The practice of folk magic in the British Isles is vast and rich, with each country having such diverse and culturally nuanced customs. The magical history of England encompasses a large variety of sources to gather insight from, but one main example is looking to the cunning folk and their practices we have records of. The cunning folk were practitioners of magic who provided an array of services to a local area, from protecting against baneful magic, to prescribing healing remedies, to various divinatory methods and more. Many academics have analysed these magical practitioners and found that a frequent practice employed was the use of written charms.
Written charms are exactly what it sounds like, charms utilised for various intentions that were written down on parchment or simply just paper, as the latter would’ve been a lot cheaper and more accessible than the former. A person would request the aid of the cunning person on a particular troubling situation, the cunning person would then perhaps write up a charm and give it to the client, often coming with instructions on how to use it.
The content of these written charms reflected the prevailing beliefs of the cunning folk at the time, which was Christianity. Biblical passages, Latin Catholic formulas, quotes from the Book of Psalms, Divine names in different languages, all these things and more were highly common and normal use for the cunning folk in their magical practices. One example of such can be seen in Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, where sentences from Psalm 150, Luke 16 and Psalm 64 were taken to create a Paracelsian charm, ‘a charme to drive awaie spirits that haunt anie house.’ [a charm to drive away spirits that haunt any house]:
Hang in every of the four corners of your house this sentence written upon virgin parchment; Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum: Mosen habent & prophetas: Exurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici ejus.The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, pg. 140 (modernised English by myself)
To clear any confusion, virgin parchment here is referring to a parchment made from the skin of a newborn animal, perhaps not a custom that’s made it into common magical practice today. But we can see that this apotropaic charm is a clear example of the influence of Christianity on the cunning person’s practice, and it roughly translates to ‘Let every spirit praise the Lord: they have Moses and the prophets: Let God arise and his enemies be scattered.’ (Popular Magic, Owen Davies, pg. 150).
Not all of the charms of the cunning folk were explicitly Christian or had themes of Christian mysticism though. Written charms were frequently utilised by the cunning folk and other folk magical practitioners as they could be easily customised to the individual client, therefore they could be quite diverse in their content. The following written charm from Lancashire used to ensure ‘against evil beings’ is an example of such:
Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Trine, Sextile, Dragon’s Head, Dragon’s Tail, I charge you all to guard this house from all evil spirits whatever, and guard it from all disorders, and from anything being taken wrongly, and give this family good health and wealth.Lancashire Folk-Lore: Illustrative Of The Superstitious Beliefs And Practices, Local Customs And Usages Of The People Of The County Palatine, by John Harland and Thomas Turner Wilkinson, pg. 61 (modernised English by myself)
This charm, likely to have been supplied by a local cunning person, was found above a door on a house in Burnley, to assist the owner in warding off “ill luck” and protect the house. It’s no question that a lot of the charms found in records generally serve protective and defensive purposes, as many people of the times were scared, vulnerable and truly in fear of the supernatural dangers that threaten their livelihood. Of these dangers included witchcraft, or as modern magical practitioners would understand it, baneful magic or practitioners who solely practice magic to harm. However in British history, the label ‘witches’ was given to evil magical practitioners that could ruin somebody’s life, often just for the hell of it and people enlisted the help of the cunning folk to deter them.
The following written charm identifies this notion, as a charm to help against ‘the dominion of the grey witch, pixies, evil spirits and the powers of darkness’. The word ‘Abracadabra’ is nowadays best known for its popularity in stage magic, but it is actually a magical word found in many records of English folk magic. This Abracadabra charm and symbol pictured below was to be written on parchment, sewn up in a small black silk bag and hung around the neck. It was to not be removed and should it fall on the floor, all its magical properties would disappear.
This charm would then act as a means to ward off any disruptive influences that seek to harm the wearer, making use of sympathetic magic with the decreasing “Abracadabra”. As the word decreases (the reduction in letters in the word), it forms an upside-down triangle, therefore the evil influence will also reduce and decrease. Many of the written charms in records adopt similar structures and elements, such as this idea of sympathetic magic, along with other forms of magic such as contagion, but also symbology like in this example. From Latin palindromes, to Kameas (magical squares), to Christian signs such as the chi-rho – further discussion on this topic can be seen in my YouTube video “Seals and Symbols in English Folk Magic“.
Overall, the magic of the cunning folk of England and Britain is truly fascinating, and one could dive deep into their charms and spells for ages. What’s even more fascinating is how many modern magical practitioners are still keeping these charms alive and utilising them in their own craft – and how potent they still are.