of the house.

Love of Animals

Despite his rather rough and rustic appearance and his eccentricities Johnny Appleseed was a gentle and kind man with great intelligence and charisma and a heart of gold.  Indeed, he was also a rarity for his time as he was a vegetarian; not wishing animals should suffer for him.  His kindness and concern for animals was legendary.

One story is told of how he extinguished his campfire when he saw mosquitoes flying to their deaths into it. He believed that none of God’s creatures, no matter how small, should have to suffer to alleviate his discomfort.  Another story tells of the time he set up camp in one end of a hollow log and built a fire for warmth. On discovering the log was already inhabited by a bear with her cubs, rather than disturb them, he moved his camp to the other end, sleeping unsheltered in the snow.

Folktales tell how he would buy a horse that was about to be put down and purchase some grassland for the animal to recuperate on.  When the horse had recovered he would give the horse to a poor settler on the sole condition that it was to be treated properly and with kindness.

Entering into Folklore

One can well imagine how this rather wild, raggedy man, may appear as a larger than life figure to the settlers along the frontier as he came and went about his business growing apple nurseries.  He may have been regarded as eccentric but he was well received and seen as a welcome relief by the isolated settlers bringing news and helping out where he could.  On 18th of March, 1845, John Chapman died of pneumonia and was buried near Fort Wayne, Indiana, entering into American folklore.

References and Attributions
Image - File:Johnny Appleseed 1.jpg From Wikimedia Commons - Johnny Appleseed - Author: H. S. Knapp - Public Domain Image

The Christian Symbolism of the Passion Flower

The Passion flower (Passiflora) is also known as Maypops, and in parts of South America, Maracuja.   It is a plant of the Americas that was taken to Spain and later Europe and other parts of the world by early Spanish explorers and missionaries.  In South America, early Catholic missionaries used parts of the flower’s anatomy as symbols representative of Christ’s suffering and from there it entered into folklore.  The name relates to the Passion of Christ rather than having romantic connotations.

Passiflora × belotii by Tomas Castelazo – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.


One of the earliest known Europeans to encounter the flower was Nicolás Monardes (c1493 – 1588), a Spanish doctor in Peru in 1569.   In 1745, Carl von Linné (c1707 – 1778) classified the plant recognising 22 species. The hybridization of the plant began in Victorian Britain and there are now believed to be more than 600 hybrids of the Passion flower around the world.  It was the Europeans who noted that the plant had mild sedative properties and was beneficial in alleviating pain, nervous conditions and insomnia. However, it was in 1610 that Emmanuel de Villegas, a Mexican Augustan monk, seems to have been the first person to note, or record the symbolism attached to the plant’s anatomy and made sketches that were sent back to Europe.

Christian Symbolism

In early times because most people could not read or write, in Christian art and teaching, flowers were used as symbols representing profound metaphysical ideas and concepts to make it easier for the uneducated mass of people to understand.  In some cases symbols were taken from the earlier pagan times before Christianity.  The Passion flower became part of this tradition when it was adopted by early Catholic missionaries and brought back to Spain from the New World.

Symbolism of the Passion Flower 

The symbolic use of the Passion flower was to help people understand the Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion.  It was seen in the following way, ‘The whipping and scourging of Christ is represented by the tendrils.  The pillar of the scourging is represented by the flower column.  The Crown of Thorns is the 72 filaments that encircle the head.  The three nails are symbolized by the top stigma and the five wounds of Christ are the five anthers.  The style is the sponge that moistened Christ’s lips with vinegar.  The spear blade that pierced his side is seen as the leaves (some species only).  The blood of Christ is the red stain from the plant and the round fruit of the plant symbolises the world he came to save. The fragrance of the flower represents the spices prepared by the Holy women.’ (mdidea.com)

The Spreading of the Passion Flower

Like the teachings of Christ, the Passion flower has spread around the world carrying the story of Calvary and the Christian message to people far and wide over many centuries.

References and Attributions
File:Flower jtca002.jpg From Wikimedia Commons - Passiflora × belotii by Tomas Castelazo - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Meaning of Flowers in Christian Art
Passiflora, from Wikipedia

The Folktale of the Pedlar of Swaffham

The folktale of the Pedlar of Swaffham tells of how a poor pedlar came to find his fortune by following a dream. The story begins in the historic English market town of Swaffham in the county of Norfolk in the 15th century.

Pedlar of Swaffham , The town Sign, Swaffham, Norfolk – Image Author: Stavros1- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

A Dream of Fortune

The legend tells of how John acquired his money after a strange dream he experienced three times on consecutive nights. In that dream he saw the great city of London and he saw London Bridge stretching across the River Thames. He heard a voice telling him that if he was to travel all the way from Swaffham in Norfolk to London, where on London Bridge, he would meet someone who would tell him the most wonderful news.

The first night he dismissed it as just a dream. The second night he gave greater thought to it but again dismissed it as just a dream. After the third night of the dream he became convinced that he needed to follow the dream through, so he bid his wife farewell and set off with his dog to find London Bridge.

London Bridge

In those days the roads were long and hard and the countryside was wild, so it was good to have his dog with him for company. After many long and weary days he eventually found himself standing on London Bridge. In those days the river had many ships sailing up and down it and the bridge had many busy shops all along its length.

On his first day he walked the length of the bridge over and over again with his dog and stood and looked out over the river. He visited all the shops but he met with no one who had anything to say to him and he saw no signs to help him.

On the second day he did the same and he and his dog wandered in and out of the shops and gazed at the river as it flowed under the bridge. He began to doubt himself and began to feel foolish at coming all this way over a dream.

Good News

On third day he and his dog again wandered the length of the bridge visiting all the shops several times. Yet still he met with no one or saw any sign to help him. He was beginning to feel very despondent and he stood and gazed at the river as it flowed, thinking to himself how foolish he had been to set his hopes on just a dream.

Now it so happened that as he had wandered the bridge going in and out of all the shops over those three days he had caught the attention of a shopkeeper who came up and spoke to him.

The shopkeeper asked him why he was spending his time wandering in and out of the shops or just leaning on the bridge walls watching the river flow.  He asked John if he had any goods to sell or if indeed he was a beggar.  Chapman told him that he had nothing to sell and that he was not a beggar and could take care of himself.

Now full of curiosity the shopkeeper asked him where he had come from and what had brought him to London Bridge. Chapman then explained that he had lived in town in the country, but did not say where and that he had traveled all this way because of a dream he had experienced. The shopkeeper asked what was in the dream that had made him come all the way from his home in the country to London.

Chapman told him about the dream and how the voice had told him to go to London Bridge where he would here the most wonderful news. The shopkeeper laughed out loud at this and told him he was nothing but a fool to put such great faith in his dreams.

Laughing, the shopkeeper, told John that he had also had a dream over the last three nights. In that dream a voice had told him to travel to a town called Swaffham in Norfolk, where buried under an old apple tree in a small orchard, behind a house he would find the most wonderful treasure. The shopkeeper laughed saying that he would have been a fool to undertake such a long arduous journey purely on the say so of a voice in a dream, and adding that Chapman was also a fool for making such a long journey for those reasons as well.

Finding the Treasure

Hearing what the shopkeeper had to say and recognising the place he had described, Chapman hurried home to Swaffham as fast as he could. Digging under the apple tree in his orchard he found a small pot filled to the top with gold coins. He cleaned up the coins and hid them away safely but while he was cleaning the pot he noticed it had an inscription etched upon it but he did not have the skill to read it.

A few weeks later he persuaded a passing monk to take a look at the inscription. The monk told John that the inscription said, ‘Under me doth lie, another richer far than I’. Thanking the monk, John went to his orchard and again began digging under the apple tree. Sure enough underneath the place he found the first pot he came across a much larger and heavier pot filled to the brim with gold.

Being honest and industrious and a man of gratitude he invested his fortune wisely making his wealth grow. To show his gratitude for his good fortune he donated money to help the rebuilding of the local church.

Fact or Fiction?

History shows that a man called John Chapman lived in Swaffham and was a man who achieved considerable wealth though the means of how he did so cannot be proved. He was believed to have been a pedlar or a shopkeeper, or trader of some kind though his exact occupation remains unclear.

In his life-time he is credited with donating sufficient money to build the tower and north aisle of the local church of St. Peter and St. Paul.  The town sign has a depiction of him and his dog commemorating his generosity to the town and remembering the legend.

It is known the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 was John Botewright who compiled an inventory of building work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The book came to be called the Swaffham Black Book and its records show that someone called John Chapman paid for the North Aisle to be rebuilt.

Furthermore, in the choir area of the church are three wooden pews. On one is carved the figure the pedlar and on the other his dog. On a third is a carving of a woman looking from a shop door way which possible depicts his wife.

Origin of the Legend

Very similar legends can be found all over Europe as well as the Middle East.  Possibly the earliest version In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad from the writings of  Jalal al-Din Rumia a 13th century Persian poet.

A similar theme can also be found in story from ‘The Arabian Nights’, a collection of folk tales from the Middle East titled The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream. Other places in the UK, Eire, and Europe also have local versions of the same theme including Upsall Castle, England and Dundonald Castle, Scotland. In recent times the theme was used by Paul Coelho in his novel, The Alchemist.

Of course the legend of the Pedlar of Swaffham may be based on facts that have been embellished over the centuries or have become intertwined with other legends from other places, or indeed it may possibly all be true. We will probably never know but it does still make a good story.

Reference and Attributions
Image - The Town Sign, Swaffham, 02-03-2009 (1).JPG from Wikimedia Commons - The town Sign, Swaffham, Norfolk - Image Author: Stavros1- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Pedlar of Swaffham from Wikipedia