Pagan and Christian Syncretism in English Folk Magic

In many systems and cultural traditions of folk magic, there are themes of Christianity found in the core structure of the practice. Within the spells, charms or incantations recorded in folklore, old cunning folk practices or witch trial records, we see the use of Psalms, Divine names for example – something which I outlined in my prior article on written charms. The reality, which surprises many modern witches and Pagans, is that the majority of the historical folk medical or magical practitioners we look to were Christian. The charms and spells recorded largely reflected the prevailing dominant religious beliefs of their respective time, which of course, was Christianity.

However, that doesn’t mean that the cunning folk and past magical practitioners had zero Pagan influences surrounding their work and practices. The history of religious development in England is heavily nuanced and the conversion of a majority Pagan England to Christian did not occur in the blink of an eye. We can see this in the examination of how the existing Celtic deities were syncretised or replaced with Roman ones during their occupation, and how when the Roman Empire fell, Christianity began to rise. Then, with the migration of Germanic and Scandinavian people coming in from Northern Europe, also came a new type of paganism. In the East, Anglo-Saxon religion and culture succeeded the Romano-British that dominated before, and then was eventually Christianised again by the Gregorian mission. What is interesting to note here is that a lot of the time, Pagan practices and traditions were Christianised, not obliterated.

Therefore, it’s hard to imagine that there are zero Pagan influences on any surviving magical or religious material in England or that the common folk completely abandoned every heathen influence from their daily life. Folklore is a prime example of where we can find this; whether it be folk festivals that shine light on old pre-Christian customs, churches built upon old Pagan sacred sites detailed with Pagan iconography such as the Green Man, or in records of agricultural folk superstitious practices hinting at a deep connection with nature’s cycles. The latter can be identified in the Æcerbot charm, a potentially Pagan ritual with themes of Christianity layering it, used to help improve soil and fertility of crops:

Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth,
grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord,
of the growing and sprouting fields,
propagating and growing strong,
of lofty creation, shining blossoms,
and of the broad barley-crops,
and of the white wheaten-crops,
and of all the other fruits of the earth.

Be well, O earth, mother of humanity!
Be fruitful, in the embrace of God
become filled, and useful to men!

Aaron K. Hostetter’s translation from the Old English Poetry Project.

This quote is simply a couple passages from a long ritual recorded in the Lacnunga, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon text collating writings on medical remedies and prayers. It is said to take all day to perform with the approval and co-operation of the parish priest. It included practices such as the laying of certain herbs, twigs from trees and holy water, and the recitation of numerous Latin Catholic prayers. But fundamentally, the process was the healing of the Earth, through a “mating of Mother Earth with the God of Heaven and her impregnation by Him” (Looking for the Lost God of England, Kathleen Herbert, pg. 13), showing a clear syncretism of Paganism and Christianity.

Going further, a notable charm that shows potential evidence of the syncretism of Christianity and pre-Christian religious beliefs is a spoken charm used to cure ague from Lincolnshire:

Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Nail the Devil to this post.
Thrice I smite with Holy Crook,
With this hammer I thrice do knock,
One for God
And one for Wod,
And one for Lok.

Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning Lincolnshire, by Mabel Peacock, pg. 125 (modernised English by myself)

This is an interesting charm showing potential a mixture of religious elements and was evidently spoken aloud whilst hammering nails into a horseshoe. The obvious Christian content is seen in the reference of the trinity, the devil and God, juxtaposed with ‘Wod’ and ‘Lok’, being interpreted as the Anglo-Saxon deity Woden and Norse deity Loki respectively. Though, the latter has also been speculated to refer to ‘luck’, rather than the trickster god, which does have face validity. Horseshoes are lucky talismans in English folklore and folk magic, and hammering in the horseshoe whilst reciting this charm “for Lok/Luck” would make sense in this context.

A more famous record of Christian and Pagan syncretistic beliefs in a charm is the “Nine Herbs Charm”, recorded in the Lacnunga again. It is a rather long charm, which can be read in its entirety in more modernised English here, but the syncretism in question can be seen in the following:

A worm [snake] sneaking came
To slay and to slaughter;
Then took up Woden
Nine wondrous twigs,
He smote then the nadder
Till it flew in nine bits.

[…]

Chervil and fennel
Two fair and mighty ones,
These worts the Lord formed,
Wise he and witty is,
Holy in heaven,
Them he suspended.

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, by Oswald Cockayne, volume 3, pg. 35-7.

Woden, the Anglo-Saxon deity, who is often seen as the counterpart for the Norse Odin, is referenced here as well, resting closely to clear themes of Christianity such as the mention of the Lord (Jesus Christ) and “Holy in heaven”. The role of Woden here is unclear and no substantial conclusions can really be made, however, it certainly raises an interesting question as to how much the contexts of this charm (and the Lacnunga itself) reflects the religion of the people in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Ultimately, these charms and rituals can shed a light into a time where medicinal and magical folk practitioners were not bogged down about labels of their religious tradition, but rather, worked with whatever worked. They further highlight how English magical and folk-lore can give us insights into the history of the religious influences that have occupied Britain.

Leave a Comment