The Magical Charm of
Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charms
Are you going on a dangerous journey? Are you in need of herbs blessed by Odin or Christ? Did you lose your cattle or do you need something against a sudden stitch or against a dwarf? If you do, Anglo-Saxon charms are the way to go. These charms describe the steps a person can take in order to protect themselves against bees, to cure certain diseases, or to find lost property. These charms have been found in many shapes and sizes, but the ones that I will consider here are the so called Metrical Charms, because they are the most famous charms. Briefly considering superstition, performance and the problem of paganism versus Christianity, I will try to explain what makes these charms so interesting.
First of all, it is important to realise that, even though Anglo-Saxon charms may seem very superstitious and some are even considered complete gibberish, most of them actually have a justified use. For example, one of the steps de-scribed to protect oneself against bees is to throw earth over the bees when they swarm, which is a viable method according to beekeepers to prevent swarming and common practice in many cultures (Garner 29).
However, other charms do not have this clear practical use. For instance, one of the charms that outline what to do when you have has lost your cattle, tells us to first face east, pray and then chant three times “may the cross of Christ bring it back from the east” (Dendle 519)three times; these steps should be repeated this facing west, south and north. This ritual might seem ineffectual, but it does tie in with another important aspect of Anglo-Saxon charms: performance.
The charms were created for a reason, even though your cattle would probably not magically return when performing the “For Loss of Cattle” charm. Nonetheless, the performance would make the fact that you lost your cattle known and one can imagine that neighbours would keep an eye out to find that missing cattle, in addition to watching extra carefully over their own. As mentioned before, some charms have a healing function. These charms illustrate how to make a potion using herbs, vegetables, and sometimes even saliva, and are often accompanied by certain prayers while you boil the ingredients into a nice soup or tea. Although today many would decline a drink containing someone’s spittle, some of these charms have actually been proven to be effective against the diseases they were supposed to treat. Furthermore, the prayers chanted while boiling would often be used as a time keeping mechanism while at the same time the chanting gave extra authority to the person ‘performing’ the charm. Similarly, we now see many people visiting their general practitioner for the smallest itch and all they need is for the doctor to hear them out and prescribe them some placebo drug. As this example shows, it is not just the result that counts; the show is just as important and only adds to the effectiveness of the charm.
One of the problems many scholars are faced with today is whether Anglo-Saxon charms are pagan or Christian, though the general belief is that the charms are syncretic. One of the scholars who support this claim is Hill, who sees syncretism simply as a ‘mix’ of Christianity and paganism and not as one concept corrupting the other (Hill 146). For example, Hill points out that in the “Journey Charm,” the Cross, Christ’s disciples and figures of the Old Testament (such as David) are invoked to help travellers and to protect them during their travels. However, the evils they would be shielded against are mostly ‘pagan’. According to Hill, “the enemies and horrors that these powers protect against are archaic Germanic terrors, familiar to us from magical and folkloric texts preserved in Old English and other early Germanic languages” (154).
Anglo-Saxon charms, thus, played quite a relevant part in Anglo-Saxon England and are definitely not as superstitious or backward as many might believe them to be. Quite a few of these charms actually held some truth, such as the “For a Swarm of Bees” charm. As mentioned before, some charms, like “For Loss of Cattle”, might seem laughable to us but they are in fact well thought through. However, all of these charms involve both Christian and pagan elements, which apparently did not bother the Anglo-Saxons, making the Anglo-Saxon charms a melting pot of cultural influences.
by Calum Reekers
Dendle, Peter. “Textual Transmission of the Old English "Loss of Cattle" Charm.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology Vol. 105, No. 4 (2006): 514- 539. Print.
Garner, Lori A. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition Vol. 19, No. 1 (2004): 20-42. Print.
Hill, Thomas D. “The Rod of Protection and the Witches' Ride: Christian and Germanic Syncretism in Two Old English Metrical Charms.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology Vol. 111, No. 2 (2012): 145- 168. Print.