charms, verbal


charms, verbal
   In a general sense, all traditional spoken formulas to bring good luck or good health are charms, apart from explicit prayers such as 'God bless her and all who sail in her', said when launching a ship. So are those that turn aside evil, like the rhyme to be said on seeing a *magpie.
   Healing charms form a distinctive subtype, of medieval origin, often noted by collectors. Practitioners called them 'blessings'; they were uttered in a whisper, and often accompanied by ritual actions - making the sign of the cross; stroking, breathing over, or spitting on the sufferer; rubbing with different coloured rags or threads, etc. A few come straight from the Bible; thus one way to staunch
   *bleeding is to repeat: 'And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live' (Ezekiel 16: 6). More widespread are those which recount some pseudo-biblical event as precedent; for example, that Christ miraculously stopped the Jordan, as in this charm from a Shropshire blacksmith's notebook early in the 19th century:
   Our Saviour Jesus Crist was borne in Bethalem was Baptsed of Jon in the river of Jordan. God commanded the water to stop & it stoped so in his name do I command the blood to Stop that run from this orrafas vain or vaines as the water Stoped in the river of Jordan in the name of the Father Stop blud in the name of the son stop blood in the name of the Holeygst not a drop more of blud proceduth Amen Amen Amen - to be sed 3 times or if the case be bad 9 times and the Lords praier before & after holding your rithand [ = right hand] on the place and marck the place thus + with your midel finger. (Davies, 1996: 20).
   Similar examples are the 'St Peter' charm against *toothache, the 'Angels' charm against *burns, the 'St George' charm against the * nightmare. In all cases, it is implied that the power whereby the holy personage resisted or defeated evil will be available to heal the present sufferer; often the formula includes words of command supposedly uttered at the original event and now used by the healer, enhancing his authority, and ends with a religious phrase:
   There came two Angels from the north, One was fire and one was Frost.
   Out, Fire; in, Frost. In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
    (Latham, 1878: 35-6)
   Those against recurrent troubles such as toothache and ague were written down and given to the sufferer, sometimes on sealed paper which must not be opened and read; he or she would then carry the paper permanently, to prevent recurrence. Several medieval charms against ague stipulate that the words be written on a leaf, or on a communion wafer, and eaten; this was to be done three days running (Forbes, 1971: 296-7). Medieval and Elizabethan charms made copious use of names of God, Jesus, and angels, in garbled Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, plus scraps of Biblical quotations, usually in Latin. Some seemingly gibberish words, such as AGLA, were acronyms for religious phrases - in this case, for the Hebrew for 'Thou art powerful and eternal, O Lord' - though the users probably did not know it.
   A charm against sprains, known in many countries, is especially interesting as one of the few with demonstrably *pagan origins. It tells how Christ healed his horse's sprained leg with the words, 'Bone to bone, sinew to sinew, vein to vein'; in an early medieval German version, it is Balder's horse which is hurt, and the god Woden who heals it. Here, and in many other cases, the crucial formula is made memorable by rhythmic phrasing, repetition, rhyme, or alliteration.
   A number of elaborate Anglo-Saxon verse charms have been preserved; one is against 'elf-shot' (see *elves); another, which involves making a paste from *nine herbs and includes mention of both Christ and Woden, is effective against nine evil spirits, nine poisons, nine plagues, and nine snakes; another is not against sickness, but to 'mend thy fields if they will not produce well, or if sorcery or witchcraft has harmed them'. It is extremely complicated; the farmer must cut four sods by night, wet them with holy water in which he has mixed honey, milk from every cow, and leaves from every kind of plant on his land, and take them to church for four Masses; then replace them in the field, bow nine times towards the east, recite various prescribed prayers, and eventually put incense, fennel, salt, soap, and seeds on his plough with the words:
   Erce, erce, erce, mother of earth,
   May the Almighty, the everlasting Lord, grant thee
   Fields growing and flourishing ...
   And may it be guarded against all evils,
   Witchcrafts sown throughout the land.
   Whether 'erce' is a proper name, or just a nonsense word chosen as a half-rhyme for 'earth', is not known. See also *charmers.
   ■ Forbes, 1971: 293-316; Davies, 1996: 19-32; Davies, 1998: 41-52; Theo Brown, 'Charming in Devon', Folklore 81 (1970), 37-47. Many regional folklore collections contain one or two charm texts from the 19th century. For early examples, see Storms, 1948; Bonser, 1963; Hunt, 1990.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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