a Sudden Stitch
facing a New Translation
(with explanatory notes)
edited & translated by
from the Lacnunga, fol. 175r-176r
(British Library MS Harley 585 [Gneuss 421])
The attack of elves was believed to be responsible for mysterious suffering in men and livestock. Known as 'elfshot'--sudden shooting pains localised to a particular area of the body, such as in rheumatism, arthritis or muscle stitches or cramps--elves were thought to shoot darts or arrows where such pains had no obvious external cause. Belief in elfshot persisted into the 20th-c. in rural areas, and as proof, country folk would sometimes find small arrowheads (the remains of Neolithic or Mesolithic flints, or naturally-occuring spear-shaped stones). These elves are not the small, benign, bewinged creatures of bland children's stories, but rather beings more akin to demons. Though elves seem not to have been considered wholly malign as many Anglo-Saxon names contain ælf as a morpheme (e.g. Ælf-rede 'elf-counsel', Ælf-ric 'elf-king', &c.)
In the Charm against a Sudden Stitch, the three plants used in the cure--feverfew, red nettle and waybread--all have vaguely spear-shaped leaves, which may have suggested their use as a remedy for pains attributed to elf-arrows. Further, the placing of a knife in liquid as part of the cure also reflects a notion of 'sympathetic magic', in which like is used against like in order to draw out, or transfer, the source of suffering from the patient into another object--in this case, a stabbing pain into a stabbing-instrument.
The þa mihtigan wif 'mighty women' (l.6) who ofer þone hlæw ridan 'ride over barrows' (l.1), gyllende garas sændan 'yell [and] hurl spears' (l.7) seem to be the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Norse valkyries or perhaps riders in the Wild Hunt (lead by Woden?), as hurling spears recalls rituals dedicated to Óðinn. Glosecki (1989) reads Charm against a Sudden Stitch as a shamanistic procedure in which the læce (healer, doctor) pursues the assailants of his patient into the otherworld and casts the wounding spear back to the mountain (fleoh þær on fyrgenheafde, l.27)--mountain tops again being associated with the worship of Óðinn--sending the patient's pain back to its source. The læce creates ritual protection for himself, presumably to protect him when in the otherworld, with a figurative shield: stod ic under linde, under leohtum scilde 'I stood under lindenwood, behind a light shield'.
The reference to the smith (ll.11-4), which of course relates to the iron knife thought to be in the patient, may refer to Weland, or an equivalent 'wonder-smith', who may also represent a demiurgic figure in the context of this charm. The mighty women, valkyrie-figures, but darker and less benign than the traditional shield-maidens are grouped with the three other supernatural creatures mentioned in the charm: ylfe 'elves', es(e) 'gods, spirits', and hægtessan 'hags, witches'. The hægtessan themselves may be 'the mighty women'. Es(e) is cognate with Old Norse Áss (pl. Æsir, of whom Óðinn is the foremost). Ylfe 'elves' have already been discussed above.