Nine Herbs Charm
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The "Nine Herbs Charm" is an Old English charm recorded in the tenth-century CE Anglo-Saxon medical compilation known as Lacnunga, which survives on the manuscript, Harley MS 585, in the British Library, at London. The charm involves the preparation of nine plants. The numbers nine and three, significant in Germanic paganism and later Germanic folklore, are mentioned frequently within the charm. The poem contains references to Christian and English Pagan elements, including a mention of the major Germanic god Woden.
According to R. K. Gordon, the poem is "clearly an old heathen thing which has been subjected to Christian censorship." Malcolm Laurence Cameron states that chanting the poem aloud results in a "marvellously incantatory effect".
The charm refers to at least nine plants. Scholars have proposed various translations for the plant names, including the following:
- Mucgwyrt Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
- Wegbrade Plantain (Plantago)
- Stune Lamb's cress (Cardamine hirsuta)
- Stiðe Nettle (Urtica)
- Attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) by R. K. Gordon; partially defined by others as betony (Stachys officinalis)
- Mægðe Mayweed (Matricaria), a genus which includes German camomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Wergulu Crab-apple (Malus)
- Fille (identified as thyme (Thymus vulgaris) by R. K. Gordon; defined by others as chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium))
- Finule Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned plants, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple residue. Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg – both before and after the prepared salve is applied.
Further, the charm directs the reader to sing the charm three times over each of the herbs as well as the apple before they are prepared, into the mouth of the wounded, both of their ears, and over the wound itself prior to the application of the salve.
A snake came crawling, it bit a man.
Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,
Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.
There apple brought this pass against poison,
That she nevermore would enter her house.
Suggestions have been made that this passage describes Woden coming to the assistance of the herbs through his use of nine twigs, each twig inscribed with the runic first-letter initial of a plant. In the charm, the parallels between Christ and Woden/Othinn (the Norse version of Woden) illustrate the mixing of paganism and Christianity in order to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. The significance of Othinn is that he gained knowledge of runes by hanging himself of Yggdrasil in self sacrifice. Christ gained his knowledge of the charm while hanging on the cross in his own act of self sacrifice. Here, the lines are blended between what is completely Christian or pagan.
- Cameron, Malcolm Laurence (1993). Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40521-1
- Gordon, R. K. (1962). Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman's Library #794. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
- Macleod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-205-4
- Mayr-Harting, Henry (1991). The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. Penn State Press ISBN 0-271-00769-9
- Foys, Martin et al. Old English Poetry in Facsimile Project (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019-); digital facsimile edition and Modern English translation