Tall stoneware pot with pink foxglove

Wyrtig

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
.
   
  

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The Nine Herbs Prayer
from the
Lacnunga


The first page of the
 Lacnunga,
BL Harley 585,  ff. 130-193

The Lacnunga (from lc, healing; the title can be translated as "Remedies") is one of several documents found in  a single manuscript, British Library MS. Harley 585. It dates from the 10th-11th century, but some of the material it contains is much older. Most of it is written in Old English and Latin, but it also includes material in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Old Irish.

Containing some 200 treatments using medicinal plants and other materials, the Lacnunga provides insight into early medieval theories of disease and healing. Some of the Lancunga's medical prescriptions include prayers and other invocations. One of the best known of these is the "Nine Herbs Prayer."

This ritual tells us that, then as now, medical practitioners knew effective health care required meeting the patient's psychological and emotional needs, as well as responding to their physical concerns.

Another role of the Nine Herbs Prayer, translated below, may have been in timing the preparation of medicines. Much as we are told today to sing the Alphabet Song twice while we wash our hands, to be sure we take the time to do a thorough job, reciting or singing this prayer may have helped the physician to macerate, simmer, or stir medicinal ingredients for a specific length of time.

The plants listed in the Nine Herbs Prayer are all found in other early herbals:

  1. Mucgwyrt, mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris

  2. Weg brade, plantain, Plantago major

  3. Stune, shepherd’s purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris

  4. Stuna, nettle, Urtica dioica

  5. Attorlae, betony, Stachys officinalis

  6. Mge, chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile

  7. Wegule, crab apple, Malus sp.

  8. Fille, chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium

  9. Finule, fennel, Foeniculum vulgare

They were ingredients for a medication to treat gebld, an infection or inflammation of the skin. This salve was sterile, having been boiled -- no small consideration in those pre-antibiotic days -- and it had therapeutic value derived from the plants it contained. Modern pharmacology has begun to document the healing qualities of many herbs, and the nine plants above were indeed "good medicine."
 

The Nine Herbs Prayer

Lacnunga, folios 60-64

+ Gemyne u  mucgwyrt

hwt  u ameldodest

hwt u renadest

t regenmelde

una u hattest

yldost wyrta

u miht wi .iii.

7 wi xxx.

u miht wi attre

7 wi  onflyge

u miht wi am laan

e geondlond fr

+ Mind you mugwort

what you disclosed

what you rendered
at Regenmelde

The first you are called

oldest of plants

you mighty against 3

and against 30

you mighty against poison

and against infection

You mighty against the evil

that fares through the land

Each of the nine plants are addressed directly, as though sentient.

 

Mugwort Artemesia vulgaris, "oldest of plants," is frequently named in early medieval herbals. Various etymologies have been suggested for mugwort: English mug, as it was used in brewing before hops; muggi, ON for marsh; mucg, OE for midge, gnat.


Poisons and "onflyge," infections, are frequently cited as sources of illness.

+ ond u weg brade

wyrta modor

eastan opne

innan mihtigu

ofer y crte curran

ofer y cwene reodan

ofer y bryde bryodedon

ofer y fearras fnardon

eallum u on wistode

7 wistunedest

swa u wi stonde

attre and onflyge

7 laan

e geond lond fere :

+ And you waybread

plant mother

eastward open

within mighty

over you chariots creaked

over you queens rode

over you brides trampled
over you oxen snorted

This all you then withstood

and dashed apart

as you withstand

poison and infection

and that evil

that fares through the land

Weg brade, way bread, was also well known to medieval physicians. Today, we call it plantain, Plantago major; it grows well in dry, stony places, including  paths or "ways" -- even when driven over by chariots, queens, brides, and oxen.  Bread may have originally read "broad," for it has a broader leaf than its equally common cousin,
P. lanceolata.

 

We don't know what is being referred to by the comment about chariots, queens, etc.

stune htte eos wyrt

heo on stane geweox .

stond heo wi attre

stuna heo wrce

shepherd's purse this plant is called

she on stone grew.

stands she against poison

she drowns out pain

Stune, Shepherd's purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, is less familiar to us, though it is named in the Lacnunga and the Leechbook of Bald. Another Old English name for it is lombes crse, lamb's cress.

stie heo hatte

wistuna heo attre

wrece heo wraan

weorpe ut attor

 

+ is is seo wyrt

seo wi wyrm gefeaht

eos mg wi attre

heo mg wi onflyge

heo mg wi  am laan

e geond lond fere .

nettle she is called

stands she against poison

she drives out wretchedness

throws out poison

+ this is the plant that

against the worm battled

this mighty against poison

she mighty against infection

she mighty against evil that goes through the land .

Stie, Nettle, Urtica dioica,, has been used for food, fiber, and as a medicinal since the Iron Age.  Internal diseases with unknown causes -- including some not caused by parasites -- were often believed to be the work of worms.

fleoh u nu attorlae .

seo lsse a maran .

seo mare a lssan

ot him beigra bot sy .

put to flight now attorlothe

that less the more.

that more the less

until for him both are remedied

Attorlothe is likely, in this treatment for skin conditions, to be betony, Stachys officinalis.

gemyne u mge :

hwt u ameldodest

hwt u gendadest

t alorforda .

t nfre for gefloge

feorh ne gesealde

syan him mon

mgan to mete

gegyrede .

mind you chamomile

what you disclosed

what you brought to an end

at Alorford .

that never to infection
a man's life be sold

since for him someone
chamomile as a meal
prepared .

Mge, chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile, is another frequently used plant. Alorford (alder ford) appears to be a place name, but the allusion is now lost.

is is seo wyrt

e wergulu hatte .

as onsnde seolh

ofer ss hrygc

ondan attres ores to bot.

 

as .viiii. ongan . wi

nygon attrum

This is the plant

that crab apple is called

the seal sent forth

across the sea's back

for other poisons a remedy .

 

These 9 go against .

nine poisons

Wergulu in this recipe is wild crab apple, Malus spp; we know this from the instructions below for preparing this medication. How are crab apples linked to the sea or to seals? That, we don't know.

+ wyrm com snican

 toslat lienan .

 

a genam woden

sloh a a nddran  

.viiii. wuldor tanas

t heo on .viiii. tofleah

 

r gendade ppel

7 attor t heo

nfre ne wolde on hus bugan

+ A worm came sneaking

it slew nothing .

 

then took Woden

slew then the adder

9 wondrous twigs

so that she into 9 flew

 

There ended the apple

and poison that she

never would that house [body]inhabit

The number 9 is highly significant in many mythologies. As 3 is a number of perfection,  9 is three 3s, completion. Any number multiplied by nine will have an answer whose digits add up to nine (ex. 3 x 9=27; 2+7=9). The nine "wuldor tanas" are the nine herbs named above.

+ fille 7 finule

fela mihtigu twa a wyrte

gesceop witig drihten

halig on heofonu

a he hongode

sette 7 snde

on vii worulde

earmum 7 eadigum

eallu to bote

stond heo wi wrce
stuna heo wi attre .

seo mg

wi .iii 7 wi xxx .

wi feondes hond

7 wi frearegde

wi malscrunge

minra wihta .

+ chervil and fennel

very mighty these two plants

created the wise leader

holy in heaven

when he hung

set and sent

into the 7 worlds

for wretched and rich

all to remedy

stands she against pain

stands she against poison .

who is mighty

against 3 and against 30

against fiends hand

against spells

against enchantment

by wicked wights.

Fille, chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, and finule, fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, members of the same plant family, are found together here.

 

The wise leader who hung in heaven is most likely Odin All-father, who hung nine days from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, to gain the wisdom that would give him power over the seven worlds:  Midgard, Asgard, Vanaheim, Jotunheimr, Alfheimr, Helheimr,  and Svartalfheimr

 

Three and 30 -- again, potent numbers.

+ nu magon as .viiii. wyrta

wi nygon wuldor geflogenum

wi .viiii attrum

7 wi nygon onflygnum .

+ Now power have these 9 plants

against nine who from wonder flee

against 9 poisons

and against nine infections .

Repetition is a powerful component of the chant, here emphasizing the potency of the nine herbs against poisons and infections.

wi y readan attre

wi a runlan attre .

wi y hwitan attre

wi y wedenan attre

wi y geolwan attre .

wi y grenan attre.

wi y wonnan attre

wi y wedenan attre

wi y brunan attre .

wi y basewan attre .

against the red poison

against the foul poison, against the white poison

against the blue poison

against the yellow poison .

against the green poison .

against the dark poison, against the blue poison

against the brown poison .

against the purple poison .

It appears that 11 poisons  are named, but all are named by color except two, which are described by other aspects -- one is foul; the other, dark -- so perhaps the author meant a foul white poison and a dark blue poison, thus giving us 9 poisons.

wi wyrm gebld

wi wter gebld

wi orn gebld

wi ys gebld

wi ys gebld

wi attor gebld

against worm blister

against water blister

against thorn blister

against thistle blister

against ice blister

against poison blister

Six kinds of inflammation are named, each with its cause. The number 6 did not yet have the negative connotations it would acquire in Christian numerology, but unlike 9 it is an "incomplete" number.

gif nig attor cume eastan fleogan

oe nig noran cume oe nig westan ofer wer eode crist stod ofer alde ngan cundes .

if any poison comes east flying

or any from north comes or

any from west over the nations of men

christ stood over illness as none other.

It is interesting that the herbs overcome poisons from every direction except the south.

This reference to another god may have been inserted by a Christian scribe to enhance the efficacy of the ritual.

ic ana wat ea rirmende

7 a nygon ndran  behealda

motan ealle weoda

nu wyrtu aspringan

ss toslupan

eal sealt wter

on ic is attor of e geblawe .

I alone know running water

and the nine adders

hold

must all weeds

now as herbs spring up

seas dissolve

all salt water

when I this poison blow away .
 


A ndre
, from the Lacnunga

The adder (ndre )was believed, by analogy, to be the cause of illnesses far beyond those caused by snakebite. But the adder was also revered as a messenger from the underworld, a keeper of secret knowledge, and a protector of treasure. The shed skin of certain snakes could magically endow a person with knowledge of healing.

mucgwyrt wegbrade e eastan open sy .

lombes cyrse attorlaan

magean netelan

wudusurppel fille 7

finul ealde sapan gewyrc

a wyrta to duste mngc

wi a sapan 7 wi s pples gor .

Mugwort waybread the
east open is.

lamb's cress attorlothe

chamomile nettle

wild sour apple chervil and

fennel old soap work

the herbs to dust mix with

the soap and the apple's juice.

The healer now prepares the medication, grinding the plants small and then mixing them with soap and apple juice.

wyrc slypan of wtere

7 of axsan genim finol wyl

on re slyppan 7 bee mid

g gemongc onne he a sealfe on e ger gefter .

work a paste of water

and of ash take the fennel boil

in the paste and beat with

water mixes then he the
salve put on before and after .

Water and ash are mixed with fennel, added to the soap mixture, and  boiled, all the while stirring.

sing t galdor on lcre ara wyrta

.iii. r he y wyrce 7 on one ppel ealswa .

ond singe on men in one mu 7 in a earan buta 7 on a wunde

t ilce gealdor r he a sealfe on e :.

Sing that charm on each of the herbs

thrice before he prepares them and on the apple also .

and sing into the
mouth and into both ears and on the wound

that same charm before he puts the salve on that :

The charm is repeated throughout preparation and application of the salve, which is used to heal six different kinds of gebld, blisters or skin infections; 6 being an imperfect number, incomplete, and subject to the power of  9.

 

Sources

Barley, N. Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Journal ISCA, III:2 (1972.)

Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.

Cameron, M. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England (1993)

Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases

Godwin, H. History of the British Flora: A Factual Basis for Phytogeography (2nd edition, 2010).

Health Foods Unlimited Wellness Library

Journal of Ethnopharmacology

Jolly, K. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England - Elf Charms in Context (1996)

Lacnunga, folios 60-64 (interactive facsimile from the British Museum; a wonderful resource)

Mosby’s Handbook of Herbs and Natural Supplements (2001)

Natural Standard - The Authority on Integrative Medicine

Plants for a Future

Pettit, E. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library Ms Harley 585: The Lacnunga (2001)

 
 

Garden Folklore

Anglo-Saxon charms

cerbot prayer

Garden gnomes

The Green Man

Medieval calendars, months, and labors
 

Saints for your garden

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

1
Mugwort,  Artemesia vulgaris, has anti-bacterial properties.

 
 
 
 

2
Plantain, Plantago major, is anti- microbial, stimulates cell growth and tissue regeneration, reduces pain, and is  anti-inflammatory.

 
 
 
 

3
Shepherd's purse
Capsella bursa-pastoris,
is anti-bacterial and slows bleeding.

 
 

4
Nettle, Urtica dioica, relieves pain and reduces inflammation.

 
 
 
 
 
 
5
Betony, Stachys betonica, has tannins that are antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, astringent, antiviral, and help wounds heal.
 

6
Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile, reduces inflammation and helps wounds heal.

 

7
Crab apple,
Malus
spp, is anti- inflammatory and anti-viral.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

8
Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, prevents cell death and promotes healing.

 

9
F
ennel, Foeniculum vulgare, relieves nausea and reduces bleeding.

 
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Odin All-Father
(From the Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventu, 12th century)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Psalm 139:4
They have sharpened their tongues like  serpents. The venom of adders is behind their lips.
BL Harley 603 f.71v
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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