Would your priest cast a spell for you? Maybe you need a fever or a headache or dropsy healed, or you need the crops to grow, or you have an elf chasing you around, or you need the bees to settle and stop swarming. So you ask your priest or preacher for a little help. You just need a little spell to set things right. What does he say? Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, you’d get the same response. Then he’d chase you out of the church.
Until about six hundred years ago, he might have just asked you when you wanted to start. Maybe he’d have asked you to gather some materials, depending on what the spell or charm was, because some of them required a little preparation and some hardware like a few sticks of pine or a handful of sod or a wafer of communion bread. And then he would meet you in your field, or on the steps of the church, or wherever this had to happen, and he would have got started. Imagine somebody has stolen your stuff. You don’t even need a priest for that one. As soon as you discover the theft, say this charm before you say anything else:
Bethlem hattæ seo burh ðe Crist ongeboren wes,
seo is gemærsod ofer ealne middangeard;
swa ðeos dæd wyrþa for monnum mæra, per cruce Christi.
(MS. 41, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, p. 206).
That ought to do it. The meaning of the charm works out as: Bethlehem was the town where Christ was born; she is known all over the Earth. So let this deed worker (the thief) be as well known by men. Through the Cross of Christ. Then you turn to the four corners of the compass starting with the east and recite a Latin formula that starts with: “Crux Christi ab oriente reducat.” After this, you conclude the chant with a phrase that likens the fact that, as a result of the resurrection, the crime of Christ’s death could not be hidden through burial, and so let it be with this theft, let it not be hidden either, so you can get your stuff back. Note the structure of the charm. There’s a recitation, a ritual, turning to the fours points of the compass and repeating the Latin phrases, and the invocation of Christ’s cross.
This charm is in Old English, about a thousand years old, and it’s one of the Anglo-Saxon metrical charms. By the way, in the Old English text above, the alphabetic character “eth,” which looks like this: ð, is pronounced like the “th” in “then,” and the character “thorn,” which looks like this: þ, is pronounced like the “th” in “thorn,” which makes the name of that one easy to remember. The “æ” character, “æsc” (pronounced “ash”) should be spoken something like a short American English “a” as in “bat.” The manuscript also uses a character called “wynn” which I normalized to “w” above since the character may not properly show up your browser otherwise.
Here’s another good one. Suppose you kept bees and they were about to swarm. This is a serious problem–bees are wealth. Wax and honey are valuable. But bees tend to pick and go when they want to—they swarm, leaving the hive to start a new colony somewhere else, maybe on some other abbot’s land or on some freeholder’s property. You’d very likely never see them again, and there goes your wealth. That won’t do. But they can be stopped. Just take a handful of dirt from the ground, be prepared to throw it over them the moment they start to swarm, and recite this charm in Old English:
Sitte ge, sigewif, sigað to eorðan!
Næfre ge wilde to wudu fleogan.
Beo ge swa gemindige mines godes,
swa bið manna gewhilc metes and eþeles.
(MS. 41, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
This works out very loosely to “Settle down, warrior woman (the bee queen, one supposes). Don’t fly off to the woods. Be mindful of my property, like men are, of home and food.”
Did they get their goods back when they used the first charm a thousand years ago? Did the bees stay put when they used the second one? We have only the testimony of good, old-fashioned Christians, and we have to suppose they thought the charm would set things right or they wouldn’t have used it. But take this charm to your parish priest today and ask him to do it for you, and see what happens. This is clearly not a prayer the way a modern would think of prayer. And yet this is clearly not paganism. Some charms were a little less obviously Christian and were probably adapted from earlier pagan versions, but there’s no doubting the first one, with its invocation of the cross, its references to Bethlehem and to Christ’s burial and resurrection. The very core of this charm is a sympathetic magic act, connecting the revelation of Christ’s death to the revelation of the theft. The core metaphor is Christian.
But no preacher or priest today would go anywhere near this thing. Ever wonder why?
More on this later. In the meanwhile, if you’re interested in such things, take a look at The Fundamentalist.
Find part 2 of this essay here.