Columns and Articles
Over the years, I have written numerous articles for various witchy/occult and magical publications. I first started a regular column about herbal medicine and magic for Pagan Dawn, in 2014, and have managed to produce one for every quarterly issue since then. For Quest, I have been writing articles for much longer, and I cannot even remember when my Short Notes from Norfolk column began. I have also written a number of articles for The Cauldron, although that magazine sadly ceased publication in 2015, on the death of its editor, Michael Howard. I have included here one example of my work for each of these magazines.
Herbal Skills for Witches
(PD 191, Imbolc 2014) Val Thomas
Basic herbal skills are an essential part of the treasury of knowledge that every witch requires to work effective, useful magic. We all need to be able to choose the correct herb to add to the ritual incense or to the phial of spell powder, to have some idea of what is safe to chew on in the garden and what may provoke a nasty stomach ache or worse! It was all very well for our forbears, who were taught by parents or grandparents, or who apprenticed themselves to the village wise woman, but most modern, urban witches have to find their own way through this labyrinth of delight and danger. We may lament this fact at times and long for one teacher to pass on all the information, but the current situation is all part of the challenge of modern magic. Here are some ideas for gaining herbal understanding, which I have found helpful, both in my own practice and in teaching others, beginning at the centre of the spiral with oneself and the immediate environment, and gradually spreading outwards, building step by step on solid foundations.
Recognising the Herbs
This is all about observation, which everyone learns as a basic magical skill anyway. Close attention to every detail of the plant will avoid potentially fatal mistakes: the size, texture and exact colour of the leaves, the arrangement of them on the stem, the type of seed pods and the numbers of seeds in them, and, of course, the flowers. The smell is important too, as is the area in which the plant is growing. Even so, it is often hard to match a plant to a picture in a herbal or plant identification book. So start with the plants which grow nearby and practice with those; ask friends and neighbours to make sure. Gardeners in particular are usually keen to help. You can actually do a lot of magic with a small number of herbs, many of which probably grow very near you.
Look out for herb walks. Many medical herbalists run these all over the country and most Pagan Moots have a herb specialist who is happy to take people out on herbal forays. (I have led an annual herb walk for Norwich Moot for several years now.) Evening classes and one-day or weekend workshops are worth looking out for too.
An excellent way of teaching yourself is to go to garden centres or, better still, specialist herb growers, check the labels on the plants, observe, visualise and remember. It costs nothing, although the temptation to buy is, I find, quite considerable in such places. Purchasing a packet of seeds is much cheaper, although it requires more patience, but you will get many more plants for your money and pot herbs always make lovely magical gifts.
Use the herbs you learn for practical purposes. It will enhance your relationship with the plant and help the knowledge stick in your mind.
This is the easiest way to use herbs and most can be made from either fresh or dried plant material. An infusion, best made in a teapot, if possible, or in a covered cup, to avoid losing essential oils, is no more trouble than any other hot drink. For most herbs allow one to two teaspoons of dried herb per cup and double it for fresh herbs as they already contain a lot of water. Most herbal teas should be allowed to brew for ten to fifteen minutes before drinking.
Thinking of yourself and of the spiral, start with teas which help you and try to feel the difference. If you suffer from digestive system problems, you might try Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), known by herbalists as “The Mother of the Gut”, Peppermint (Mentha piperita), particularly effective against bloating and wind, or delicious Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), which is very useful if you have IBS as it also has a calming effect on the nervous system. If your blood pressure is high, you could try Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) or Lime flowers (Tilia spp.). For people who keep turning the same thoughts over and over again in their minds, try Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia). These examples can all be used as leaves or flowers, but if you choose woodier materials, they will need to be boiled in a covered pan for ten to fifteen minutes to make a decoction. If you cannot grow or find the herbs, they are still available to buy from herbal shops or mail order companies, such as Baldwins or Neal’s Yard.
While experimenting, it is useful to learn the culinary and magical uses of the herbs too and consider how that complements the medicinal effect. Mint, for example, is said to increase prosperity if carried in the pocket, and has good cleansing properties, Chamomile has solar associations and Lemon Balm attracts bees and general well being to the home.
Use Herbs in Food
This can be a simple magical act to improve health, enhance the quality of life and as a spell to steer things in the right direction. A soup or stew with added Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) will be highly nutritious (full of minerals and particularly iron), but also strengthening and encouraging on another level as Nettles are a herb of Mars. If, when you serve this food, you sprinkle it with Pot Marigold petals (Calendula officinalis), you will give the whole thing a visual and solar energy lift, as well as providing a herb which is healing to the digestive system and an excellent lymphatic.
For those who prefer their magic sweet, how about a Lavender shortbread? Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a relaxing herb, in small quantities, but it is also Mercurial, so is perfect for improving communication between those who are eating it. It always encourages discussion, I find, and often requests for the recipe. So: sift 5oz (150g) of plain flour into a bowl and add 2oz (50g) of caster sugar and a tablespoon of fragrant Lavender flowers. Work in 4oz (100g) butter, using your fingers, through which your intent can easily flow. Knead well, then pack into a floured mould and bake at 325o F (170oC) for about 45 minutes. Cut into wedges (or other magical shapes) before allowing to cool on a rack. If your intentions are more towards love or friendship, try Rose petals instead of Lavender or if you would like to do some winter magic, Cinnamon might be appropriate. Once you make a start, you can develop a simple idea in many magical directions.
This is a very easy, inexpensive way to prepare herbs. Finely chop fresh herbs, such as Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Sage (Salvia officinalis) or any other leafy, flowery or aromatic herbs you wish to use. Place in a jar, cover with apple cider vinegar, leave for a month, then strain, pressing out as much of the juice as possible from the herb, which can then be discarded. If you want to make it look really attractive you can add a new sprig of the herb to the bottled vinegar. Rosemary is particularly good as a vinegar and can be added to hair rinse for dark hair, or taken in a little water to improve the circulation and the memory. “Rosemary for remembrance” is a well-known saying from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Recent studies have shown that Rosemary really does help the circulation to the brain, illustrating a modern scientific basis for an old tradition. Rosemary is used in all sorts of spells of memory and a sprig of it can be sniffed when trying to remember something, and even in exams. It is a powerful Solar herb and can be very stimulating.
Vinegars can be made of just one herb or a mixture and added to salads, dabbed onto the skin or sprinkled strategically. A small drop of a protective herbal vinegar in the water used to wash the windows can be very effective. It’s also much more fun to clean the windows if you make it into a magical act!
These can be made in a very similar way to vinegars. The very best herbs to use are Marigold (Calendula officinalis) and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). Fill a jar with fresh flower petals, cover in Olive oil and leave on a sunny windowsill for a month before straining and bottling. The Marigold oil will turn a beautiful orange colour, as you might expect, but the St. John’s Wort oil will suddenly turn bright red, even though the flowers are yellow. A real piece of magic! Both these herbs are good for the skin and used on wounds. Warm 30ml oil with 3g beeswax over a water bath or double saucepan, then put into a jar and allow to cool for a really lovely ointment.
As a particularly powerful herb of Midsummer, St. John’s Wort can be used to anoint candles at any time when you need to call powerfully on pure Solar energy. It works well for exorcism should you ever need to do such a thing. Don’t over oil the candles or you may get a more fiery effect than you bargained for.
Almost any herbs can be made into powders, to be taken mixed with honey, put into capsules or just added to food like salt and pepper. For magical purposes, powders can be sprinkled around the house for protection, into clothes, onto chairs or put into sachets. The possibilities are endless.
A foot powder can be made using a mixture of equal parts of powdered dried Mint (Mentha spp.) and Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) with Bentonite clay. Mint is deodorising and refreshing, and Mugwort is traditionally placed in the shoes to prevent tiredness on a long walk. The clay has a lovely silky feel and is of course very earthing. If you suffer from athlete’s foot, you can add Myrrh powder (Commiphora molmol), which is anti-fungal.
These are just a few simple ideas but there are so many ways for us to use the gifts of the plants of our Earth. Experiment but be safe. Never use a herb you aren’t sure of; don’t give herbs to anyone who is pregnant or trying for a baby; avoid mixing orthodox drugs and herbs unless you really know what you are doing; be really careful if anyone has a medical condition and seek medical advice. Keep learning and if you become really keen you may even find yourself doing a degree in Herbal Medicine. Witchcraft, Paganism and the world in general really need good herbalists, so we should garner as much knowledge as we can, from the modern world, from the sources of Ancient Wisdom and from the plants themselves.
The herbal world is full of wonder, magic and surprises for those who venture into it. I have found it a rewarding yet extremely tough path to follow over the years and who knows where its twists and turns will lead to next?
There are hundreds of useful herbals, old and new, but some good ones to start with are:
Herb Craft by Susan Lavender and Anna Franklin, pub. Capall Bann.
The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, pub. Element.
A Modern Herbal by Mrs. Grieve, pub. Tiger.
Val Thomas is an experienced practitioner of Natural Magic and has worked magically with herbs for many years. She is the author of A Witch’s Kitchen (pub. Capall Bann) and a qualified medical herbalist. She now runs the Herbs, Healing and Magic correspondence course. For further details contact Val at PO Box 615, Norwich NR1 4QQ, ring 01603 666260, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Short Notes from Norfolk:
County of the Rising Sun
By Val Thomas - Summer 2019
The Mermaid of Grimston
Monday March 4th 2019
The Mermaid of Grimston had long been known to us from the many pictures of her which appear in books and on websites. Her home is the grade 1 listed, parish church of St. Botolph’s, which is the oldest building in the village of Grimston, in West Norfolk. The site of the church is an ancient one of great importance. There is evidence that the original church, which may well have been built where there had once been a Roman temple, dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, although it is not mentioned in the Domesday Book because it did not have a glebe (land attached to it). The church, which had been made from local carrstone, was rebuilt in the 13th century using white stone from Barnack near Peterborough. It was extended in the 14th century and again in the 15th, when the flint-faced tower was constructed and the carvings, included the mermaid, were crafted. This is a building which has been constantly developed to meet the requirements of its community. Changes were made to the building during the Reformation and in the Victorian era, and the most recent additions were the church porch in 2013 and the renovation of the South aisle roof in 2015. A new misericord was also added, with a representation of a face, typical of Medieval Grimston-ware jugs (see below).
In this way the sacred structure has grown both in size and beauty, and gathered round itself many a hallowed memory. And so to-day from every part there springs some story. No church could be more eloquent. It tells its own tale, ‘here a little, and there a little’.
After a week of glorious weather, in the warmest February on record, we set off for Grimston just as the Blackthorn Winter arrived. The roadsides were punctuated with blossoming trees, a breath-taking outpouring of creamy white, with all the promise of dark fruits for the future, set against a background of brown fields and uplifted bare branches basking in the early spring sunshine. The Hazels were still covered in catkins, but their fresh, bright colour had softened to a more brownish yellow, matching the colour of that trickster fairy, Yallery Brown, who dances his way through a number of Norfolk fairy tales, and can still be seen by those who have eyes for such things. It was cold though, and everything around us was being tossed and tumbled in a strong South-Westerly wind. Storm Freya had not yet fully passed us by, and we could feel the feather cloak of that powerful Norse and Anglo-Saxon Goddess, flapping around us as She raged across the land, heading for the North Sea. It did not escape our notice that the name of the place to which we were heading refers to another deity of the Northern lands, Odin, the wise shape-shifter and wanderer, master of magic and of the runes, and Freya’s husband.
We entered the church filled with the magic of the day, of the storm, of the energy of blossom and the vibrant yellow of Daffodils against the dark fragrance of Sweet Violets, which nestled in clumps at the base of the flint wall around the churchyard. Once inside, we were quickly drawn to the mermaid, who seemed to call to us from her place at the end of one of the choir stalls, on the South side of the chancel. She is facing East, leaning somewhat towards the aisle, as if she is peering round the dragon opposite her, all the better to see what is happening at the high altar. She has such a friendly face and demeanour, inviting our touch. It is clear that many before us have caressed her ample belly and breasts, for they are smooth and shiny, polished by centuries of exploring fingers. We wondered if perhaps she was pregnant, and if there had ever been, or still is, a tradition of women touching her to improve their chances of conceiving. Or perhaps her gleaming surface is just the result of the activities of generations of naughty choirboys! She certainly has a very motherly air about her. She does not portray the slinky and slender image of fantasy mermaids, but is much more real and substantial. Her tail, which still has the most beautiful scale markings, is short and quite stubby, ending with an upward curve, but without a fish-like V or heart shape at its end. Between the fishy part of her tail and her belly, there is a deep band, made up of three lines of little squares with indented dots around them, as if she is wearing a wide, decorated belt.
At first, I thought she had her arms tucked close to her sides, bent at the elbows, with her hands on the tops of her breasts, rather like some of the ancient stone figurines, such as the so-called Venus of Willendorf. On closer inspection, it was clear that her arms had, as some of the written sources say, at some point, been sawn off above the elbows. Perhaps at one time she had held a comb and a mirror but lost them, due to the ravages of the passing years or during the Reformation, between 1547 and 1554, when the altars, screens, rood and figures in the niches were removed and the wall paintings destroyed. Alternatively, it could have happened in 1619, when the tomb of Sir Benedict de Breccles was destroyed. It is particularly interesting that she has adapted so well to the loss of her arms, and that she appears to be whole and comfortable in herself. Maybe she put away the vanity of her youth and found a more inner peace, which she shares with those who visit her.
There is evidence of other possible damage to her. There is a clear cut-mark around her hair and neck, as if she had once been decapitated. However, the hair on either side of the apparent cut line matches exactly, so presumably, if this were to have happened, her own original head must have been returned to her. Could this have occurred when the chancel was restored in 1889, by Messrs Bodley and Garner, as part of the Rev. J. Fowler’s great work of restoration and enrichment? Goodall (1923) does not mention work done on the pew carvings at this time, but it is possible. In spite of what she must have been through, she is not sombre, and wears the wisdom of centuries with grace and knowing, but also with kindness, humour and openness. At times the sun shines through the window to illuminate her, like a spotlight enhancing the rich gleam of her polished form.
The Grimston mermaid is in the company of many other beautiful, skilfully carved animals, people and mythical creatures. On the South side of the chancel, a woodpecker is burying its beak into a misericord and, on the North side, a recumbent and swaddled human figure represents the sin of sloth. Some of the pew ends have been removed and stacked at the back of the church. One of these is a fabulous Falcon (a connection to Freya, perhaps?), who remains magnificent despite having lost part of its beak.
Although Grimston is some miles from the sea, it has powerful watery connections, most suitable for the abode of a mermaid. Indeed, the road which curves around the West and South sides of the church is called Watery Lane. To the West of the church, there is a spring, and a pond. It is in a private garden but we could see it through the hedge, gleaming as the light danced upon it before the waters flowed towards the Gaywood River. It is speculated by some that the 7th century St. Botolph, famous for his piety and his teaching of Christianity, to whom the church is dedicated, may have come to Grimston and baptised his flock at this pool. He is mainly associated with Iken, near Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where his monastery is thought to have been, so it is possible that he or some of his followers could have travelled to the area. There are many springs in the vicinity as Grimston lies at a place where chalk and clay meet. Since the water within the chalk cannot easily enter the relatively impervious Gault clay, it emerges on the surface, bringing its blessing and a place where a mermaid can thrive.
The landscape has over the centuries provided another source of wealth and creativity for the people of the area, since the Gault clay was used by the medieval pottery industry, based at Pott Row within the parish of Grimston. Here, several large pits have been dug to extract the raw material for the production of ceramics over a period of 500 years, between the 11th and 16th centuries. At its height, the industry provided pots, not only for East Anglia, but for as far afield as Iceland. The accessibility of water was also an important factor in the development and success of the production of unglazed and early glazed Grimston Ware between 1180 and 1225, green-glazed Medieval Grimston Ware between 1225-1375 and late-Medieval and post-Medieval Grimston Ware from around 1375 to 1600 (Jennings and Rogerson, 1994).
Much more was later to emerge about the connections between mermaids, pottery, wealth, creativity and blessing.
A further watery connection, although not unusual in old churches, is beside the North door, on the outside of the church, where there is a lovely, 13th-century stone stoup for holy water, with which people could bless themselves before entering the church. In the wear and tear on the stone above the basin, and the changes in its colouration, there appears the faint image of an elegant, slim lady in long, full skirts, some kin of the mermaid maybe: a fairy, the Goddess of the land, the Virgin Mary?
It seemed that we were not the only people to have visited the place at around that time, in the spirit of a pilgrimage. On the grassy area at the base of the village sign, just outside the churchyard gate, someone had arranged a bouquet of razor shells, presumably offerings brought there especially from one of the North Norfolk beaches for some magical or votive purpose.
Goodall, A. (1923) History of St. Botolph’s Church Grimston, Norfolk, George R.
Oswell, King’s Lynn (available at:
Jennings, Sarah, and Rogerson, Andrew (1994) The Distribution of Grimston Ware in
East Anglia and beyond, in Leah, Mark (1994) The Late Saxon and Medieval Pottery
Industry of Grimston, Norfolk: Excavations 1962-92, East Anglian Archaeology 64
(available at: pp. 116-9.
Medical and Magical Treasures
in Anglosaxon Herbals
November 2015 © Val Thomas
There is great power and appeal for the serious magical practitioner in seeking wisdom from ancient sources rather than relying solely on modern, potentially derivative works. For those with an interest in the fragrant, green path of herbal medicine and magic, the writings of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors provide a wealth of useful knowledge, rooted firmly, not only in our land, but also in the more ancient Classical and European herbal traditions.
There are three major surviving medical texts compiled by the Anglo-Saxons in Old English (O.E.), found in manuscript sources. Now known as The Leechbook of Bald, The Lacnunga and The Old English Herbarium. They were collected by Oswald Cockayne in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft in Early England, published in three volumes between 1864 and 1866. This work is comprised of over 1,000 pages of parallel text. The O.E. is reproduced in the script known as Insular Hand, in which most A.S. records were written, accurately and meticulously transcribed from the original manuscripts by Cockayne himself (Singer, 1961).
The oldest major text in the collection is the manuscript, written about 950 CE, containing the three recipe collections known as The Leechbook of Bald. It is probably a copy of a lost manuscript written in Winchester about fifty years earlier, during the reign of Alfred the Great (Cameron, 1993).
The Leechbook is thought to be a manual for doctors’ use (Payne, 1904) and has generally been considered to be “the most comprehensive and best organised of all Val Thomas ~ Medical and Magical Treasures in Anglo-Saxon Herbals 2 medical compilations” (Meaney, 1984). It arranges disease manifestations in a headto-toe pattern, combining Mediterranean sources with native materials (Cameron, 1993). The first book contains 88 sections of single or multiple, related recipes, the second book 67, and the third book, in which native elements predominate, contains 73 sections. Each book has a list of contents, giving the purpose of the recipe/s.
The Lacnunga (meaning remedies, the name given to the collection by Cockayne) is somewhat later than the Leechbooks and is a collection of 1100 herbal remedies, prayers, blessings and charms for humans and livestock, mostly in O.E. and Latin. The main section of the manuscript dates from the late tenth to the mid eleventh century. Pettit (2001) suggests that whoever used the recipes must have been wealthy, as some of the ingredients are exotic and therefore expensive, Christian, but probably not a model of orthodoxy (some of the remedies require the use of a paten outside a church), literate in Old English and Latin, and concerned with the welfare of humans and livestock. It appears to be a haphazard collection rather than a unified medical text.
Right: The First Page of the Lacnunga MS Harley 585, folio 130. British Library.
Old English Herbarium
The Old English Herbarium, the only A.S. medical work to survive in more than a single copy, is a translation into Old English of the Latin compendium of texts known as the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius and is derived from Greco-Roman sources. The Latin original appears to have been in circulation in England by the ninth century (Pollington, 2000). It contains 185 sections, each devoted to a particular herb, providing alternative names and one or more uses of the plant.
In addition to these major works, various charms, smaller fragments and other medical recipes also exist, sometimes as marginal additions to non-medical manuscripts
Medically, there is much of the value in the recipes. Indeed many of the herbs are used in much the same ways as modern medical herbalists would prescribe them. Cough remedies using such herbs as White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) and Elecampane (Inula helenium), headache cures using Betony (Stachys betonica), pain relief using Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and bitter herbs recommended for improving the appetite and digestion are all used now, much as they were over a millennium ago. The use of Ivy (Hedera helix) boiled in butter for sunburn, is less familiar but comprehensible in view of the antiinflammatory properties of the plant and the addition of pepper (Piper nigrum) to many of the remedies is clearly an effective way of improving their absorption.
Marrubium vulgare, from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887
Magical knowledge is interwoven into some of the suggested treatments, and it is this that gave the texts a dubious reputation with early commentators and led to their dismissal by an early editor as “a final pathological disintegration of the great system of Greek medical thought” (Singer, 1917). Much of the magic is Christian-based, involving invocations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, elaborate prayers, often repeated three or nine times, words being written on the paten, herbs being placed under the altar and masses said over them, and the use of the names of saints.
One particular “holy salve” from the Lacnunga, requires a long list of herbs, including Betony, Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), Rue (Ruta graveolens), Vervain (Verbena officinalis) and many more. The butter used must be from a cow of a single colour and, with the herbs, it is placed in holy water from the consecration of a font. The butter is then stirred with a stick on which have been carved the names of the four Apostles. The Creed and various litanies are to be said over it along with an incantation, which is to be sung:
Acre arcre arnem nona ærnem beoðor ærnem, nidren arcum cunað ele harassan fidine
The formula resembles others of Anglo-Saxon origin but may have an Irish derivation. Scholars have, however, had little success in making sense of it and, I must confess, I have not tried it out myself, although the carving of names of deities onto sticks used for stirring specific potions has proven effective. It is often the case that, even if the charm is not practical in its entirety, useful aspects can be adapted and incorporated into modern practice.
Sometimes a simple amulet is used, such as Plantain (Plantago major) tied around the neck for a sore throat, or a spindle whorl for a pain in the jaw. Both of these examples are from Leechbook III.
There are examples of written charms being attached to the patient. In one Lacnunga remedy for dweorh, meaning a dwarf, but also suggesting a fever, possibly with seizures, seven communion wafers have written upon them the names Maximianus, Malchus, Johannes, Martiniaus, Dionisius, Constantinus and Serafion. A charm is said into the patient’s right ear, left ear, over the top of the head, after which a virgin hangs the wafers around the person’s neck. This is repeated over a period of three days.
Elves have been seen as being blamed by the Anglo-Saxons for an illness of sudden onset. In both animals and humans this is often in the form of elfshot (ylfa gescot), as is the case in the well known charm, from the Lacnunga, “Wið Færstice”, often translated as “For a Sudden Stitch.” Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Plantain and what appears to be Red Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) are applied, boiled in butter and a lengthy charm recited, including an appeal to the “little spear” to come out if it is in there. “Ut lytel spere gif her inne sie”. This is said to be a cure for elfshot, witches’ shot and gods’ (Aesir) shot. However, as Alaric Hall (2007) has pointed out, the fact that a painful condition is called elfshot does not necessarily mean people believed the problem was literally caused by elves. After all, we set great magical store by the belemnites we find along the coast and refer to them as elf bolts, although we are also fully aware that they are fossils.
The Nine Herbs Charm
The most obviously Pagan/magical inclusion is in the Lacnunga. It is the entry known as The Nine Herbs Charm, which refers to Woden, in the only named reference to any pre-Christian deity in the herbal texts. The charm is complex and confusing, perhaps deliberately tantalising and riddling, so that only the cunning are able to unpick it, although not helped by the corrupt nature of the manuscript text at this point (Cameron, 1993). Not all the herb names can be confidently translated, although Cameron asserts that they are Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), Plantain (Plantago major), Lamb’s Cress (Cardamine hirsute), Attorlothe (Fumaria/Corydalis), Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria recutita), Nettle (Urtica spp), Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum, C. aureum or Myrrhis odorata), and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).
One particularly appealing aspect of the charm, with useful magical applications, is the way in which the herbs are addressed directly, stating their attributes and powers, much in the manner of an invocation.
The charm begins by addressing Mugwort as “the oldest of plants:
Gemyn ðu mucgwyrt hwaet ðu renadest æt regenmelde (Remember, Mugwort, what you declared through your great revelation).
The nature of the revelation is unclear (or perhaps it is something the writer assumes that everyone knows), although the charm tells us that Mugwort has power against poison, infection and “the evil that travels the land”. (The Anglo-Saxon is ða laðan, which suggests a hostile or hateful thing). This is a large magical claim, but observing this robust yet exquisitely beautiful plant, in modern times, gracing the sides and central reservations of motorways, appearing in meadows and upon wasteland all around the country, one begins to see what the creator of this charm meant. Perhaps it is also a reference to the numerous other virtues of the plant, not mentioned here but which can be gleaned from a variety of sources.
Artemesia vulgaris, from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887
We know that a bunch of Mugwort hung up in a home can make a significant difference to the atmosphere and keep out much that is not wanted, and to take a piece of the plant on a journey, as suggested in the Old English Herbarium, can prove most helpful. Of course, many people know the old trick of placing a Mugwort leaf in each shoe to prevent the feet from getting tired, an idea that I have adapted for my own “Three Mothers Foot Powder”, which includes Mugwort, Mint and Myrrh.
Mugwort also makes an excellent pre-ritual tea and is helpful in scrying or other divination work. It stops beer going sour and can help deter clothes moth larvae. It can be smoked too and indeed, one of its common names is Sailor’s Tobacco.
Its botanical name, Artemesia, a reference to the goddess Artemis, indicates that it has a medical action on the womb and menstrual cycle. The herb is also rather bitter so, as the Old English Herbarium suggests, it makes an excellent digestive tonic.
Like Mugwort, the second herb, wegbrade , meaning Waybread, which is Greater Plantain, is able to resist poison, infection and the evil that travels the land. This herb is addressed as the “Mother of Plants” and “mighty within”, suggesting considerable resilience, as well, especially as brides cry over it, bulls snort over it and carts run over it. Thinking of how often one sees Greater Plantain growing on paths where it is constantly crushed underfoot, it certainly seems to be a very useful herb for the downtrodden of this world. There are plenty of people (often mothers) whose ills stem from them being taken for granted and put upon by others, and this herb can work wonders as a medical or magical application. Medically, as a tea or tincture, it has benefits for the mucous membranes, digestion, kidneys, the blood, skin and bladder. It is an anti-histamine and anti-bacterial and an excellent wound herb to stem the flow of blood, so rather fulfils all that the charm claims of it. It is interesting to note that modern medical herbalists tend to prefer Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), which is chemically almost identical to Greater Plantain. It is probably preferred because its spear-shaped leaves stand tall above the ground, do not become as crushed and gritty as those of its close cousin, and are much easier to harvest and process. For many modern herbalists, chemistry and the pharmacologically provable are the only considerations, but for certain people, the constantly squashed Greater Plantain may be more suitable. However, a cut or bite on a finger when out walking is often better treated with Ribwort, which conveniently presents its strap-like leaves in bandage form, which can be applied directly, and are easy to tie firmly, with rapid beneficial effect.
The attribution “open to the East” may have significant magical application. The Plantain takes the power of the morning sun, the new arrival of the Light, with all the hope and promise of that direction, which is sacred in both Christian and Pagan traditions. Perhaps the plant’s strength waxes as the sun rises, as did that of the Arthurian hero, Gawain. In fact, this is the case with many herbs. Pettit (2001) points out that in Sanskrit Atharva-Veda charms, the rising sun can destroy worms. Bonser (1963) takes the more prosaic view that the plant should be free of dew, which is perfectly sensible from a herbalist’s perspective. Whatever the significance of this phrase, which could encompass any or all of the interpretations given, it is one of many curious “pointers”, which provide a little information but either assume previous knowledge of what is being referred to or require much magical digging for exact meaning.
Another such fascinating reference occurs in the section on “mægðe”, which could refer to chamomile. The herb is asked to be mindful of what was made known and finished at “alorforda”, that no one should lose their life to disease if they use this plant as their food. Chamomile (especially Matricaria recutita) is known know as Val Thomas ~ Medical and Magical Treasures in Anglo-Saxon Herbals 7 “The Mother of the Gut” and is an extremely useful and effective herb, but there seems to be more behind this mysterious line of the charm. Where, after all is “alorforda” (alder ford). The Alder is a tree of bridges, both literal and magical and fords are liminal spots where magical revelations might not be unexpected. Assuming this is a real-world, rather than a mythical place, there are two possible locations suggested by Pettit. One is Allerford, near Minehead, in Somerset, and the other is Alderford, in Norfolk. Alders thrive near water and are common trees at fords so this could really be any number of places. However, I personally favour the Norfolk location, having worked there magically on a number of occasions and found it to be an immensely powerful spot, intensely magical, the domain of many of the Fair Folk, although not always wholeheartedly welcoming to humans.
The much discussed but no less mysterious reference to Woden in the charm, states that he used nine “wuldortanas”, often translated as “glory twigs” or “glorious rods” (although perhaps “wands” might be better), to strike an adder into nine pieces to end its poison. Colours are then attributed to nine poisons which the nine herbs can counter.
In the true spirit of dual observance, Christ is also mentioned in a request that all “weoda” (weeds or useless plants) should become “wyrtum” (useful herbs).
This fascinating charm ends with a complex salve recipe in which all the nine herbs are powdered, mixed with old soap, made into a paste with water and ashes, and mixed with boiled fennel. It is however, important to sing the charm three times not only on each of the herbs before they are used, but also on the patient’s mouth, both ears and the wound, prior to applying the salve.
The Nine Herbs Charm is one of many Anglo-Saxon herbal writings which still have wisdom to offer. Indeed, their value was recognised by many generations who followed the Anglo-Saxon period and the Anglo-Saxon herbals continued to be used for centuries. The last known copy of the OE Herbarium was not made until the 12th century and annotations continued to be made in OE, Latin and Norman French right up until the 17th century, when Elysabet Colmore signed her name on the cover page of the Cotton Vitellius iii OE Herbarium (D’Aronco, 2008).
The Anglo-Saxon herbal texts clearly have a lot to offer the medical herbalist (Thomas, 2011). This, and their more general medical relevance, is being increasingly recognised through a variety of academic research projects. From a more esoteric point of view, these texts are a treasure house of magical gems too, and certainly reward the effort spent unravelling their meaning and working out their practical application.
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Note This article was accepted for publication in The Cauldron just before the editor of that journal, Michael Howard, sadly passed away. He leaves a wonderful legacy in the form of his published and edited works, and will be much missed.