Final Word

No magic, no South African miracle – abracadabra


With Madiba magic gone, it is increasingly appearing as if the 1994 birth of the South African ‘Rainbow Nation’ was but a myth and that only part of ‘abracadabra’ has remained behind.

The dawn of our democracy in South Africa was worldwide regarded as a miracle, as all births are. This baby was baptised Rainbow Nation, by an archbishop, no less – one Desmond Tutu. The magic word, our ‘abracadabra’, so to speak, making this miracle birth possible, was ‘reconciliation’.

The one person who became the personification of, and working this ‘magic’, was Nelson Mandela. But with the beloved Madiba gone, it seems as if the Rainbow Nation, as one news headline last week described it, has turned out to be a myth.

The word ‘miracle’, defined as an ‘extraordinary and astonishing happening that is attributed to the presence and action of an ultimate or divine power’, can be traced back to the Greek word meidan, or/and the Sanskrit smerah, meaning ‘to smile’.

In Latin it became mirari (‘to wonder at, marvel, be astonished’), giving rise to the term miraculum for an object of wonder, and used in Church Latin for a marvellous event caused by God.

It arrived in 11th century Old French as miracle from where it migrated with the same meaning to Middle English by the mid-12th century. By the mid-13th century it became secularised to some extent to indicate any extraordinary or remarkable feat, without necessarily the intervention of a deity.

Belief in miracles is to be found in just about all religions. Stories about miracles are handed down in all cultures, although the context can vary widely from culture to culture – be it practical, religious or even philosophical.

The one common denominator is that it is used to explain the otherwise unexplainable. And that is where ‘magic’ or magic powers construct the bridge between what we understand and can explain and that which we cannot.

Magic powers

The word ‘magic’ also arrived in late Middle English along a similar route as ‘miracle’. It started off in Greek with the word magikē as the tekhnē (art of) a magus (magician). There were also other associated words like magice for ‘sorcery’.

From there it moved on to Latin as magicus and magica before arriving in Old French as magique before arriving in English somewhere in the 14th century.

In Old Persian there was also the like-sounding magush.  

In modern times the terms ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ are mostly used in reference to the entertainment art of producing illusions by the use of techniques like sleight of hand and deceptive devices.

But like miracles, its roots can be traced back to ancient religion and belief systems. Early in the Bible there are references (Judg. 18:5, 6 and Zech. 10:2) to the Jews consulting the teraphim for oracular answers, and to the magicians of Egypt (Exodus).

But then all magical ‘arts’ were distinctly forbidden under the penalty of death under Mosaic law.

The Greek ‘magi’ had the ‘divine’ and ‘sacred’ fire as the symbol of their Divine Being burning in their sanctuaries and never allowed to die down. Parallels of this are to be found in Rome’s Vestal Virgins and to this day in the Presence Lamps kept burning in some Roman Catholic churches.

In ancient times one of the functions of magicians was to keep illness at bay with their magic powers. One of their tools was ‘magic words’, with one of the best-known – and still used by magician entertainers before they pull a rabbit from a hat or a pigeon from their sleeve – being ‘abracadabra’.

Final word on SA miracle

There is much debate amongst linguists about the exact origin of the word ‘abracadabra’, but those so seemingly intent on destroying the Madiba magic might have a lot in common with one of the more plausible explanations.

This explanation goes back to an Aramaic phrase, avra kadavra, which is also used by JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame to mean ‘let the thing be destroyed’.

Maybe those who are doing their utmost to destroy the magic of reconciliation by their war on the statues of long-dead people should note that kadavra also happens to be the Turkish word whence we get ‘cadaver’, meaning corpse.

In the meantime those of us who still believe that the miracle of the Rainbow Nation can be kept alive, will live our lives in South Africa in the spirit of the words of the famous scientist, Albert Einstein, who once said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

by Piet Coetzer

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