Monday, 12 August 2019

Horse-healing magic from the steppes

I have long known of the second Merseberg charm, one of two which constitute the only surviving pagan verses in Old High German. As with most Germanic pagan things, we only have it by chance; a cleric at an abbey happened to put it in a liturgical book in the 10th century. We can be sure the charm, a cure for an injured horse, dates to many centuries earlier because it actually invokes seven pagan gods.

Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza.
du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit.
thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister;
thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister;
thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda:
sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki:
ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,

lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin!
Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder's foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna's sister, conjured it;
and Frija, Volla's sister, conjured it;
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain, so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints, so may they be glued
Later I discovered that this charm, written in Christian times, did not merely date to the days of Germanic paganism, but far further back. The evidence is in in Book IV/12 of the Atharva-Veda, compiled in India between 1200 BC - 1000 BC.
Rohan! art thou, causing to heal (rohanî), the broken bone thou causest to heal (rohanî): cause this here to heal(rohaya), O arundhatî!
That bone of thine which, injured and burst, exists in thy person, Dhâtar shall kindly knit together again, joint with joint!
Thy marrow shall unite with marrow, and thy joint (unite) with joint; the part of thy flesh that has fallen off, and thy bone shall grow together again!
Thy marrow shall be joined together with marrow, thy skin grow together with skin! Thy blood, thy bone shall grow, thy flesh grow together with flesh!
Fit together hair with hair, and fit together skin with skin! Thy blood, thy bone shall grow: what is cut join thou together, O plant!
Do thou here rise up, go forth, run forth, (as) a chariot with sound wheels, firm feloe, and strong nave; stand upright firmly!
If he has been injured by falling into a pit, or if a stone was cast and hurt him, may he (Dhâtar, the fashioner) fit him together, joint to joint, as the wagoner (Ribhu) the parts of a chariot!
I do not think for a moment that the Germanic charm is derived from the Vedic source. I find it far more likely both derive from a charm belonging to the Yamnaya culture on the Neolithic Eastern European steppes which was originally for horses, as in the case of the Merseberg charm, and that it was adapted in India for human use. It has been established that Yamnaya were late Proto-Indo-European speakers and are responsible for the modern domestic horse, so they were of course the first to develop magic for the aid of horses, and this would have spread with the horses, religion and Indo-European languages.

Today I was made aware of another cognate for the charm; this time from Ireland, an account contributed by a school child in county Cork in 1938.

There was an old woman named Layng that lived near this school and she had cure of the sprain. These are the words of the charm. "Our Lord God went a hunting through moors and through mountains. His foals foot wrested, he sat down and blessed it, saying from bone to bone, from flesh to flesh every sinew in its own place." She used rub the sprain very much while saying these words and she would say the Lords Prayer." She was a protestand. She left the charm to some men around this place. Some of the old people had charms for stopping blood, toothache, rash, St. Anthony's fire, choking and one very old man heard a charm for making rats come out of their holes and cut their necks with a razor.
Now, the fact she was a Protestant, and that as far as I am aware Layng is a name of Scottish origin, brought to Ireland by Scottish immigrants, makes me hesitant to ascribe this to an ancient Irish tradition. I consider three possible explanations.

  1. That this is of West-Germanic origin, like the Merseberg charm, and was brought to Scotland by Anglo-Saxons. 
  2. That this is a North Germanic cognate brought to Scotland by Vikings. 
  3. This is a Scots-Celtic cognate charm from the same Indo-European root as the Germanic and Vedic ones.

The woman invoked "Our Lord God" which is not only a common epithet of the Christian God, but also a name for Odin. I am not aware of a Celtic god who is invoked by this name. There are at least 10 more examples of charms in recorded Irish folklore which follow the same formula.

There is also an example from Sweden written down in 1860 which may be a Northern cognate if it is not derived from the West Germanic one.

Dåve red över vattubro,
Så kom han in i Tive skog;
Hästen snava mot en rot
och vrickade sin ena fot.
Gångande kom Oden:
- Jag skall bota dig för vred,
kött i kött, ben i ben,
jag skall sätta led mot led,
och din fot skall aldrig sveda eller värka mer
Dåve rode over Vattubro, then he came into Tive woods; the horse tripped on a root and sprained one of his feet. Odin came walking: I will cure you for sprain, meat to meat, bone to bone, I will put joint to joint, and your foot shall never sting or hurt again. 

And another from 19th century Sweden which invokes the goddesses:

Fylla red utför berget, hästen vred sin vänstra fot, så mötte hon Freja. – Jag skall bota din häst. Ur vred, ur skred, i led! Jag skall bota dig för stockvred, stenvred, gångvred, ont ur kött, gott i kött, ont ur ben, gott i ben, gott för ont, led för led, aldri mer skall du få vred! Fylla rode down the hill, the horse sprained its left foot, then she met Freja. I will cure your horse. Out sprain, out fall, in joint! I will heal you from log sprain, stone sprain, walk sprain bad out of flesh, good into flesh bad out of bone, good into bone good for bad, joint for joint, never again shall you have sprain! 

In 2013 I read one of my poems in a cafe in London. As you can hear, it was very much influenced by this magic charm...

Friday, 9 August 2019

Tuesday, 6 August 2019