Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
Amulets and chants
At first glance amulets and chants might seem to require two different articles. But that would be to see such matters from the perspective of modern scholarship and not from that of the Anglo-Saxons. Amulets were worn for protection – but much of their protective power came from the words which were said to 'empower' them.
Some of the chants have come down to us in Old English manuscripts. A small proportion of the amulets have survived in graves. But, as I will explain, most amulets were from plants and fibres, which rarely survive when buried. But first I want to unravel some of the words used to describe amulets, and some of their later history, as these have unduly influenced previous generations of scholars.
Amulets are something worn or carried in a bag or pouch which are considered to have some sort of medicinal or magical properties. The 'magic' is often to avert evil entities. The amulet itself is rarely attractive in its own right, and not necessarily made of a valuable raw material – although there are exceptions. Some of the amulets which have survived could be described as 'curing stones', although this is really a distinct type of amulet and not necessarily an explanation of why other amulets were worn.
Different words for amulets
Some writers attempt to distinguish between an amulet which actively prevents harm from a talisman which provides 'good luck'. While such a distinction may apply to medieval and early modern talismans – although that is debatable – there seems to be no evidence for such a distinction in Anglo-Saxon times. That is not the same as saying there is evidence for the lack of distinction, just that we need to use the word 'amulet' to span both proactive prevention as well as more passive 'good luck'.
Amulets enter into Latin with the word periammata which are the bits of coloured thread tied around wrists, arms and necks, and the moon-shaped pieces of gold, silver and cheaper material which foolish old women fasten upon infants' as St Gregory Nazianzen (circa 329 – 389 or 390) informs us – although he lived in Constantiople and never visited Gaul, still less the British Isles. The crescent-shaped necklaces, or lunula, were worn by well-to-do girls in Rome, while elaborate metal 'beads', called bulla, were worn by their brothers. Quite what children from the lower echelons of society wore is less well-known.
The word periammata went out of use however the word ligatura, 'something tied' was used instead, along with the more general word phylacterium 'a protective device'. Phylacteria were effective against fascino and fascinatio which denote 'envy' and seems to equate to the widespread folk beliefs in the Evil Eye. In Old English the words malscrung or malscra have the same sense as fascinatio. The exact sense of the Old English words is difficult to discern but in old German dialects the word malsk means 'proud', so the connection with a Latin word meaning 'envy' is clear.
Academics traditionally distinguished anything which depicted a deity as something distinct from an amulet. Quite whether such a distinction would have been recognised by the people who wore them is an entirely different matter! I suspect not.
The words of power
Amulets may include a specific type of magic – letters. The alphabets used on Anglo-Saxon amulets include Latin, Greek and runic. Often the words – or abbreviations of the words – can be made out. In a few cases the letters are all-but illiterate. As so often in barely-literate societies, it is the act of writing, more so than the words being written, which is considered most important. Most such amuletic writing would have been on scraps of parchment or woven textiles and so have been lost to us. Only when the writing was on a metal object is there any chance it will be discovered by archaeologists.
Bear in mind that what was said to empower an amulet was as important as the material from which it was made, so the power of writing may well have been even greater.
The power of plants
From the many surviving examples of Old English charms we can be fairly sure that most of the amulets were made from plants. Here we need to be careful. Some cures specify that a plant – or a preparation from a plant – is worn next to a wound, or drunk as a decoction. In other words, this is herbal medicine. But in the case of amulets the plant is worn around the neck (perhaps in a pouch or bag – such details are never given). So the intention is not strictly medicinal but 'magical' – although I am well aware that modern distinctions between 'medicine' and 'magic' cannot be projected back more than a few centuries, still less to Anglo-Saxon England.
Two fragmentary Anglo-Saxon amulets include wood-like plant remains. Both are bound together by metal. One may have contained an 'oak apple' and the other a tightly-wound strip of bark. If the bark was from oak then just possibly both were carried to enable infusions of tannin to be made – so were 'medicinal' rather than 'magical'. But, as just noted, such a distinction probably had little meaning to the wearer.
Apart from the Old English charms we have little evidence for such plant-based amulets – they simply do not survive in archaeological contexts.
The power of threads
The same can be said for what must have been an equally prevalent form of amulet – what is referred to in Latin as periammata or ligatura. The wearing of coloured threads – most typically red, white and black – is recorded by nineteenth century folklorists in seemingly every European country and a good many places further afield. Within the last twenty years the wearing of 'friendship bracelets' and such like has all-but brought the practice back to life in Britain – albeit in a more garish range of colours.
Among the grave goods of a few so-called 'high-status' female burials are small metal boxes, usually round, with lids. The purpose is unknown but they are referred to as 'thread boxes'. The interpretation is that in this box the woman would have carried various pieces of thread – or maybe short lengths of ribbons or tablet-woven braid – which was considered to be amuletic or magical. The inferences is that most other women carried such threads or fragments of textiles in small cloth or leather bags which do not survive.
The power of weaving and plaiting
Ethnography reveals that in the most traditional societies weaving is usually – though not always – a women-only activity. We known this is true for Anglo-Saxon England as the word 'distaff' – a tool used for spinning – is synonymous with 'woman'. Indeed a distaff defined a woman in the same way a spear defined a free man. Similarly flax plants – from which linen was produced – denoted women in the same way that leeks denoted men (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol). In medieval England the word 'spinster' came to denote an unmarried woman – one who spent most of her life spinning.
Although early ethnographers were often male, when women too began to undertake field studies they were able to record what went on in the women-only weaving sheds. Along with putting the world to rights, gossiping and rather scurrilous references to men in general and husbands in specific – and, yes, ethnography does reinforce these gender stereotypes – something else may be going on. The women are weaving 'spells' – usually protective ones – into their fabrics.
'Weaving a spell' is as much a literal phrase as a metaphorical one. Textiles and words are closer kin than most people realise. When we are 'texting' on a mobile phone we are using the modern successor to a Latin word, textus, which means 'something woven'. Textus gives both 'textile' and 'text'. This is not a quirky association. A deep-rooted metaphor regards thoughts as like threads, and a raconteur 'spins yarns' while a true storyteller or poet is a weaver of words.
While we have no direct evidence, perhaps the cords from which amulets were suspended around the neck were often plaited, either from wool or linen, or from thin leather thongs. There is a practical advantage from using three strands plaited together in that the failure of any one strand does not result in the loss of the amulet.
Furthermore, when plaiting strands together for use in this way, it almost comes naturally to plait in a magical 'charm' – to weave in a few 'words of power'. The fact that Anglo-Saxon charms and oaths were seemingly almost always three-fold (see The deities of the Anglo-Saxons) merges into the rhythm of plaiting three strands together.
Charles Leland, in his compilation of Gypsy 'sorcery', offered the following thoughts:
There is a very curious belief or principle attached to the use of songs in conjuring witches, or in
averting their own sorcery. It is that the witch is obliged, willy nilly, to listen to the end to what is in
metre, an idea founded on the attraction of melody, which is much stronger among savages and
children than with civilized adults. Nearly allied to this is the belief that if the witch sees interlaced
or bewildering and confused patterns she must follow them out, and by means of this her thoughts
are diverted or scattered. Hence the serpentine inscriptions of the Norsemen and their intertwining
bands which were firmly believed to bring good luck or avert evil influence. A traveller in Persia
states that the patterns of the carpets of that country are made as bewildering as possible "to avert
the evil eye." And it is with this purpose that in Italian, as in all other witchcraft, so many spells and
charms depend on interwoven braided cords.
Leland also tells is that 'The commonest curse of English gypsies at the present day [i.e. 1890s] is, "Beng tasser tute!" "May the devil strangle you" but literally "twist" you.' (Leland 1891: 200–1)
See further quotations from Leland about 'Italian entanglement' in Dragons and protective saints.
The power of animals
There are more surviving examples of animal remains being carried as amulets – the claws of eagles and other raptors, the teeth of boars, beavers and other animals with a powerful bite, and others with less obvious associations – such as the lower jaw of a squirrel or sheep's teeth. Cowrie shells are also found, and these require trade with the Middle East.
Fossils of ammonites, belemnites, echinoids ('sea urchins'), crinoids (sea-lily stems) and sharks teeth have been discovered in Anglo-Saxon graves. Predictably they are more common in the parts of south-east England where such fossils are more often exposed on beaches. Sharks teeth were not recognised as being teeth – they were referred to as 'snakes tongues'. Similarly, at least in more recent centuries, ammonites were not recognised as a type of sea shell but referred to as 'snake stones' and 'serpent stones'.
Any study of amulets is dominated by beads. Amber and jet are among the most common minerals used for amuletic beads. Both of these have electrostatic properties so are inherently 'magical' materials. Both are comparatively easy to shape. Quartz or 'rock crystal' beads are also found, although usually only as a small number of somewhat larger and clearly more 'special' items in a necklace. Manufactured glass beads are also incorporated, although their comparative rarity indicates that glassworking was not commonplace in Anglo-Saxon England.
Blue and yellow – or stripes of the two colours – seem to have been regarded as the most efficacious colours when selecting beads for amulets. A small but significant number of burials of infants and children reveal a single glass bead worn at the neck.
The power of whiteness
White quartzite pebbles seem also have been used as amulets. However drilling these to use as beads seems to have not been within the capabilities of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen so they are found loose. And this presupposes that the archaeologist recognises such a 'commonplace' pebble as being significant. We can only assume that many instances of small white pebbles being deliberately included in the grave have gone unrecorded.
The importance of whiteness goes back to Neolithic times when white rocks or white sea shells were crushed and used as 'grog' in pottery. In Anglo-Saxon graves are small balls seemingly made of a hard chalk. They were almost certainly amulets as they were not hard or strong enough to have any practical use.
Although garnets feature frequently in high-status Anglo-Saxon jewellery, they do not seem to have been used as amulets 'in their own right' – although the motifs on the jewellery would presumably have been amuletic. Amethysts do feature in 'amulets' but only from the Christian era – there are no examples of pre-conversion amulets using amethyst. I assume this is simply because at the time available sources were only exploited in the eastern Mediterranean, so this stone would only have been available once regular cultural and trading contacts were established.
Gold and silver, predictably, are used as mounts for high-status amulets and sometimes to enhance the appearance of more mundane objects. One particular type, produced mostly in Denmark and southern Scandinavia, is made from small discs or rectangles of thin gold foil, with a loop for suspension, so they could be worn as pendants. The foil has been embossed by a punch bearing a design which usually depicts one of the Scandinavian deities. By the early seventh century they are being produced with Christian symbols.
They are known as 'bracteates', from the Latin bractea, 'a thin piece of metal'. When found in graves they are always with female burials. The method of manufacture suggests that more than one of each design could be readily made, although the cost of the gold foil mitigates against the notion they were 'mass produced'. The gold came from coins paid as 'peace money' by the Roman Empire to their northern neighbours. While acknowledged as amulets, the study of bracteates has largely been considered a separate discipline from researching other amulets.
A bracteate from Skrydstrup, Denmark, is discussed in Straddling the supposed divide: carvings and cures.
As bracteates went out of fashion, in Scandinavia (but not Britain) they were replaced by gullgubber or guldgubbar, which means 'little old man of gold'. They are indeed almost all made of gold but smaller and thinner than bracteates, and usually rectangular rather than circular. Most depict men, but some depict women, couples or animals. The significance and symbolism is not fully understood, although they seem to votive offerings rather than amulets.
See the Wikipedia page on gullgubber
Although associated with the Anglo-Scandinavian era, some amulets take the form of miniature weapons and 'battle hammers'. The hammers are generally regarded as symbols of Thor who, in the sagas, has a hammer called Mjölnir. Although they denoted a follower of Thor, these were probably amuletic too, Bear in mind that all jewellery, whether amuletic or not, is always an expression of cultural or ideological identity.
Curiously the custom of wearing Thor's hammer pendants arises at the same time as people are beginning to wear equal-armed crosses with the figure of Christ. As with a number of late pagan customs in Scandinavia – such as building temples – we seem to be seeing a pagan response to Christian innovation. Such overlaps can be seen most clearly on a Thor's hammer pendant excavated in Yorkshire, made from iron around 1000, which has an inscription preceded and followed by a cross. Was the owner was quite happy to 'hedge his bets', so to speak – or was he simply 'trebling up' the power of the amulet by incorporating the symbol of Thor, the symbol of Christ and the power of writing?
So far as we can tell from burials, amulets were mostly worn by women. The boars and other ferocious creatures found on a small number of high-status warrior's helmets and shields may have been as much amuletic as they were proto-heraldry. Although there is no direct evidence, perhaps less wealthy men simply painted such motifs on their shields or other equipment, or used appliqué leatherwork for similar effect.
The amulets in the shape of miniature weapons have usually been found in contexts which do not reveal the gender of the wearer. But some were found in women's graves so they are not exclusively associated with men. We should not simply assume that miniature weapons were worn by men. Such amulets could have been 'unisex', or were worn by women as a 'keepsake' of a male relative who had gone off – or died – fighting.
The power of age
While a few bracteates have been found in Britain they are primarily associated with later Anglo-Scandinavian era. Several centuries before people wore Roman coins as pendants. We can be fairly sure that they were worn this way as a small hole has been made near the edge to allow suspension. The coins are typically silver, simply because this is most typical of surviving Roman coins, although gold and copper-alloy Roman coins were used as amulets too.
At the time Roman coins were being worn in this manner there was no coinage in circulation in England. The 'value' of the coins was entirely emblematic. And the value was that they were known to be old. Just as in recent times a folk saying had it that a bride should wear 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a sixpence in your shoe' so too it seems that Anglo-Saxon women also selected 'something old' to wear as one of their amulets. They may have been heirlooms, passed down over several generations previously – some of the jewellery in graves shows considerable wear on the back, or has been repaired or is a brooch no longer capable of being pinned in place so presumably worn as a pendant.
In parts of Continental Europe the tradition of women wearing chatelaines – otherwise known as 'girdle hangers' – was maintained until early modern times. They were, if you like, like an oversize 'Swiss army penknife' of practical and symbolic items worn by married women on a chain hung from the waist. The keys to chests and cupboards used to store food and spices would be included, along with such items as a small knife, scissors and maybe tweezers.
In Anglo-Saxon times the keys seem to be more symbolic than practical (see Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites). There may also be a spindle whorl made from faceted rock crystal. When used in sunshine this would have refracted the light into dancing 'rainbows'. Other pieces of rock crystal were shaped into small spheres.
The girdle hangers with crystal spheres are also likely to have a spoon with small holes so it could act as a sieve. Because the use of crystal balls for divination is not known before the fifteenth century the best guess is that the sieve spoons are for filtering bits of herbs out of medicinal drinks, while the crystal ball would have been immersed in the liquid to impart the 'magical' properties of the quartz.
If so, then these rock crystal 'whorls' or balls and the sieve spoons may not be strictly amuletic – that is, they are not worn to actively prevent harm. They would instead be the 'tools of the trade' of a wise woman who prepared herbal and 'magical' potions on a regular basis. In practice the modern definitions of 'amulet' simply did not exist in Anglo-Saxon times so we should not impose rigid distinctions.
The power of words
Because amulets are discovered and analysed by archaeologists there is a tendency to think of them as 'mute' artefacts. Well, indeed, none of them are intended to speak for themselves! But historians are well aware that written references to amulets are part-and-parcel of a complex Old English literature which spans herbal remedies, physical amulets and 'words of power'.
There have been a number of attempts to understand these 'charms' and 'chants'. Two of the most incisive and informative are by Karen Jolly (Jolly 1996) and Stephen Pollington (Pollington 2000). The surviving texts are all from around the tenth century, so strictly later than the scope of Twilight. However some aspects reveal a deep-rooted tradition which is partially shared with equally old texts from Germany. When these charms refer to 'flying venoms', the worm, refer to nine-fold items or repetitions, or attribute the cause of the malady to elves then we seem to be seeing survivals of this pre-conversion worldview.
However it is wrong to split these charms into 'pagan' and 'Christian' components. At the time they were written down they reflected a practical 'accommodation' of these ideas, without any sense of disparity. These texts tell us how Christianity 'really was' at the time – which is quite distinct to how previous generations of scholars liked to think it was!
One of the best-known of these charms is 'against the sudden stitch' otherwise thought of as 'elf-shot'. The charm says to taken 'feverfew and the red nettle that grows by means of a building, and plantain' then boil in butter. We have no idea if this potion should be applied to where the pain of the 'stitch' is felt, or whether it should simply be worn in a bag or pouch around the neck. All we know is that the following words need to be said to the potion to be efficacious. My guess is that the potion was applied to the body while the charm was spoken
Loud were they, oh, loud, When they rode over the hill;
As Karen Jolly put it, the only thing that matters when it comes to charms is 'how to invoke the hidden virtues of natural ingredients to counteract the visible and invisible causes of a patient's complaint and to alleviate the symptoms of both physical and mental-spiritual distress.' (Jolly 1996)
The power of God
In De Medicamentis, written in Latin by Marcellus Empiricus (also known as Marcellus Burdigalensis or Macellus of Bordeaux) at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries is a description of what may well be the typical way of making and wearing a written amulet. The words of the charm must be written on virgin parchment then bound with a linen cord round the waist of the person. This, he states, is especially efficacious for anyone who 'suffers anywhere from flow of blood'. Marcellus was seemingly at least a nominal Christian, but the charms and associated rites come from pre-conversion traditions.
Even by the tenth and eleventh centuries these traditions have not been forgotten, but they have adapted. In the whole of the charm for sudden stitch there is only one overtly Christian reference – 'may God help you' towards the end. Yet the rest is not 'pagan'. The 'causality' – elves and elf-shot – is a product of the emergent Christian worldview. If this charm really was a survival of a pre-conversion charm then the cause would have been more likely to have been human – such as a malevolent sorcerer.
As Karen Jolly carefully revealed, Christianity transferred 'evil agency' from human agency (such as sorcerers) to spiritual forces (such as demons) (Jolly 1996: 122–3). Elves might be thought of as 'transitional' entities which would evolve into the outright demons of later medieval thinking. But even by the time this charm was being written down elves were being thought of as the malevolent counterparts to angels.
The intention of the clergy was to categorise magical practices as the work of the Devil and replace them with the miracles wrought by saints and the power of Christ. In practice most of the charms and remedies which have come down to us occupy some sort of middle ground between these two polarisations. The wording of the charms reveals a spectrum of ideas ranging from charms with overt use of non-Christian words (such as references to Woden) to practices which use entirely Christian rituals.
The power of words
The seemingly 'non-Christian' charms empower natural items – often herbs – with curative or apopotraic properties. The more obviously Christian ones 'empower' natural items – usually water, bread and wine – with curative or apopotraic properties. Spot the difference? Actually the difference isn't there. Many of the charms call for herbs which have been 'blessed' with nine or twelve masses. In other words, the altars of early churches must have been repositories for substantial quantities of herbal remedies which gained in power as successive masses were performed by the clergy, in the same way the consecration of bread, wine and water added potency to these otherwise everyday substances. (Jolly 1996: 120; see also The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol) From the worldview of tenth century Christianity there is no real discrepancy.
Bear in mind that many of the herbal remedies were not intended to be drunk, nor even to be worn next to a wound, but to carried – presumably around the neck – as amulets. While the evidence is more scant, presumably all other types of amulets also needed to be 'empowered' by saying the right words over them.
There was nothing specifically Christian about the power of words, although Christianity added the power of the written word. The precursors to Gregorian chant would have been based on pre-conversion practices known in Old English as galdor. The word galdor is used fairly frequently in the tenth century charms, sometimes combined with other words to tells us that the specific charm needed to be either chanted or sung. From the worldview of early Christianity there is no real discrepancy – chanting and singing was what was needed to impart potency. Karen Jolly borrows the word 'mana' to refer to the power that these words imparted (Jolly 1996: 116ff); however in Anglo-Saxon England the Latin words potentia and numina seem to have this sense, and in Scandinavia in the tenth century the word óðr seems still to have been current (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol).
The supposed difference between the charms which use words such as Woden, or invoke causes such as elves, and ones which we think of as more akin to later Christian worldviews is blurred even more as the majority of the charms use Christian words, but in formulaic phrases which have no biblical referents so, seemingly, are pre-Christian in origin.
The power of 'meaningless' words
One of the charms starts in Old English (with the instruction to say the Lord's Prayer in Latin), followed by some seemingly meaningless words, then a prayer in Latin.
Sing this prayer on the black ulcers nine times, first Pater noster [then]
Seek and you will find. I adjure you through the father and the son and the holy spirit. Do not grow greater but shrink. Upon the asp and the basilisk you shall tread and on the lion and the dragon.The 'meaningless' words seem to be a corruption of Old Irish, although so corrupt that the sense is not recoverable.
So, in the space of three paragraphs the charm shifts between three languages. While we can safely assume that both the reader and the person for whom the charm was being said – the 'patient' – would understand the Old English, the 'words of power' are either in Latin or a 'mumbo jumbo'. We can assume that the 'patient' was unlikely to understand the meaning of the Latin. Given the lack of learning among tenth century priests we must also question whether the Latin made any more sense to them than the 'mumbo jumbo' paragraph.
But did it matter? Karen Jolly considers that there were no 'meaningless words' in tenth and eleventh century England (Jolly 1996: 117–18). People were accustomed to other people using languages – or perhaps even dialects – which they themselves did not fully understand. Only as the Reformation begins to take shape is there a move towards Christian liturgy in the vernacular. In due course this becomes a major rift between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant denominations, with the rapid mumbled repetitions of the Pater Noster being derogatorily referred to as 'patter', a word now used – without any derogatory intentions – to describe the palaver of stage magicians.
Continuation and transformation
Scholars have caused confusion by trying to dissect into 'pagan' and 'Christian' elements. But what we are seeing is the continuation of a pre-conversion worldview into an otherwise Christian beliefs. The charms and remedies should not be taken as evidence for the survival of paganism in the tenth century, only for the syncretic processes shaping Christianity at that time. Neither should we label them 'Christian magic' as, from the perspective of the clergy at the time, this would be an oxymoron – magic was, by definition, the work of the Devil.
As Karen Jolly concluded:
… although it may be of interest to the modern scholar to trace the pagan, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian origins of these remedies, we need to recognize that the remedies existed in their own time as integrated wholes, without any self-consciousness of a conflict of traditions or beliefs. They operated simultaneously as folklore, medicine, and liturgy…
However these surviving charms and remedies were written down after the period which Twilight is mostly concerned with. We cannot assume that they remained unchanged or unaltered over the preceding centuries, but must be careful not to project modern distinctions – and presumptions – about 'paganism' onto the scant evidence.
See also First-person viewpoints.
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013