Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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In Which the Minstrel Roastbeef Invokes the Devil

Around 1261, the troubadour Rutebeuf (“Roast Beef”) published an early French miracle play, Le Miracle de Théophile.

Little did he know that he was about to make Wiccan history.

Based on 11th century Christian legend, the play tells the story of Theophilus (“god-lover”) of Adana, who sells his soul to the Devil. The Devil is called up, by a sorcerer named Salatin, with a mysterious chant:

 Bagahi lacha bachabe,

Lamac cahi achabahe,


Lamac lamec bachalyos,

Cabahagi sabalyos,


Lagozatha cabyolas,

Samahac et famyolas,


Gerald Gardner added the chant, with its good, romping dance rhythm, to his Book of Shadows-in-the-making some time in the late 1940s. In 1952 writer Pennethorne Hughes identified this as a Basque witch's chant. Later (1974) Michael Harrison −who does not speak Basque−wrote a book on the subject, including what he claimed was a translation of the Basque text. Even though his translation is ungrammatical and makes virtually no sense, one has to admit that it's a good story, especially since at the time the Basques were thought to be the original inhabitants of western Europe. (Later scholarship has shown that they entered the pays Basque much later, along with the migrations that brought agriculture to Europe [Manco 119].)

The notion that witches, as the original people of Europe, had their own lost language (called, confusingly, "Runic") and culture was very much a theory of its times. I might add that the Recovery of said culture continues in our own day.

In fact, the "invocation" is made-up gibberish. (Another French miracle play from the same century features yet another invocation to the Devil in yet another unknown—read, “invented”—language.) Since the name of the sorcerer who uses it is Salatin ( = Saladin), we can presume that he is a Saracen using evil paynim magic, and that this is supposed to be Arabic. In fact, it sounds nothing like Arabic. (If anything, it sounds more like−speaking of invented languages−Sindarin than anything else.) The important thing is that it sounds exotic, mysterious, and not like French.

There's no point trying to decipher what the invocation means; the whole point lies in its incomprehensibility. Its purpose is to be evocative, and in this it succeeds quite admirably.

One impressive thing about this chant is that it manages to look and sound real. I'd like to look closely at just how Rutebeuf manages to achieve this effect.

Let me invite you, dear reader, to read the chant again, and better it be if you read it out loud. I've indicated stress. (Note that every stressed syllable contains the A sound. If this were an actual human language, that would be extremely unlikely, but it does indeed succeed in creating a hypnotic, incantatory effect.)

Bagáhi láca báchahë,

Lámac cáhi achábahë,



Lámac lámec báchalyos,

Cábahági sábalyos,



Lágozátha cábyolas,

Sámahac et fámyolas,


The first thing to notice is that it breaks quite neatly into three stanzas, each indicated by a metrically "deficient" (i.e. short) line. Each stanza is virtually metrically identical. So it sounds like real poetry, because it acts just like the poetry that we know.

Here's the metrical analysis. (Because the characters available to me don't include the commonly-used long and short signs, I'll use / for a stressed syllable and − for unstressed.) The basis of the "poem" is a three-beat line, with some variation.












Note also that the rhyme scheme links the three stanzas:












Everything rhymes except for the very last word, the invocation's culmination: Appear!

The Book of Shadows is a scrapbook, filled with delicious and evocative bits from all over, and certainly Bagabi lacha bachabe (as I first learned it years ago) is one of the most evocative tidbits of all. In fact, a version of this chant has been used by Wiccans at Samhain every year to invoke the Horned God for going on 70 years now. That's pretty impressive.

And wouldn't Roastbeef be surprised.


Michael Harrison, "The Language of Witchcraft," in The Roots of Witchcraft (1974). Citadel

Pennethorne Hughes, Witchcraft (1952). Pelican.

Jean Manco, Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings (2015). Thames and Hudson.

For Michelle

who reminded me with a song

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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