What is the origin of rhyming magical spells?

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth the witches are casting a spell:

Macbeth is believed to have been written in 1606. In almost every presentation of magical spells in movies and plays and other literature they rhyme.

So where did the concept of rhyming magical spells originate? Did actual members of occult societies do this, or was this a product of entertainment? Was Shakespeare the first to present a rhyming spell for effect?

As with most issues regarding language, the ultimate origin is lost in the mists of time.
Rhyme is just one of many types of specialized speech found in spells and charms: you also find repetition and alliteration and (as in Shakespeare) a specific meter (rhythm). It is comparatively unusual in Old English poetry, but not entirely absent.
Shakespeare is not the first.
What Shakespeare gives is nice, but it isn’t the sort of spell real people would use: even for the 1600s, it’s cartoonish.
Most spells were used by ordinary people, not “members of occult societies,” and when people conceived of what evil witches did, they tended to model it on the kind of things they themselves did, though naturally witches’ motivations were diabolical.

Rhyming magic spells go back at least 1800 years to the still world famous


(from link):

For anyone who cares, it seems hemitritaeos is Latin for a certain type of intermittent fever that peaks every other day. The closest direct English translation is the archaic word semitertian.

Rhyme also makes things easier to remember, a strong reason for using it.

^ This. That’s why plays used to be written in verse, it made them easier to remember for the actors.

It’s also why a lot of old, pre-literate entertainment was written in some form of poetry, it made it easier to remember.

I’ve also heard a few centuries old recopies for things like cake that were composed in rhyme, to make them easier to remember.

So it may be more a reflection of entertainment styles (remember, Shakespeare’s plays were first and foremost entertainment) and memory aids that magical spells rhyme than actual magical practice in the old days.

I don’t know abut rhyme, but personally I suspect that the concept of ritual magic dates back to the Hittites who had a thing for rituals, and would plunder other countries for gods and rites. They had a very engineering aproach to things, do this, that should happen. If it does not happen, get a priest to debug your ritual.

They left no songs or plays behind.

The concept of ritual magic had been around for tens of thousands of years before the Hittites.

I am not so sure of that. The concept of religous ritual, definitly. The concept that you could copy some other nations ritual, plug in your own names, and you ought to get the same effect? I am not so sure of that. Pre-Hittite, nations or tribes seem to have seen their rituals as part of their national self.

The Hittites treated other nations rituals like the Romans broke apart the ships of Catrhage to improve their navy. I think that was new.

In an oral culture, rhyme and meter were the surest way to make sure the text got preserved. Rhyme or meter could be and were applied to pretty much anything, like the recipes that Broomstick mentioned. The *Alfiyah *by Ibn Malik is an old textbook of Arabic grammar. It’s a poem of a thousand lines in rhymed, metrical couplets which students had to memorize. Avicenna wrote a medical textbook in rhymed metrical couplets too. There are countless examples like this in Arabic literature.

If you look at ancient poetry, whether Chinese, Greek, Latin, or Sanskrit, it always follows a given meter, but there’s no rhyming. The oldest preserved Arabic poems, dating back to I think the 6th century, always rhyme. As far as I’ve been able to find out, rhyming poetry was first used by the Arabs and the use of rhyme in other languages came about from the influence of Arabic poetry. Rhyme in Persian poetry apparently began with the 10th-century Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, which was the first re-emergence of Persian literature after the Arab conquest. The first rhyming poems in European languages were in early Romance languages that followed Arabic models, such as the 12th-century Sicilian school, which in turn became the model for Italian poets like Petrarch & Dante. Also the *trobar *poems of Spain and Provence around that time. Sicily, Spain, and Provence had all been ruled by Arabs. Rhyme spread to English poetry only in the 14th century or so, due to French influence, after the langue d’oïl had adopted it from the langue d’oc.

Rhymes were certainly found outside of and earlier than Arab culture. You find occasional rhymes in Greek, Latin, and Old English. Rhyme in Old Irish is rather different than in English (the vowels match, but the consonants only have to be in the same group); in Welsh, the rhyme is on the pitch accent, not the stress accent. Celtic rhyming poems are much earlier than the Romance languages, though I’d agree with you that Arabic is a more likely source for the popularity of medieval rhyme. (That, and sound and grammatical changes in French that make creating a rhyming poem much easier than in Latin.)

This is a famous rhyming poem from Old Irish, “the Scholar and his Cat.” It’s easy to see that the first two lines (in Bán and -dán) rhyme; seilgg and -cheirdd also rhyme (same vowel, final consonants are both sonants + palatalized stops). There is a lot of Old Irish rhyming poetry, and I know of no mechanism that would have brought an Arabic literary concept to Ireland in the Old Irish period (before AD 900).

The thing about the Hittites is just flat-out wrong. There are Babylonian spells that are pre-Hittite. It sounds like Grim Render has just fixated on the Hittites for some reason, and has chosen to make them a lot more significant than they are in this arena.

“Klaatu! Barada! N…N…Necktie?”

“Hocus Pocus” I was told was a corruption of the consecration of the host in the latin mass - “Hoc est corpus meum” - most likely done for the purposes of the black mass, hence black magic. But yes, it just brings the standard “make it rhyme” idea to a particularly anti-authoritarian mystic behaviour.

Anglo-Saxons loved rhyming riddles. I suspect the rhyming spells may be a variant of that.