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Archive for the ‘Symposiums’ Category

Charm-of-the-Sprain

Barbara Hillers (Harvard University) gave a wonderful presentation, entitled “Joint to joint and sinew to sinew”: an international healing charm in medieval Irish literature and modern folklore.  She began the talk discussing the connection between mythology and folklore, reminding us of the use of the bone charm in Miach’s cure in the Irish mythological cycle — pointing out that this tale comes from a single 16th century MS that uses some 9th century language.  This charm is also found in Germanic and Vedic sources.

There was some time spent dissecting the structure of charms and folk prayers.  Namely, that in charms the speaker affects the cure, aided by supernatural powers, and in folk prayers the cure is accomplished by the supernatural power.  The bone to bone charm is an epic, or narrative, charm.  The event or story told around the charm, which includes its narrative structure, is actually part of the charm itself, and includes formula transference where the speaker – the charmer — impersonates a divine being.

Part of Professor Hillers focus was in connecting the bone charm to IndoEuropean roots.  She explained that within scholarship three cultural sources are needed to substantiate such a connection.  The charm is found in Germanic, Vedic, and Irish sources, though scholars do not view the Irish source as ‘distinct.’  There is an additional Hittite variant of the charm, but it is not similar enough to supply the needed third cultural connection because it combines parts from different bodies, while the other two share the same function – repairing a single body.

Looking at the charm from a modern ethnographic perspective, we see more of a fusion of the charm across Europe, which indicates a non-IndoEuropean root.  The Irish folkloric sources are underwhelming. It is found in clusters in the SW and North of the country, which links it to Viking settlement areas.  This is important, because Scandinavia has a predominance of the charm; indicating a Viking source with diffusion spreading the charm in Europe.

I.  Irish Source

Miach went to the hand which had been replaced by Diancecht, and he said, ‘Joint to joint of it and sinew to sinew,’ and he healed Nuada in thrice three days and nights.
 The Second Battle of Moytura

II. Germanic Source

Phol and Wodan rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Like limb-sprain:
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb — like they were glued.
second Merseburg Incantation  (another source: wikipedia)

III.  Vedic Source

Let marrow be put together with marrow,
let bone grow over with bone;
we put together sinew with sinew,
let skin grow with skin
Atharva Veda 4.15.2=4.12.4

NOTE:

The identification of Scandinavia (and Vikings) as a source for this charm is significant when you consider the political discourse of the “stranger” and “foreigner” so prevalent in the narrative of the 2nd Battle of Moytura.  If you have not listened to the Story Archeology podcast which covers Lugh’s identity as a ‘shiny foreigner’ (i.e. non-Irish origin), I highly recommend it!! 

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This weekend I attended an excellent multi-disciplinary symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland, organized by the Department of Early Irish at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.  Scholars from so diverse backgrounds as religious studies and archeology, linguistics and philology, and from applied disciplines likes herbal healing and veterinary medicine presented enlightening glimpses into their own work, as it related to the topic.  I hope to share what I took away from these talks.

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Worm and Snake Charms

The first speaker of the morning was Jacqueline Borsje (University of Amsterdam and University of Ulster), who delved into Irish snake and worm charms as export products.  She outlined the importance of charms as words of power, and how important context is when seeking to understand them.  Cultural, textual, and situational context is everything; in other words, don’t necessarily take them at face value.

Professor Borsje has written extensively about the evil eye in Ireland, and she brought this connection with “supernatural theft” into her discussion of snake and ‘wyrm’ charms.    Her reference to Professor Kelly’s work on medieval Irish Law tracts dealing with the stealing away ‘through envy,” with such concerns of butter and milk, was the thrust of her argument here.  A Babylonian incantation from the 2nd millennium BCE, in which women, babies, storage rooms, the god of the house, were all mentioned in their need for protection against this ‘supernatural theft.’

An interesting point connected ‘evil eye cultures’ — those cultures expressing a concept such as the evil eye or supernatural theft — with unstable ecological environments dependent on crop or cattle economies, with a concern over scarcity of resource.

Another non-Irish source mentioning supernatural theft are the 12 Roman Tables.  These tables talk of bewitched crops, evil spells, and the removal of crops by incantation.  In medieval Ireland, a particular concern was ‘stealing through the evil eye on the corriguinech (on May Day) — which seemed connected to milk theft.

Anglo-Saxon MS have references to Irish snake and wyrm charms that focus on remedies for swallowing a ‘wyrm’ and for ‘penetrating wyrm.’  These charms normally entailed singing the charm in various ways, and using saliva.  For example:

Wyrm Charm (MS  remedies)

Sing the charm 9 times, in either the right or left ear

Penetrating Wyrm

Sing the charm directly on the wound, then anoint with saliva. 

The charms are ‘aggressive’ in imagery, using the language of battle.  During this time, worms were seen as the cause of ailments as diverse as toothache and migraine, to pregnancy and actual disease.  An example of some of this language can be found in Lady Wylde’s writing, which, though not scholarly, does offer a glimpse into modern usage:

 for the Great Worm

 I kill a hound….

I kill a worm…..

for Pains:

evil worm

venomous charm….

rub with butter, etc.

The tendency of these charms is to treat like with like, similar to homeopathy.  The idea of a ‘snake charm’ was to use something venomous (the word of power) to treat a venomous disease (caused by a worm).  Another very interesting thing was the use of singing.  These charms, by and large, were sung, and often over the wound or over the water / liquid which held the charm and was then drunk.  If the patient could not drink, then the incantation of the charm was sung into the patients mouth.

Snake charms were used against illnesses associated with poison.  The absence of snakes on the island of Ireland was seen as a special property of this island.  This is why most of the snake charms found in continental Europe contain a portion written in Old Irish.  The really interesting thing to note here, is that the Irish found written in these charms was so garbled, it’s almost unintelligible.  Why?  Because it had been told to an original scribe by an Irish speaker, but had been handed down to non-speakers who were simply trying to copy, from memory, a phonetic representation.  They didn’t understand the Irish they were saying, but it was a Word of Power that held the protection of the ‘land without snakes.’  A potent charm against poison diseases!

A fun side note mentioned the old Irish hex of placing 13 eggs in someone’s haystack on Bealtaine.

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Now that I am in Dublin attending another conference (this one on Lebor na hUidre), I better get some of my notes from the last conference up here! It has been weeks now since I was in Sligo for Archeology of Darkness, but I have had guests in the meantime so do pardon my tardiness. Now, without further adieu….some of my notes (they will be posted in parts):

The gods of darkness come bearing gifts
Robert Hensey

This lecture will outline areas that have perhaps been under-theorised in archaeology. These include the use of dark places for the purposes of ritual retreat; archaeological landscapes by night; emotional reactions to dark places; the relationship between the darkness of winter and mental health; and darkness as a crucial feature of the construction and use of a wide variety of archaeological monuments.

Robert introduced the idea that perhaps ancient peoples viewed themselves as “seed” going into the earth, when they journeyed into the great mounds and tombs, and even caves. He also brought up Oiche na Sprideanna (Night of Spirits) and touched on this time of year (samhain) being a time when the Tuatha de Dannand collected their tithe..as the living Irish chieftains later did, as well.

He reminded us not to slide into bias, as not all cultures view the dark as scary or evil. He also pointed out an area of research (which I informed him of) still to uncover: how seasonality (SAD) may have contributed to the use of dark spaces and ancient peoples’ perception of the dark.

The dark side of the sky: architecture and the dead in Bronze Age Ireland and Scotland
Richard Bradley

For many years it was tempting to consider megalithic tombs and stone settings as a single phenomenon, elements which were shared between communities on either side of the Irish Sea. That is no longer tenable. Recent research has shed new light on the chronology of these monuments and has identified distinctive changes in their architecture during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. It has also shown how some of these traditions might have been renewed during the Late Bronze Age. One feature that transcends different styles of buildings is their orientation towards the south west; another is their association with human remains. In the past both features have suggested a link between cremation burial and observations of the moon, but it is possible to account for a wider range of evidence if this is treated as evidence for a new emphasis on the night, the use of fire, and the dark side of the sky. There is an important contrast with older structures, some of which emphasised the direction of the sunrise. Examples of the new developments include Irish wedge tombs, and Scottish recumbent stone circles and Clava Cairns. The same preoccupations even extend to Stonehenge.

This talk was incredibly informative and entertaining! He urged us to think of cosmology when we consider the direction the monuments are facing. There was a major change in ancestral shrine (tomb) building, with chamber and court predominant until 3500 bce, with the majority facing the rising sun (predominantly E, but also all along the spectrum of NE, E, SE). There are passage tombs with solar and equinox alignments, toward both the source and the “loss” of light. Wedge tombs are later, at the end of the neolithic / beginning of metal age and they face the declining light – or the dark side of the sky (SW and W).

Professor Bradley listed several examples, including: clava cairns, raigmore, and croft moraig. Raigmore cairn was built on top of an existing house, and mimics its design,with a HUGE and notable exception. The original house (of the living) favored the rising sun. The cairn (house of the dead) favors the decreasing sun. This represents an exciting direct alignment change! This site has a recumbent stone circle, with the recumbent (altar stone) in the SW.

Late bronze and middle iron saw lots of cremated bone, lots of burning – but no bodies. There is a supposed connection between the reduced light (tombs facing the dark of the sky) – the dead – lighting of fires. There is no sign of feasting at these sites (which puts me in mind of the Drombeg circle in cork).

At croft moraig the first phase of use was recognition of a glacial mound and a glacial erratic (large rock laying on top of a natural mound, away from other rocks). There is some alignment when sun phenomena are viewed from this rock and an adjacent mountain. The second phase of use at this site was a stone circle, followed by a house, and finally an oval enclosure now turned to a sunset alignment at midwinter.

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