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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Old English Charm Against a Wen

The medieval world 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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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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