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Sunday, 15 June 2014

Germanic Deities in Mediaeval Magical Incantations



There are a number of ancient charms in the German and English languages which have been preserved either in manuscripts or in folklore that refer to the Germanic Gods. These charms are valuable to us as they are part of the rather meagre evidence for our Gods from outside of the Scandinavian language area.

Two such charms, composed in Old High German have been preserved in the annals of Fulda, Die Merseburger Zaubersprüche (Merseburg Charms/Incantations) and date to the 9th/10th centuries CE.


First Merseburg Charm
"Eiris sazun idisi, sazun hera duoder;
suma hapt heptidun, suma heri lezidun,
suma clubodun umbi cuoniouuidi:
insprinc haptbandun, inuar uigandun".
"Once sat women,
They sat here, then there.
Some fastened bonds,
Some impeded an army,
Some unraveled fetters:
Escape the bonds,
flee the enemy!"

The Idisi are female deities, fertility Goddesses and ancestral spirits, cognate to the Scandinavian Disir. Usually they are not named individually and tend to be referred to collectively. This was obviously a spell for the loosening of bonds. I am reminded of Havamal 149 in the Elder Edda:

"I know a fourth one if men put chains upon my limbs; I can chant so that I can walk away, fetters spring from my feet, and bonds from my hands."

The Second Merseburg Charm is even more explicit in naming specific and known deities:

Second Merseburg Charm

"Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza.
du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit.
thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister;
thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister;
thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda:
sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki:
ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,
lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin!"
"Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder's foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna's sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla's sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be glued".


Here we have 7 deities named: Phol, Wodan, Balder, Sinthgunt, Sunna, Frija and Volla. Scholars however consider Phol to be an alternative name for Balder but it is strange that two different names for the same deity should be used in a single charm. With the exception of Sinthgunt all the other deities are referred to in the Eddas, albeit under their Norse rather than German names. Sinthgunt may in some way be associated with the moon, being a sister of Manni and Sol/Sunna. Frija can equally be either Frigga or Freyja and indeed German mythology conflates the two together. I believe that originally these two Goddesses were a single deity but that is an issue for another article!


In this charm Wodan is presented as the supreme healer, succeeding where the others failed. This should not surprise us as the Havamal also gives us a hint of Odin's healing abilities:

"I know a second one which the sons of men need, those who want to live as physicians." (Havamal 147)

The Second Merseburg Charm, or rather the idea behind it was also known to the Scandinavians:

"Sankt-Olav reid i den
grøne skog,
fekk skade på sin
eigen hestefot.
Bein i bein,
kjøt i kjøt,
hud i hud.
Alt med Guds ord og amen"

"Saint Olav rode in
green wood;
broke his little
horse's foot.
Bone to bone,
flesh to flesh,
skin to skin.
In the name of God,amen."

Here St Olav/Olaf is substituted for Odin. Interestingly though in Norwegian folklore he tends to take on the attributes of Thor instead.

Surving to modern times and written down in 19th century Denmark is the following charm:

"Oden rider öfver sten och bärg
han rider sin häst ur vred och i led,
ur olag och i lag, ben till ben, led till led,
som det bäst var, när det helt var."
"Odin rides over rock and hill;
he rides his horse out of a sprain and into joint
out of disorder and into order, bone to bone, joint to joint,
as it was best, when it was whole."

Preserved in Scotland in the North Germanic Norn language:

"The Lord rade and the foal slade;
he lighted and he righted,
set joint to joint,
bone to bone,
and sinew to sinew
Heal in the Holy Ghost's name!'

In Old English we have the rather remarkable Nine Herbs Charm from the 10th century CE Lacnunga manuscript:

"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."

Scholars speculate that each glory twig was inscribed with a Rune as the initial of a plant. Woden is also referred to, albeit in a disparaging manner in the 10th century in Maxims I, part B, verse 60 of the Exeter Book:


"Woden wrought idols, the Almighty glory, the spacious skies."

From Anglo-Saxon England we have the Æcerbot, a charm for good harvests:

" Eastweard ic stande, arena ic me bidde,
bidde ic þone Mæran Domine,
bidde ðone Miclan Drihten,
bidde ic ðone haligan Heofonrices Weard,
Eorðan ic bidde and Upheofon
.
Erce, Erce, Erce, Eorþan Modor,
geunne þe se Alwalda Ece Drihten,
æcera wexendra and wridendra,
eacniendra and elniendra,
sceafta hehra, scirra wæstma,
and þæra bradan berewæstma
and þæra hwitan hwætewæstma,
and Ealra Eorþan wæstma.
Geunne him Ece Drihten
.
Hal wes þu, Folde, Fira Modor!
Beo þu growende on godes fæþme,
fodre gefylled firum to nytte.
.

Ful æcer fodres fira cinne,
beorhtblowende,
þu gebletsod weorþ
þæs haligan noman þe ðas heofon gesceop
and ðas eorþan þe we on lifiaþ;
se god, se þas grundas geworhte, geunne us growende gife,
þæt us corna gehwylc cume to nytte.
Cweð þonne III Crescite in nomine patris, sit benedicti.
Amen and Pater Noster þriwa."

The significant verse is the second one which is translated in Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic by Bill Griffiths, 1996:

"Erce, Erce, Erce, Mother of Earth, may the Almighty, the eternal Lord, grant you fields growing and thriving, increasing and strengthening, tall stems (and) fine crops, both the broad barley and the fair wheat,........"

The 3rd verse refers to Folda (Earth), Fira Modor, the mother of men. The Angles who were part of the seven tribe Ingaevonic tribal confedarcy worshipped Nerthus, the Earth Mother (Germania 40, Tacitus). John Grigsby in Beowulf & Grendel. The Truth Behind England's Oldest Legend, 2005 states that "the word erce may mean 'great', being probably linked linguistically to the word 'arch' as in 'archbishop."

Jacob Grimm noted (Teutonic Mythology) that on the last day of harvest the workers in the field in Schaumburg sang this incantation:


„Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!
Hävens wei wat schüt,
jümm hei dal van Häven süt.
Vulle Kruken un Sangen hät hei,
upen Holte wässt manigerlei:
hei is nig barn un wert nig old.
Wôld, Wôld, Wôld! “
“Wôld, Wôld, Wôld”!

"Heaven’s giant knows what happens,
He, looking down from heaven,
Providing full jugs and sheaves.
Many a plant grows in the woods.
He is not born and grows not old.
“Wôld, Wôld, Wôld”!

H.R. Ellis Davidson in her Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964) refers to a surviving magical incantation from Lincolnshire:

"Thrice I smites with Holy Crock, With this mell (hammer) I thrice do knock, One for God, and one for Wod, And one for Lok."

Lok of course is a reference to Loki and Wod to Woden.