An Anti-Trump Incantation: What's in a Magic Spell?

The tarot cards with crystal, black candles and magic objects.
Binding spells, like the one a magical resistance group claimed to have cast on Donald Trump, go way back to ancient Greece. (Image credit: Vera Petruk/Shutterstock)

In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," the titular character must contend with a trio of witches who predict his ascent and then his downfall.

Donald Trump may want to read up. The 45th president has a new foe: America's witches, Wiccans, magicians and other mystics. A loosely formed group calling itself the Magical Resistance has emerged on Facebook and Twitter, where members shared photos of their "binding spell" setups in a mass demonstration of magic on Friday night (Feb. 24).

The social media angle is new, but binding spells are very, very old. They date back to Greek and Roman antiquity, historians say. But while the goal remains the same — stop an opponent from achieving success — the rituals accompanying the spells have changed dramatically, highlighting the fractured and fragmentary history of magic rituals.

Binding spells are "a very good example of how a general concept of magic can continue forward through history, but a very specific practice comes and goes," said Michael Bailey, who studies the history of late medieval religion, superstition and witchcraft in Europe at Iowa State University. [6 Misconceptions About Wiccans]

Spells that bind

Since as far back as humanity has left records, people have believed in magic. Some "magical" artifacts even predate the written record. Strange scratched-up stones found in Denmark, for example, may be symbolic maps that were used in magical rituals by Stone Age farmers, archaeologists reported late last year.

Binding spells are spells meant not to harm, but to prevent someone else from harming the spell caster, said Michael Ostling, a professor of religious studies at Arizona State University who researches early modern witchcraft and folk beliefs.

"The best defense is a good offense," Ostling said.

Binding spells were relatively common historically, Ostling told Live Science, along with healing spells and love spells.

The first binding spells were called "defixiones." These were ancient Greek and Roman tablets, mostly made of lead, inscribed with pleas for deities or spirits to halt a foe's successes or otherwise bring them down. There have been more than 1,500 of these tablets found around the Mediterranean, according to the 1999 book "Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World."   

Many of these curse tablets are downright banal. One, cited in a 2016 paper by the University of Chicago's Seon Yong Kim in the journal New Testament Studies, asks that Eutychian, son of Eutychia, be chilled in all his purposes, including the wrestling he is going to do "this coming Friday." Another cited by Kim asks the holy spirits to bind and attack the "hands, sinews of the horses and charioteers of the Blue colors." Clearly, ancient Greeks and Romans took their sports seriously.

Fragmented history

The tradition of inscribing tablets vanished with time, but the idea of binding someone into service or binding spiritual power into a ring or a gemstone continued into medieval and early modern European times, Iowa State's Bailey said.

"You would bind a spirit or a demon to do your bidding," he said. [5 Fairy Tales That Came True]

Recently, magic believers conducted their binding ritual by chanting an incantation and burning a picture of Trump. That sort of ritual involving chanting and the manipulation of objects — particularly objects having something to do with the target — is seen in magic traditions across cultures, Ostling said.

But there's no clear historical chain of custody for these spells, Bailey said. Contemporary reports of magic rituals from European history are slim, he said, because people practicing these rituals were always outside of the mainstream and didn't exactly have the freedom to compile how-to manuals.

The witch trials of the early modern period (the 1450s to the 1750s) don't offer much clarity either, Bailey said. Typically, the court records focus on accusations like, "You caused those crops to wither" or "You caused those cattle to die," without giving much insight into the step-by-step process the alleged witch purportedly used, he said.

Instead, a lot of modern paganism, and other occult and magical belief has been inspired by early modern and Renaissance intellectuals, who would "happily write extended treatises" about doing magical rituals supposedly connected to folk belief, Bailey said. The links between these ivory-tower demonstrations (which tended to include a lot of candles and incense and symbols chalked on the floor) and the sort of magic a village healer would have performed are tenuous, Bailey said. 

"We're talking about things that have a history, but the history gets broken up," he said.

As for witches engaging in political resistance, well, that does seem new. There's no evidence that the covens of witches imagined by prosecutors in witch hunts ever existed, Bailey said. It would have been too dangerous for large numbers of people to gather to do magic in medieval or early modern Europe, even if they had thought of themselves as spell casters.

"There are incidents from the early modern period of political figures accusing people of trying to curse them or put a spell on them," Ostling said. "But nobody until recent times would actually declare their intention to do that publically because they would probably be executed."

Original article on Live Science

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.