As the solstice comes upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere our thoughts turn to surviving the cold. While it's considerably milder here in Scotland than it was while I was teaching in New York, cold it is and cups of tea provide welcome warmth. It's hardly surprising that people in the Middle Ages measured their lives in winters survived. In many ways the mid-winter celebrations offer a chance to celebrate that hope and restore it for the lean months ahead.
It's the perfect time to consider the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, which I think of as a companion to The Wanderer. Both elegiac poems that mourn a lost past, they celebrate the power of the comitatus, the loyal troop of warriors and find poetic resonance in the harsh world of winter.
There's a wonderful passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet leads us through the changing seasons. I've always been struck by the poet's evocation of the harshness of winter's chill -- no surprise at time when people still reckoned age by how many winters they'd survived.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez, Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute, When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez, To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne. Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone, Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype; He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse, Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe; Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne, Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde, And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere; Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst, And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony, And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage, Til Meȝelmas mone Watz cumen wyth wynter wage.
In the midst of a lengthy Anglo-Saxon charm, Æcerbot, there's a little chant in praise of the earth. I've always thought it needed music, so I've made an attempt at doing that (see below). I can easily imagine the folks carrying out the elaborate steps for the charm singing this part as they renew the field's fertility.
The charm requires many things: removing four pieces of sod from ground, taking it to be blessed, reciting prayers like the Crescite and Pater Noster over it and even adding "oil and honey and yeast, and milk of each animal that is on the land, and a piece of each type of tree that grows on the land, except hard beams, and a piece of each herb known by name, except burdock [glappan] only, and put then holy water thereon, and drip it three times on the base of the sods".
The Anglo-Saxons often explained disease and inflammation by the presence of small creatures or their “weapons.”A well-known charm seeks to remove the evil influence of “elf-shot” and several others fight the effects of other poisonous arrows.This may seem quaint to our modern sensibilities—unless we consider this to be a metaphorical understanding of germs and viruses. Maybe our medieval forebears weren’t so naïve after all.
The following charm appears in a manuscript that dates to the 12th century (BL Royal MS 4 A xiv).It tries to cajole and threaten a wen (“a lump or protuberance on the body” per the Oxford English Dictionary) to take up residence elsewhere and leave the afflicted person.The tokens of the wolf and the eagle may well have been used in the healer’s ceremony—many scholars believe the Anglo-Saxons to have had a shamanictradition.This charm can easily be adapted to remove from your life any unwelcome presence (and works well, in my experience!).Underlines indicate the alliterating pairs of words: the primary arrangement of Anglo-Saxon poetry is repeated sounds at the beginning of words (as opposed to end rhyme, the more familiar "moon/june" type of rhyming). It helps that any vowel alliterates with any other vowel.