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From Early English Poems Selected and Edited by Henry S. Pancoast and John Duncan Spaeth; New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911; pp. 1-3, 380-383.

(<1050 A.D.)



The Ploughman’s Charm

Here is the remedy how thou mayest cure thy land if it refuses to bear, or if aught untoward hath befallen it by way of witchcraft or sorcery. Stew seed in the body of the plough and repeat these words: —

(49) Erce, Erce, Erce,1 Mother of Earth
May the Almighty, Lord Everlasting,
Grant thee fields, green and fertile,
Grant thee fields, fruitful and growing,
5 Hosts of Spear-shafts, shining harvests,
      Harvest of Barley the broad,
      Harvest of Wheat, the white,
All the heaping harvests of earth !
May the Almighty Lord Everlasting,
And his holy saints in heaven above,
10 From fiend and foe defend this land,
Keep it from blight and coming of harm,
From spell of witches wickedly spread !
Now I pray the Almighty who made this world,
2 That15 malice of man, or mouth of woman
Never may weaken the words I have spoken.

Start the plough, and when the first furrow is turned, say : —

(67)Hail to thee Earth,2 Mother of men !
Grow and be great in God’s embrace,
Filled with fruit for the food of men !

Knead a loaf of bread with milk and holy water, lay it under the first furrow and say : —

20Field be full of food for men,
Blossom bright, for blessed thou art
In the name of the Holy who made the Heavens,
Created the earth whereon we live.
God who gavest this ground
25 Grant us growth and increase

Let each seed that is sown, sprout and be useful.

Charm For A Sudden Stitch

Take feverfew, and plantain, and the red nettle that grows into the house. Boil in butter. Say : —

Loud was their cry as they came o’er the hill;
Fierce was their rage as they rode o’er the land.

Take heed and be healed of the hurt they have done thee.

Out little spear if in there thou be !

My shield I lifted, my linden-wood shining,

When the mighty women mustered their force,
And sent their spear-points spinning toward me.
I’ll give them back the bolt they sent,
A flying arrow full in the face.


Out little spear if in there thou be !


Sat a smith,

A hard blade hammered.

Out little spear if in there thou be !

Six smiths sat,

15 Fighting spears forged they.

Out spear, out !

No longer stay in !

If any iron be found herein,
The work of witches, away it must melt.


Be thou shot in the fell,

Be thou shot in the flesh,

Be thou shot in the blood,

Be thou shot in the bone,

Be thou shot in the limb,

25 Thy life shall be shielded.

Be it shot of Esé,3

Be it shot of Elves,4

Be it shot of Hags,

I help thee surely.


This for cure of Esa-shot,
This for cure of Elf-shot,
This for cure of Hag-shot,

I help thee surely.

Witch fly away5 to the woods and the mountains.
35 Healed be thy hurt !  So help thee Lord.




The two charms translated in the text are remnants of a kind of incantation whose origins must be looked for in the pagan past of the Germanic races. They are echoes of the solemn chant that anciently accompanied religious processions, and properly represent the earliest and most primitive strata of Old English poetry. In the form in which they have been handed down they are much overlaid with Christian lore, but it is not difficult to recognize the primitive mythologic strata. The Christian church made no attempt ruthlessly to eradicate all ancient beliefs and practices. Pope Gregory advised the English Christians to consecrate the places of pagan ritual to the new religion, but not to destroy them; to respect the ancient forest sanctuaries and sacrifices, and to proceed everywhere with restraint and moderation. This explains the strange medley of Christian and Pagan conceptions so common in Old English literature.

Cockayne’s Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England (London, 1866) contains an interesting collection of charms, spells, cures, etc. On the subject of Germanic charms consult Gummere’s Germanic Origins (Scribner’s, 1891), pp. 373 ff. and 405 ff., where both of our charms are translated in full, and commented on.

The Ploughman’s Charm

1  Erce Erce. (Line 1) An unexplained term, probably the name of an ancient Earth-goddess. We are reminded of a famous passage in the Germania of Tacitus (cap. 40) where he describes the cult of the Earth-goddess Nerthus, as practised by the Ingvaeonic races of the North Sea coast. “All of these people 381 (among them ‘Anglii’) worship Nerthus, i.e. mother earth. They believe that she intervenes in human affairs, and visits the people.” [in commune Nerthum, id est terram matrem colunt, eamque intervenire rebus hominum, et inveni populis arbitrantur.] Like the Norse Freyja, she is a kind of Germanic Demeter (Koegel), a goddess of earth and mother of vegetation. In the springtime she holds her progress, and is welcomed everywhere with eager joy, for in the tracks of her chariot drawn by cows, ancient symbols of fertility, rich harvests spring up. When she has blessed meadow and field, she returns to her underworld home beneath the surface of a lonely mere.

2  Hail to thee, Earth, mother of men. (Line 17) According to Tacitus, the Germanic peoples believed mankind to be descended from Tuisto, whose mother was the earth. In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s tale (see p. 217), the old man knocks with this staff on the ground, “which is my moodres gate”and says “Leeve mooder, leet me in,” and it is quite possible that in the poetic figure there lurks a reminiscence of the old pagan notion of the earth mother of men. The next lines in the charm are pure pagan, and reveal the same conception that underlies the myth of Freyr and Gertha in the Icelandic Skirnismal. Freyr the son of Njord (another form of the root found in Nerthus) is the god of the fertilizing rain, and then of fertility in general. He rides on the ship Skidbladnir (the cloud), which he can fold and slip into his pocket when his journey is done. His flashing sword is the sunshine, that comes after the rain to make the world green. His sword he gives to his servant Skirnir (the polisher, burnisher, cleanser), who is to woo for him the beautiful giants’ daughter Gerd (the plant-world, released by the sunshine from the fetters of the wintry frost-giants). In the last lines the Christian coloring again predominates.

Charm For A Sudden Stitch

The rheumatism to be cured is thought to be caused by the darts of the “mighty women” that ride through the air. 382 “Hexenschuss” (Hagshot), and “Hexenstich” Hagstitch), are still popular names in Germany for rheumatism. It is possible that there is in this charm a faint reminiscence of the northern myth of the Valkyrias, the shield-maidens of Odin, who bring to Valhalla (hall of the slain), the heroes that fall in the battle.


In one of the Eddic songs we read of a band of Valkyrias riding through the air and led by a maiden with a gleaming gold helmet. “Their chargers tossed their heads; from their manes the dew dropped into the deep valleys.” In an Old High German charm for the release of prisoners, three bands of “august women” are described settling down upon earth, and helping the warriors against the foe. With the introduction of Christianity, the “august women” and the shield-maidens of Odin degenerated into hags and witches who send their darts into the vitals of unwary mortals.

“ The hag is astride
   This night for to ride
   The devil and she together
   Through thick and through thin
   Now out and now in
   Though ne’er so foul be the weather. ” — Herrick.

(See the whole poem in Standard English Poems, p. 112.)


3  Shot of Esa, i.e. of the gods. (Line 26) “Esa” is gen. pl. The nom. pl. would be Esė. The sing. “Os” is preserved in proper names, Oswald, Oscar, etc. In Old German the root appeared as “ans,” preserved in Anselm (Ans-helm). The Norse pl. is Æsir. In the Eddas the Esir are specialized into war-sprites, while the spirits of nature kindly to man, like Njord and Freyr, are called “Vanir.”

4  Shot of Elves. (Line 27) In the Eddas “Esir ok alfar,” i.e. gods and elves, are often mentioned together. The sing., Ælf, is preserved in Æfred, i.e. the Elf-counselled, the Elf-wise, and in Alberich, i.e. the ruler of Elves. Originally friendly beings, they have become malicious sprites in our charm, together with the Æsir. In Scotland flint arrow-heads, relics of an earlier age, are called 383 elf-arrows or elf-bolts, and they are supposed to be hurled not only at human beings, but especially at cattle.

“ There every herd by sad experience knows
   How winged with fate their elf-shot arrows fly. ”

— COLLINS, Ode on Highland Superstitions.

5  Witch fly away. (Line 34) In old German, witches are called wood-wives, and were supposed to inhabit the wild forest. We must not lay too much stress on the echoes of the Valkyria myth in our charm. Even before the introduction of Christianity, Germanic folklore had its wicked women and wood-wives, who had nothing to do with the shield-maidens of Norse mythology. The Norse had their “svart-alfar,” black or wicked elves, as well as their “ljos-alfar,” light or good elves. “The heathen Teuton saw all round him a varied race of demons (especially wood-sprites such as O.H.G. haga-zussa, O.E. haegtes, i.e, German hexe, witch and Goth. haljaruna, O.H.G. helleruna, O.E. hellerune) in their several haunts, against whose malignant power his only resource was zealous devotion to witchcraft.” — KAUFMANN, Northern Mythology, Temple Primers, p. 118.


In the Havamal, one of the Eddic poems, there is an interesting allusion to just such a “spell” as is preserved in our charm. The poet says :


“ A spell I can work when witch-women ride
       Speeding swift through the air.
   My runes are strong. I can stop their flight
       Hurry them naked home
       Home with bewildered wits. ”

Other charms he claims to know which have the power of releasing foot from fetter, hand from haft, and of checking an arrow in full flight.

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