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, 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
An Anglo Saxon Chant

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".

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Kate, I've never felt moved to commit Hal wes thu Folde to memory until I heard your tune: elegant, "up," with a very Scandi-folk
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    Thanks so much, Steven!

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Solmōnaþ

Deinde Februarius Solmōnaþ...

Solmōnaþ dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis offerebant.

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  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    I've been watching (and rewatching) Tales from the Green Valley, so the mud reference makes perfect sense. Ah, to be in England n
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    With cakes!

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
A Viking Curse

In chapter 60 of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, the mighty Viking warrior poet gives voice to his anger at King Eirik 'Blood Axe' and his wife Queen Gunnhild, a powerful witch who has fought him at every turn. After many unhappy encounters between them, he curses them with a most effective method: the níðstöng or scorn-pole.

The saga records the ritual like this (leaving out the nature of the secret runes involved):

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Viking Grief

One of the most moving poems by the Viking poet/magician/farmer Egil Skallagrimsson was one he wrote lamenting the death of his favourite son Böðvarr who drowned at sea, and his son Gunnar who died of fever. In skaldic form the twenty-five verses give voice to his sorrow with passion and beauty. Normally Vikings assuaged loss with revenge but there is no one to attack for these deaths.

Egil composes the poem after vowing to kill himself by starvation, unwilling to live in a world without his son. His daughter Þorgerður tells him she will die with him, but tricks him into drinking some milk and spoiling his hunger strike. She then suggests that the best way to memorialise her brother is to compose a suitable poem in his honour so that he will live forever.

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AGAINST A SWARM OF BEES
Ms. 41, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

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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 shamanic  tradition.  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.

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Here are a few further stanzas in the gnomic poem of Viking wisdom, translated from the medieval Norse with a commentary on significance and context. Read the other entries in this ongoing project here. Read the original Old Norse poem here.

 

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