Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Saxons’ Nine Heroic Herbs

By Kim Rendfeld


Whether it was originally a pagan poem with Christian elements or vice versa, the “Nine Herbs Charm” reveals clues about Saxon culture before Christianity, something a novelist needs when portraying the lost pagan religion of the eighth-century Continental Saxons conquered by Charlemagne.

Plantain
I turned to Anglo-Saxon and other Teutonic cultures to get an approximation of my characters’ beliefs. The “Nine Herbs Charms” shows how the art of healing was closely tied to religion. Herbs have medicinal properties, but healers would also invoke the divine. Calling on supernatural forces would remain after Christianity was accepted, but the faithful would call it white magic and say it had nothing to do with paganism.

The healer would grind the herbs into a powder, then make a paste with soap, apple juice or apple pulp, and ashes and use it as a salve on a wound while reciting the charm.

Hairy bittercress
The herbs – mugwort, plantain (called way-broad in poem), hairy bittercress (stune in the poem), attorlothe (fumitory), chamomile (which may or may not be the chamomile we know), nettle (stinging or dead white), crab apple, chervil, and fennel – might have some medicinal qualities.

Mugwort, which smells like sage, it can be used to repel insects. Plantain leaves are supposed to be good to treat bee stings and poison ivy. Chamomile extracts might be anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, and anti-infective for minor illnesses. (Author’s disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, not even close. Nor have I tried any of these. If these herbs at all tempt you, please consult an expert.)

Stinging nettle
But when you read the poem, you get the feeling that the belief is based on the characteristics of the plants. The herbs have their own personalities and are addressed as "you" and "she." Mugwort, "the oldest of herbs," is strong. Plantain, the "mother of herbs," has withstood trampling. Lamb’s cress or hairy bittercress grows from rock. Nettle is harsh, as anyone who has been stung by one will attest. The plants will use these traits to fight poison and infection.

You almost get the feeling these herbs are warriors about to do battle.

See a translation of the poem here: "Nine Herbs Charm" from Karen Louise Jolly's Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context.

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons.

Other Sources

Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Malcolm Laurence Cameron

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, Greg Delanty and Michael Matto

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs


Kim Rendfeld drew on the charm as she was writing her latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), a story of a Saxon mother and the lengths she will go to protect her children.

To read the first chapters of Ashes or Kim’s debut, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com. You can also like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.

4 comments:

  1. Plantain is a direct anti-histamine, and like dock can be used as a crushed leaf to alleviate nettle sting. Nettle when crushed is also anti-histamine and is jolly good for a range of rashes and skin conditions, mixed with cucumber and house leek it's good for eczema and for burns. If mugwort smells like sage I wouldn't rule out it containing the same strong antibacterial qualities; sage gargle and tea for a sore throat are excellent, and dried sage pounded with salt was long used as a teeth cleansing powder. It works better with bicarb.

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    1. Thanks for the interesting information. If the nettle in question is stinging nettle, wear gloves when handling it. It's called stinging nettle for a reason. My herb book says not to use mugwort internally, but sage is safe.

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  2. Fennel is an internal cleanser too, but should never be taken by someone who is pregnant. It's one which 'bringeth down the courses' and though probably safe in culinary quantities should be treated judiciously.

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    1. My herb book, Rodale's, says all parts of fennel are safe to eat but its oils might bother someone with sensitive skin. Fennel is so strongly flavored, cooks typically use it in small quantities.

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