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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Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Magic, Part 2

Last time we looked at diagnosis of symptoms in Anglo-Saxon magic: now onto materials!

Once the culprit was identified it was essential to gather the materials for the charm. In most cases this meant herbs. Potions and poultices were the central part of charm remedies. One needed to remember the properties of all the herb, the best time for harvesting them, and the extent of the their interactions. Poems like the "Nine Herbs Charm" helped people memorize the properties of the most common healing herbs. In addition to herbs, there were bodily fluids like blood and spit and—well, other less charming substances.

Breath too proved an important component in charms, representing of course the substance of life itself. The church supplied additional helpful items such as communion wafers and holy water (though some church fathers might have frowned at their use in these charms).

More homey materials like milk and honey showed up in charms as well; honey is especially important because it is the basis of mead, the favorite drink of the Anglo-Saxons. Mead itself—along with wine and ale—provided a better tasting concoction with which to drink down the herbs. Of course if the herbs were made into a poultice or salve, you would need oil or wax to bind the materials together. Naturally, you would need bowls and other utensils to mix all the items together, and sometimes bandages to apply the mixture.

Once you gathered all the materials and chose the time, it was important to sing the charm absolutely correctly. The word for this is galdor which means something to recite and to chant and to sing. You had to sing the words loud and clear—and accurately—if the magic was going to work. The words addressed the creature to be affected. In the case of the wen, you'd call out "wen, wen, wenchichenne" (wen, wen, little wen). In the fertility charm "Æcerbot" however, you address the earth herself:

Hal wes Þu, folde, fira modor,                        

beo Þu growende on godes fæðme,                        

fodre gefylled firum to nytte.           


Hale be you, Earth, mother of folk,

Ever may you grow in the grasp of god,

Filled with food, useful for folk.

Repetition is important too; you might need to repeat a charm three times or maybe nine. Many of the charms include Latin or Greek words too, or words that sort of looked like them (or Irish) or may have been Latin or Greek at one time, but became gradually gibberish (and we can't help wondering about their effectiveness by that point). And all this had to be memorized!  You might read a charm in a book (if you were lucky enough to be literate), but you had to memorize it to chant over the wound or the field (or cow or whatnot). The monks didn't want those expensive books wandering too far from the monastic library.

             Other actions included things as diverse as tossing, sprinkling, drinking or bandaging the concoction, or digging into the earth to leave the potion. But you might also have to do things like jump over a grave or a running stream (to leave bad luck or ill health behind). In more complicated charms, you might have to draw a circle or diagram and fill it with letters in anagram. You might also need to stop by the local parish church for a blessing of the elements. For some charms, you have to give something away, either symbolic (like seeds) or actual if you want to get some bad luck far from your home. With luck, healing can begin at once, but usually some time might pass before results occur.

          Charms for protecting and enhancing took similar forms. Among the most common were journey charms. Imagine the times before paved roads and night lighting—journeys were a dangerous thing where you might encounter wild animals, thieves or natural disasters. Best to make a charm upon your walking stick before you ever set out. Whether on the road or at home, why not make a charm against all evils?  You just never know. Considering the importance of cattle, it's not at all surprising to hear that there were a number of charms against the loss of cattle—and charms to bedevil thieves until they returned what they had stolen. For women, childbirth charms were a big part of life. Some helped them recover from stillbirths—others eased the pain of the process itself or offered prognostications of the child's sex.

            One of the more unexpected charms was the one for a swarm of bees. While you might think it would be a protective charm against the angry insects, the opposite was true. The charm addresses the leader of the swarm as a sigewif, or 'victory woman' and tries to calm her down. The Anglo-Saxons didn't want their bees to leave, but to stay and produce lots of honey, the better make more mead.

             Life in the Anglo-Saxon world was one fraught with danger, but with a few herbs and some well-chosen words, it was possible to triumph over adversity. While the magic of this time is a lot different from the much better known Harry Potter world, there are a lot of similarities too. One big difference, though, is the primary power of spoken words. The Anglo-Saxons didn't need wands!

             If you're interested in learning more about the topic, I'd suggest looking at books like Bill Griffiths' Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, Stephen Pollington's Leechcraft, Karen Jolly's Popular Religion in Late Saxon England and (the difficult to obtain, but really worth it) Godfrid Storms' Anglo-Saxon Magic.

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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.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Tuesday, 26 June 2012

    Brilliant, brilliant! It's just what I do--ah, well, with some exceptions. I'm working up my own (Appalachian) version of the Nine Herbs Charm but I promise I won't write it in dialect. Thanks, Laity--a huge help.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Tuesday, 26 June 2012

    Grand to hear that! I look forward to hearing a regional version of a classic. A living history is magic, one that will continue.

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