Anglo-Saxon Magick

Anglo-Saxon Magick

Hlafdige Arastorm of Stormgard

Aka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor  © 2006


Magick can be described as those practices which give the practitioner control of his environment through extra-normal means, or mechanisms outside the realm of modern science.  Magick is a practice and study which was historically used in war, religion, agriculture, medicine, art- nearly every area of human activity until recent times. It includes what we would now call precognition, telepathy, and working with spirits, as well as the now commonly accepted studies of astronomy, medicine, and hypnosis. (I use the spelling of magick with the extra k- first used by Geoffrey Chaucer,  to differentiate energy manipulation from stage magic.)

Anglo-Saxon is the culture is that of what we now call England, and the settlers who came from Northern Europe. The Anglo-Saxon period is from approximately the fifth century until the 11th century, and includes both pagan and Christian use of magick.

Most Anglo-Saxons would have been aware of the Christianity as an option even in the 5th and 6th centuries, before the conversion, and officially, from the 6th century onward the majority of Anglo-Saxons were technically Christian. This did not appear to prevent them from using magick.

Differentiation between miracle and magick was introduced as a concept during the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Anything that was not explicable by either natural causes, as then understood, or by a miracle, was defined as magick. This definition bypasses a discussion of the mechanism used to create the effects. Before Christianity declared magick to be against Christian teachings, magick was simply a craft or tool by which one accomplished an end. Magick may be described as either thaumeturgical or theurgical. Thaumaturgy is when the magician collects and wields the powers he is using himself. In contrast, theurgy is basically prayer: the power comes from divine beings, the magician is simply putting in requests for their manipulation of the world.


The northern heathen world-view was animistic- the world was populated with many beings: gods, elves, ghosts, spirits of plants & places; everything had a spirit (ex. diseases were seen as having an individual spirit which whom the sick person must interact).

Saxons called these various beings wights, but Romans had other names, such as genius or daemon, lares, etc.  for them. Christianity redefined all these beings as demons, and declared that their works were the work of the Devil. As God had beings in service to him- angels, and saints, and the clergy, logically, the Devil would be served by demons, and magicians who were those that did his work. There was a great variation in attitude from writer to writer within this period. Some considered almost all phenomena to be delusions, and spent a great deal of effort trying to teach that magick did not exist. Others firmly believed in it.

The Heathen gods were local gods, worshipped in the context of family and tribe, and generally did not have large cult centers or common practice. The Christian Church brought uniformity and had a virtual monopoly on writing. This created a fairly extreme filter for what and how they chose to report about magick.

Types of Magick

Divination: Astrology, dream interpretation, omens, casting lots, bibliomancy, and talking to the dead.

Healing: The majority of what is recorded in Leech (doctor) books includes magick as well as other techniques.

Amulets and Talismans: Many items were considered to be lucky or have protective or other effects, and might be hung on the body to get the benefit of those effects. Magickal items included teeth, claws, feathers or other bits of animals, beads (often a bead was tied to a sword hilt;, cowry shells, & small boxes.

Runes were widely used in from Britain to Germany, Scandinavia and Iceland, mostly for writing, but also for magick (although rarely for divination). The Old English Rune poem gives verses for each rune- but whether those are simple mnemonic devices like A is for apple, B is for boy, or whether they do give part of the meaning for the runes is uncertain.

Love spells: We don’t have any post conversion love spells preserved of which I am aware, although they are inferred in sermons, and they certainly were and are some of the most frequent goals of magick- along with prosperity and protection, Love and War were the most popular in this period

Shape shifting: sending the spirit out to work in the body of an animal was a frequently mentioned skill of northern magick workers, but while it seems to have been a standard of the Scandinavian heathen magicians, it is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon context-  but in the Danelaw it would probably have been known.


OE Lybbestere was translated as “poisoner”, although it literally means herb user. There were many words used to describe magickal skills; these were  translated into Latin as malificium (evil magick), veneficium (poisoning), sortilegium (divination). Other terms include: Scincraft (ghost skill), Galdorcraft (charm/singing skill), Runcraft  (skill with runes), Drycraft (druid skill), Leechcraft (healing skill), Lybbecraft (herb craft), Deofelcraft (devil skill), & Wiccecraft (witch skill). Other words for magick workers include walkerie, wicce and wicca, wyrt-gaelstere (one who sang charms over herbs), and cwidolwif (eloquent woman).

Characteristics of charms:

Alliteration. repetition, being very specific, animism. As in poetry, things were described using kennings, some other image describing or reminding the audience of what is not being named.  Springs, trees, and standing stones and other natural parts of the landscape were often held to have spirits, when they were not simply destroyed, many of the characteristics of the spirits of these landmarks were re designated as the spirits of saints, although the properties didn’t change. Village standing crosses probably are stand-ins for the trees or poles of heathen worship. These and graveyards had special properties that could be tapped.

Legal situation:

In the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon laws (7th c.) harming someone with magick was illegal, but simply doing magick was not. When later codes adopted biblical law, laws against performing any magick entered the law.

Law s of Magick:

The Law of Contagion: When something has been in contact with another thing or person, it remains forever connected. This is the basis of most of the magick attributed to the relics of saints.

Law of Similarity: When things are like each other, they are connected.  As above, so below; as within, so without. The world was expected to be put together in a logical way for those able to see the patterns.

Elements of spells

Symbols including the Cross, especially in the Christian period. Blood, Breath, Timing, Right and left, Words, Silence, virginity, unusual coloring, abstinence, etc. all create or intensify focused intent. Numbers especially- 3 and 9 . Saints are appealed to for whatever they are famous for- Mary and Elizabeth for helping pregnant women, Helena for finding lost objects. Colors, Mystification, herbs. Affirmations: “Hym bith sona sel.” “He will be soon well.”

Ingredients used in spells included, water, butter, fat, marrow, milk, oil, mead, vinegar, ale, wax, honey, and sweat. Christian period, holy water, oil, and wafers.


The Lacnunga (a collection containing Herbarium Apulei 5th c.), The Leechbook of Bald c. 950. The leechbooks contain a great deal of references to Pliny, Alfred (8th c.), Marcellus (5th c. in Gaul-and Alexander of Tralles (who wrote the 6th c. Theriputica). We can extrapolate some concepts from Celtic, Icelandic, Norse and other Indo-European magick, because although the styles differed, the magickal techniques remained the same. Some charms are occasionally found individually, 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.


Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, Audry Meaney 1981

Anglo-Saxon Magic, Gordon Storms 1948

Anglo-Saxon Medicine,  ML Cameron 1993

Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, Bill Griffiths 1996

History of the English Church and People, Bede trans Sherly Price 1955

Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke 1990

Life in Anglo-Saxon England, R.I. Page 1970

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England : A Collection of Documents, For the most part never before printed, Illustrating the History of … in this Country before the Norman Conquest,  Oswald Cockayne 1864

Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, Lewis Spence 1993 (B&N)

Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, H.R.Ellis Davidson 1988

Popular Religion in Late Saxon England- Elf Charms in Context, Karen Louise Jolly 1996

Real Magick, Issac Bonewitts 1971

Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons, Gale R. Owen 1981

Sorceress or Witch? The Image of Gender in Medieval Iceland and Northern Europe, Katherine Morris 1991

Superstition and Popular Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England, D. G. Scragg Editor 1989

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