In the earliest cultural beginnings, magic was closely associated not only with science, but also with semiotics. The etymology of several basic semiotic concepts indicates that the origin of the science of signs may be found in the context of magic rituals.
The English word ‘spell’ still means both ‘to name or print in order the letters of (a word)’ and ‘a spoken word believed to have magic power’. The old Germanic ‘rune’ is not only a sign from the code of the runic alphabet, but the word also means ‘charm’, or ‘magic incantation’. Another interesting case is the etymology of ‘glamor’, in the original sense of ‘a magic spell’ or ‘bewitchment’. This word is a derivation from the word ‘grammar’, from the popular association of semiotic erudition with occult practises.
The etymology of the German word ‘Bild’ (image, picture) also contains a magic element, namely, the Germanic etymon *bil-, ‘miraculous sign/.
This etymological evidence indicates that in the origins of our cultural history, the knowledge and usage of letters, writing, and later grammar was closely related to their acquaintance with magical practices. Evidently such a connection continued to be assumed for many centuries – the cultural origins of pictures and art in general are also to be found in the realm of magic.
An Old English charm prescribes the burning of a dog’s head as a remedy for a headache. A more recent folklore formula recommends the utterance of the following conjuration as a therapy against fever: ‘Fever, fever, stay away / Don’t come in my bed today’. These examples show that magic is a form of semiosis. In the first case there is a non-verbal icon representing the destruction of the disease; in the second case there is the speech act of a request (an incantation) addressed to the disease. In both cases there is an addresser communicating a message to a somewhat unusual addressee.