Hoc Est Corpus

Ever since I was a kid, Halloween has been one of my favorite holidays. No, it had nothing to do with the acquisition of tasty treats, but rather in coming up with a creative costume and pretending to be someone else.

I also enjoyed watching, time and time again, the Bugs Bunny Halloween Special.

In it, bugs makes another wrong turn and ends up at the doorstep of a creepy castle in Transylvania. Wanting to use the phone, he is tricked into spending the night by a sinister figure. Not feeling sleepy, Bugs finds a book on the shelf titled Magic Words and Phrases (3:25). Bugs has a little fun with the mysterious menace by uttering magic words that transform the vampire from being a winged bat to being a human-like vampire.

The word that changes the being into a flying mammal is abracadabra. The phrase that transforms him to a vampire is Hocus Pocus. And it is precisely this phrase that prompts this post.

There is a great deal of controversy as to the origins of this phrase. I’ve read everything from it being the name of a 15th century magician to merely gibberish words said to children—a type of archaic tongue twister.   But the explanation that most caught my attention was it being a distortion of hoc est corpus meumthis is my body in Latin–the words uttered by the celebrant during the consecration while he elevates the host.

Again, I’ve heard different renditions of this explanation.

  • Peasants during the French Revolution (not sure what that has to do with it), not well studied in Latin, misunderstood the consecration and thought it to be some type of incantation that could magically transform one element to another. Which would make sense in the case of a magician putting a dove into his black hat, waving his wand, saying the magic words and pulling out a rabbit.
  • I’ve also read a strikingly similar explanation, but this time the party in error was the Puritans. This explanation, however falls short. Puritans, an offshoot of the Church of England who felt the institution was becoming too permissive, would not have attended a Roman Catholic Mass.
  • Another explanation doesn’t blame poor catechesis or dissenting theology, but rather bad acoustics and mumbling priests. This explanation does carry water in that, at the time, the Mass was celebrated ad orientem–facing east–which meant the priest would often have his back to the people. And priests did tend to speak in a low voice—all this taking place before the advent of microphones and video monitors.

While the jury’s still out on a definitive conclusion, I like to think that the phrase did indeed come from the liturgy. If you say them fast enough—hoc est corpus and hocus pocus—there is definitely a similarity.

1 Comment

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Br Damian Hardman
November 11, 2011 at 5:54 pm

During the Reformation (Deformation) here in England the reformers did everything they could to wipe Catholicism out of the hearts and minds of the faithful. This was done by both persecuting leading Catholics and ridiculing the Faith. My own monastery was pulled down – only to be rebuilt three and a half centuries later by a group of French monks. Another monastery which became and Anglican church was not pulled down, instead the altar was removed and became the floor in the porch – the entrance to the church – so that people coming to “service” would have to walk on it to come inside. Attendance by the way was obligatory and over time people lost their sense of its sacredness. The “HOC EST ENIM CORPUS MEUM” had the equivalent done to it and became hocus pocus, both ridiculing the words of the Mass and Catholic belief in Transubstantiation, which the reformers believed was “magic”. The Rev Hislop in his “The Two Babylons” states that “the doctrine of transubstantiation is clearly of the very essence of Magic, which pretended, on the pronunciation of a few potent words, to change one substance into another, or by a dexterous juggle, wholly to remove one substance, and to substitute another in its place.” “The Two Babylons” is an anti-Catholic religious pamphlet produced initially by the Scottish theologian and Presbyterian Alexander Hislop in 1853.