geas n.

in fantasy writings: a spell; a magical compulsion

OED has 19th-century evidence in contexts of Irish folkore or mythology.

Pronounced /ɡɛʃ/.

[< Irish geas, geis]

  • 1921 J. B. Cabell Figures of Earth 5 page image James Branch Cabell bibliography

    ‘Because my mother, sir, was always very anxious for me to make a figure in the world, and when she lay a-dying I promised her that I would do so, and then she put a geas upon me to do it.’ ‘Ah, to be sure! but are you certain it was this kind of figure she meant?’ ‘Yes, for I have often heard her say that, when I grew up, she wanted me to make myself a splendid and admirable young man in every respect. So it is necessary that I make the figure of a young man, for my mother was not of these parts, but a woman of Ath Cliath, and so she put a geas upon me—’ ‘Yes, yes, you had mentioned this geas, and I am wondering what sort of a something is this geas.’ ‘It is what you might call a bond or an obligation, sir, only it is of the particularly strong and unreasonable and secret sort which the Firbolg use.’

  • 1964 R. Garrett Case of Identity in Analog Science Fact–Science Fiction Sept. 30/2 Randall Garrett bibliography

    Well, Lord Darcy, to put it in layman’s terms, a powerful spell is placed upon the affected person—a geas, it’s called—which forces them to limit their activities to those which are not dangerous to his fellow man.

  • 1969 C. Stasheff Warlock in Spite of Himself 282 Christopher Stasheff bibliography

    If thou must go, thou must go; a geas is a thing no man can deny. Go on to the stars, Rod Gallowglass, but be mindful: if ever thou seekest a haven, 'tis here.

  • 1978 G. Gygax Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook 84/1 Gary Gygax

    A geas spell places a magical command upon the creature (usually human or humanoid) to carry out some service, or refrain from some action or course of activity, as desired by the spell caster. The creature must be intelligent, conscious, and under its own volition. While a geas cannot compel a creature to kill itself, or to perform acts which are likely to result in certain death, it can cause almost any other course of action. The spell causes the geased creature to follow the instructions until the geas is completed. Failure to do so will cause the creature to grow sick and die within 1 to 4 weeks. Deviation from or twisting of the instructions causes corresponding loss of strength points until the deviation ceases.

  • 1980 S. R. Donaldson Wounded Land (1983) 493 Stephen R. Donaldson bibliography

    And they came. His might and his will interrupted the masque, broke the geas which locked the Dead in their weird damnation.

  • 1985 M. Scott Five-Twelfths of Heaven v. 168 Melissa Scott bibliography

    A geas was a mental bond, a set of compulsions created by a magus to produce desired behavior; it was unbreakable, and permanent unless a magus removed the restriction.

  • 1997 Interzone Dec. 17/1

    Actually I use an old Irish charm I'd learned in my travels—a tiny geas that compels the hearer to acts of senseless generosity.

  • 2015 Z. Cho Sorcerer to the Crown xv. 181 page image Zen Cho bibliography

    The Sorcerer Royal’s servants had formerly been bound by a geas against disclosure of any detail of his household affairs, breach of which was visited by the most terrible revenge.

Research requirements

antedating 1921

Earliest cite

James Branch Cabell, 'Figures of Earth'

Research History
Suggested by Michael Dolbear.

Mitchell J. Friedman submitted a cite from a 1979 reprint of Gary Gygax's "Advanced Dungeon and Dragons Players Handbook".
Fred Galvin submitted a 1921 cite from James Branch Cabell's "Figures of Earth".
Brian Denehy submitted a cite from a 1974 reprint of Christopher Stasheff's 1969 "The Warlock in Spite of Himself".
Michael A. Pusateri submitted a cite from a reprint of Randall Garret's 1964 "A Case of Identity", which Mike Christie verified in its first publication.
Michael Dolbear submitted a 1983 cite from Stephen Donaldson's "The Wounded Land".
Michael Dolbear submitted a 1988 cite from Melissa Scott's "Five-Twelfths of Heaven".
Ben Ostrowsky submitted a 2015 cite from Zen Cho.

"geas" is in the OED (under "geis"), but with a definition of "a solemn injunction, prohibition, or taboo; a moral obligation", but the term has become common in fantasy in the magical sense. Martainn Domhnallach pointed out that the word is used in Scots and Irish Gaelic, and can be found in Gaelic/English dictionaries with several meanings, including that of a charm, sorcery or enchantment. This raises the possibility that occasional uses might be found in English writings much earlier than its adoption by 20th century fantasy writers.

Last modified 2023-11-18 04:57:56
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.