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 the Quill

Ic seah wrætlice     wuhte feower
samed siþian     swearte · wæran lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu     swift wæs on fore
fulgum framra     fleotgan lyfte
deaf under yþe     dreag unstille
winnende wiga     se him wægas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold     feower eallū


The riddles of the Exeter Book give us oblique snapshots of everyday life for the monks in the Middle Ages. You can easily imagine the scribes fixing on something within site and coming up with a poetic and misleading description where metaphor can throw a reader off the track. But the metaphors reveal power, too. Riddle 40 (51 in the Krapp-Dobbie edition) refers to one of the ubiquitous items in their lives: the pen or quill.

I saw four things     in beautiful fashion
journeying together.     Dark were their tracks,
the path very black.     Swift was its moving,
faster than birds     it flew through the air,
dove under the wave.     Labored unresting
the fighting warrior     who showed them the way,
all of the four,     over plated gold.

The 'four things' are the fingers with the quill. I love that they are friends on an adventure together. They mirror the way heart, mind, hand and will work together in the writing process. Though we have many other ways to write than just physically by hand (technology provides greater accessibility) writing well requires thoughtful reflection as well as the passionate fuel of wanting to record those thoughts in the amber of words to share them, if only with a future self. The will to create is one that many struggle with: remember no one has ever had your voice. Prize that uniqueness.

Most writers will tell you that the pen seldom moves 'faster than birds' but at the best times it can fly 'through the air' or dive under the waves and be everywhere at once. Personifying the quill as the 'fighting warrior' who labours without rest shows the import that writing has. You never know the resonances your words might set off. Your nib may not be gold but your voice can be.

In a time when speaking truth to power is demanded for our very survival, the pen takes on mighty enemies. Let your warrior labour on. The path may be very dark, but the light will come from your words.


Translation: Paull Franklin Baum

Image: 'Oenone scrive a Paride' from Eroidi di Ovidio (great images of women writing)

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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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