on magic

UrlMarina Warner at Threepenny Review:

Shakespeare uses verbal magic, cantrips and ditties, nonsense songs and verses throughout the plays, but in Othello he gives a glimpse of how powerful a spell becomes when it’s no longer oral, but fixed in material form. The fatal handkerchief is no ordinary hanky; it’s a love spell, and it was made with gruesome and potent ingredients (mummified “maiden’s hearts”) by a two-hundred-year-old sibyl in Egypt—Egypt being the birthplace and pinnacle of magic knowledge. “In her prophetic fury,” Othello tells Desdemona, this crone “sew’d the work.” His mother kept it to ward off the evil eye from her marriage and secure the love of her husband, Othello’s father, and Othello has passed it on to his wife to the same ends. Unlike the witches’ broth in Macbeth, Othello the Moor’s silk handkerchief is made to last; in one sense it is a text, woven to keep active and working through time.

Muslim practices are frequently scoffed at for their superstition, but in many respects they resemble both Judaic and Catholic ritual trust in the power of the word, especially transfused into things—into relics or paper or stones or…clothes. They were charmed with many kinds of conjuration, formulaic repetitions with not a word changed or out of place from the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet and other texts established by custom: the ninety-nine epithets of god, the stories of the saints.

more here.