First use of “abracadabra”? It’s Serenus Sammonicus!

The first writer to use the phrase “abracadabra” as a magical incantation is, I understand, the (probably) late second century AD medical writer Q. Serenus Sammonicus.  He does so in his two-book medical handbook, the Liber medicinalis, in chapter 51, as a cure for demi-tertian fever, which is perhaps some form of malaria.[1]

Here’s the Latin for chapter 51, from the PHI site:[2]

Hemitritaeo depellendo.

Mortiferum magis est quod Graecis hemitritaeos     51.932 
uulgatur uerbis; hoc nostra dicere lingua  
non potuere ulli, puto, nec uoluere parentes.  
Inscribes chartae quod dicitur abracadabra            935 
saepius et subter repetes, sed detrahe summam  
et magis atque magis desint elementa figuris  
singula, quae semper rapies, et cetera †figes,  
donec in angustum redigatur littera conum:  
his lino nexis collum redimire memento.               940 
Nonnulli memorant adipem prodesse leonis.  
coralium uero si †cocco nectere† uelis  
nec dubites illi ueros miscere smaragdos,  
adsit baca teres niueo pretiosa colore:  
talia languentis conducent uincula collo 945 
letalesque abiget miranda potentia morbos.

Which is more or less as follows:

52.  Against the demi-tertian fever.

The fever that the Greeks call “hemitritaion” is more dangerous.  The Greek word  has never been translated into Latin, whether because the nature of the language will not allow it, or because parents, in the belief that to do so would bring harm to their children, have been unwilling to give it a name.  Write on a piece of papyrus ABRACADABRA.  Then repeat this word as  many times as there are letters in the word, but each time taking off a letter, so that the whole thing takes the form of a cone.  This done, hang the piece of papyrus around the neck of the patient with a linen thread.  It is claimed that lion-fat is also a good medicine.  Coral and saffron wrapped in a cat’s skin has a virtue not less marvellous.  If you think it advisable to hang some coral around the patient’s neck, include some emeralds: this talisman will infallibly cast out the lethal fire of the fever.

Prioreschi draws this explanatory diagram (although methinks the last two columns have got out of line!):[3]

The diagram contains the word “ABRACA” a lot.  Is there perhaps a connection to Abracax / Abraxas, the gnostic deity?

I learn from Prioreschi that the actual origin of the word “abracadabra” is unknown but in the middle ages became famous as a way to work magic, medicinal and otherwise.  Apparently Pepin’s edition contains more information on this, for those interested in tracing it further.

  1. [1]Critical edition and translation by R. Pepin, Quintus Serenus (Sammonicus), Liber medicinalis, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.  I have no access to this, so have relied on the older French translation at remacle.org.  More information about Serenus Sammonicus is accessible at Prioreschi, p.505.
  2. [2]http://latin.packhum.org/loc/1515/1/0#0
  3. [3]Plinio Prioreschi, A History of Medicine (vol. 3): Roman medicine, Omaha: Horatius Press, 1998, p.508-509.

9 thoughts on “First use of “abracadabra”? It’s Serenus Sammonicus!

  1. Very interesting: thank you!

    At the risk of a Fluellenist tangent, I wonder if there’s a glint of playful reference to Sammonicus in Tolkien calling “the oldest of all the sand-sorcerers” Psamathos Psamathides in Roverandom?

  2. Well, probably not: “Psamathos Psamathides” means “Sand, son of Sand” in Greek, so it’s unlikely that we have to look any further.

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