Saturday, 25 July 2015

Woden in Old English Literature

Due to the early and enforced xtianisation of the Germanic peoples in England much of our Anglo-Saxon lore has been lost and inevitably we must look to other sources such as the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas along with references to the Gods made by xtian scribes, law makers, chronicles, classical writers and historians and the remnants found in folkore and toponymy.

In Old English literature there are very few references to our ancient deities but the references that are there are certainly important to us. Altogether there are just two references to Woden in the surviving Old English literature. One example is the reference to Woden in the Nine Herbs Charm:

"Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.

And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection
and the loathsome foe roving through the land.

'Stune' is the name of this herb, it grew on a stone,
it stands up against poison, it dashes against poison
Nettle (?) it is called, it attacks against poison,
it drives out the hostile one, it casts out poison.
This is the herb that fought against the serpent,
it has power against poison,  it has power against infection,
it has power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.
Put to flight now, Venom-loather, the greater poisons,
though you are the lesser, until he is cured of both.

Remember, Chamomile, what you made known,
what you accomplished at Alorford,
that never a man should lose his life from infection
after Chamomile was prepared for his food.

This is the herb that is called 'Wergulu'.
A seal sent it across the sea-right,
a vexation to poison, a help to others.
it stands against pain, it dashes against poison,

A worm came crawling, it killed nothing.
For Woden took nine glory-twigs,
he smote the the adder that it flew apart into nine parts.
There the Apple accomplished it against poison
that she [the loathsome serpent] would never dwell in the house.

Chervil and Fennell, two of much might,
They were created by the wise Lord,
holy in heaven as He hung;
He set and sent them to the seven worlds,
to the wretched and the fortunate, as a help to all.
It stands against pain, it fights against poison,
it avails against 3 and against 30,
against foe´s hand and against noble scheming,
against enchantment of vile creatures.

Now there nine herbs have power against nine evil spirits,
against nine poisons and against nine infections:
Against the red poison, against the foul poison,
against the white poison, against the pale blue poison,
against the yellow poison, against the green poison,
against the black poison, against the blue poison,
against the brown poison, against the crimson poison,
against worm-blister, against water-blister,
against thorn-blister, against thistle-blister,
against ice-blister, against poison-blister,

If any poison comes flying from the east,
or any from the north, [or any from the south,]
or any from the west among the people.
Christ stood over diseases of every kind.

I alone know a running stream,
and the nine adders beware of it.
May all the weeds spring up from their roots,
the seas slip apart, all salt water,
when I blow this poison from you.

Mugwort, plantain open form the east, lamb's cress, venom-loather, camomile, nettle, crab-apple, chevil and fennel, old soap; pound the herbs to a powder, mix them with the soap and the juice oaf the apple.
Then prepare a paste of water and of ashes, take fennel, boil it with the paste and wash it with a beaten egg when you apply the salve, both before and after.
Sing this charm three times on each of the herbs before you (he) prepare them, and likewise on the apple. And sing the same charm into the mouth of the man and into both his ears, and on the wound, before you (he) apply the salve."

Bill Griffiths in his Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (1996) makes the interesting observation (via Grimm) that "In Swedish tradition, nine types of wood were sometimes used to kindle special fire: could the present charm be a construct, almost a fantasia, around the figure 9?"

Tony Linsell in his remarkable and now sadly out of print Anglo-Saxon Mythology, Migration & Magic (1994) states "The line mentioning Christ is an addition which can be removed or Woden can be substituted for Christ." I agree with Mr Linsell as it is clear to me that the Nine Herbs Charm although datable in manuscript form to about the year 1000 CE contains authentic archaic mythological material. The astute reader will also note that the reference to the "wise Lord, holy in heaven as He hung" could just as easilly be a reference to Woden as to Christ. Indeed is not Woden noted for His wisdom? The reference to the "seven worlds" is a Germanic heathen concept, not a xtian one. Unlike the ancient Norse the Anglo-Saxons believed in seven not nine worlds.

The charm is contained in the Old English Lacnunga, a collection of Anglo-Saxon remedies. Despite the fact that xtianity had been the dominant religion in England over 250 years prior to that time, the name of Woden survives in this text and clearly 'Christ' was added later as an interpolation in a poorly disguised attempt at censorship. With the suppression of the old religion herb lore survived and is inextricably linked to our mythology. The Nine Herbs Charm demonstrates that Woden is a God of healing and this concept is reinforced by the German Second Merseburg Charm, written down in either the 9th or 10th centuries CE and which also refers to Woden/Wodan:

"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 mended."

These kinds of charms or spells are not limited to the Germanic world but are known throughout the Indo-European world with similar charms in Gaelic, Lettish and even Finnish (a non-Indo-European language influenced by Germanic). Similar charms have been found in Scandinavia but the name of Woden/Odin has been replaced with that of Jesus. This substitution of ancient pre-xtian deity names with biblical ones is a familar story throughout northern and eastern Europe. One that has survived intact from Denmark does refer to Oden: 
"Oden 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."

Another reference to Woden can be found in Maxims I, part B, verse 60 of the Exeter Book, datable to the 10th century:

"Woden wrought idols, the Almighty glory, the spacious skies. That is a mighty God, the very King of truth, the Saviour of souls."

Thus the memory of Woden continued to linger centuries after the cruel suppression of our ancestral religion by the xtian church. Although not a literary reference to Woden but interesting nonetheless is H.R. Ellis Davidson's reference in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe:

" "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."

This incantation was recorded in nineteenth century Lincolnshire by a clergyman who heard it from an old countrywoman whilst he was a boy.

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