My mother believes in prayer, which I know because she tells me on a fairly regular basis. By “believe in” I mean she believes that if you pray assiduously or fervently, or both, then the thing you ask for will eventually be granted.
The point of her telling me this, I think, is to imply that I should adopt this practice which is so beneficial and effective. Whether I agree with her religious beliefs or not, I wonder why prayer is considered necessary, when the omniscient Christian God can know everything we are thinking anyway. Why is talking to God different from simply believing and feeling when He already knows?
We have an incredible belief in the power of language. In many cases, I would even ask why so many people believe in the magical power of language? To give just one small (admittedly old) example, the ancient Egyptians believed that knowing the name of a person contained power to affect that person, so that a description of one of the early pharaohs, indicating how powerful he was, declares that even his mother does not know his name.
Magical belief regarding language is also ubiquitous. It is the basis of a belief in the real effect of both blessings and curses. For those of us who are rigidly rational in our fine modern world, blessings and curses are only symbolic of feelings. In contrast, many of our fellow humans have taken and still take such spoken sounds as having the power to change what happens in the world. There is an illustrative scene in Dostoyevsky’s novel with the grim title The Humiliated and Insulted, in which the mother long dreads the idea that the father might openly curse their daughter, and when he finally does, the mother is horrified and anguished, as though he has done physical harm.
More vividly, perhaps, as indicators of linguistic power, are magical spells. As expert witnesses on this point, I turn to the witches in MacBeth and to Harry Potter. If I really wanted to create some light here, I might try Harry’s “lumos maxima”. The idea of witches and wizards may be exaggerated in literature, but a belief in the existence of secret words to make things happen has been common throughout the world.
In a still more intense example, we find examples of language equated with the power to create all that exists. The creation in Genesis is well known, as God speaks the world into existence, but that is not the only example. There are instances in Egyptian creation myths of the deity Ptah creating the universe by speech.
Whence comes this belief in the physical power of language? Perhaps it is a strong symbolic extension, beginning in a recognition of the real power of language as we use it with one another. Even if only the Greeks invented the study of rhetoric, in every culture people would have noticed that someone who was good with words could sometimes make things happen just by talking. That’s not magic, that’s real power. If I had that power myself, I’d talk you into sending me a dollar.
And bless you, dear reader.