Review – Nordblom’s Historiola: The Power of Narrative Charms

One topic that the current magical revival has overlooked is the use of short verbal charms for healing, protection, or other purposes. This is not for lack of source material; my six edited works of magic contain considerable material along these lines, not to mention the vast corpus stretching back millennia in many different languages. Some of it has to do with the move away in modern occultism from the healing arts, the lack of need for charms for agricultural purposes, and the emphasis in New Age-influenced spiritual practice emphasizing incense, crystals, and herbs over verbal incantations. Thus Carl Nordblom’s book Historiola: The Power of Narrative Charms seeks to introduce these works to a modern audience.

(Full disclosure: This review is based upon a hardback copy sent to me by Hadean. Also, I’ve actually considered writing a popular book on this topic, and I might do so.)

Nordblom’s book is largely geared toward practitioners with a theoretical bent, perhaps those more familiar with spirit summoning and other techniques. He explores the underpinnings for how these charms work through their references to powerful figures, the appeal to mythic occurrences linked via narrative into a present situation, and other approaches. Curiously, there is no sort of listing of charms for various purposes which might appeal more to those of a pragmatic focus. (There is a thorough bibliography and index, to help with finding particular items.)

Let’s get to the charms themselves, and how they are covered. I think it’s fair to say that Historiola is both better than what’s presented before for a wider audience, but also has some gaps in its coverage. The charms cited here span thousands of years and much of Europe and the Middle East in their geography. Nordblom has read a great deal of literature on this topic, and his discussion and bibliography testify to the work he’s done. I appreciated seeing some charms, especially those from foreign languages, that are relatively unfamiliar or that I hadn’t seen before.

Nonetheless, Nordblom is not familiar with as much of either the charms or the scholarly literature as he could have been. For example, while the charms are presented faithfully, their historical transmission is rarely explored. (At least one work absent from Nordblom’s bibliography, Roper’s English Verbal Charms, would have been a key text here.) This omission becomes problematic when Nordblom insists that charms are best taught and implemented in the original language and not in translation. Although engaging with living folk traditions can be valuable and fruitful, the length of time these charms have been in circulations and the numerous translations and permutations they have experienced, this is a problematic requirement,

Nordblom’s key focus is on the charms of an “encounter” typology, in which a supernatural authority figure meets an illness or evil during travel and exerts power to stop it. His charting and analysis of this motif is excellent, although he tends to pass over the personification of the evil force in question. I think the latter symbolic transformation into a force in the social realm, subject to that realm’s rules, is key to how these charms “work,” at least on the psychological level. Also, Nordblom takes “motion” as an important element of charms, whereas some prominent charm types merely describe a location- e.g. three fountains or flowers in a wood.

The narratives in the charms, as Nordblom notes, often feature religious figures in events not recorded in more orthodox accounts. Nordblom sees these as elaborations of the conventional narratives, suggesting that meditation on such expansions may serve a practitioner well. He does not note the charms that run counter to the accepted accounts. Indeed, he includes one such charm on page 77, in which a time-traveling Saint Peter saves the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus from bandits. I would have liked to see what Nordblom could have done with an analysis of this topic.

One other area in which the book could have been expanded was the discussion of the ritual actions and conditions that sometimes accompany these charms. Nordblom does touch on them, but there are a good number more, even in the sources he cites (such as Hohman’s Long Hidden Friend).

Despite all that I’ve just said, this is probably the best book explaining the theories and characteristics of verbal charms available to a popular audience right now, in an affordable format. I look forward to where this author might go next.

Published in: on November 24, 2021 at 5:09 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Thank you for such an in-depth, insightful and thorough review Dan!

    I think all the points you raised are fair, and I could’ve both in hindsight have expanded on several aspects of the charms. I was however a bit hesitant to include too many examples as the source material is just too extensive and there are a lot better sources than what I could’ve pulled off without making the book just a pure complication of charms.

    As I come from a living tradition of charmers where the charms indeed are transmitted via “initiation” and perceived as imbued with occult potency which is linked to the direct use of the charmer, I am indeed hesitant to state that people should pick up the translations… But as you notice I’m not aware of the Roper’s book, so you just have to excuse my ignorance on this matter.

    “…He does not note the charms that run counter to the accepted accounts. Indeed, he includes one such charm on page 77, in which a time-traveling Saint Peter saves the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus from bandits. I would have liked to see what Nordblum could have done with an analysis of this topic.”
    – Not certain exactly what you mean by this, but would love to hear your thoughts on it! Perhaps your upcoming work on the subject can expand on it 🙂

    P.S. Just to make it clear, my sir name is in fact NORDBLOM and not Nordblum 😉

    • First, apologies for the misspelling. I’ve gone back to correct it.

      Roper is out of print, but it’s an excellent work, as it sets up a typology and historical development for a wide variety of charms. If someone told me it had been superseded by more recent publications, I wouldn’t be surprised.

      As for the living traditions of charmers, I think the best way to approach these for modern practitioners is similar to how people think about lodge initiation – e.g. most of the material you’re learning is available online, but the restrictions on divulging the material is part of the journey.

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