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.
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 meum—this 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.