History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Kate Laity

Kate Laity

K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Charms A-Plenty

There's a wonderful new book out that I have just barely had time to crack open, but if you're interested in the history of magic you will doubtless want to look into it as well:

Traditional Magic Spells for Protection and Healing
By Claude Lecouteux. 2016. Rochester: Inner Traditions. 328 pages.
ISBN: 978-1-62055-621-4 

There's a comprehensive review over at the Journal of Folklore Research, which is why I picked it up at once. Yelena Francis points out the strengths of Lecouteax's background and the accessibility of the format. There are also some great additional and often rare resources in the appendices. And because it's from Inner Traditions rather than a big academic press, it's actually an affordable volume (though you should be able to get it via interlibrary loan as well). 

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John Barleycorn & the Ale Wives

There's an Old English riddle from the Exeter Book that is part of a long tradition about the abuses of alcohol through the ages. While there is much to celebrate in the joy of drinking, there is a dark side, too, that many have fallen prey to over the years. The poem goes like this:

Biþ foldan dæl     fægre gegierwed
mid þy heardestan      mid þy scearpestan
 mid þy grymmestan     gumena ge streona ·
corfen sworfen     cyrred þyrred
bunden wunden     blæced wæced
frætwed geatwed     feorran læded
to durum dryhta     dream bið iinnan
cwicra wihta     clengeð lengeð
þara þe ær lifgende     longe hwile
wilna bruceð      no wið spriceð
 þōn æfter deaþe     deman onginneð
meldan mislice     micel is to hycganne
wisfæstum menn     hwæt seo wiht sy.

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  • Tyger
    Tyger says #
    Very interesting. Thank you!

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
We are the Weavers

Ic wæs þær Inne þær ic ane geseah
winnende · wiht wido bennegean
holt hweorfende heaþoglemma feng
deopra dolga daroþas wæron
weo þære wihte ⁊ se wudu searwum
fæste gebunden hyre fota wæs
biid fæft oþer · oþer bisgo dreag
leolc on lyfte hwilum londe neah
treow wæs getenge þe þær torhtan stod
leafum bihongen Ic lafe geseah
minum hlaforde þær hæleð druncon
þara flan on flet beran

The Anglo-Saxon riddle above falls in the group usually classified as 'domestic' items: better to call them work tools. The aim of the riddle of course is to disguise a very familiar object with an unexpected description. Here's Paull Franklin Baum's translation (because it is hot even in Scotland, too hot to come up with my own translation!):

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  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ says #
    Lots of great info in Max Dashu's book: https://feminismandreligion.com/2016/09/19/weaving-and-spinning-women-witches-and-pagans-b

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
The Magic of the Quill

Ic seah wrætlice     wuhte feower
samed siþian     swearte · wæran lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu     swift wæs on fore
fulgum framra     fleotgan lyfte
deaf under yþe     dreag unstille
winnende wiga     se him wægas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold     feower eallū


The riddles of the Exeter Book give us oblique snapshots of everyday life for the monks in the Middle Ages. You can easily imagine the scribes fixing on something within site and coming up with a poetic and misleading description where metaphor can throw a reader off the track. But the metaphors reveal power, too. Riddle 40 (51 in the Krapp-Dobbie edition) refers to one of the ubiquitous items in their lives: the pen or quill.

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Riddle Me This

One of the genres you may not expect to be popular in the Middle Ages is that of riddles. They're not usually as straightforward as the riddles we know. They tend to be more metaphorical. I mentioned before in The Magic of Names the riddle that has 'magpie' as its solution (probably). Many of them are scatalogical or full of double entendres, which also doesn't fit our image of pious monks -- but it's our picture of monks that's wrong.

The myth persists that the church ruled the Middle Ages with a heavy hand. Like the myth that people thought the world was flat, it's just wrong. Many people who thought of themselves as Christian went to church once a year to confess and that was enough for them. Many monks who were part of the church were no more devoted to their religion than the average slacker working for a giant corporation is. It gave them a living if they weren't inheriting any wealth. For many it was an easy life (see Chaucer's monk for example).

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  • Tasha Halpert
    Tasha Halpert says #
    Sweet riddle! Love it. Thanks for sharing! A most interesting blog.
  • Dragon Dancer
    Dragon Dancer says #
    Haha, I was gonna say apple.
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    The answer is of course -- an onion!

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May Observance

In his introduction the early Scots poet Gavin Douglas prefaces The Palis of Honoure by setting the scene in May. Getting ready to perform the observances of the season he wanders through 'a garding of plesance' -- that is, an enclosed garden. It is a joy to behold:

With Sole depaint, as Paradys amyable
And blisfull bewes with blomed variance

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The Magic of Names


The Exeter Book is a collection of medieval poetry from the late tenth century written down by a single scribe. Amongst other treasures, it contains almost a hundred riddles. If you think of medieval monks as pious and devoted -- well, for one thing, you've probably not read Chaucer! Many of the riddles are bawdy and full of double entendres, just like the songs the monks would sing. 

Much of our casual information about life in the Middle Ages comes texts like these: details of natural phenomena or the habits of birds. Riddle 68 is particularly delightful not only for the vivid depiction of the magpie, but also the embedding of the runic puzzle of its name which adds an additional challenge to the reader. 'Hiroga' the Anglo-Saxon name for magpie is only apparent once you unscramble the runic letters.  

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