Anglo-Saxon Literature

Witchcraft in Old English Culture

Witchcraft was hung, in History,

But History and I

Find all the Witchcraft that we need

Around us, every Day —

                                                                             Emily Dickinson, 1583

The meaning of witchcraft has evolved throughout the ages, so much so that today’s meaning has little association with its pre-Christian counterpart.  Modern witchcraft is associated with Neo-paganism and many types of spiritual cult movements.  Many of today’s witches worship a pantheistic deity, some worship Mother Nature, and others simply see witchcraft as a way of life in harmony with nature.  Modern witches are often termed ‘wiccans’, which has roots Old English.  While some may still practice spells or charms, this is seen as taboo in our modern scientific society.  Witches are often seen as purely fictional characters.  The chanting witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are an example of the stereotypical vision of witches that has been carried through to our time.

Going back to medieval times, witchcraft was widely seen as a form of satanic worship.  This view was popularised by the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) in 1486.  Malleus Maleficarum, written by a Catholic Church inquisitor, was essentially a witch hunters’ manual.  During the Renaissance period witches were hunted and executed, particularly in German-speaking areas (Hannam).

By the Middle Ages, a distinctly European belief had emerged that witches were followers of Satan, and that they had gleaned their powers from a pact made with him.  The foundations for this thinking lay largely within the Catholic Church (Thomas 521).  In Anglo-Saxon England, however, the meaning of witchcraft is less clear.  The word ‘witch’ has its origins in Old English ‘wicce’.  The O.E.D translates ‘wicce’ as “a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation perform supernatural acts”.  The Old English ‘wiccan’ meant “to use witchcraft”, and is comparable to the Low German ‘wikken’ of the same meaning (O.E.D).  This suggests that witchcraft in Anglo-Saxon England was possibly Germanic in origin.  While Christianity existed in Britain before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes landed there, if witchcraft was introduced by the Germanic tribes, with its less traditional foundations it would have been easier to eradicate in later years.  Bede’s historical accounts report that “the Old Saxons do not have a king as such but many local leaders put in charge of the people” (Bk. 5 Ch.10).  In this way, Germanic society was composed of cults or tribes, and each would have had different idols and ways of worship.  The Old English worshiped gods such as Woden, Thunor and Tiw, who were comparable to the Latin Mercury, Jove and Mars (Whitelock 21).  It is evident from English place names such as Wodenesfeld, Thundridge and Tyesmere, and the weekdays Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, that the Germans’ customs had a lasting impression on the Anglo-Saxons, despite the banishment of their ‘false’ gods by the Church.  Reminders of heathen beliefs also remain in place names such as Peper Harrow and Patchway (in Sussex).  These contain the element weoh, which means sanctuary, implying places of worship (Whitelock 23).  After the introduction of Christianity in A.D 597, these gods were seen as devils, and followers of devils were witches (Whitelock 20).  Paganism and witchcraft were viewed synonymously in Anglo-Saxon England by the Church, a view that is still loosely held today.  While the magic associated with witchcraft was rejected by the Church, ironically it incorporated several other elements of paganism into its religion, including magic, converted into beliefs such as the miraculous power of saints.  Pagan sites of worship were converted into Christian ones – magic springs, used by the pagans for their healing powers, were converted to holy wells whose water was sometimes used in baptisms (Thomas 54).  While it is clear that witches were feared after the introduction of Christianity, their role before this time can only be postulated.

Most accounts of witchcraft from the Anglo-Saxon period are from those condemning the practice.  There are, interestingly, very few accounts of its practice from other sources.  Little, if any, literary accounts of witchcraft exist from practitioners themselves.  This raises the question of whether witchcraft was a real threat to Anglo-Saxon society, or whether it was just a fear, an obsession or a threat to the Catholic Church.

The Laws of Ælfred, Æthelstan and Canute condemned witchcraft, and it was often punished by burning (Jefferies 512).  In fact, the first recorded use of the word witch is in the Laws of Ælfred (c. 890).  Ælfred condemned witches as women sorceresses who should not be allowed to live – “Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban”, which roughly translates as “The women who are accustomed to spell workers & sorcerers & witches, do not allow them to live” (`Griffiths 108).  King Ælfred based his laws on magic and witchcraft on biblical representations of the practices (Hastings 308).  Witchcraft is mentioned several times in the Bible: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live” (Exodus 22:18 New King James Bible); “Idolatry, sorcery…are works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:20); “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murders, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolators, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with  fire and brimstone, which is the second death”(Revelation 21:8); and in further detail in Deuteronomy: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).  Galatians portrays sorcerers as criminals, in the same league as murderers, and Deuteronomy condemns magic of any kind.

After Ælfred’s defeat of the Vikings, he set about reforming his kingdom both politically and culturally with such strength that his efforts caused him to become known as King Ælfred the Great.  He wanted “certain books which are the most necessary for all men to know” to be translated from Latin to English (Keynes & Lapidge 7).  Of the books Ælfred selected to translate, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History were included.  Pastoral Care advised the clergy on such things as virtues.  Histories against the Pagans went against the general pagan belief that the troubles in Rome during the fifth century were due to the abandonment of pagan gods in exchange for Christianity (Keynes & Lapidge 33).  Ælfred’s inclusion of these texts reinforced his belief in God and limited his people’s choice of view.  With Ælfred’s translations came new laws, rights, records and a generally more organised system of governing.  In his laws, King Ælfred quotes the Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus.  He saw these as the Law of God and based his own laws around them (Keynes and Lapidge 34).  It is not surprising, then, that Ælfred chose to condemn witchcraft as forcefully as the Bible also does.  It was seen as a threat to God’s power and His rule, and perhaps to the King’s power also.  Christians believed that God was all-powerful, and the idea of witchcraft frightened them.  To the Christians, witches who could perform magic were the devil personified.

The Anglo-Saxon pagans believed that the soul was an inherent part of the body, and that the afterlife was a sort of semi-bodily existence within the grave.  This greatly agitated the Christians, as can be seen in Ælfric’s comments about Saul and the witch of Endor in his Homilies:  “Gyt farath wiccan to wega geltoæn and to hæthenum byrgelsum mid  heora gedwimore and clipiath to tham deofle, and he cymth him to on thæs mannes gelicnysse the thær lith bebyrged swylce he of deathe arise, ac heo ne mæg thæt don thæt se deada arise thurh hire drycræft”, which may be translated as “Still witches resort to crossroads, and to heathen burial-sites with their evil rites, and call upon the devil, and he arrives in the form of the person who lies buried there as if he had arisen from death; but she cannot achieve that, that a dead person arise by her witchcraft” (Griffiths 35).  The Anglo-Saxons also knew of the tale of Theophilus.  According to legend, Theophilus was an unhappy monk who sold his soul to the devil, but was redeemed by the Virgin Mary in what was known as the Intercession of Notre Dame (Lazar 19).

However, it wasn’t until 1100 A.D that the Church had convinced their followers that pagan gods were “demons in disguise… for all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the lord made the heavens” (Psalms 96:5).  It was after this period that the practices and meaning of witchcraft began to change.  Witchcraft, perhaps partly due to the negative projections of the Church, became more associated with demonic and satanic traits, and less so with its traditions in healing and magic.  Cameron identifies magic elements in the medicinal practices of the Anglo-Saxons, such as amulets and charms.  He lists cures, some which are purely magical in content and some which are both rational and magical (Ch.12).  This reinforces Meaney’s argument that women held the role of healer in tribes and families.  She believes that this would account for the inclusion of amulets in women’s graves.  Meaney also argues that the Church used witchcraft as a “political tool” to exclude women from positions of power within the realms of Christianity (Meaney 108).  Haltigar’s penitentials tell us more about the nature of witchcraft.  He lists the following as associations with witchcraft: “magic causing death, magic for the sake of love, conjuring storms, soothsayers (diviners), wizards who take away the mind by invocation of demons, making of amulets, pagan feasts and sacred places, human sacrifice” (Kors & Peters 56-7).  Bald’s Leechbook was an Anglo-Saxon book listing cures for various ailments, including the Nine Herbs Charm which makes reference to Woden: “Wyrm com snican, toslat he man; ða genam Woden VIIII wuldortanas, sloh ða þa næddran, þæt heo on VIIII tofleah” – “The snake came creeping, it tore a man to pieces; then took Woden nine glorious twigs, and struck the adder that it flew into nine parts” (Whitelock 22).  Woden was probably the main god worshipped by Anglo-Saxon heathens.  According to Maxims I “Woden wrought idols; the Almighty …wrought the heavens” (Whitelock 23), and Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxons believed their kings were divine descendants of Woden.  It is clear from the Nine Herbs Charm that Woden was associated with magic. However, this charm also mentions Christ: “These herbs the wise Lord created, holy in heaven as He hung; He set and sent them to the seven worlds to the wretched and the fortunate, as a help to all” (Chaney 197).  So while the Christians outlawed witchcraft, at the same time they assimilated many pagan elements into their own system of beliefs, for example, the Sabbath as a holy day dates back to an Anglo-Saxon charm that forbids any labour on the Sabbath guaranteeing, in turn, protection from danger (Thomas 743).  Many pagan feast days were also assimilated into Christianity.  While many Anglo-Saxon pagan rituals and beliefs did seep into Christianity and became a part of it, people who shunned Christianity in favour of paganism were viewed as witches.

The introduction of Christianity not only signalled the outlawing of witchcraft, paganism and heathenism, but also, according to many critics, suppressed the freedom to write with originality.  Jacob Grimm states that “After the introduction of Christianity the art of poetry took a religious turn, to which we owe many remarkable poems.  But the freedom of the poetry and its roots in the people perished” (qtd. in Stanley 8).  This also explains the reason for the lack of literary accounts of witchcraft.

Ælfric’s Homilies state that:

Now some soothsayers say that witches often say the truth of how things go.              Now we say in truth that the invisible devil that flies yonder around this world and many things sees and reveals to the witch what she may say to men, so that those that seek out this wizardry may be destroyed.

While it is difficult to ascertain what exactly the ‘truth’ was regarding witchcraft, it is clear that the Church felt great disdain towards the Anglo-Saxon witches and were eager to see them banished.  The main reason for this, I feel, was most likely that the Church felt threatened by the existence of gods other than their own and were anxious to suppress anything that was a threat to their supreme power.  Witches had charms, Christians had prayers and both had supernatural powers, but Christianity dominated in the end.

Works Cited

Barnhart, Robert K., Ed., and Sol Steinmetz. Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology.     Bronx: H.W Wilson, 1988.  Print.

Chaney, W A. “Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England.” The Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960): 197-217.  Journal.

Griffiths, Bill. Anglo Saxon Magic. Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.  Print.

Hannam, James. “The Decline and End of Witch Trials in Europe.” Bede’s Library.  2002. Web.  22 Nov 2010.

Harper, Douglas.  Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001. Web.  11 Nov 2010.

Hastings, James. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Edinburgh: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.  Print.

Jefferies, F.  The Gentleman’s Magazine 99 (1829): 512-3.  Journal.

Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge. Alfred the Great – Asser’s Life of King Alfred and  other contemporary sources. Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.  Print.

Kors, Alan C., and Edward Peters, Eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700 A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.Print.

Lazar, Moshe. “Theophilus: Servant of Two Masters. The Pre-Faustian Theme of Despair and Revolt.” MLN 87.6 (1972): 31-50.  Journal.

Meaney, A L., “Women, Witchcraft and Magic in Anglo-Saxon England.” Scragg, D G., Ed. Superstitions and Popular Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester:     Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies, 1989. Print.

New King James Bible.  Thomas Nelson, Inc.  National Publishing Company: 1982.

Stanley, E G. The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism. Cambridge: Goldcrest Press, 1964. Print.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971. Print.

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Beginnings of English Society. Aylesbury: Hunt Barnard Printing Ltd., 1974.  Print.

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