Anglo-Saxon Herbal Charms
Hlafdige Arastorm ©2008
aka Tchipakkan aka Virginia Richards-Taylor
(cover image is from the Psudo-Apulius- write me if you want a physical copy with images)
The word charm describes the technique of singing or speaking special words, sometimes combined with specific actions or items to create a magickal effect. An Old English term galdor for a charm (from the verb gala “to sing”) the practice of singing charms over herbs is well documented from the heathen period into the Christian.
Karen Jolly, in Popular Religion in Late Saxon England, argues that while many modern scholars have carefully sorted out the magickal elements, or the pagan elements of these formulas, they are an expression of the fusion of Christianity with the Germanic heathen culture and to separate them creates a false image of the culture as it developed. The authors of the Leechbooks (Medical texts) certainly did not separate out their herbal formulae with charms from those without. The homilists Wulfstan and Ælfric also did not try to deny the reality of magick, nor to separate out from which sources the various influences came. They only wished to insist that their flock not use heathen charms but rather Christian ones. It is the modern writers with an academic theory to explore, or social agenda to pursue who insist on attempting to separate the magick from the non-magickal parts of the texts. Some of the 19th century scholars seem to have been trying to find and glorify their Germanic background, and mined the surviving texts seeking hints of ancient paganism. Some, like myself, simply want to argue that our ancestors were not foolish, nor ignorant. However, for many, the clear indications that they believed in magick convince them that they must have been foolish, because, after all, magick does not exist.
I, on the other hand, am convinced that while we call it by other names, what they experienced as magick does exist, is functional, and was an intelligent method for gaining greater control of their environment. Some writers had argued that herbal medicine was ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst, ignoring the fact that the majority of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plants. Cameron, coming from the perspective of a trained herbalist, was able to explore their herbal preparations more perceptively. Certainly not everything the Anglo-Saxons wrote was correct- after all they disagreed among themselves. Many, even then, did not believe in what they could not see, hear or touch. However, we must not dismiss their charms just because we do not understand how they could possibly have the effects they hoped them to create.
The community of Findhorn in Scotland in the 1970s grew plants of a size and quality considered impossible at that location- not by simply by use of fertilizers or irrigation, but by speaking to the plant spirits or “divas”. This is very similar to addressing the spirits of the plants when harvesting them. Both professional and non-professional people today are using Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, and numerous other techniques that use nothing but energy directed by the mind and emotion of the practitioner to affect document able healing. Many studies have been done proving the efficacy of prayer. The German Commission E has produced a body of modern knowledge about herbs that has resulted in herbal treatments being the preferred method of modern treatment for many Acupressure and moxibustion now gaining recognition in Western medicine reflect the same meridian based concept of the “cautery” shown in medieval manuscripts (shown in Wellcome). The well-accepted concept of “placebo” reflects the most basic level of psycho-neuroimunology, a new specialty that examines how the mind and body interact to create health or illness. This phenomenon may explain part of many of the effects created by magickal charms. Other new discoveries- such as those of quantum mechanics which now holds that simply observing something changes it, and two atoms once aligned continue to interact after separation is very close to the early magickal Law of Contagion.
One aspect of the early Germanic worldview was animism. There was little doubt in most minds that there were spirits of plants, stones, diseases, and there were other invisible beings like elves, ghosts, and demons who could have an impact on humans, however usually intangible they were. Even after converting to Christianity they retained this perspective.
The 7th century, which saw the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was characterized by the Roman Church first offering a great deal of accommodation to the existing customs of the heathens they wished to convert, then, as the new converts started spreading their perception of what Christianity was to continental heathens, the accommodations had to continue, and Christianity continued to evolve- to include many aspects of Germanic cultural perspectives. When there was an influx of new heathen culture into what became the Danelaw during the Viking raids, the initial crisis was to simply keep the Danes from taking over England, but during the subsequent century, there was a fresh crisis of adaptation in the 10th century which led to the monastic reform movement. The newest Christian Englishmen, like their Anglo-Saxon neighbors, had a hard time trying to figure out just why they should stop doing what had worked for them for generations- and why the Church said it was inappropriate for their new faith.
Bishop Wulfstan and Abbot Ælfric were two of the writers who addressed this challenge. It was a stressful period for England. Many Christians were convinced that Judgment Day was going to come at the turn of the millennium. This was substantiated by the natural disasters, violent foreign invasions, widespread disease, and generally worsening of human behavior. (Of course, Gildas blamed the same effects on the moral failures of the Christian Kings in the sixth century.) They weren’t totally imagining the climate change; they were approaching the peak of the Little Climactic Optimum, which ran 800-1300 (and allowed northern Europe to grow more Mediterranean type herbs). The Church responded to the challenges posed by the Danelaw with a monastic reform movement aimed at homogenizing England into one uniform faith, and especially to keep it in line with Roman teachings. Meanwhile there was a huge rise in the number of small churches- based on Germanic laws and property attitudes. The new Christians practiced a level of religion not far from the heathenism of their heathen ancestors, which included charms in many parts of life.
Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham was the first to write extensively in English, as opposed to Latin, the better to reach those whose behavior and understanding he was trying to change. Bishop Wulfstan was addressing other members of the clergy and political elite. He was the driving force behind many of the laws passed by Ethelred. When the Church could convince the king to pass laws that enforced the way the Church wanted people to act, it didn’t matter if they understood the theological theories behind the rules. Ælfric tried to explain it through letters and homilies.
In 10th century Christian cosmology, God could do anything, so there was no great differentiation between natural and supernatural. However, there were wonders- miracles. Miracles were designed to make people more aware of God’s greatness. Since the effects of most charms were accomplishing something practical that the people wanted, like healing illness or finding lost goods, it was thrown under the suspicion that if the natural order of things had been altered to make this effect, it may not have been God who did it. The Devil would make someone sick to create the opportunity to heal him or her.
Magick was described by Ælfric and other early authors by many words: drycræft (magic- derived from druid, so what druids did), wiglung (sorcery), galdras (enchanting), wiccecræft (witchcraft), and gedwylde using heathen sites and customs. Just as in the charms themselves, when the speaker wishes to leave no verbal loop-holes by which the wight he is compelling may squirm out, the writers were very specific about what practices they were speaking.
Biblical tales of Jesus described many instances of his working wonders. He passed this ability down to his apostles, and it devolved from there to the saints, and to their relics. Ælfric followed Augustine’s lead and condemned the use of herbs for magick, although he upheld their use for healing. A sick man must go no where for his health but church, nor get it from any action except the sign of the cross, nor offer heathengild (offerings) for his health but request that good men pray for him.
“The wise Augustine said that it is not dangerous if anyone eat a medicinal herb, (læcewyrte), but he censors it as unlawful sorcery (wiglung) if anyone ties those herbs on himself, unless he lays them on a sore. we must not set our faith in herbs, but in Almighty God who gave virtue to those herbs. Nor must any man enchant (besingan) an herb with charms (galdre), but with God’s words must bless (gebletslan) it, and so eat.”
The penitential of Egbert said “It is not allowed for any Christian to observe empty divination, as heathens do (that is they believe in the sun and the moon and the course of the stars and seek to divine the time to begin their things), nor gather herbs with any charms except with Pater Noster and with the Creed or with some prayer which pertains to God.”
Still the Leechbooks- the medical texts of the Anglo-Saxons contain not only descriptions of the herbs to use, but of words to say with them, instructions on how to prepare and apply them which include “tying them on” (often with a red thread), whether to keep silent or speak certain words, and various signs to make, special times to do them, and other clearly magickal instructions. Many of the words appeal not to old gods (although there are a few mentioned, as in the 2nd Mersberg Charm and the Lay of Nine Herbs, but mostly the magick appeals to Christ, and the Saints. There is far more evidence for associating the old gods, elves, and their devotees with causing the diseases than curing them. The Church might say that all evil came from the Devil, but the practical users of the charms wanted to make sure that if whatever the invisible thing was making them sick, they didn’t misidentify it, so many charms include a wide variety of potential culprits as in the “for a sudden stitch” charm (used with feverfew, nettle, and waybread -plantain)
“Whether it was Aesir shot, or was elf shot,
Or was hag shot, now I will help you.”
Other typical aspects of Anglo-Saxon charms were the typically Germanic traditions of Alliteration, repetition, animism, descriptions of the disease, and of the spirit of the plant or divine helper (saint) being addressed. Galdorcraft- or skill at singing charms, owes far more to the Germanic culture than the Mediterranean one. While the Greeks and Romans used words of power, singing or chanting was a basic magickal technique that continued in the Scandinavian cultures well past their conversions. Modern explorations of the effects of sound on cell growth and brain waves indicate that singing may well be more than simply a soothing “placebo effect”.
Many of the copies of Leechbooks were probably made during the 10th century golden age of monasticism, and clearly even the monks were more concerned about efficacy than about doctrine. Of course, another powerful influence at the time was the great reverence for any information that was passed down from the Classical Roman world. Medieval medicine copied as many ancient texts as they could acquire, although they often put in notes and glosses to make it clearer to the intended reader. The medical system from the classical world- that of the four humors, used treatments that included using herbs chosen by the doctrine of signatures, purging, sympathetic magick, transference, dream diagnosis, and use of words of power. This system was adapted to Christianity- for example; sometimes-purgative herbal preparations were given to try to expel the devil that was supposed to be causing the sickness, even when purging did not seem otherwise necessary. But if a remedy came from an ancient Roman writer- it “must be” effective,
Some charms are occasionally found individually, outside of Leechbooks, for example in the margin (not the text) of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of Britain. And, while not giving us specific charms, law codes, penetentials, and stories sometimes speak about what magic was supposed to have done.
The church didn’t really need their converts not to use magickal techniques- only to make sure that when they used magick, the results could be attributed to God and the Church. Thus, the same techniques continued to be used, but the “names were changed to protect the innocent”. The word Amen was sometimes used at the end of an otherwise not overtly Christian charm, and sometimes words that sounded something like Latin were used. This is, after all, where the term “hocus pocus” probably came from, from the Latin words “hoc est corpus” from the mass. The acronym AGLA, the Hail Mary, and the Lords Prayer were used as charms. “It is done” Jesus’ words on the cross was used as a charm to stanch blood. Ecce crucem Domini (“behold”) is found in several charms. While the holy names and words changed, the forms stayed basically the same. Often the disease was addressed (and driven out). Greater powers were asked to help, whether gods, god or plants. Often the charms included descriptions of the previous exploits, which were meant to motivate the being to help.
Most of what we think we know about the use of herbs and charms in the Anglo-Saxon period comes from only a handful of surviving manuscripts. It should not need to be said, that these are written on parchment in Old English and Latin and scattered across many museums and libraries. In the past those who found the subject fascinating had to travel to see them, and learn how to decipher them. Modern technology has enabled us to share the manuscripts more widely, and to examine them more closely (as in the illustration below), although we still have to interpret the Old English-, which did not have uniform spelling rules, the handwriting, and faded and smudged ink. I included this image not just to give readers an idea of how much the technology can help, but how difficult the challenge of deciphering any given word may be.
Even the pictures are not clear. Some pigments ate right through the pages. Some were clearly copied from copies by artists who appear never to have seen the plant in question, or who may have preferred beautiful design to an attempt to identify the plants they were depicting. The comparative images of various herbs come from Meaney who was apparently disturbed by this problem. Another contributing issue (as displayed in the images of Wegbread/plantain-, is that many plants have different forms. The image of plantain in the far left drawing matches pretty well the narrow leaved plantain shown next to it, but here in America we are more familiar with the Broad-leaved Plantain in the center. Luckily all the plantains have the same wonderful efficacy against bug bites and bee stings (which makes them a great first herb to teach kids), but I’m not sure I’d go so far as the artist who pictured it with a scorpion and adder! Still, not ever having had to deal with those, I have never bothered singing over my Wyrt Modor when I gathered it. I have sung over other herbs, and their efficacy appears to have been enhanced. This is what medical science refers to as anecdotal evidence, but without a hospital full of patients on which to do comparison tests of treatments, we have to accept (or reject) our non-statistically significant observations. This is exactly what the Anglo-Saxons had to do.
Primary sources consist of the manuscripts left by the Anglo-Saxons, but among those that survive, even they were often copies and interpretations of earlier sources. Beyond that, most of us cannot read Old English, Latin, and Greek; and many disputes arise from what may have been transcription errors, or the lack of a standardized spelling.
With the secondary sources, each author pursues his or her own thesis, which results in a fragmentation of the overall area of study. Jolly decried this in her Popular Religion for blocking the ability to see how elf charms fit into early medieval life. Meaney was examining amulets, and thus ignored any charms without a physical component. Cameron was able to contribute comparative knowledge of the efficacy of herbs in the modern world to what the sources wrote. Hall is examining the elves and gender perceptions. Grattan and Singer gave a concise overview of Anglo-Saxon medicine manuscripts in a promotional booklet handed out at an early (1912) convention of the American Medical Association. It contained images from manuscripts I haven’t seen elsewhere (showing something that looked like acupuncture and moxybustion.) Griffiths divided magic into the Rational and Magic worlds, the Up, Dead, Empty and Around Worlds- into Science and
Early scholars had a grasp of ancient languages, but modern writers can draw on computer analysis such as how often a word appears in extant literature. Cockayne’s compilation Leechdom’s Wortcunning and Starcraft remains one of the best collections of ancient medical/magickal texts, with both the original Old English, and modern translations side by side, but Pollington’s contains much of the same information in a much more accessible form to the modern reader, and benefits from over a hundred years of discussions of various problems in translation.
It was Oswald Cockayne who translated and named The Lacnunga, and ordered and put numbers on the lines of many of the collected spells. Since then other authors have disputed some of his decisions. Among these are questions such as whether or not the “Lay of the 9 herbs” is all one- or three different charms. I, myself, am not sure that parts (like choruses of songs) of it have not been left out to save copying, and that some “corrections” may not be mistaken, such as adding “south” to the directions at line 55, which many authors do. The original is:
“Gif ænig attor cume eastan fleogan,
Oððe ænig norðan cume,
Oððe ænig westan cume ofer werðeode,
☩Crist stod ofer alde ængancundes.”
(If any poison comes flying from the east or from the north or from the west over the world’s people, Christ stood over the old oppressive ones.)
Surviving Norwegian traditions indicate that magick users considered only the three mentioned directions: North, from where magick flows down, and the sunrise and sunset directions. Despite Western Ceremonial Magick traditions, there may not be a need for adding south to complete the set of directions.
Another question I have is about this section of the charm:
Nu magon ðas nygon wyrta
wið nygon wuldorfeflogenum 45
Now the nine herbs
have power against nine evil spirits 45
Wið nygon attrum and wið nygon onflyganum
Wið ðy readan attre, wið ðy runlan attre 47
Wið ðy hwitan attre, wið ðy wedenan attre
Wið ðy geolwan attre, wið ðy grenan attre,
Wið ðy wonnan attre, wið ðy wedenan attre 50
Wið ðy brunen attre, wið ðy basewan attre,
Against nine poisons and against nine infections
Against red poison, against running poison 47
Against white poison, against blue poison
Against the yellow poison, against the green poison
Against the black poison, against the blue poison 50
Against the brown poison, against the crimson poison)
Wið wyrmgeblæd, wið wætergeblæd,
Wið ðorngeblæd, wið ðystlegeblæd,
Wið ysgeblæd, wið attorgeblæd, 54
Against worm blister, against water blister
Against thorn blister, against thistle blister
Against ice blister, against poison blister 54
I’ve seen several different renderings of this section, which leads me to believe there may be handwriting problems (“Is that an e or an o?”) involved. Or perhaps it is simply the urge for the modern mind to want to have each of the types of poison be different. I’ve seen the wedenan on line 48 and line 50 translated as blue in one line and purple on the other. I would love to see the original image to judge for myself. Meanwhile, I’m going to assume that they could count to nine, and when they say that there is power over nine poisons, they mean nine, not ten, but simply repeat one to maintain the rhythm of the chant.
I also feel confident in assuming that just as herbs have the same effects on our ancestors bodies as they have on ours, magick will still work the same as it did then, so when the rules and techniques they use are consistent with what we have learned in the last century about bio-energy, it suggests that their charms probably did work for them- and not necessarily only because of suggestion.
Here are a couple more examples of charms where a Christian charm is sung over the herbs while preparing it. Whether the charm existed in a heathen form before it was recorded in the leechbook is impossible to tell. But this use of the Latin prayers is precisely what the church required.
Against the Elf-sickness
Against the elf sickness take bishops wart, fennel, lupine, the lower part of enchanter’s nightshade, and lichen from a hallowed cross and incense, take a handful of each, tie all the herbs in a cloth, and dip them three times into holy baptismal water. Have three masses said over them, one Omnibus Santius, Contra Tribulationem, Pro Infirmis, then put live coals in a chafing dish and lay the herbs on them. Smoke the man with those herbs before 9 AM and at night. And sing the Litany and the Creed and Paternoster, and inscribe the sign of the cross on each limb, and take a small handful of herbs of the same herbs hallowed in the same way and boil them in milk. Drop a little holy water on them three times, and let him take some of it before his food. He will soon be better.
Lichen from a cross is supposed to have replaced recipes for lichen from a sacred stone or tree. Reeking, or healing by the application of smoke is a typically Northern practice- Mediterranean physicians were more likely to put herbs in water and steam the patient. The Elf sickness may be simply any sickness of unknown origin, in which case the use of prayers, holy water and inclusion of bishopswort in the reeking would place this in the category of exorcism- an elf spirit is causing the sickness, if you drive out the elf spirit, the sickness will go as well.
Against Dysentery: take a bramble of which both ends are in the earth, take the newer root dig it up and cut 9 chips on your left hand and sing three times:
Miserere mei deus.
And nine times Pater Noster.
Take then mugwort and everlasting and boil these three in several kinds of milk until they become red. Let him then sup a good bowl of it fasting at night before he takes another food.
Make him rest in a soft bed and wrap him up warm. If more is necessary do so again. If needed, do so a third time, it will not be necessary to do it more often.
This one looks like a fairly simple herbal remedy to me- blackberry root is still considered a specific against diarrhea- too strong to be used for children who are treated with blackberry leaf tea instead.
Today it is accepted in historical academia to prove a point by citing what has been written before, and in scientific circles by repeating an experiment a sufficiently frequent number of times, and reporting the results, however in magickal circles (for which there is no current academia) the criteria for proof is to attest to having used the technique personally, or to attest to the believability of the person from whom you got the report. In the past, these were the same criteria we see in our sources. Even in law, a case was won by bringing in the greater number of credible character witnesses. When describing wonders the writer frequently finishes with “I have seen this myself” or some variant.
This study falls in an area between the historic and scientific. We can document what has been written (and survived) from the Anglo-Saxon period to attempt to understand the actions of the Anglo-Saxons who used charms. However, if we discount all possible efficacy of their actions, the conclusions must all come to a certainty that our ancestors were idiots, against which their many accomplishments argue. Therefore I turn to modern examinations of these and similar phenomenon- modern studies of herbalism, psychic abilities and even quantum physics. When combined with these, some of the more fantastic reports become decipherable.
At the same time, it is clear that every individual case, from which these traditions were built, was influenced by the personal experiences and cultural background of the one experiencing it. discoveries about perception bias show that eyewitness accounts can be incorrect when what a person sees is altered in their brain to fit into their understanding of how the world works. Modern forensics thus compares several eyewitness accounts, hoping that what is observed in common matches consensual reality. If we posit that the Anglo-Saxons were as intelligent and observant as modern people, our challenge is to read what they perceived, and begin to understand what it was that they saw taking into account whatever may have biased their accounts, and eliminate (as far as possible) our own biases.
For several centuries those whose wellbeing depended upon herbal preparations found them to be more effective when charms were added. Modern studies begin to suggest that there may be scientific explanations for that observation, although since it seems to be the result of many different influences a “unified magickal field theory” may never be possible.
Beyerl, Paul, Master Book of Herbalism, Phoenix 1984
Cameron, M. L., Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Cambridge University Press, 1993
Cockayne, Thomas Oswald Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: A Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country Before the Norman Conquest. Volumes I; II: III (three volumes)
Davidson, Hilda Ellis, Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, Routledge, 1993
Davidson, H.E., Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Syracuse University Press, 1988
Grattan & Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine Wellcome 1912
Griffiths, Bill, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, Anglo-Saxon Books 1996
Hagan, Ann, Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food : Processing and Consumption, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1992 2nd Handbook 1995
Hall, Alaric, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, Boydell, 2007
Jolly, Karen, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context, U of NC Press, 1996
Kadera, Raven, Northern Tradition Shaman Herbal http://www.cauldronfarm.com/herbal/song.html
Kieckhefer, Richard, Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge U Press, 2000
Meaney, Audrey, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones. BAR 1981
Payne, Joseph F, English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times, Two Lectures: The Fitz-patrick Lectures for 1903, Kesingers Legacy Reprints 2008
Peterson, Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants
Pollington, Stephen, Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2002
Rodrigues, Louis, Anglo-Saxon Verse Charms, Maxims and Heroic Legends, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1993
Russell, James, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation, Oxford U Press, 1996
Storms, G, Anglo-Saxon Magic, Gordon Press, 1974 (1948)
Tenney, Louise, Today’s Herbal Health 1997
Wellcome, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft, Rose and Nefr Press 1992 (same as Grattan- but less illos and ads)
Weofodthignen, Þæs dæges word (Word of the Day in Old English) http://weofodthignen.livejournal.com/
Wilson, David, Anglo-Saxon Paganism, Routledge, 1992
Wolfe, Frankie Avalon, The Complete Idiots Guide to Herbal Remedies,
See also my booklets Anglo-Saxon Magick, Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Anglo-Saxon Herbs, and Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft.
Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and corrections: