Loyal fans of the Harry Potter series know the spells by heart: expelliarmus is used to disarm (diswand, really) another magician, obliviate is for erasing memories, and lumos is used to make your wand into a flashlight. But what some fans may not know are the Latin roots of these words, which cleverly explain what magic they perform. Expelliarmus comes from the Latin word expello, which means “I banish,” and arma, meaning “weapons.” Obliviate simply derives from the medieval Latin word obliviscor, which means “I forget.” And lumos comes from the Latin root lumen, which means “light.” The use of Latin in magic is pervasive — from fictional spells to historical texts to religious exorcisms. But why Latin? We’ll enlighten you. Lumos.
The History Of Latin In Magic
Latin in magic has become so ubiquitous likely because of the historical precedent set way back in the Middle Ages (and even before that).
One of the earliest popular forms of what could be considered magic was alchemy, a mix of chemistry and speculative philosophy, in which an alchemist attempted to turn base metals into silver or gold in pursuit of immortality. It was treated as a hard science at the time, but parts definitely crossed the line into magical territory. Alchemy dates back to ancient China and India, but it got its name in 12th century Europe, where Latin was spoken, and so related texts were written in the language.
In the 14th century, a darker field of magical study arose called necromancy, which involved conjuring the dead. Much of the writing about necromancy was in Latin, and so people wishing to practice it had to be able to read the language.
In the 15th century, witches became the new obsession. During this time, Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”), which discussed witchcraft. The book, written in Latin, became very influential, despite its misogynist ramblings that blamed women for witchcraft. Even medieval medicine incorporated elements of what could be considered magic, and medical books from the time were published in — you guessed it — Latin.
While the Middle Ages were primetime for magic, traces of sorcery date all the way back to ancient times. Magical amulets, spells written on “curse tablets” and forms of ancient voodoo were present in Ancient Greece and Rome. Because the Romans spoke Latin, these traditions were passed down in that language, and so you see a lot of Latin in magic.
The Role Of Christianity
Religion is also wrapped up in this history, but we decided to focus on it separately, as it has played a particularly important role in magic’s reliance on the Latin language.
Let’s start with the connection between Latin and Catholicism. Latin became the official language of the Catholic Church in the 4th century. Latin was used in Catholic mass until the 1960s, when vernacular languages began to be used instead (in Catholicism, at least, as other churches broke off in order to use non-Latin masses). Over the course of the many centuries in which Latin was the official language of Catholicism, the religion fought against demonic possession, the devil and other magic-adjacent forces. The prayers recited to dispel these creatures were in Latin, and this has been passed down via pop culture (i.e. The Exorcist), causing media consumers to form a mental link between Latin and magic.
Throughout history, many sects of Christianity have opposed magic (some even banned Harry Potter). They view it as satanic, but like with exorcisms, even in opposing magic, they have forged deep ties between religion and magic, and thus between Latin and magic.
Another potential reason for the ubiquity of Latin in magic is more subjective: it’s linguistically appealing. Vulgar (common) Latin forms the backbone of the Romance languages and had a significant influence on English vocabulary, so Westerners are relatively familiar with parts of the Latin language. But at the same time, it’s also technically a dead language, which gives it an old and mysterious quality. Perhaps this combination of vaguely familiar but also enigmatic makes it the perfect language for the world of magic.