Monday, 27 May 2019

Carol Keith - Anglo-Saxon Magico-Medicine: Charms to Combat a Supernatural Adversary (Nottingham Empyrean April 2018)



On Wednesday the 4th of April 2018 I took a trip over to Nottingham to attend the lecture hosted by the Nottingham Empyrean Pagan Interest Group. These often informal presentations, are held at the Theosophical Hall on Maid Marion Way, which is itself a main thoroughfare on the edge of the city centre.

Mrs Keith's presentation covered five primary points which she conveniently presented as part of her introduction.


1.     Magic is a universal phenomenon
2.     Less hard evidence the further back in time we go
3.     The Germanic and Anglo-Saxon Systems
4.     Leech Books of the early Medieval Period
5.     The blending or overlap of Pagan themes hidden under a veneer of Christian belief.


Mrs Keith began with a run through of the aforementioned universal phenomenon, briefly mentioning the release of land from curses and the significance of particular numbers, for example three and nine. Continuing the theme our attention was drawn to Christian Prayers incorporating Pagan elements, such as invocations of the Goddess Erce.

Moving on we were taken on a journey through the Leechbooks of the Saxon Period, noting that although incorrect to refer to practitioners as shamans, the methodology could in some circumstances, be described as similar. The conjoining of Pagan and Christian magic of this early period is noted to have continued well into the twelfth century. The Saxons however, placed a considerable emphasis upon dreams. This included various omens, acts of divination and charms to protect individuals from the Night Goblin. One very interesting charm required the offering of seven communion wafers.

As one would expect when looking at the late Anglo-Saxon period and the increased contact with continental Europe. There is an increasingly central and southern European influence upon the sorcery of the period. Scandinavia arts in the form of Galdr, meet the seven sleepers of Ephesus (a Christian story) and once again, charms invoking Erce. All of which merely serves to illustrate how rich were the magical traditions of the Saxon Period.


Throwing bridleropes, spiderwights, goblins and wyrms into an already heady mixture, Mrs Keith introduced charms to protect from poisons and venoms. These included the well known ABRACADABRA charm but also many lesser know arts, such as the Lay of the Nine Werts or Worts, the Nine Twigs of Woden, also known as the Glory Twigs and the Adder's nine venoms. My head was beginning to spin at this point.

Obviously when looking at the sorcery of this period it is important to understand the importance of herbal charms and much of what has already been mentioned, are charms of that nature. Mugwort, perhaps the oldest known wort, is perhaps of pre-eminence amongst them.


In an age when medicine in any modern sense was unknown, it was the street magicians and leechworkers to whom the community would turn. Here seeking comfort and protection from a varity of ailments, including the toothache so often associated the wyrm, we note that 'wyrms' are always harmful, malicious and blamed for all manner of malady. Sometimes an illness was 'charmed' into another object, such as a stone or tree, while at other times a physical talisman such as a holed stone was required as an amulet.

With the coming of Christianity the shift in perception towards what was previously regarded as positive changed. A denigration of the Elves, the Aesir and Mightwomen began and rather than asking for blessings, in fear people began to seek protection. This was even to manifest in a form of European smudging using 'Elfhorn' to banish elves from the home environment.


One cannot mention the Bright Ones in relation to Anglo-Saxon magic without there being some mention of Elf Shot and it is worth mentioning at this point, that amongst the many physical exhibits on display. Mrs Keith was able to produce some fine exhibits to illustrate the lecture.

Elf shot itself had of course a variety of uses and was itself greatly feared. A charm against 'sticking' or severe pain, and mentioned in poetry, we find the word shot used in conjunction at various times. Aesir Shot, Elf Shot and even Hag Shot all apparently referring to a knife charm involving a potion of fever few.


Jumping ahead to the seventeeth century, we find that the beliefs and practices of the pre-Conquest period had survived in folklore amongst the common people; even if forgotten by the elite. Elf Shot is documented in the trial records of Isobel Gowdie for example. Here they are the feared arrow heads flicked on a thumb nail and believed manufactured by the Devil himself! By this time however, the use of the arrowheads has developed, now both a tool of malefic sorcery and conversely, mounted as a amulet to project the bearer from the Elves. Other methods of protection included the Elf furrow, a form of curved ploughing used to confuse the 'little people' and protect the crop.

Returning to our pre-Conquest period we were introduced to the Wurtgalster, a feminine noun meaning plantcharmer. Both interstingly and amusingly, we were informed that the Church had punishments for women if their magic worked. I reiterate with amusement that it was only if the magic worked!


Tying all of this together to bring our journey to an end, we were guided through the use of brambles in healing, before being brought up the fifteenth century to examine childbirth charms. The various influences of the pre-conquest period being aptly shown as near prescient, in that their survival in our modern world can been illustrated by the many grave goods and symbols of the period. Anglo-Saxon magic has not passed away, it survives today in our folklore and our memory.


Nottingham Empyrean Pagan Interest Group


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