Anglo Saxon Witchcraft Article

Hi there thought some of you may find this interesting it talkis about Anglo Saxon pagan  practice.

by Swain Wodening


A few modern Wiccans try to trace their magic practices back to Anglo-Saxon practices.  The sad truth is however, Anglo-Saxon witchcraft and modern Wiccan practice have little to do with each other. With the exception of some kitchen witchery and other such practices, there is no evidence of an unbroken tradition of organized witchcraft from the Elder Heathen Period until now. For one thing, the ancient Anglo-Saxon witches certainly did not worship a God and Goddess, not in the sense that Wiccans do today (they worshipped gods and goddesses like Woden, Thunor, and Frige of the Germanic pantheon). Nor did they have anything like the Wiccan Rede. Modern Wiccan magic practice largely owes its orgins to Masonic ritual and the practices of High Ritual Magic groups formed in the early 20th century like the Golden Dawn with bits and pieces of kitchen witchcraft thrown in. The Old English words for witch, wicce "a female witch" or wicca "a male witch" in no way means "wise one," by the way.  Neither word is even remotely related to our words wit, wise, wisdom, or their Old English equivalents. As near as scholars can tell the words either derive from an Indo-European *wik- meaning "to bend," or another Indo-European root, *weg-  related to words for "lively, watchful."  Old High German had a cognate to witch, wikkerie, as did the Saxon German dialects in the term wikker as does Dutch with wikken. The term does not appear however in the Scandanavian languages (Old Norse vitki is cognate to Old English witega "wise one"). Similarly, there are no cognates in the Scandanavian languages for High German Hexe or Old English h?g (which was once used interchangeably with witch). None of this invalidates Wicca as a religion, it is merely a statement of the facts at hand. That being said, we can move onto the topic at hand. What was Anglo-Saxon witchcraft?

"What was Anglo-Saxon witchcraft?" is a very difficult question to answer. Our sources are primarily laws against the practice of witchcraft. These laws unfortuantely lump a whole lot of Heathen practices together so that it is difficult to tell whether galderes "charm speakers," seers, and leechs "healers" were counted as witches, or if these were counted as seperate types of magic users much like the difference made in Germany between the modern Hexen and Hexmeister. However when faced with many of the law codes, as well as words commonly used in conjunction with wicce or wicca, we begin to see a pattern somewhat confirmed by folklore about the witches or Hexen on the continent. The following paragraphs from Aelfric's Homilies parallels many of the folktales about the witches in the Hartz Mountains:

   "Nu cwyth sum wiglere thaet wiccan oft secgath swa swa hit agaeth mid sothum thincge. Nu secge we to sothan thaet se ungesewenlica deofol the flyhth geond thas woruld and fela thincg gesihth geswutelath thaera wiccan hwaet heo secge mannum thaet tha beon fordone the thaene drycraeft secath"

   "Now some sooth sayers say that witchs 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."

   "Gyt farath wiccan to wega gelaeton and to haethenum byrgelsum mid  heora gedwimore and clipiath to tham deofle, and he cymth him to on thaes mannes gelicnysse the thaer lith bebyrged swylce he of deathe arise, ac heo ne maeg thaet don thaet se deada arise thurh hire drycraeft."

   "Yet fares witches to where roads meet, and to heathen burials with their phanton craft and call to them the devil, and he comes to them in the dead man's likeness, as if he from death arises, but she cannot cause that to happen, the dead to arise through her wizardry."

The first passage mentions activities we see connected with witches in later medieval folklore.  That is the ability to use a fetch to travel far away, and see what is going on there. Very similar are folktales about the witches of the Hartz mountains and their abilities to fly through the air.  In Old Norse, this practice is generally referred to as hamfara "soul skin faring." The second passage mentions a practice we see in the Eddas and Icelandic sagas, the ability to speak to the dead. In addition to the ability to travel long distance through flight and communication with the dead, we find indications that witches were shape shifters. Terms such as Old English scinnl?ca (scinn "phantom" + l?ca "leech or healer") may well refer to this practice which is well documented in the Norse Eddas and sagas, not to mention Germanic folklore.

Looking at German folk tales, we see that the German Hexe (cognate to our word hag and Old English h?g) too was accused of flying through the air to places far away, as well as shape shifting. The following is from the German folktale, "The Trip to the Brocken" which demonstrates German beleif in the ability to travel through the air to a place far away:

   "The day came when witches go the Brocken, and the two women climbed into the hayloft, took a small glass, drank from it, and suddenly disappeared. The bridegroom-to-be, who had sneaked after them and observed them, was tempted to take a swallow from the glass. He picked it up and sipped a little from it, and suddenly he was on the Brocken, where he saw how his fianc?e and her mother were carrying on with the witches, who were dancing around the devil, who was standing in their midst."

The Canon Episcopi dating from the 10th century confirms this folktale:

   "Some wicked women, perverted by the Devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons [who] believed and profess themselves, in the hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth and to obey her commands as of their mistress and to be summoned to her service on certain nights"

Another folktale, shows they were also thought able to shape shift:

   "In Trent there formerly lived a girl who had inherited a witch's thong from her grandmother. Whenever she tied the thong around herself she would turn into a hare. In this form she often heckled a forester who lived in the vicinity. Whenever he would shoot at her, his bullets just glanced off her pelt. When he came to realize that there was something uncanny going on here, he loaded his flintlock with a coffin nail that he had somehow acquired."

While much of what was said of witchcraft in the Middle Ages may be suspect, the earliest records seem to indicate that the ability to fly, shape shift, and commune with the dead may have been central to Anglo-Saxon witchcraft. Whether or not these practices were in any way related in the minds of the Heathen Anglo-Saxons to the use of galdor, the runes, and other magic arts is subject to question. Considering that galdorcraft was allowed to continue, all though in a Christianized form, and that the runes continued to be used, at least for non-magical purposes, it is likely the two were seen as different from witchcraft even in the minds of the ancient Heathens. Also perhaps held to be seperate from witchcraft was the use of herbs or lybbcraeft.

Subject to question also is whether Anglo-Saxon witchcraft was related to, or a part of the Norse practice known to us as sei?r. There are tales of the "witch ride" in the Scandanavian countires of the sort seen in German folktales, and of course there are well documented tales of shape shifting.  None of these seems to have been refered to as sei?r however. Communication with the dead on the other hand may well fall under the heading of sei?r.  In  Erik the Red's Saga, we are not told whether the spirits the seeress summoned were the dead, land wights, or secondary gods. The seeress ritual portrayed there is commonly thought to be sei?r by many Heathen scholars and academics. This however, has been hotly debated, and many feel it should not fall under the heading of sei?r, but sp? (seercraft). Nonetheless, "sei? hon kunni," or "sei?r she knows" was said of the v?lva that was summoned by Woden in the Prose Edda, and  volvas were known for their ability to speak with the dead. It could be therefore that communication with wights was not sei?r while commnuication with the dead was. Eric Wodening has identified the primary components of sei?r in his work Chanting Around the High Seat as 1) Use of a sei?hiallr or "sei?r platform." 2) Chanting. 3) Use of a staff 4) Use of Talsimans.

The sei?hiallr or "sei? platform" appears no where in Anglo-Saxon or Germanic witchcraft practices, and this may be an indication that sei?r and witchcraft are similar but seperate arts. In fact is interesting that what objects are emphasized in the practice of sei?r are not even mentioned as important in connection with witchcraft and those objects and practices of witchcraft are not mentioned as important in connection with sei?r, save perhaps for the talismans and staff.  This would definitely seem to indicate that the two practices may be similar but are somehow different. To further this line of thought, Kveldulf Gundarsson in his article Spae-Craft, Sei?r, and Shamanism  notes:

   " In fact, the word sei?r is never used in conjunction with any sort of shape-shifting or travelling out of the body (the latter being usually the province of Saami, as with the 'Finnish' wizards Ingimundr sent after his Freyr-image in Vatnsdoela saga ch. XII), let alone for journeying to the Underworld or Overworld."

If  sei?r and witchcraft are seperate arts, then where does sei?r appear in the southern Germanic sources? The answer to that is we do not know. Witchcraft in the form seen in the English and German materials is also seen in the Scandanavian countries, but other than a possible cognate to the term sei?r in Old English (sidsa "charm") one would be hard pressed to find evidence of sei?r in Germany and England.

Finally, there are some indications from Germanic folklore that witchcraft was linked to the worship of a specific goddess.  Holda or Dame Holle is mentioned frequently in folklore of the Hartz Mountains in connection with the Hexen.  There is unfortunately no corrensponding evidence in the Anglo-Saxon corpus. That is not to say ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathen witchcraft was not a part of a Goddess' cult, but merely to say there is no evidence either way. Part of the connection to the Goddess Holde in Germany appears to be linked to the Wild Hunt and the witches' ride on May Eve. The Hunt appears in Anglo-Saxon literature and we have tales of the witches' ride as well.  The only factor missing in the Anglo-Saxon corpus appearing in the German is the Goddess Holde. Both the Wild Hunt and the witches' ride appear in English folklore.

Rebuilding a Modern Practice

Ancient witchcraft appears to have consisted of faring forth (to put it in modern Heathen magical terminology) or travelling out of body, shape shifting, the use of the fetch, and communication with the dead. General spell craft and divination (augries and omens are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon laws in close relation to witchcraft) probablly accompanied these arts to form the core of Anglo-Saxon witchcraft.  In order to reconstruct these arts, we are reliant upon other magical traditions to a degree. Harner's book The Way of the Shaman can be of great help.  While ancient Anglo-Saxon witchcraft was not shamanic in character, it has much in common with shamanism. Faring forth from the body is central to shamanism, as is the use of power animals (in our case, the fetch).  Shape shifting in ancient witchcraft was probably done in out of body form, so here too we can be helped by modern Pop Shamanism. Divination or the taking of omens, can no doubt be reconstructed with ease (many omens survived in folklore), as well as the use of the spa rite based on the instance in Eirik the Red's Saga. It must be stressed that it is doubtful Anglo-Saxon witchcraft was a healing art, at least not in the sense shamanism is.  Galdor and herbcraft seem to have been the means that were used in healing the body. No doubt, many ancient wiccan knew these arts as well though.

Suggested Reading

Glosecki, Stephen O.  Shamanism and Old English Poetry, Garland Press, 1991

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

Harner, Michael, The Way of the Shaman, Harper Collins, NY, 3rd Edition, 1990

Storms, G. Anglo-Saxon Magic, Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1948

Article posted by Lee

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