(This is something I wrote after a member of a forum I'm on PMed me and said he didn't understand a lot of my references)
Britain in the early 5th century was a very uncertain place to be. The Roman legions were returning to Rome and the Pax Romana that the Romano-Britons had lived by for around five hundred years began to crumble. Civil wars broke out and the Picts, long held at the northern borders of the Roman empire, began to pose a significant security threat. In light of this, the British invited warriors from the peoples that would come to be known as Anglo Saxons to defend them. Mostly the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. They were to be the ‘foedorati’, or paid muscle for the Britons, a practice they had learned from the Romans.
This would turn out to be a fateful decision on the part of the Britons. According to the British cleric Gildas, these ‘foedorati’ mutinied in 442AD due to lack of payment and after much fighting, eventually went on to invade and settle the area that came to be known as England.
England was a rich land for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, it was good land for growing crops and they sorely needed that. Due to climate change in the 5th century, their homelands had become wetter, flooding often and it had become increasingly difficult to grow crops.
How much the culture of the Germanic invaders was to supersede the culture of the Britons is still a matter of intense debate with the ‘traditional’ view leaning towards the Anglo Saxons annihilating the Britons and driving them to the Western and Northern areas of the island and the newer theories based on genetic evidence, grave evidence and linguistics take the view that it wasn’t so much of a complete annihilation of the Britons. Rather a merging of cultures.
However regardless of the various theories surrounding the Anglo Saxon migration and settlement of England, the Anglo Saxon period was to be significant in many ways. This essay will focus on one of those ways – that of the Anglo Saxon magico-medical healing traditions.
I would like to stress to the reader that this essay is merely what it says it is, an introduction. It is by no means exhaustive and it is written by a person with a love and a passion for the topic as opposed to a scholar. Having said that, I hope you find this subject just as interesting as I do and if you spot any errors or you can think of something that it would behoove me to add, please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know.
What is meant by the term ‘Magico-Medical’?
In the modern western world, we tend to have a fixed idea of illness as being a physical thing and therefore only treatable by medical means. When we fall sick, we go to the doctors, the doctor may do some physical tests and then prescribe a form of treatment .
This is a drastically different view from what we know of how the Anglo Saxons saw illness and the treatment thereof. For the Anglo-Saxon without modern medical knowledge, medicine revolved not only around the use of herbs, but also tended to include a magical component.
This magical component, is quite surprisingly found not only in cures believed to have originated in the Heathen period, but also in very overtly Christian cures as well. The Anglo Saxon Christians really did not seem to have a problem with the concept of magical healing charms when they called upon the Christian god or used Christian sacraments.
Why focus on the Anglo Saxon healing traditions?
One of the things that some scholars believe the Anglo Saxons to have adopted from the Britons was the idea of a literary tradition. The tribes that made up the Anglo Saxons are believed to have had an oral tradition whereas the Britons had a very developed literary tradition. This was something that the Anglo Saxons adopted and took to like ducks to water. They went from an oral culture to one that wrote pretty much everything down. They were quite unique among the Germanic peoples as well because they were the only ones to record their healing practices in detail and not only that, but they recorded them in an instructional fashion so that people might benefit from what they believed to be good cures.
Were they good cures? Can I try them out at home?
The writers of the various Anglo Saxon healing manuals obviously thought so however as with all old herbals, it is best to be very cautious in trying out the treatments. Some herbs that were recommended for various illnesses are now known to be dangerous, some are best as ‘wound herbs’, some have unpleasant side effects and some are abortive. It is best to only use herbs that you know and have researched however that’s not to say that the charms cannot be adapted if you so wish.
How did the Anglo Saxons see sickness?
Well we know that the Anglo Saxon Leeches (medics) didn’t just work from northern European lore, we know that books such as Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ and Old English translations of Apuleius’s ‘Herbarium Apulet’ and the ‘Medicina de Quadrupedibus’ were known in Anglo Saxon England and so we have to assume that the Anglo Saxons would have been aware of the four ‘humours’ theory.
The theory of the Four humours centres around the idea that a person is made up of four ‘humours’ or liquids of the body (blood, phlegm, red/yellow bile and black bile) and that balance has to be sought between those humours in order to maintain good health.
The second influence on the way that the Anglo Saxons saw sickness were Judeo-Christian sources that basically gives the interpretation that all human suffering was attributable to human evil and was a way for god to test a person’s faith or punish them for previous sins. This school of thought held that prayer, intercession of the saints and sometimes pilgrimage was all that should be needed for a cure. In the very strictest form of this view, even herbs were to be shunned in the search for relief. Obviously judging by the amount of material that was written about healing charms, not everybody took this view.
The third influence was naturally that of the healing traditions that were native to the Anglo Saxons. From what we can tell from the sources, the Anglo Saxons recognized three kinds of cause for illness.
The first is invasion of the body from an outside source. This could be anything from a wound from a weapon or a serpent bite to being ‘elfshot’ (elves were believed to shoot darts or arrows at people) or hit by ‘flying venom’ loose in the land(infectious disease).
The second cause was believed to be anything that subtracted from the ‘wholeness’ of a person. This could be a supernatural being that would attack a person, poison them but feed off their vital force at the same time thus leaving them sick. It is worth noting that there are links between the Old English words for ‘whole’ and ‘health’. To heal someone is quite simply to make them whole again.
The third cause of illness was believed to be a disturbance in the balance of the body. This could be treated by taking steps to restore and re-affirm the true balance. Some of these conditions were linked to ‘deoflas’ (Christian devils) or ‘ylfe’ (elves).
What are the key points of Anglo Saxon magico-medicine?
Anglo Saxon magico-medicine tended to mix an extensive use of herbs with magical aspects such as narrative charms (another word for a verbal charm is ‘galdor’). These charms are called ‘narrative’ because quite simply, they tell a story of wounding/sickness and cure. One excellent example of this is the charm ‘Wið Fæstice’ (against a sudden stitch – elfshot):
Against a sudden stitch: feverfew and the red nettle which grows in through a building and waybread; boil in butter:
“Loud were they, lo loud, when they rode over the mound,
they were fierce when they rode over the land.
Shield yourself now that you may escape this evil.
Out, little spear, if herein you be!
Stood under linden, under a light shield,
where the mighty women readied their power,
and they screaming spears sent.
I back to them again will send another,
a flying dart against them in return.
Out, little spear, if herein it be!
Sat a smith, forged he a knife,
little iron strong wound.
Out, little spear, if herein it be!
Six smiths sat, war-spears they made.
Out, spear, not in, spear!
If herin be a bit of iron,
hag's [haegtesse] work, it shall melt.
If you were in the skin shot, or were in flesh shot,
or were in the blood shot, or were in bone shot,
or were in limb shot, may your life never be torn apart.
If it were ’sir shot, or it were elves' shot,
or it were hag's shot, now I will help you.
This your remedy for ’sir shot, this your remedy for Elves' shot;
This your remedy for hag's shot; I will help you.
It fled there into the mountains. . . . no rest had it.
Whole be you now! Lord help you!”
Then take the knife, dip in liquid.
- Lacnunga 134-135
Some of the charms in the various Old English texts include acts of a clearly magical nature but don’t have an accompanying verbal formula. One such example of this is to be found in Bald’s Leechbook – Book III:
‘2. For swollen eyes, take a living raven, take the eyes out of it and, still living, bring it into water, and put the eyes on the neck of the man to whom they are needful, he will soon be hale.’
Taking the eyes of the raven in order to cure the eyes of a person has absolutely no medical benefit however when one considers how reputedly sharp-eyed ravens are, it becomes obvious that this section of the second charm in book III of Bald’s Leechbook is a form of sympathetic magic.
In certain charms, repetition of certain acts and prayers is an important factor. The most common numbers that I have found for repetition in any kind of discernible pattern seem to be the numbers three, four, seven and nine.
Three seems to be ‘the magic number’, from a survey of the Lacnunga text, out of the one hundred and ninety-four charms contained within, twenty-nine of them have the number three included. Seven of those charms pertain to the dosage of the herbal substances, one of those charms recommends that the treatment last three days. The rest recommend that the galdor or prayers used be chanted three times. Sometimes, this is three different prayers chanted three times.
The number four is found in two charms in the Lacnunga and both involve curing infectious diseases, or ‘flying poison’.
The number seven occurs twice in the Lacnunga and is linked to purification and holiness. Charm number ninety-three recommends that seven sacramental wafers be inscribed with the names of the Seven Sleepers from Christian legend. As the charm is against dwarves and the Seven Sleepers were said to have slept in a cave without aging, it would make sense that those in fear of dwarves would call upon what they perceive to be holiness that was untouched in the dwarves’ domain. The second mention of the number seven pertains to purifying an infection. The word ‘dwarf’ seems to have been polysemous for the Anglo Saxons and could also refer to forms of illness.
The number nine occurs fifteen times in the text. In nine of those examples, the number nine is used in conjunction with treating skin growths or inflammations. In one of the examples, it’s part of a blessing used before drinking, sometimes the number nine also refers to the length of time that a treatment should be carried out for. One of the most interesting charms in which the number nine is significant is charm number one hundred and sixty-two which involves counting down from nine as a way to symbolize the shrinking process.
‘Against a swelling: “Nine were the sisters of noðþ; then the nine became eight, and the eight to seven, and the seven to six, and the six to five, and the five to four, and the four to three, and the three to two and the two to one, and the one to none”; this shall be the treatment of a swelling and of scrofula, and of a worm and of every evil; sing “ benedicite” nine times.” ’
One of the most striking things about a lot of the charms in the various Anglo Saxon texts is the use of various Christian sacraments and prayers as the magical component in the charms. There are mentions of sacramental wafer, the housel-dish, blessed wine, holy water, chanting the ‘Pater Noster’ a certain number of times, the ‘Benedicite’. Some charms such as the three prayers given in charms sixty-four, sixty-five and sixty-six are to be sung three times over a drink ‘and the man’s breath shall go wholly into the liquid while he sings it’.
One charm that demonstrates the use of Christian sacrament and tradition in an Anglo Saxon magico-medical context is charm number ninety-three:
‘Against a dwarf: one must take seven small sacramental wafers such as one offers mass with, and write those names on each wafer. Maximianus Malchus Johannes Martinianus Dioysius Constantinius Serafion. Then again the charm that is stated hereafter must be sung, first into the left ear, then into the right, then above the man’s pate; then have a virgin go to him and hang it about his neck, and do likewise for three days, soon it shall be better for him.
In came a spider creature/he had his mantle in his hand, said that you were his steed/laid his thong on your neck and they began to travel out of the land/as soon as they came away from the land, then their limbs began to cool/ then came in [?]’s sister/then she finished and swore oaths/that this should never ail the sick/nor whomever might understand this charm/nor whoever might intone this charm. Amen, let it be. Here are leechdoms against eruptions and swellings and deadly illnesses of every kind. Twenty-Eight.’
What can we learn about Anglo Saxon Heathenry and magic from the magico-medical traditions?
Anglo Saxon charms may seem quite Christian in nature however we can maybe extrapolate and piece together some of the methods and beliefs that the Heathen Anglo Saxons had from other Germanic sources. Some of the correlations, such as the use of numbers for certain purposes may be indicative of previous significance and associations to the Heathen Anglo Saxons. Some of the charms are quite explicit in their Heathen content too, especially the Nine Herbs Charm’ or the charm that counts down in order to shrink a swelling or the famous Acerbot (Field-Remedy) invocation:
“Erce, Erce, Erce,
May the all-powerful, eternal ruler
in high condition,
in bright abundance,
and the broad
and the white
Grant to him,
(and his holy ones
who in heaven are),
that his ploughing be protected
against any and all enemies
and it be guarded
against each and every evil,
against those spells
sown through the land.
Now I bid the ruler
who shaped this world,
that neither the conjuring woman
nor the cunning man should
make any changes
to the words thus spoken.
Hale be you, earth,
Be you growing
in the god[dess]’s grasp,
filled with food,
useful for folk. “
When examining these examples from Anglo Saxon charms, one good way of ascertaining how much is Christian and how much comes from older material, is to try and see if there are any other sources that back up the concept or ritual as being older.
One example of another text backing up this idea of worshipping an earth mother is Tacitus’s ‘Germania’:
‘There follow in order the Reudignians, and Aviones, and Angles, and Varinians, and Eudoses, and Suardones and Nuithones; all defended by rivers or forests. Nor in one of these nations does aught remarkable occur, only that they universally join in the worship of Herthum; that is to say, the Mother Earth.’
Another thing to keep in mind when examining sources, is who you are reading. This can be really important because nothing is infallible. Authors have biases and spin really isn’t a new thing.
Of course, the sources don’t always back each other up. For example, in Nordic mythology there are nine worlds on the world tree, however the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ tells us that there are seven:
‘Chervil and fennel, two of great might
The wise Lord shaped these plants
While he was hanging ,holy in the heavens
He set them and sent them into the seven worlds’
Just as a matter of casual interest, this area of disagreement between the numbers seven and nine seems to have continued to the present day between German speakers and(quite confusingly) English speakers. For example, in Germany a cat is considered to have seven lives, whereas in England it has nine. A German speaker might say that they are on ‘cloud seven’, whereas an English speaker would say ‘cloud nine’.
What is the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’?
The charm that came to be known as the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ is made up of verses 8o and 80 of the Lacnunga. It is a narrative charm that addresses each of the ‘power’ plants in turn giving their attributes and the story behind their power.
“Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.
And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection
and the loathsome foe roving through the land.
'Stune' is the name of this herb, it grew on a stone,
it stands up against poison, it dashes against poison,
it drives out the hostile one, it casts out poison.
This is the herb that fought against the snake,
it has power against poison, it has power against infection,
it has power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.
Put to flight now, Venom-loather, the greater poisons,
though you are the lesser,
you the mightier, conquer the lesser poisons, until he is cured of both.
Remember, Chamomile, what you made known,
what you accomplished at Alorford,
that never a man should lose his life from infection
after Chamomile was prepared for his food.
This is the herb that is called 'Wergulu'.
A seal sent it across the sea-right,
a vexation to poison, a help to others.
it stands against pain, it dashes against poison,
it has power against three and against thirty,
against the hand of a fiend and against mighty devices,
against the spell of mean creatures.
There the Apple accomplished it against poison
that she [the loathsome serpent] would never dwell in the house.
Chervil and Fennell, two very mighty one.
They were created by the wise Lord,
holy in heaven as He hung;
He set and sent them to the seven worlds,
to the wretched and the fortunate, as a help to all.
These nine have power against nine poisons.
A worm came crawling, it killed nothing.
For Woden took nine glory-twigs,
he smote the the adder that it flew apart into nine parts.
Now there nine herbs have power against nine evil spirits,
against nine poisons and against nine infections:
Against the red poison, against the foul poison.
against the yellow poison, against the green poison,
against the black poison, against the blue poison,
against the brown poison, against the crimson poison.
Against worm-blister, against water-blister,
against thorn-blister, against thistle-blister,
against ice-blister, against poison-blister.
Against harmfulness of the air, against harmfulness of the ground,
agaist harmfulness of the sea.
If any poison comes flying from the east,
or any from the north, [or any from the south,]
or any from the west among the people.
Christ stood over diseases of every kind.
I alone know a running stream,
and the nine adders beware of it.
May all the weeds spring up from their roots,
the seas slip apart, all salt water,
when I blow this poison from you.
Mugwort, plantain open form the east, lamb's cress, venom-loather, camomile, nettle, crab-apple, chevil and fennel, old soap; pound the herbs to a powder, mix them with the soap and the juice oaf the apple.
Then prepare a paste of water and of ashes, take fennel, boil it with the paste and wash it with a beaten egg when you apply the salve, both before and after.
Sing this charm three times on each of the herbs before you (he) prepare them, and likewise on the apple. And sing the same charm into the mouth of the man and into both his ears, and on the wound, before you (he) apply the salve.”
What is récels?
Récels is simply the Anglo Saxon word for incense (vb. récelsian – to perfume/fumigate with incense).
Many people associate incense and especially fumigating a person as a form of healing ritual more with the new age movement than with any kind of Germanic practice. There are however a few references to incense, appropriate incense for different purposes and fumigating a patient as part of the healing in book III of Bald’s Leechbook.
Charm number sixty-two recommends this kind of practice as part of a treatment for ‘Elfsickness’.
When it comes to the patient, we are advised 'geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum' (smoke that man with the herbs).
Herbs that were generally used depending on purpose were fennel, wormwood, mugwort, hops, vervain, bilberry shoots, betony, leeks, garlic, enchanter's nightshade, and burdock.
There's also advice given in the same charm on how to prepare the incense”
‘do aelcre handfulle . bebind ealle þa wyrta on claþe bedyp on fontwaetre gehalgodum þriwa . Eft wit þon, lege under weofod þas wyrte laet gesingan ofer,’ . (Take a handful of each, bind all of the herbs in cloth, dip into hallowed spring-water three times. After this, against that (illness), lay these herbs under an altar and let them be sung over.)
There is further advice which some in the new age community might find a little familiar-sounding in some ways:
‘7 þonne he restan wille haebbe gleda þaerinne lege stor 7 alfþonan on ta gleda . 7 rec hine mid þaet he swaete 7 þaet hus geond rec.’ (And when he wishes to rest, have coals brought in there and lay incense and elfthon on the coals, and fumigate him with that so he sweats and fumigate around the house.)
What are the modern uses for Anglo Saxon magico-medical lore?
To put it simply, it’s up to you but again, I would advise caution when using herbs if you do not know what you are doing. Personally I tend to pay attention to things like how a charm is written and use them as models with which I can write my own. I pay attention to the numbers, to the things that may seem kind of quirky but that have similarities with other magical traditions and folklore that I know such as purification through running water. I sing over my herbs, I make herbal mixes that I sing over and then mop them into the floors of the house as a form of purification. I periodically use certain herbs as recels when needed. I look at existing charms and try to figure out new uses and applications.
Tradition has power and the first time you sing or chant a charm that’s over a thousand years old in a tongue that hasn’t been spoken for so long, you feel it. It’s different and it’s familiar all at the same time.
This essay has now come to an end and there is perhaps nothing left to say but that I hope you found this interesting, that maybe you feel it’s interesting enough to start looking into this for yourself and to leave you with the traditional Anglo Saxon greeting/wish.
Wæs þu hæl!/Be whole!