The Abracadabra of Faery
by Craig Conley
Delving through dusty old tomes in search of ancient expressions of enchantment, I noticed that one command in particular seemed to trace directly back to Faery. I was searching for subtle, mysterious, transformative words, whose vibrations seemed to transcend the laws of physics. One such mystical word proved time and time again to be the name of a great lady Faery. Small wonder that her name has endured as the best-known and best-loved magic word in recorded history.
Her name is that spine-tingling thing that gives you goose bumps. It’s the instant of a wish coming true. It’s opening your eyes and seeing that the workaday world has transformed into something holy. It’s that moment of clarity when everything suddenly “clicks,” and you see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. These clicks and ticks can trigger a resounding chime, signaling the fullness of time. And yet it is that very same chime of the clock that can disintegrate a dream. Energy builds and builds to a breaking point. Then it diminishes. This is the cosmic process of creation and destruction, of waxing and waning, reflected by great Faery name Abracadabra. The Lady Abracadabra’s name is pure dazzle, and it has never lost its spark over the centuries. Nor has it lost connection to its Faery roots, even in “generic” form — in 1933, Neil Bell referred to “an invocation as remote from reality as the abracadabra of faery.”1
An Indivisible Name
Sustained over generations by its undeniable profundity, today the Faery name Abracadabra pops up virtually any time someone wants to describe a magical moment in life. It’s so versatile that it appears as every part of speech, from noun to adjective to verb, and it is instantly poetic: “Dewdrops perched on tall blades of grass became small prisms in the abracadabra light of sunrise,” wrote poet Diane Ackerman.2 Indeed, Abracadabra captures that wavelength of light that scintillates and makes rainbows. It’s also the mystery of shadows, as poet Barbara Smith described:
Wait while darkness
pronounces its abracadabra,
and the moon rises
from the tips of trees.”3
Ultimately, Abracadabra is a building block, a blueprint: “I was getting back to simple abracadabra,” wrote novelist Henry Miller, “the straw that makes bricks, the crude sketch, the temple which must take on flesh and blood and make itself manifest to all the world.”4 The brick metaphor is apt; for all its syllables, Abracadabra is one of those “one-piece words” that “seem complete in themselves.”5 Not easily divided into smaller linguistic pieces (morphemes), Abracadabra has a dynamism to it, something that carries the speaker smoothly through the syllables. It’s like a handful of other long yet unified words that roll off the tongue: didgeridoo, mulligatawny, millennium, rhododendron.6 It’s as if there’s a sonic “glue” holding the syllables together which gives the word strength.
The Lady Abracadabra Herself
Why shouldn’t there be a fairy Abracadabra? If you believed a thing enough, it became real, with a few trifling exceptions.
—E. F. Benson, Across the Stream (1919)
Strength is indeed a characteristic of the Lady Abracadabra, a powerful Faery trickster with a notoriously bad temper. In 1919, E. F. Benson addressed her as “Her Fairy Majesty the Empress Abracadabra.”7 Three quarters of a century earlier, in 1844, William Churne of Straffordshire identified Lady Abracadabra as great-aunt to King Katzekopf and Queen Ninnilinda.8 Churne offered an example of her rancor: when Lady Abracadabra wasn’t invited to the royal christening, she decreed that the baby prince be a willful child (to the chagrin of his parents).
Lady Abracadabra’s appearance was rather extraordinary, presumably affected by her close contact with the human race. William Churne explains:
Whether the Lady Abracadabra had been a beauty in the days of her youth, some eight or nine hundred years before, there is, at present, no means of ascertaining; but certainly . . . her appearance was anything but prepossessing. Perhaps, gentle reader, you have been in the habit of supposing that all the Fairies are dainty, little, airy beings, with butterfly wings, and vests of green and gold, who hide themselves in a blue-bell, and lose themselves among the petals of a peony. And such, no doubt, are the elves that live among the green hills, and who love to dance by moonlight, in the glades of the forest, or beside the pleasant water-courses. But there are others who mingle more with the human race, and adopt their habits, and hence, it may be, they become more subject to the changes which affect mortals. Perhaps this was the cause why the Lady Abracadabra’s face had become so brown, and shrunken, and covered with deep-set wrinkles; or perhaps it was the having had her own way so much; or those long journeys in which she travelled at the rate of a thousand miles a minute, might have spoiled her complexion; or perhaps, having arrived at (what even among the Fairies is allowed to be) a certain age, she could not help looking like an old woman. But be this as it may, she did look very old, and the effect of her short black velvet jacket, and yellow satin petticoat, did not mend matters. She wore on her head a tall, steeple-crowned hat, of the same material as her jacket; had high-heeled shoes with diamond buckles, and bore in her hand a pliant rod of ebony, with a small star of living light at each end of it.
Though short-tempered, Lady Abracadabra had a generous spirit (to match her great age), and like Saint Nicholas, her gift-giving was celebrated through the years. She delivered presents in a clothes-basket made of gold. She worked only in the darkness, after sending the sun to bed early (hence sunset’s deep red color of passion). She kept notes in a diamond pocketbook with an emerald pencil. Before entering any house, she verified with eyes like microscopes that the trashcan was free from bits of temper or disobedience. At the least sign of priggishness, she put a black mark on the front door and moved on to the next house, sending a large packet of toothache and earwigs by the next post.9
Interestingly, her brown skin and authority as an aunt became an integral part of her legend. For example, in 1914 Arthur Christopher Benson recalled:
We had a delightful custom in nursery days, devised by my mother, that on festival occasions, such as birthdays or at Christmas, our presents were given us in the evening by a fairy called Abracadabra. The first time the fairy appeared, we heard, after tea, in the hall, the hoarse notes of a horn. We rushed out in amazement. Down in the hall, talking to an aunt of mine who was staying in the house, stood a veritable fairy, in a scarlet dress, carrying a wand and a scarlet bag, and wearing a high pointed scarlet hat, of the shape of an extinguisher. My aunt called us down; and we saw that the fairy had the face of a great ape, dark-brown, spectacled, of a good-natured aspect, with a broad grin, and a curious crop of white hair, hanging down behind and on each side.10
One festival, “Abracadabra Day,” celebrates Lady Abracadabra’s willful side. It has been called “the best holiday of all,” listed “in no almanac and printed in no calendar.” It is explained in Mr. Mysterious & Company (1962) by Sid Fleischman: “The secret was this: No matter how bad you were on Abracadabra Day or no matter what pranks you pulled, you would not be spanked or punished. . . . There was only one rule about Abracadabra Day. You must not tell anybody the day you had chosen to be bad. . . . It was like magic to do something naughty and not get punished.”
Abracadabra as a Magic Invocation
The fairy was saying, “Abracadabra.”
—Louise Closser Hale, An American’s London (1920)
The potent name Abracadabra was eventually conjured during acts of magic. For example, in 1864, Edouard Laboulaye documented a Faery named Finette evoking the name Abracadabra to bewitch a troublesome old giant.11 In 1945, Maria Szezepańska Kuncewiczowa quoted a Faery using the magic word Abracadabra to open a crack in the ceiling.12 In 1956, Beverley Nichols described another transformation achieved by virtue of the great name: “Abracadabra — and lo, the empty garret becomes, in a flash, a fairy palace with fountains.”13
So closely associated with magic, the name Abracadabra naturally became synonymous with magic. For example, in 1907 James Branch Cabell wrote:
In meditation she appeared some prentice queen of Faery dubious as to her incantations. Now, though, she had it — the mislaid abracadabra.14
Abracadabra is a Faery place name as well. In 1851, George Augustus Sala wrote of “Harlequin Feo-fo-fum,” who was the “Enchanted Fairy of the Island of Abracadabra.”15
How to Properly Intone the Great Name
Say abracadabra, but mean it.
—Armand Okur, Pandora’s Box (2002)
When honoring the name of the Lady Abracadabra, it is generally recommended that you vocalize as much vibration as possible, “as you would any mantra. Emphasis on each syllable, so that you can hear it resonate and feel it vibrate within you, is the key. The sound of any power-word or name seeks and harnesses that power. When this sound is combined with concentration and visualization, you stir the energy and power to which you are heir.”16
Speak the great name Abracadabra with all the mystery, wonder, and sense of danger of saying “I love you” for the first time. The lover who is about to make that critical verbal leap speaks with a courage that is, ideally, tempered by a healthy respect for consequences beyond his or her control. Laurie Cabot explains:
Being in love can remind us of the power of the word. Saying “I love you” to someone for the first time, for example, is an act fraught with mystery, wonder, and danger. How will she take it? Am I saying it too soon? Should I wait? For what? To let him say it first? Saying those three little words is a highly charged act of power. It brings consequences.17
Accordingly, to speak Abracadabra with a vivid awareness of consequences would sound courageous but not haughty, determined but not sanguine, adventurous but not reckless. Perhaps the deliberate introduction of just a hint of hesitation beforehand might dramatically suggest some intriguing inner dialogue: “Am I saying the great name too soon? Should I wait just another moment? Should I be concerned about unexpected results?” Such a hesitation need not detract from one’s air of mastery — for one clearly knows the great name and how to say it properly — but rather would impart a strong sense of the awesome responsibility inherent in wielding such power.
Ultimately, the great Faery name Abracadabra should be spoken as a relic from another time, as something once buried for its own survival, as something unspoken that dimly endures in one’s memory, as a subtle but vital energy. Speak the lady’s name as if you might never utter it again, with all the innocent awe of a child beseeching a parent.
Will the Lady Abracadabra’s Name Endure?
It’s a pity the fairy Abracadabra is not here.
—Henry Courteney Selous, Sunny Days; or, A Month at the Great Stowe (1871)
Century after century, the Lady Abracadabra continues to show her face and leave her mark, especially “when mischief is at its height.”18 For example, in 1999 Nurit Karlin identified her incarnation as “Abra Cadabra,” assistant to the Tooth Fairy.19 “Abra Cadabra” is also a legendary old wise woman and oracle in Dana Redfield’s Jonah (2000). And the incantation “Abracadabra fairy power” even occurs in a contemporary retelling of the Cinderella story by Dave Buchanan (2003). The great lady Faery will do doubt endure — indeed, her name has eventually come to mean “from now on.”20
1 Neil Bell, Bredon and Sons, Little, Brown, and Co., 1933, p. 302
2 Diane Ackerman, Deep Play, Vintage, 2000, p. 162
3 Barbara Smith, Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999, Publishers Place, 2000, p. 167
4 Henry Miller, Sexus, Grove Press, 1962, p. 25
5 Richard Coates, Word Structure, Routledge, 1999, p. 1
7 Edward Frederic Benson, Across the Stream, George H. Doran Co., 1919, p. 34
8 William Churne (a.k.a. Francis Edward Paget), The Hope of the Katzekopfs, Johnson Reprint Corp., 1844
9 Edward Frederic Benson, Account Rendered, Doubleday, 1911, p. 249
10 Arthur Christopher Benson, Where No Fear Was, Putnam, 1914, p. 16
11 Edouard Laboulaye, “Yvon and Finette,” Les Contes Bleus, Furne et Cie, 1864, p. 72
12 Maria Szezepańska Kuncewiczowa, The Keys: A Journey Through Europe at War, Hutchinson, 1945, p. 74
13 Beverley Nichols, Sunlight on the Lawn, Timber Press, 1956, p. 273
15 James Branch Cabell, Gallantry: An Eighteenth Century Dizain in Ten Comedies, with an Afterpiece, Harper, 1907, p. 301
15 George Augustus Sala, Gaslight and Daylight: Some London Scenes They Shine Upon, Chapman and Hall, 1859, p. 16
16 Eleanor L. Harris, Ancient Egyptian Divination and Magic, Weiser Books, 1998, p. 103
17 Laurie Cabot and Tom Cowan, Love Magic, Dell, 1992, p. 17
18 Roger Lancelyn Green, Teller of Tales, E. Ward, 1953, p. 18
19 Nurit Karlin, Abra Cadabra and the Tooth Witch, Somerville, 1999
20 Heike Owusu, Voodoo Rituals: A User’s Guide, Sterling, 2002, p. 270