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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The Magic of Names


The Exeter Book is a collection of medieval poetry from the late tenth century written down by a single scribe. Amongst other treasures, it contains almost a hundred riddles. If you think of medieval monks as pious and devoted -- well, for one thing, you've probably not read Chaucer! Many of the riddles are bawdy and full of double entendres, just like the songs the monks would sing. 

Much of our casual information about life in the Middle Ages comes texts like these: details of natural phenomena or the habits of birds. Riddle 68 is particularly delightful not only for the vivid depiction of the magpie, but also the embedding of the runic puzzle of its name which adds an additional challenge to the reader. 'Hiroga' the Anglo-Saxon name for magpie is only apparent once you unscramble the runic letters.  

It is a pervasive magical concept that knowing the true name of something gives you power. You don't have to be Rumpelstiltskin to be wary of giving too much information away about your real name. 

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht     wræsne mine stefne 
hwilum beorce swa hund     hwilū blæte swa gat 
hwilum græde swa gōs      hwilū gielle swa hafoc 
hwilū ic onhyrge     þone haswan earn
guðfugles hleoþor     hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne     hwilum mæwes song
þær ic glado sitte     · 
 · mec nemnað
swylce · 
 ·  ·  ·      · fullesteð
· 
 ·  ·  ·     nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas     sweotule becnaþ

I’m a wonderful thing;     I vary my voice:
I bark like a dog,     I bleat like a goat,
I quack like a goose,     I shriek like a hawk;
I imitate the eagle,     the gray one, the cry
Of the fighting bird;     sometimes the kite’s voice
is familiar to my mouth,     or the sea-mew’s song,
where I happily sit.    
 GIFT is my name,
O
AK and RIDING     and the GOD helps,
HAIL and ICE.     Now you have my name,
as those six letters     clearly betoken.

(Text and translation via 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.
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