Long before they invented writing (5000 B.C.), humans discovered human speech, 70,000 years ago. But when people learned to write, words were considered magic. Egyptian hieroglyphs (“sacred writing”) were believed to have such magical power that the name of something written on a tomb guaranteed that the deceased, become immortal, would possess it after his death : even when real clothes, jewels, furniture and food were placed inside the tomb – and later probably stolen – the very words identifying them on the outside of the tomb would assure their continued presence ! Ancient Egyptians called their writing “the words of the gods”, because Thot, the god of wisdom, had invented it.
In every epoch, certain spoken words are also believed to possess magical powers. When I was growing up, they were “Open Sesame !” and “Abracadabra !”, but also, for us as Catholics, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”). The magical formula for transsubstantiation, turning bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, was satirized by the expression “Hocus Pocus” – become a blanket designation for charlatans’ exploitation of people’s superstition and credulity.
Franciscans take leave of each other by wishing their brother “Pax et bonum” (“Peace and well-being”). The ancient Egyptians wrote three hieroglyphic words on tombs, not just wishing the dead well but guaranteeing that they would enjoy ANKH (Life), OUDJA (Prosperity) and SENEB (Health). A pity such generous sentiments were the wishful thinking, as in all religions, of the terminally naïve.