This weekend I attended an excellent multi-disciplinary symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland, organized by the Department of Early Irish at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. Scholars from so diverse backgrounds as religious studies and archeology, linguistics and philology, and from applied disciplines likes herbal healing and veterinary medicine presented enlightening glimpses into their own work, as it related to the topic. I hope to share what I took away from these talks.
Worm and Snake Charms
The first speaker of the morning was Jacqueline Borsje (University of Amsterdam and University of Ulster), who delved into Irish snake and worm charms as export products. She outlined the importance of charms as words of power, and how important context is when seeking to understand them. Cultural, textual, and situational context is everything; in other words, don’t necessarily take them at face value.
Professor Borsje has written extensively about the evil eye in Ireland, and she brought this connection with “supernatural theft” into her discussion of snake and ‘wyrm’ charms. Her reference to Professor Kelly’s work on medieval Irish Law tracts dealing with the stealing away ‘through envy,” with such concerns of butter and milk, was the thrust of her argument here. A Babylonian incantation from the 2nd millennium BCE, in which women, babies, storage rooms, the god of the house, were all mentioned in their need for protection against this ‘supernatural theft.’
An interesting point connected ‘evil eye cultures’ — those cultures expressing a concept such as the evil eye or supernatural theft — with unstable ecological environments dependent on crop or cattle economies, with a concern over scarcity of resource.
Another non-Irish source mentioning supernatural theft are the 12 Roman Tables. These tables talk of bewitched crops, evil spells, and the removal of crops by incantation. In medieval Ireland, a particular concern was ‘stealing through the evil eye on the corriguinech (on May Day) — which seemed connected to milk theft.
Anglo-Saxon MS have references to Irish snake and wyrm charms that focus on remedies for swallowing a ‘wyrm’ and for ‘penetrating wyrm.’ These charms normally entailed singing the charm in various ways, and using saliva. For example:
Wyrm Charm (MS remedies)
Sing the charm 9 times, in either the right or left ear
Sing the charm directly on the wound, then anoint with saliva.
The charms are ‘aggressive’ in imagery, using the language of battle. During this time, worms were seen as the cause of ailments as diverse as toothache and migraine, to pregnancy and actual disease. An example of some of this language can be found in Lady Wylde’s writing, which, though not scholarly, does offer a glimpse into modern usage:
for the Great Worm
I kill a hound….
I kill a worm…..
rub with butter, etc.
The tendency of these charms is to treat like with like, similar to homeopathy. The idea of a ‘snake charm’ was to use something venomous (the word of power) to treat a venomous disease (caused by a worm). Another very interesting thing was the use of singing. These charms, by and large, were sung, and often over the wound or over the water / liquid which held the charm and was then drunk. If the patient could not drink, then the incantation of the charm was sung into the patients mouth.
Snake charms were used against illnesses associated with poison. The absence of snakes on the island of Ireland was seen as a special property of this island. This is why most of the snake charms found in continental Europe contain a portion written in Old Irish. The really interesting thing to note here, is that the Irish found written in these charms was so garbled, it’s almost unintelligible. Why? Because it had been told to an original scribe by an Irish speaker, but had been handed down to non-speakers who were simply trying to copy, from memory, a phonetic representation. They didn’t understand the Irish they were saying, but it was a Word of Power that held the protection of the ‘land without snakes.’ A potent charm against poison diseases!
A fun side note mentioned the old Irish hex of placing 13 eggs in someone’s haystack on Bealtaine.