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.

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Meditations on Hávamál: 61-65
 61.
Þveginn ok mettr
ríði maðr þingi at,
þótt hann sé-t væddr til vel;
skúa ok bróka
skammisk engi maðr
né hests in heldr,
þótt hann hafi-t góðan
 
Washed and fed
shall a man ride to the Thing,
though he be not clothed well;
of his shoes and his britches
should no man be ashamed
nor of his horse neither,
though he not a good one.
 

The Thing was the assembly to settle differences, plead suits and socialise in all kids of ways; in Iceland, the annual national gathering, the Alþingi is still the name for their governing body though the no longer meet out in the valley in tents (a few politicians have suggested that doing so would make the government work a little faster). Traditionally the law speaker recited at least a third of the laws that he had to keep memorised. Thus legal matters were decided there: as much as Icelanders pride themselves on having the longest existing democracy, the medieval version demonstrates that might (usually through having supporters, but sometimes through outright violence) made right. This verse counsels that one must make the best appearance possible. If your clothes were not the best at least make sure they are clean and mended, your shoes clean and your horse stepping out the best she can, even if she wasn't going to win any races -- or in the case of male horses, any fights. Horse fights were a brutal but popular sport.
 
62.
Snapir ok gnapir,
er til sævar kemr,
örn á aldinn mar;
svá er maðr,
er með mörgum kemr
ok á formælendr fáa.
 
Snapping and stretching,
when it comes to the sea,
the eagle to the billowy sea;
so is the man,
who among the crowds comes
and has few supporters.
 

The man without sufficient supporters is like the eagle who swoops down at a fish only to see it disappear beneath the waves. Don't wait until you get to the gathering to form your alliances. Much of viking life was about gift giving and hospitality because you never knew when you would need an important ally. Feuds could break out over fairly small disagreements -- about where your land ended and your neighbour's began, or who got to use a certain path to summer pasturing.Alliances were essential.
 
63.
Fregna ok segja
skal fróðra hverr,
sá er vill heitinn horskr;
einn vita
né annarr skal,
þjóð veit, ef þrír ro.
 
Ask and reply
shall each of the wise ones,
he who wants to be called sensible;
one must know
but another shall not,
all the people know, if three do.
 

Wisdom is highly prized: we have seen several verses on that topic. But being able to hold your own counsel is also important, the poet tells us. You should shrink from sharing secrets with anyone at all if you can avoid it. If you tell someone and they tell a third, then the secret will not be kept and everyone shall know. If you are heading to the Thing and bringing a suit, it's best not to let the cat out of the bag until you are certain you have sufficient support.
 
64.
Ríki sitt
skyli ráðsnotra
hverr í hófi hafa;
þá hann þat finnr,
er með fræknum kemr
at engi er einna hvatastr.
 
His power
should each of the wise
have in moderation;
then he finds that
when he comes among the bold
that none is keenest of all.
 
Power in this sense seems to be connected to the idea of anger (as the wise man said, 'Anger is an energy.') I connect it with the previous verse: just as you should not show your cards until you're ready with a firm phalanx of supporters, you should not show your anger until you read the room (or the tent). If your opponent is even more angry, he may be able to sway your supporters -- perhaps simply to not support your action, but worse, over to your opponent's side. Hold your anger in check: the sagas are full of unwise men who let their emotions lead them into rash decisions.
 
65.
-- -- -- --
orða þeira,
er maðr öðrum segir
oft hann gjöld of getr.
 
 
[missing lines]
For those words,
which a man says to another
often he gets repayment.
 

In a similar vein, your angry words can be repaid by more of the same, while your measured speech may meet with likewise thoughtful responses. In the medieval world people were much more cognizant of being part of a community. Ostracism -- including outlawry and banishment -- put people in a truly vulnerable position that many could not survive. Men like the famous Grettir only survived such a fate because they were able to call upon both the friends they had made prior to being banished and were extraordinary enough to convince people to offer help despite the risks of aiding a fugitive.
See more of the verses here.
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Get Charming

I'm teaching a course this semester called 'Witches, Healers & Saints' mostly so I could teach a lot about witches. One of the themes developing in all my courses is how the few people with power often abuse it (honestly, it's always been there -- I'm just making it more overt now), but a major theme in this class is magic as technology.

My aim is to get away from the modern impulse to see magic only as 'superstition'; our belief in our superiority to the past causes us to dismiss too many things. If you think of magic as the best knowledge available at the time about some very mysterious things, it's easier to understand the role it played. I'm introducing the students to sympathetic magic and the power of charms (like the Anglo-Saxon Charm for Bees or the Charm against a Wen).

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  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    I'd like to take that class.
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    That would be fun!
Burchard's Corrector: Rooting Out Medieval Magic

This week in my Women as Witches, Saints & Healers course, we read the Corrector of Buchard of Worms. This early 11th century handbook guided priests with questions they ought to ask their confessing parishioners in order to root out bad behaviour -- and a lot of the bad behaviour was pre-Christian practices that persisted. The insight these questions offer is rather magical, but the style of his rhetoric makes this much more fun to read than the usual sort of penitential.

Here are a few snippets to entertain you:

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  • Jön Upsal's Gardener
    Jön Upsal's Gardener says #
    I'm glad to see I'm not the only person interested in these sorts of texts as source material for modern Heathenism or Paganism. I
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    That's very good to hear!

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Bee Charms

My friend Kelly Meyer reminded me of the Lorsch Bee Blessing today. The 9th century Old High German charm captures the importance of bees in the medieval world, something we're beginning to realise anew as we discover just how perilous life is when they're endangered. As I've written about before, the importance of mead, the alcoholic drink made from honey, cannot be overstated in the Germanic world.

In Old High German, the charm goes like this:

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  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    Ah, a cunning plan!
  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    Ah, but we are hoping for a late season swarm for our new top-bar hive! Perhaps we are the cunning women who are luring the Golde

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Disreputable English Magic

To assuage the sadness of knowing there is no more Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to come (or perhaps there is a but a long way off), I have been thinking about how English magic did fall into disrepute so that a man of Norrell's character found it necessary to make it respectable once more. One of the first examples to occur to me is Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale (hereafter CYT because I will tire of spelling it out).

CYT features one of the belated arrivals to pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. The canon and his yeoman catch up to the pilgrims and the yeoman launches into a recital of the canon's alchemical life that soon makes his boss leave in a huff. The yeoman takes this opportunity to show that the canon is a scoundrel in this 'elvysshe craft' known as alchemy

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  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    May be it that craft is so easy to learn? I'm sorry you're sad about your show but so glad to read this!
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    I think it's easier to learn the form of it -- appearance of it? -- and then feel frustrated that one doesn't know more. I'm think

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The Great Conflation

I am looking forward to the final episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on Sunday (I think it's begun in the States more recently). It's been fun seeing an 'alternate' history of magic, though I will be sad to see it end. It got me thinking about a period in history that leads to a lot of confusion. When people say 'witch hunts' most people still seem to think of the Middle Ages, though the worst years were part of the Early Modern era, sometimes known as the Renaissance (a much disputed term for a variety of reasons). While many see the dividing line as the Reformation, the roots of that change can be see in Wycliffe and the Lollards in the 14th century. I tend to see Gutenberg's innovation as a technological change, though even there printing existed before his moveable type -- but the speed of the technology has all kinds of impacts as we know in the internet age.

We may not think of magic as technology, but all knowledge is technology. A revolution in technology may be regarded as good or bad or something in between, but it usually hard to deny once it happens. A big change happened in the history of magic that had a huge impact that leads to the widespread witch hunts of the Early Modern era (and on into the so-called Age of Enlightenment). For background, I highly recommend you get Michael D. Bailey's Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. Perhaps easier to obtain is his briefer essay, 'The Feminization of Magic and the Emerging Idea of the Female Witch in the Late Middle Ages' (available via Project Muse in many libraries).

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Meditations on Hávamál: 57-60
57.
Brandr af brandi
brenn, unz brunninn er,
funi kveikisk af funa;
maðr af manni
verðr at máli kuðr,
en til dælskr af dul.
Torch from a torch
burns, until it burns out,
flame kindles itself from flame;
man from a man
knows truth from speaking,
but folly from the fool.
 

Like breeds like we might say: just as the flame passes from torch to torch, so the light of learning passes from a wise one to a willing student. It burns brightly as long as there is fuel for it -- an eager mind. It's a constant refrain of the verses, but if you listen to fools you learn nothing but foolishness. Be mindful of where you sit. Better silence than foolishness.
 
58.
Ár skal rísa,
sá er annars vill
fé eða fjör hafa;
sjaldan liggjandi ulfr
lær of getr
né sofandi maðr sigr.
He must rise [early]
who would gladly have
the wealth or life;
seldom will the lolling wolf
get the lamb's thigh
nor the sleeping man victory.
 

We know all about the early bird getting the worm; here the advice is the same but with the vivid example of the busy wolf grabbing the lamb's 'ham' or thigh. The sleeping warrior will not get victory any more than the sleeping wolf her dinner.
 
59.
Ár skal rísa,
sá er á yrkjendr fáa,
ok ganga síns verka á vit;
margt of dvelr,
þann er um morgin sefr,
hálfr er auðr und hvötum.
He must rise early
who has few workers,
and get right to his work;
many things will delay,
he who in the morning slumbers,
yet half the wealth to he who's keen.
 

In typical Nordic litotes, to have 'few workers' is to have only yourself. Rise up early and don't procrastinate, because there is no one else you can count on. Half delayed is half unpaid! While this may seem more puritan than viking, they have in common a harsh life with a lot of tedious chores to maintain food and comfort.
 
60.
Þurra skíða
ok þakinna næfra,
þess kann maðr mjöt,
þess viðar,
er vinnask megi
mál ok misseri.
Of dry sticks
and bark roofing,
of this a man ought know the measure;
of this wood
which should last
a quarter or a sixmonths.
 

This stanza is a little more tricky. The basic sense is clear enough: practical knowledge will save you work. Knowing what kind of wood lasts longest before you use it as roofing is very wise. It plays with the concept of 'measure' both as a way to evaluate knowledge and as actually measuring wood for building. The lengths of time aren't terms we use as often now; some translators just use "short and long" for the seasons, but clearly the difference was more specific and meaningful in this agricultural community.
See also Meditations on Hávamál, 52-56, Meditations on Hávamál, 48-51, Meditations on Hávamál, 44-47, Meditations on Hávamál, 40-43, Meditations on Hávamál, 35-39, Meditations on Hávamál, 31-34, Meditations on Hávamál, 27-30, Meditations on Hávamál, 23-26, Meditations on Hávamál, 19-22, Meditations on Hávamál, 15-18, etc.

 I use the Evans edition of the poem to begin and compare with translations here and here. The original text comes from the Heimskringla site in Norway. I also received a new translation of The Poetic Edda from Hackett Publishing; when I get a chance, I'll review it.
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