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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Sounding Out the Water Elf

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

If someone suffers from the disease brought by the 'water elf' the Anglo-Saxon medieval charm advises that one ought to make a compound of nineteen different herbs, soak them in ale then add holy water. Of course to make them effective, the important step is to also sing over them this charm three times:

Ic binne awrat betest beadowræda,
swa benne ne burnon, ne burston,
ne fundian, ne feologan, ne hoppettan,
ne wund waxsian,
ne dolh diopian;
ac him self healde halewæge,
ne ace þe þon ma þe eorþan on eare ace.

Even without telling you what those lines mean, you can see a lot of the patterns. First the commanding then specifying what it will stop (all the ne constructions which mean no[r]). The power of repetition (the three Rs!) comes from not only repeating the charm but using those repeating sounds within the charm: ne ne ne. Note there's also other alliterations ('rhyming' at the front of the words) which also emphasises repetition:

binne betest beadowræda benne burnon burston
fundian feolgan
wund waxsian
healde halewæge

And the last line has multiple repetitions within it. The percussive noise of the repetitive sound is an important part of the process, enacting the power of the words to activate the qualities of the herbs. After you prepare the mixture and apply it, there is another sung charm to repeat manegum siþum (many times) on the wound because that repetition gives it power:

 Eorþe þe onbere eallum hire mihtum and mægenum.

May the earth bear you on with all her might and power.

The repetition of the diphthongs (eo, ea) and the Ms give this phrase a powerful resonance. Try it out loud (earth-ah thee onbear-ah ahllum hir-ah mih-tum ond may-en-um) and see if you cannot feel the power too.

Here's one translation by Godfrid Storms (obviously I'm disputing some of his choices):


Image: Detail from Apocalypse in Prose, South-east France (Lorraine), 4th quarter of 13th century- 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4972, f. 14r

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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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