Beowulf on Steorarume

Text of
Nine Herbs Charm

facing a New Translation
(with explanatory notes)

edited & translated by

from the Lacnunga, fol. 160r-163v
(British Library MS Harley 585 [Gneuss 421])
Anglo-Saxons charms mix, what would seem to us as, magic with medicine, pagan folklore with Christianity, science with miracle--though such distinctions (which, like all distinctions, are somewhat artificial in truth) would not have been likely to be apparent to our Anglo-Saxon forebearers, Christian or not.  

In Old Germanic medico-magical philosophy (see n.31), serpents ( wyrmas ) and their poison (attor) as the symbolic agent of disease and illness. In fact, many ancient Indo-European poems celebrate the defeat of serpents by gods or heroes, from the Indian Rg Veda to the Norse stories of Þórr's slaying of the Miðgarðsormr (world-serpent). Our own poem, Beowulf, concludes with Beowulf's heroic struggle with the dragon, probably an English echo of the same primæval Indo-European tale which lies behind Indra's struggle with Vrtra (Rg-Veda I.32, I.80).

We see herein a conflation or syncretism between pre-Christian Germanic magic/theology/folklore (e.g. the serpent as disease, Woden's shamanistic sacrifice of himself for the mystery of the runes) and Christian myth (e.g. Christ on the Cross, the apple and the serpent). In fact, the distinction between Christ and Woden is obscured even further by the reference to 'the hanging lord', ostensibly Christ on the Cross, but also recalling Woden's sacrifice of himself to himself in which he hanged himself in a tree for nine nights (night herbs?) and pierced himself with his own emblematic spear in order to gain the mysteries of the runes (Hávamál 138-9, in the Elder Edda).

The manuscript (MS BL Harley 585) containing the Lacnunga (so named by Cockayne), in which Woden's Nine Herbs Charm appears dates from around the 10th- or 11th-c. This late date means that one must consider the possible Scandinavian influence upon the charm, as we have few overt accounts of Woden in Old English (i.e, in OE poetry it elsewhere appears only in the Exeter Book Maxims which compare Woden unfavourably to Yahweh: Woden worhte weos, wuldor alwalda, / rume roderas 'Woden made idols, the Almighty [Yahweh] [made] glory, the spacious heavens'; Woden also appears in most of the royal genealogies of the old English royal families, e.g., Fram ðan Wódne áwóc eall úre cynecynn, and Súðan-Hymbra eác.. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, year 449; Earle 13, 20)). One must be particularly cautious about attributing some particular form of Woden-worship to pre-Christian Saxons due to the 'folklore-ishness' of such charms. For instance, many Old English charms mix Latin prayers with Old English formulae and quite a few charms contain Greek or Old Irish verses-if indeed this is what they are-so corrupted as to be uninterpretable. For that matter the Latin prayers themselves may well have been uninterpretable to many Anglo-Saxon læcas (healers, doctors). However, Woden appears in a number of place-names mostly in southern England, well outside of the Danelaw areas--e.g. Woddesgeat (Wiltshire), Wodnesbeorg (Wiltshire), Wodnesdene (Wiltshire), Wensley (Derbyshire), Wodnesfeld (Essex), Woodnesborough (Kent), &c. (see Gelling, pp.154-61)--which suggests an early Woden cult in parts of pre-Viking southern England.