Witchcraft In England

Rome, for iEthelberht of Kent was reluctant to part too hastily from beliefs which he and the whole English nation had held for so long.5 How universal and deep-seated these beliefs and customs were it is difficult to judge, as the written evidences are on the whole few and tantalizingly brief. Christianity had adopted many alien ideas in its struggles with religions of the eastern Mediterranean, a policy which Pope Gregory, realizing it would be impossible to eradicate heathen practices quickly and completely, prescribed for Augustine and his followers in England:

. . . fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minirne debeant\ sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur\ aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspergatur, altaria construantur, reliquiae ponantur.6

He also suggested that Augustine should adopt some of the external forms of the local heathen religion, in particular that its days of festival should be retained with a new Christian meaning and its superstitions well flavoured with Christian names and symbols. It is therefore hardly surprising that many scholars have doubted the existence of organized heathen practices in early Anglo-Saxon England. Yet he tells us that the Anglo-Saxons had their temples and their priestly class and we find their kings being exhorted to turn aside from their belief in augury, charms and incantation;7 indeed, iEthelberht took care to meet the Italian missionaries under the open sky so that, si quid malificae artis habuissent, ('if they were practisers of magical arts'),8 they might have less power to master or deceive him—a fear with roots surely in his own religious beliefs. Modern work on English place-names has identified a large number of sites where the gods Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frig were worshipped as well as other religious centres without any particular dedication, and, although such evidence does not do much to Illustrate or expand the few hints of religious practices in literary sources, it helps to prove the strength of heathen feeling among the Anglo-Saxons.9

In the preface to his l^eechdoms Cockayne paints a gloomy picture of the 'tyranny and terror of the poisoner and the wizard' from which Christianity delivered the Anglo-Saxons. He describes the charms as a matter of 'indigenous herbs, the worts of the fatherland, smearings and wizard chants' and, drawing his support from Scandinavian sources, suggests that the Anglo-Saxons lived in a society haunted by the fear of evil magicians.10 iEthelberht's precautions against bewitchment by Augustine and his fellow missionaries are those of a man who feared powerful magicians, but such fears are only to be expected. All primitive societies allow and promote white magic and, although forbidden,

5 Bede Historia Ecclesiastica I xxv. 6 ibid. I xxx. 7 ibid. I xxii, xxvii. 8 ibid. I xxv.

9 v. B. Branston The Lost Gods of England (London 1957) pp. 28 f.; F. M. Stenton ^Anglo-Saxon England Oxford 1947) p. 92 f. etpassim.

10 O. S. Cockayne JL eechdoms, Wortcunning and Star craft of Early England (London 1864-6) I xxxv f.

darker rituals will inevitably be practised, for the admiration given a priest-magician may make him so vain that he will oppose the gods of his people and their accepted moral standards. Yet this body of material edited by Cockayne can scarcely be regarded as the spells and formulae of dreaded magicians, for any lingering traces of native traditional lore they contain are embedded in a Graeco-Roman medical tradition. The men who used these recipes and charms were the accepted medical practitioners of their time, and it is highly likely that they received especial training. Bede speaks of the physician Cynefrid who attended the dying Etheldreda as of a man whose opinions were respected11 and, describing how Casdmon requested a bed to be prepared for him in a house set aside for the sick and the dying,12 indicates that Whitby had its own infirmary. The beliefs and practices of religious leaders and charm-makers at the turn of the sixth century remain dim to us, but within less than a century the new monasteries, as well as calling in trained physicians, most probably had their own dispensaries and herbal gardens.

Native magico-religious elements can be identified in the heroic vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxon poets and, although their emotiveness has been largely explored, we are little nearer finding out their significance to the poets who used them. The eleventh-century scribe who copied:

Sygegealdor ic begale, sigegyrd ic me wege, wordsige and worcsige. Se me dege; ne me mere ne gemyrre, ne me maga ne geswence, ne me ncefre minum feore forht ne gewurpe, ac gehcele me almihtig and sunn and frofre gast. . .13

'I sing a charm of victory, I bear a rod of victory, word-victory and work-victory. May they be of use to me;

let no nightmare hinder me, nor belly-fiend afflict me, and never let fear fall upon my life;

but save me, Almighty, and Son and Holy Ghost . .

would probably be very surprised by all the meanings which modern scholars have read into such a passage. For him this was an especial litany for travellers; it is closely related to earlier lorical poems and was very likely to be said in the same spirit as the Creed or Pater Noster.

Yet certain archaic elements in the Anglo-Saxon poetic vocabulary may still have evoked a feeling of strangeness and awe, although the conservative poets who used them no longer realized their full significance. The Beowulf poet, seeking a word to convey the great terror felt by warriors in Heorot, selected ealu-scerwen,14 Though the first element can be translated 'ale' and the compound, with ingenuity, variously interpreted

11 Bede H.E. IV xix. 12 ibid. IV xxiv. 13 slnglo-Saxon Poetic Records VI 127, 11. 6 f.

14 Beowulf 769.

'deprivation of ale'16 or 'serving of bitter ale'16 it is just as likely that ealu- here preserves a meaning otherwise lost in Old English, the meaning 'good luck' still found in the cognate Old Norse gl.17 The later Andreas poet seems to have found the compound as puzzling as we do for he adapted it to express the panic caused by a great flood; he was so far misled by the nature of the compound that, to suit the pattern of his line, he felt himself able to substitute meodu- for ealu->8 A few other limiting elements in compound words present similar difficulties of interpretation. Some Old English poet probably misunderstood the word regnheard19 which the Beowulf poet uses to describe marvellously hard shields and identifying the first element with the everyday word regn 'rain', he may have constructed what seemed to him a similar compound, scurheard,20 which later poets adapted to their purposes. (This, however, is only one possible explanation of scurheard9s etymology. Showers of weapons are found in the battle imagery of most Old Germanic poetry and prompt the translations 'strong in the storm of battle' or 'hard in giving blows', whereas a comparison of the compound with fyrheard 'tempered' suggests the interpretation 'quenched'.)

The form wcelceasega (.Exodus 164) is so similar in its etymology to the wcelcyrge of early glossaries and later writings that scholars have often attempted to identify it with this latter word in meaning. The author of the Old English poem Exodus was, however, a man of surprising originality and exactitude in vocabulary, as far as can be judged from the other two early poems of the Junius manuscript, Genesis and Daniel, and we should perhaps regard this word as especially used (if not especially coined for it survives nowhere else) to describe some bird of prey hovering over battlefields. The imagery is conventional and the passage can be paralleled in Beowulf*1 The Battle of Brunanburh,22 The Battle of Ma/don,23 Elene,24 Judith25 and The Battle of Finnesburh.26 In a similar passage in Genesis, the same concept is expressed by the word nefuglas.27 We may here add a note on the first element of this compound. Cognate with Gothic naus and Icelandic nar 'corpse' this limiting word still had full substantival force for the earliest Anglo-Saxon poets who formed with it otherwise unrecorded compounds drihtneum 'hosts of the dead'28 and orcneas 'corpses of hell'.29 This orcneas is now generally recognized as a learned compound, its first element from Latin orcus 'Hades', and it is best interpreted as signifying the dead in Hell as ranking large among God's enemies sprung from Cain's seed. Some, reading this passage, have suggested that it proves the early Anglo-Saxons practised necromancy; at any rate the compound could be given this

15 A. Brodeur The Art of Beowulf (California 1959) pp. 59 f.

18 G. V. Smithers English and Germanic Studies IV (1951-2) 67 f.

17 C. L. Wrenn Beowulf (London 1953) p. 243. 18 Andreas 1526.

19 Beowulf 326; v. C. L. Wrenn Beowulf p. 35. 20 ibid. 1033. 2111. 3024-7. 2211. 60-5.

23 11. 106-7. 24 U- 27-30- 25 11- 205-12. 26 11. 5-7, 34-5. 27 1. 2159.

28 Exodus 163. 29 Beowulf 112.

connotation, for the man who borrowed the Latin orcus may well have met this concept in his classical reading. The highly speculative interpretation put forward by Professor Carney is interesting, especially as the passage he bases his theory upon does seem to show certain features in common with this part of Beowulf, but is hardly likely to gain wide acceptance.30 Other English occurrences of *ne do not, however, present such ambiguities. The nefuglas31 of Genesis are carrion-birds, the neobedz2 of the phoenix is his bed of death, Lucifer is sent down to that niobedd 'hell',33 the vainglorious man after neosipum niper gebiged34 will be bound in hell's torments. The Old English word for 'paradise' neorxnaivong had a long vogue, both in poetry and homiletic prose, and, though curiously parallel to the Norse idea of Valhalla, it is not out of place in the early English religious verse. The Anglo-Saxon poets, in developing a heroic vocabulary suitable for Christian tales, pictured Christ in heaven, an eorl surrounded by his troop, geseted to symle.35 His champions on earth defend his wong™ and when dead they go, not to a deathbed, but to a plain where there is a hall for the dead.

Another interesting element in the literary vocabulary is sige 'victory', still recognized as a separate substantive throughout the Old English period. The Anglo-Saxons used it in forming many compounds, for example, sigegyrd 'rod of victory',37 sigetudor Victorious race',38 sigetiber 'sacrifice for victory';39 already on the early Bewcastle column sigbecn csign of victory'40 shows how it became an important element in Christian terminology. It has become irrevocably linked with another word in our language, gealdor, a word usually associated with singing for some magical purpose. They are first found joined together in the passage quoted above from an eleventh-century copy of a traveller's litany. The compound occurs in Middle English as a substantive in the Ancrene Wisse sigaldren,41 King Alisaundre sygaldrye,42 the Chester Plays sigaldry43 and a verb, sygaldryd 'bewitched',44 in the Handlyng Synne. The sense of enchantment certainly present in the post-Conquest occurrences of the word most probably stems from the force of gealdor, used throughout the Old English and early Middle English period for charms and enchantments in poetry, in translation, in leechbooks.

One word is at the centre of our meagre knowledge of the magical practices of the Anglo-Saxons—run. For them it still meant 'secret, mystery', yet no evidence remains to show that they connected the secrets of the runes with some one god, as the Norse connected theirs with OSinn and the Irish their Oghams with Finn. The meaning of

30 J. Carney Studies in Irish Literature and History (Dublin 1955) pp. 102 f. 31 Genesis 2158.

32 The Phoenix 553. 33 Genesis 343. 34 Vainglory 55. 33 Dream of the Rood 141.

36 Guthlac 1. 178 and passim. 37 ASPR VI 127, 1. 6. 38 Guthlac 866. 39 Exodus 402.

40 H. Sweet Oldest English Texts (EETS OS 83) (1885) p. 124.

41 Ancrene Riwle EETS OS 225 (1923) p. 92 (M. 208) 1. 38.

42 King Alisaundre EETS OS 227 (1952) p. 376, 1. L5737.

43 Chester Plays EETS ES 115 (1916) p. 287, 1. 167.

44 Robert Manning of Brunne's Handlyng Synne' EETS OS 119 (1901) p. 19.

helrunan45 remains unclear; some have thought these people to be necromancers, others allow the compound to imply little more than 'such demons' in its context. Other Germanic languages show similar compounds—in Gothic there is haljarunae = magas mulieres,46 in Old High German helliruna = nécromancie^7—and the Old English glosses show the word to have been no mere ad hoc formation in Beowulf. The noun seems to be used mainly of female evil beings in these glosses,48 but, although its form is as evocative as orcneas, there is nothing to show us that the author of Beowulf intended us to picture women necromancers. He does, however, tell us of the practice of casting lots, a practice which most likely survived for some centuries after the Anglo-Saxons came to England. Omens are observed before Beowulf sails for Denmark,49 and the later Andreas poet, knowing of such ceremonies at least from second-hand sources, lists the casting of taan among other heathen practices.50 A collection of sheep's ankle bones, dated a.d. 500, and found at Caistor-by-Norwich,51 seems again to bear out Tacitus's statement that the Germanic tribes paid especial attention to divination by casting lots. Here astragali are used, as they were among races living around the Mediterranean, and one bone is inscribed with runes, clearly for some magical purpose.52 Other isolated early runic inscriptions on such articles as swords, knives and rings also point to the great awe in which the English held these signs, an awe which led to their use on Christian monuments at Ruthwell, Bew-castle and elsewhere. Certainly the nuns of Hackness felt runes held great power and, perhaps because the Celtic influences were strong in a house where we know the name of at least one Irish sister, they used Oghams as well as runes among the lettering on their cemetery gravestones.53

By the ninth century, however, runes seem to have fallen generally out of use and, as employed by Cynewulf and later poets, give the feeling that a pleasant antiquarianism is being indulged in. Overgreat emphasis has been placed on the relatively late translation of Bede's litteras solutorias as pa aljsendlecan rune . . . 7 pa stafas awritene,54 according to one writer ca clear testimony that the belief in the magical efficacy of runes was still very much alive':55 the translator, seeking for some meaningful words to express the Latin phrase in his own language, may have

45 Beowulf 163. 46 Jordanes c. 24 em. of haliorunae.

47 See further: J. Grimm Deutsche Mythologie (1844) pp. 375 f.; Forster Archiv. NS viii (1902) 23 f.; and Kauffmann Bei fr. xviii (1894) 156.

48 See especially Wright A Volume of Vocabularies (London 1857) 6010; ii 69 21.

49 Beowulf 204. 50 Andreas 1099.

51 Rainbird Clark Hast Anglia (London 1959) pp. 137, 230 and Fig. 43; C. L. Wrenn Saxons and Celts in South West Britain, Hon. Soc. of Cymmrodorion (1959) p. 4.

52 For astragalomancy among the ancients, see W. Smith A Dictionary of Greek and Koman Antiquities (London 1882) s.v. Talus, Daremerg and Saglio Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Komaines s.v. astragalus and talus.

53 v. G. B. Brown The Arts in Early England (1930) 6 pt. I p. 68 ; R. W. V. Elliott Runes (Manchester 1959) pp. 84 f. 54 Bede E.H. IV xxii. 55 R. W. V. Elliot, op. cit. p. 67.

sought the aid of this metaphor in much the same spirit as the carvers of the Ruthwell Cross used runes, for a fear of the power of the written word need not be confined only to the Anglo-Saxons among all European races.

The long history of gealdor^ both in simplex and compounded forms, suggests that the use of incantatory formulas must have disappeared only very gradually. In a horoscope translated into Old English the reader is told to beware the woman born in mona se fifta for she will be yfeldada 7 wjrtgcelstre,56 The derivation of the second of these two words is puzzling. Written against the Latin herbaria it implies something more than mere knowledge of herbs; the second element of the compound suggests that those who worked with herbs in early Anglo-Saxon England used incantations as an integral part of their cure. Indeed, charm-singing is specifically censured in the edicts of the mid-eighth-century council of Cloveshoe. Some traces of early formulas remain in the Anglo-Saxon charms though for the most part Christian prayers and ceremonies have taken their place and Christian priests were prepared to say masses and give blessings where before heathen divinities had been worshipped.57 The manuscripts containing these charms were written mainly in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but the texts themselves point to many varied sources and periods. Although some of the formulas have often been considered the oldest relics of English and of all Germanic literature, the evidence they provide must be sifted carefully. To recognize Christian emendations and additions is simple by comparison with the virtually impossible task of separating out the different pagan strands. Four elements have been judged to characterize Teutonic magic: the doctrines of specific venoms, of the nines, of the worm as a cause of disease and of elf-shot; yet each of these doctrines is to be found among other Indo-European societies and therefore a caveat is added:

.. when we meet these four doctrines in passages of English origin without classical or Celtic elements, and especially when combined with references to Nordic gods or customs, the material may with reasonable certainty be regarded as having been brought by the Anglo-Saxon tribes from their continental home.'58

Such passages attribute all disease to the attacks of supernatural beings. da mihtigan wif59 against whom one exorcist waged war are probably followers of Woden, but not yet promoted to their important part in the ordering of Valhalla, and to give the translation 'Valkyries' is both anachronistic and misleading. The charm-maker calls the sudden stitch ¿semes dcel, hcegtessan geweorc 'piece of iron, work of hag' and his words look back to a time when iron was an awesome metal, the legacy of the gods. The hcegtessan gescot in the same charm refers the shot back to the wif who

56 Cockayne L.eechcraft III. Prognostics. 57 AS PR VI 116 1. 115.

58 C. Singer Early English Magic and Medicine PBA ix 13. 59 ASPR VI 128 1. 8 f.

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