Traditional Magic Spells for Protection and Healing

By Claude Lecouteux. 2016. Rochester: Inner Traditions. 328 pages. ISBN: 978-1-62055-621-4 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Yelena P. Francis, Columbia College

[Review length: 791 words • Review posted on September 13, 2018]

[Cover ofTraditional Magic Spells for Protection and Healing]

This book consists of an introduction and a few long chapters representing aspects of magic healing practices and processes. It starts with “Diagnoses,” followed by the logically largest part, "The Illnesses of Humans and their Cure," where charms and descriptions of protective measures (like wearing a certain plant) are grouped in alphabetical order of common sicknesses. This collection also includes these chapters: "Evil Spells," "Devils and Demons," "Fantastic Beings and Spirits," "Healing of Animals," and "Protection."

The introduction gives a brief summary of the psychological origin of magic spells. It touches on the most important interconnections between pagan practices and Christianity in the use of magic tools for healing, such as wearing prayer texts or appealing to different saints specializing in the cure of certain diseases. The author emphasizes that the Christian church allowed the use of semi-pagan practices, especially if they could be supported by biblical texts, such as wearing sacred words in combination with medicinal herbs. In a section on magical therapy, author Claude Lecouteux explains his approach to the selection of the material, pointing to the importance of recorded details of the rituals: time of day, invocation of God or pagan deities, and others. He also mentions that Christian motifs in the charms typically refer to biblical episodes, like healing Job's wounds, in the hope of achieving similar results. In this, the author also writes about more recent methods of healing by means of blessed items, e.g., the Easter candle. Similarly, magic supported by biblical content often came as a substitute for an additional element of traditional folk magic. Lecouteux points to the paradox that clerical authors' criticism of pagan practices accompanied with their detailed description supplied us with rich material for learning about the folk magic of healing and protection.

It is unsurprising that the author includes in the collection of texts some elements of astrology used by the healers. Lecouteux describes the implementation of the Sphere of Apuleius/ Democritus and zodiac signs supposedly connected to different parts of the human body. He presents a variety of opinions from doctors pointing to ties between the application of a certain plant or a surgical procedure only on a favorable day due to certain positions of the planets. Telling about specific uses of the herbs, he points to the opinion of the doctors of the past about the analogy between the symptoms of a disease and features of a certain herb, for example, using red-colored plants to stop bleeding.

Lecouteux also shares his ideas and observations in short introductory texts preceding each chapter. He emphasizes the pagan origins of most magic procedures and incarnations "veneered" with Christian vocabulary and images, and points to some typical features of their linguistic formulae. The collection, covering about 2000 years of magical spells for healing and protection, presents recipes by subject, starting from determining the chances of the patient’s survival and finishing with charms for protecting domestic animals. The texts are accompanied with maximum possible information, valuable for folklore researchers, such as the language, the time of their recording, and their sources (i.e., manuscripts and publications). Moreover, the book is richly illustrated with images presenting medical procedures from medieval manuscripts and depictions of protective amulets.

A few appendices contain valuable information supplementing the main text. Some include rare sources on medical magic. Others are of special interest: "Medical Magic in Italy during the Fourteenth–Fifteenth Centuries" (containing the excerpt from St. Bernardine’s sermon listing magic healing practices); "The Activities of Sorcerers" (containing excerpts from “The Manual of the Inquisitor” and the writings of Cyrano de Bergerac); "The Use of Encrypted Spells"; and "Several Popular Saints Invoked in France and Belgium for Illnesses and Protection." The last of these, for example, is supplied with the author’s remarks regarding the connection between a group of sicknesses from which people asked the saint for protection and the etymology of that saint’s name, which is worth taking into consideration. However, Lecouteux did not mention a more obvious connection, namely, the hagiography explaining the tendency to attribute a certain power to a certain saint. For example, St. Blaise’s helping in healing a neck could be connected to the saint’s miracle of healing the boy’s throat, or St. Roch's helping people during plague epidemics could bring forth the belief in him as a protector against contagious diseases.

Traditional Magic Spells includes a detailed bibliography containing an extensive list of the various manuscripts retrieved from European archives, as well as a large number of printed sources including Greek, Slovenian, Swedish, Swiss, and Russian folklore. This is only one of many attractive features of this book--a real treasure for folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and historians due to its abundant representation of European magic remedies and protective spell texts.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.