Pagan Studies

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 1

The charms of Anglo-Saxon England consisted of words, herbs and actions. The folks who lived in the period after the Roman era and before the Norman Invasion of 1066 believed that words had a magic of their own especially when spoken aloud, but that the application of the right herbs would help the healing processes along, too. Sometimes other actions were required to create the right atmosphere or to move bad luck along to someone else. All three techniques used together was simply magic.

Among the most common uses for magic was for healing. Lacking any kind of organized medical care system, they pieced together charms and poultices to take care of the common health problems. But they also used charms to protect, both themselves and their belongings. Chief amongst their property was cattle. The Anglo-Saxon word for "cattle" (feoh) is the same as the word for "wealth" which shows how important cattle were. Charms also came in handy to enhance good luck and increase one's bounty.

By far, the largest group of charms are those which deal with healing. There were several steps involved in conjuring a successful charm. First it was necessary to figure out who the culprit was behind the illness or injury. One of the best ways to determine the creature causing the harm was to catalogue the symptoms that the patient suffered. Once the cause was identified, one would have to go out and gather the necessary materials, which could take anywhere from hours to days (and even months!). Once everything was prepared, the conjuror had to carefully recite the charm—pronunciation counts.

Common Culprits: the Anglo-Saxons saw disease as the result of the invasion of small creatures or their weapons. While this may seem at first to be naïve, it's really not so different from our understanding of the causes of disease, such as microscopic viruses or bacteria. Metaphorically, the Anglo-Saxons understood the basic process, as well as the need to drive out the causes. Of course they believed these creatures to be things like elves, creatures which might be good or evil. The charms, however, only deal with the bad elves who shot their arrows or darts into both people and cattle and caused swelling and illness. Water elves could also cause fevers. A similar creature was a wen, who caused a swelling and had to be lured away to another location. "Worms" too were often a danger—and the word could refer to slithery things of any size, from the humble earthworm to the dangerous adder and even the majestic dragon. Needless to say, their poison was the real problem. Dwarves were reckoned to be no different than elves, and who could say where flying venom might come from. Then there were demons—evil spirits who wished everyone ill. They could infest your home or even your skin. Sometimes no one could be sure of the cause of evil, so there were a number of all-purpose charms against "unknown evil."

Just like doctors and nurses today, the Anglo-Saxons recognized the importance of symptoms in determining who was at the root of the problem. Cataloguing the ongoing problems usually let to deducing the creature responsible. Of course note very small village had a physician or barber (who did a lot of the blood letting and surgery in the Middle Ages), so the default choice was the wisest person around. If there was a monastery or abbey nearby, the monks or nuns would be an obvious choice. Otherwise the best choice was usually the oldest person in the village. Most often it was a woman, as even then they tended to live longer than men (if they survived childbirth). Old wise women were probably accustomed to people coming to their doors saying "Oh dear, I have a huge lump on my arm! What do you suppose caused this?" Once accident and injury were ruled out, the symptoms were catalogued carefully. What was the problem?

Bleeding, swelling, or fever? Was there a stitch in your side, had you lost appetite or hair? Did you feel the presence of evil in your body or your home? Had a tumor formed in your abdomen or leg? The worst symptom was death, but there was generally little to be done for a patient in that case other than to figure out who inherited his cattle.

Next time we'll look at gathering the materials needed for a charm.

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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, 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.

Comments

  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Thursday, 21 June 2012

    Yes! And now I can have no shame in picking your brain to link my Appalachian work into the deeps of its "British" history. Welcome, my friend!

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Thursday, 21 June 2012

    Thanks, Byron! I'm glad to be here. Pick my brain when you like. :D

  • Hunter Liguore
    Hunter Liguore Thursday, 26 July 2012

    Magic and healing, very interesting element. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Friday, 27 July 2012

    Thank you, Hunter. I hope you enjoy my future columns as well.

  • mary widner
    mary widner Monday, 30 July 2012

    i enjoy reading this

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Monday, 30 July 2012

    Thank you, Mary.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Saturday, 25 August 2012

    At the risk of being pedantic, the Ango-Saxon for cattle and movable property is "feoh". "Fé" is the Old Norse version of the word. As you say, pronunciation counts.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Sunday, 26 August 2012

    You're right, of course! I go back and forth between OE and ON so much, I slip up on words from time to time. Good to know I've got such a knowledgeable audience.

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