The Nine Herbs Charm

Image: The British Library

The Nine Herbs Charm is found in Lacnunga (i.e. ‘remedies’ or ‘cures’) which is a collection of medical recipes, magical charms and invocations mainly in Old English, partly in Latin and Old Irish.

The charm contains descriptions of nine herbs, and relays their characteristics- ‘blurring the line between practical, earthly herbalism and spirituality.’ – The British Library

It was recorded in the 10th or 11th century gives a very interesting insight into the world of Anglo-Saxon magic and herbalism, although the exact nature of the charm is much debated. The original manuscript, referred to as Harley 585, is currently housed in the British Museum. I will link all of the resources that I have used at the bottom of this blog post, and I want to give a special thank you to Sinead Spearing whose Old English Medical Remedies has been invaluable in my research.

The theories:

Some believe that the charm is the cure for a snake bite.

Some believe that it is a salve against many different poisons, wounds or diseases, given by the god Woden.

Some believe that it is an old recipe for flying potion- the type that enabled Odin to see the runes, to be used as a part of a longer initiation ritual.

We will discuss the different theories, and let me know in the comments what your thoughts are, and like and subscribe for more occult poetry goodness.

It must be noted that the charm in its original Old English was far more poetic, with alliteration and metre all flowing beautifully. However, the modern English version is still very powerful. It is also interesting to note that there appears to have been some christianisation to the text, although references to the Germanic god Woden remain. One day I hope to be able to read the Old English version, and when I can, I will record it for you.

The poem references the nine herbs:

  •  Mugwort
  • Plantain
  • Lamb’s cress
  • Nettle
  • Black nightshade/ Betony
  • Mayweed (chamomile)
  • Crab-apple
  • Thyme/ Chervil
  • Fennel

Snake Bite

So we will begin with the theory that this is simply a remedy for a snake bite.

There certainly seems to be a lot of references to poison in the charm, in fact, the word ‘poison’ is used twenty-five times in sixty-three lines!

Plantain is one of the herbs mentioned in the charm, and is known for protection against snake bites when you carry the root with you. A form of sympathetic magic, ‘plantain’s tiny flowers rise up on thin stalks resembling small serpents rearing their heads. This appearance gives plantain another common name- snakeweed.’ Albertsson p237-8

However, in Old English Medical Remedies, Spearing explains this theory may originate through a misspelling. In Old English- ‘nan’ was translated as ‘man’ so, rather than the snake biting ‘man’ the snake actually bit ‘none.’ Many people have made the same mistake, relying on the incorrect translation. So, if the snake did not bite anyone- what is really going on?

The snake was often used as a metaphor for disease, so perhaps this theory is too literal an interpretation.

The poem also states that Odin has already killed the snake- past tense. The nine herbs charm does not say that Woden will take up nine glory twigs and smite the serpent, it says that he has already done so. The serpent- the disease- has been shattered, and it is up to the cunning-person to invoke/ evoke Woden’s powers.

A ‘cure-all’

The second theory that I will discuss is the theory that the Nine Herbs Charm is a powerful cure-all for many types of poisonous or venomous wounds. In Anglo-Saxon England, medicine and magic were very interlinked, with incantations being an essential part of healing. It also makes sense to me that they may have had a saxon version of savlon- something with antiseptic qualities which could be applied to all manner of wounds. This is supported within the section where it recounts all the colours and directions of the poison which the charm can cure.

‘The formula utilises the narrative technique common to many Old English charms. In this narrative, the disease is described or envisioned as a snake. The god Woden strikes rhe snake with nine Glory Twigs, causing it to shatter.’ Albertson p97

The argument against this theory is of course, that it is a very long poem to recite over every cut, sting or bite that a person endures. Most cuts or stings could be cured with a far less extreme concoction and charm. However, because snakes are often metaphorically linked to disease, rather than just poisons, this indicates that this charm would be used on more serious diseases, perhaps ones that caused great welts on the body- hence the references to a wound. 

Flying Potion/ Initiation

The final theory I will discuss is far more whimsical in nature.

Woden is described as taking to increase his shapeshifting abilities and its use is well-documented in the sagas and old norse and English stories.

Mugwort is a psychedelic with hallucinatory properties.

Chamomile would balance the properties of mugwort as it is a sedative, lowering anxiety and ensuring a more positive experience (in large doses, chamomile can also be hallucinatory).

Atterloathe can be translated as black nightshade or betony. Betony was used to ward off evil, useful when hallucinating, and nightshade is said to bring knowledge of death. If the flying potion were used within a larger initiatory ritual, a symbolic death and rebirth is likely to be a part of this. Therefore, the use of nightshade would make sense.

Thyme is a plant which helps a soul transition to the Otherworld.

Fennel guards against evil and promotes immortality.

Remember too that the singing of the incantation would have had a powerful psychological effect on an initiate, to the point of altering their state of consciousness. Especially when hearing about Odin’s initiation while under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Where this theory begins to fall apart for me, is at the end of the charm, where there is mention of creating a salve with all of the herbs, and putting them onto a wound.

Now, there is the slim possibility that this could have been a subtle reference to flying potion being administered as a suppository. However, that is just a slightly far-fetched idea that I had that could explain the word ‘wound.’ Please comment below letting me know what you think about that.  

Let me know if you have heard any other theories about the Nine Herbs Charm, if you think any of these theories are likely.


Old English Medical Remedies, Sinead Spearing

A Handbook of Saxon Sorcery and Magic, Alaric Albertsson