Brown (2015 Congress)

Collin Brown
(University of Texas – Austin)

“ ‘Mid uuorrdun endi mid uuercun‘:  The Introduction of Christian Holy Words into Germanic Folk Prayers and Charms”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2015)

Session on Session on “Efficacious Words:  Spoken and Inscribed”
Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by Jason E. Roberts (University of Texas – Austin)

2015 Congress Events Announced and 2015 Congress Events Accomplished

[Published on 14 April 2015]

Early recorded examples of Germanic charms include such sources as the Old High German Merseburger Zaubersprüche (“Merseburg Charms”).  The second Merseburg Charm was intended to heal a lamed horse.  Its tale of how the god Wodan healed Baldur’s horse after it had gone lame is recounted in the hopes of achieving the same result by the recitation of the story aloud.  Similar historiolas also appear later in settings in which they have, to varying degrees, become Christianized.  For example, a charm for healing a lamed horse from the 18th century in Norway uses the same form as the second Merseburg Charm, but it substitutes Wodan’s healing of Baldur’s horse with a historiola involving Christ healing his horse after its leg was broken.  Long ago Jacob Grimm noted long ago the similarities between the pre-Christian form seen in the Merseburg Charm and this later, Christianized version.  Another example of a horse charm from Norway replaces Wodan with St. Olav, the patron saint of Norway.

What sets these later charms apart from the earlier ones, such as the Merseburg Charms, is their distinct use of Christian invocations, whereas in the originals the historiola itself was deemed enough to bring about the desired result.  The Norwegian example involving Christ ends with the invocation i tre navne (“In the Three Names”, i.e. “In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”).  The charm calling upon St. Olav ends alt med Guds ord og amen (“All with God’s Word and Amen”).  A similar charm for healing broken bones from Iceland even uses the original Latin form (In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti.  Amen.) for stronger effect.  This practice was not limited to oral charms, but also can be seen in written, runic prayers.  In the Old English poem The Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, the power of each letter (i.e. rune) of the prayer is described by the powers that it possesses.  For example, the rune corresponding to the P of Pater Noster is supposed to help a warrior in battle, the rune for A gives the warrior super-strength, and so on.

This trend is not limited to the examples above, but can also be found in multiple locations with historically strong Germanic cultural influence, for example throughout Scandinavia and the British Isles.  That the use of efficacious words is found in the later Christianized forms of these charms but not in the older, Germanic attestations is important for the study of the Christianization of the Germanic peoples.  I argue that with the Christianization of the Germanic peoples, the efficacy of the original charms forms were weakened, much like the power of the pre-Christian gods.  Because of this trend, it was necessary for the charm-forms to be supported and enhanced with the recitation of Christian liturgical invocations at their end.

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  1. […] 3. Collin Brown (Department of Germanic Studies, University of Texas at Austin) ‘Mid uuorrdun endi mid uuercun: The Introduction of Christian Holy Words into Germanic Folk Prayers and Charms’ Abstract of Paper […]