The Lost Charms and Incantations That Molded Celtic Reality
Since men and woman have been capable of making vocal sounds, incantations have been floated on airwaves by enchanters, who whispering charms, spells in rituals, hymns and prayers, invoked curses, raised protection deities and summoned demons. This article looks at the ancient records of the northern nations of Scotland and England and features a selection of the most famous incantations from these magical Celtic Kingdoms where the spoken word and oral traditions were akin to community glue.
In Norse mythology, using a magical incantation, ”Wodan Heals Balder's Horse" (1905) by Emil Doepler. Public Domain
The 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy tells us that the term “incantation” appeared in English around 1300 AD and derives from the Latin word "incantare" meaning "to chant (a magical spell) upon," from in- "into, upon" and cantare "to sing”. The English term was "galdr" (“spell”) which evolved into the terms "enchanter" and "enchantress", for those who used incantations to enchant.
In folklore, fairy tales, medieval literature and modern fantasy-fiction, and in most systems of magic, occultism, shamanism, and witchcraft, an incantation is specifically when a spell is “cast” or “bound” to a specific person, object or location, and generally alters its qualities. Enchantments, on the other hand, also describe spells that deceive people, either by affecting their thoughts or with illusions, for example, enchantresses are frequently depicted in myths seducing farm boys and knights with magic words and songs convincing people that they had undergone some kind of magical transformation.
In ancient Egyptian culture, a number of references to magic spells exist, in particular the embalming and interring process of dead bodies involved the use of many documented spells, as listed in The Book of the Dead. In northern Europe surviving examples of charms include the famous “Merseburg Incantations,” two medieval magic spells written in Old High German which were discovered in 1841 by Georg Waitz who found them in a 10th century manuscript. More well-known are the "Nine Herbs Charms," which we will explore now.
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10th century German manuscript with the Merseburg Incantations. Public Domain
Incantations in Action
Only last week I published an article on Ancient Origins about alchemical spagyrically enhanced medicines, which were regarded as being ”spiritually enhanced medicines.” In pre-alchemic England, however, we learn in The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period, of a specific set of charms known as “Anglo-Saxon metrical charms.” These magically written instructions for “resolving situations and most often diseases” usually required the brewing of a potion, writing magic words or symbols on an object and repeating a certain set of words or incantations.
These nine "metrical charms” are a great resource of information about medieval medical theory and practice, religious and superstitious beliefs and how people understood sickness and health. The Nine Herbs Charm mentions both the Germanic god Woden and Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity. Twelve “metrical charms" survived in the 10th to 11th century Old English collection of medical texts known as Lacnunga, they are:
Also known as "For Unfruitful Land," this charm was designed to "heal" lands that have yielded poorly.
Against a Dwarf
Scholars agree as to the specific, or intended, aim of this charm but many believe that the dwarf in this instance might represent a disease involving a fever.
Against a Wen
This medical charm was designed to reduce then get rid of wens, the Old English word for skin blemishes or cysts.
A Journey Charm
This charm specifically called on the protection powers of God and Biblical saints and angels to protect travelers on journeys
For a Swarm of Bees
Also known as The Old English Bee Charm, is was meant to protect from attacks from a swarm of bees.
For Loss of Cattle #1, #2 and #3
All three For Loss of Cattle charms were directed at helping to locate lost cattle.
For Delayed Birth
This charm's purpose was to help a woman give birth.
For the Water-Elf Disease
This one healed Water-Elf disease, the symptoms of which were a pale, ill-looking complexion brittle weak nails and watery eyes.
Nine Herbs Charm
Aimed at healing infections and diseases using the careful blending of nine specific herbs.
"For a Sudden Stitch," healed sudden, sharp pains and according to some specialists it was directed specifically at rheumatism.
While this was going on in England, in Scotland, we learn of the old charms in a text known as the Carmina Gadelica, which is a compendium of prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, literary-folkloric poems and songs, proverbs, lexical items, historical anecdotes and natural history observations gathered between 1860 and 1909 in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland. The famous exciseman and folklorist, Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), recorded, translated, and reworked the material which was published in six volumes over a decade and the series was finally rounded off in 1971.
The genesis of Carmina Gadelica can be traced to the ancient ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides” and the first two volumes were regarded by reviewers as "monumental achievement in folklore,” but Carmichael's editing methods were firmly challenged in 1976 with the publication of Hamish Robertson's article in Scottish Gaelic Studies, "Studies in Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica". Robertson accused Carmichael of “meddling with, altering, and polishing original texts… hardly one had not been touched up in some way, sometimes quite drastically.”
The Carmina Gadelica was created in a period of widespread political strife in the Highlands of Scotland when there was a contempt of Gaels, their language and their culture. In the words of Gaelic scholar Dr John MacInnes, “ Carmina Gadelica is not a monumental exercise in literary fabrication nor, on the other hand, is it a transcript of ancient poems and spells reproduced exactly in the form in which they survived in oral tradition.” Despite its flaws, Carmina Gadelica remains an indispensable source for the popular culture, customs, beliefs, and way of life of Scottish Gaels in the nineteenth century.
While old wives in what is now England attempted to tweak reality with Anglo-Saxon metrical charms, old Scots attempt the same, as described in Carmina Gadelica. Even though most, if not all, of these magical theories were just that, theories, in a pre-scientific world enchantments and incantations, backed with a little “belief” were considered as effective as we regard Aspirin and Ibuprofen.
Top image: Kings' Fairy Tale, 1909, by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (public domain)
By Ashley Cowie
Clute, John and Grant, John. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st UK edition). London: Orbit Books, 1997.
Carmichael, Alexander. "Grazing and agrestic customs of the Outer Hebrides", Report of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1884), pp. 451–82.