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Seven Anglo-Saxon Charms

Notes and translations by Karl Young


I contributed translations of Anglo-Saxon book riddles to last year's North American Ideophonics collection. This year I'm contributing some Anglo-Saxon charms. In the late 70s, I worked with Old English and indigenous colonial Mexican texts. Similarities between poems in the two bodies of work struck me then. Given the recent political climate in this country, it seems particularly appropriate to stress the similar backgrounds of English poetry and the other poetries of the Americas. Based in a slave creole, in turn based on a syncretic culture, Modern English remains open to new sources - from the street, from the peoples coming to Anglo-America from other parts of the world, from the peoples who have lived here for millennia before the European invasion. The history of English is multicultural and polyglot, and its interactions continue a process that has been going on a very long time. If we deny the cross-cultural nature of English, we lie with every word we speak. Some Anglo-Saxon charms incorporate passages in Latin or pseudo-Latin, which might best be translated by a contemporary sound poet. Those who made these charms understood something of the magic of abstract sound, not hearing it as a threat but an ally.

Charm for a Swarm of Bees

Take earth with your right hand and throw it under your right foot, saying:

I've got it,     I've found it:
Lo, earth     masters all creatures,
it masters evil,     it masters deceit,
it masters humanity's     greedy tongue.

Throw light soil over them [the bees] as they swarm, saying:

Sit, wise women,     settle on earth:
never in fear     fly to the woods.
Please be mindful     of my welfare
as all men are     of food and land.

Notes: The speaker acknowledges his own human shortcomings and realizes that the power of earth must work on himself as well as on the bees. The Anglo-Saxons knew that bees were intelligent creatures: they lived in cooperative communities, stored food efficiently and prudently, could foretell the weather, etc. The beekeeper asks the Wise Women to share their bounty with him, perhaps hoping to receive some of their wisdom along with the honey. The practice of throwing sand or light soil over bees to get them to settle was common among early beekeepers throughout northern Europe. It has been suggested that this confuses their flight pattern, causing them to land. More important, in the magical spirit in which a performance of this sort took place, is that the scatter of soil over the bees defines their earth or home - they may leave gather pollen, but should always return to the precinct defined by the thrown earth.

Charm Against a Dwarf

Take seven little wafers, such as those used in worship, and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martimianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Then sing the charm that is given, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, then over the top of the head. And then let a virgin go to him and hang it on his neck. And do this for three days. He will soon be better.

A spider-thing     came on the scene
with his cloak in his hand;     claiming you for his horse,
he put his cord on your neck.     Then they began to cast off from land;
as soon as they left the land     they nonetheless began to cool.
The beast's sister     came on the scene;
she stopped it,     and swore these oaths:
that this should never     hurt the sick one,
nor any who tried     to take this charm,
nor any who should     speak this charm.
Amen. Fiat.

Notes: The names written on the wafers are the names of the Seven Sleepers, whose influence was supposed to calm sufferers from violent or convulsive disorders. The spider-thing may be the dwarf, the spirit that causes the disorder, or perhaps the name "dwarf" may describe some aspect of the disease, or even of an herbal cure for it. If the spider is the disease, it harnesses the victim; if it is an herbal cure, it harnesses the disease. Pushing off from land and cooling may refer to the abatement of fever. Perhaps the reference to the beast's sister indicates some sort of homeopathic cure through related objects. Then again, the sister may be an herb or an agent of the charm itself. It is hard to say what the virgin hangs on the sufferer's neck: a copy of the charm? an herbal sachet? a medicine made from spiders?

Charm for Theft of Cattle

May nothing of mine be stolen or concealed, no more than our Lord was [caught or harmed] by Herod. I thought of Saint Helena, and I thought of Christ as he hung on the cross; so I hope to find these cattle, not to have them gone, and to learn where they are, not to have them hurt, and know they are cared for, not lead astray.

Garmund,     God's servant,
find those cattle,     and fetch those cattle,
and take those cattle,     and keep those cattle,
and bring those cattle home.
So he have no land     to lead them off to,
nor solid ground     to stand them up on,
nor any house     in which to hide them.
If any should do so,     may it get him nowhere.
Within three nights     I will know his might,
his strength and his skill,     and his style of protection.
May he be withered     as wood is consumed,
as frail as a thistle,
he who devises     to drive off these cattle,
or thinks to steal     anything of mine.

Notes: Saint Helena supposedly found the true cross after it had been hidden. I have not been able to identify Garmund.

Journey Charm

With this rod I mark my protection
            and commend myself to God's keeping,
against fatal cuts,     against fatal blows,
against overwhelming fear,
against the great terror     that is hateful to everyone,
and against all hateful things     that infect this land.
A vanquishing charm I sing,     a vanquishing rod I carry,
succeeding by word     succeeding by action.
May this avail me:
may no nightmare attack me,     may no foeman oppress me,
may no disasters     make me fear for my life.
But may the Almighty,     the Son, and the Spirit,
the Glorious Lord,     the revealed Creator
of heaven and earth,     save me from harm.
Abraham and Isaac,
and men of their kind,     Moses and Jacob,
David and Joseph,
and Eve and Anne,     and also Elizabeth,
Sarah, and Mary,     the mother of Christ,
as well as the brothers,     Peter and Paul,
as well as the thousands     of angels in heaven,
I call to my aid     against all foes.
May they guide me and guard me     and save my life,
may they keep me completely     and rule me completely,
and guide my works.     May the host of the holy,
the vanquishing saints,     the virtuous angels,
the hope of glory,     be a hand over my head.
I pray to them all     with hopeful spirit
that Matthew be my helmet,     Mark be by armor,
lighting my life,     Luke be my sword,
sharp and shining,     shielded by John,
adorned in glory,     the highway's Seraph.
As I go on my way     I hope for companions,
inspiring angels,     comforting saints.
I pray for the grace     of the God of victory,
for a good journey     with calm and untroubled
winds along shore.     I've heard of winds
that pulled back the sea     and saved constant men
from deadly foes.     May I meet these friends
so I may endure     in the Almighty's keeping
safe from the evil one     who seeks my soul,
secure in the glory     of heaven's angels,
and land of the holy,     the kingdom's glory,
as long as I'm given     life in this world.     Amen.

Notes: The reference to the staff may be to a cross, possibly implying that the speaker use it in a ritual such as describing a (magic) protective circle around himself at the beginning of his journey. ll. 37 - 38, rather garbled, may be a reference to the parting of the Red Sea. The references to armor in ll. 27 - 30 may allude to Ephesians 6:11-20.

Charm Against Swelling

Nine was the number     of Noththe's sisters.
Then the nine     turned into VIII
and the VIII were VII     and the VII were VI
and the VI were V     and the V were IIII
and the IIII were III     and the III were II
and the II were I     and the I disappeared.

This will cure you of swellings and scrofula and worms and all evils. Sing Benedicte nine times.

Notes: This is an Anglo-Saxon contribution to the universal family of counting charms, in which the whole is broken down into its parts and each part dispersed. The disease is "spelled" out. This charm has relatives from native America to Australia, including not only some of the oldest texts we have from the Middle East but also one of the key premises of Freudian Analysis. I can't identify Noththe or her sisters. Nine is a number commonly used in magic the world over. Note the Roman numerals, found in Bibles but not in speech, used as visual incantation, and possibly related to the rhunic futhorc when seen inscribed in ceremony. MS. B.M. Harley 585, f. 182a

Charm Against a Wen

Wen, wen,     wenlet little,
build not here     nor find a home
but pass to the north     to the next hill
and there discover     your brother in pain.
He shall place     a leaf on your face.
Under the wolf's foot,     under the eagle's wing,
under the eagle's claw     grow into nothingness.
Collapse like a coal     burnt in a hearth;
shrink like plaster     in a ruined wall;
evaporate away     like standing water;
sink to the size     of a linseed grain
and keep on shrinking     ever smaller     even smaller
than a thumb worm's hip bone     and keep on shrinking
ever smaller     ever smaller     till you disappear

Note: As a variant on the previous charm, this one spells away the wen.

Source: Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, vol. VI of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record, Columbia University Press, New York, l942.

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