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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John Barleycorn & the Ale Wives

There's an Old English riddle from the Exeter Book that is part of a long tradition about the abuses of alcohol through the ages. While there is much to celebrate in the joy of drinking, there is a dark side, too, that many have fallen prey to over the years. The poem goes like this:

Biþ foldan dæl     fægre gegierwed
mid þy heardestan      mid þy scearpestan
 mid þy grymmestan     gumena ge streona ·
corfen sworfen     cyrred þyrred
bunden wunden     blæced wæced
frætwed geatwed     feorran læded
to durum dryhta     dream bið iinnan
cwicra wihta     clengeð lengeð
þara þe ær lifgende     longe hwile
wilna bruceð      no wið spriceð
 þōn æfter deaþe     deman onginneð
meldan mislice     micel is to hycganne
wisfæstum menn     hwæt seo wiht sy.

Or in modern English:

There’s a bit of earth     beautifully sown
with the hardest and the sharpest     and the grimmest that men own.
Cut and cleaned,     turned and dried;
pleached and wound;     bleached and bound;
adorned and arrayed     and borne away
to the doors of men.     Joy is within
for living creatures.     It delays and it stays
a long long while.     They live in joy
and naught gainsays.     But after the death
they start talking big,     chattering, chittering.
It is hard for a wise man     to say what this is.

For me, there is great delight in the structure of the poem and its rhymes (not a common feature of Old English poetry) and its verbal bite. Unlike the poetry surrounding the making of mead and its relationship to bees, the making of grain liquors is tied to the earth and to agriculture.

The ale wives took up the trade because it was one of the few that could be done along side domestic tasks. Brewing takes a lot of cooking and stirring. Of course one of the most interesting phenomenons is the tie between ale wives and witches: the sign that ale was available? A broom hung outside (see the above image from the British Museum).

Here's hoping if you indulge yourself this weekend you will avoid 'talking big, chattering and chittering' and stay wise!

Translation by Paull Franklin Baum

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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.


  • Tyger
    Tyger Saturday, 25 August 2018

    Very interesting. Thank you!

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