The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo Saxons

Anglo Saxon apothocaries

The Anglo-Saxons thought that diseases were spread on the air as the wind blew poisons around.

In a pre-scientific age when viruses were unknown this was a reasonable idea that fits the medieval understanding that contaminants are carried on the air.

There was no understanding of the importance of hygiene, and no knowledge of contamination through human contact. The Anglo Saxon’s entrusted healing to herbs and charms. Herbs would be applied with the appropriate incantations to attempt to heal the patient.

The Nine Herbs Charm is an Old English charm recorded in the 10th-century AD Lacnunga manuscript. The charm is intended for the treatment of poisoning and infection by a preparation of nine herbs. 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 references nine herbs:

 

At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice. 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.

The poem contains one of two Old English mentions of Woden in Old English poetry; the other is Maxims I of the Exeter Book. The paragraph reads as follows:

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.

References

  • 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
  • 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.

4 thoughts on “The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo Saxons”

  1. Hair of hound and eye of newt, ear of corn and leg of frog. Some of these old sayings probably have an element of truth to them. Some herbal remedies do help and by the time the rhyme has been said the fusion has taken place and a “reaction” occurred that will, in part, help heal a wound.

    1. There is a lot of evidence to support that in wound care in particular, herbs and flowers work. For example: Pure honey is antimicrobial and antibacterial, making it excellent for treating wounds. Thanks Andy.

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