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.
Anglo-Saxon Charm Against a Wen
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.
Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
Her ne scealt þu timbrien, ne nenne tun haben,
Ac þu scealt norþ eonene to þan nihgan berhge,
Þer þu havest, ermig, enne broþer.
He þe sceal legge leaf et heafde.
Under fot volmes, under veþer earnes,
Under earnes clea, a þu geweornie.
Cling þu alwsa col on heorþe,
Scring þu alswa scerne awage,
And weorne alswa weter on anbre.
Swa litel þu gewurþe alswa linsetcorn,
And miccli lesse alswa anes handwurmes hupeban,*
And alswa litel þu gewurþe þet þu nawiht gewurþe.
Wen, wen wee little wen,
Here shall you not build nor have any home.
Rather shall you go north to that nearby hill,
Where you have, wretched thing, a brother.
He shall lay a upon you a leaf upon your head.
Under the foot of the wolf, under the feather of the eagle,
Under the eagle’s claw, ever may you wither.
May you shrink like coal on a hearth;
May you shrivel away like dung;
And evaporate like water in a pot.
You shall become as little as a linseed,
And much smaller than a hand-worm’s hipbone,
And you shall become so small, that you shall become nothing.
*No alliterating pair here: possibly a corruption of the manuscript, scribal error, or a loss through oral transmission. You’ll notice that the second half line creates its own alliteration, as if to make up for the absence.
If you enjoy my columns, you may enjoy reading some of my fiction as well, much of which deals with magic (not always seriously).
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