Spells, Incantations, and Charms
How historic witches learnt their trade is largely unrecorded. There are a number of known oral transmissions, but the overlap between what was transmitted in each case is not very large, and there is little to indicate a connected movement at any time. Because they are customarily portrayed as poverty-stricken old women living in ramshackle hovels, it is assumed that women who practised magic were always illiterate and thus not in possession of any books. But, as today, when unique old manuscripts exist in the possession of individuals, there have always been books circulating outside the remit of institutions such as universities, or, later learned societies.
Because elements of pre-Christian magic and lore have been detected in recorded witchcraft practices and spells, it is often assumed wrongly that the entire corpus of practise in historic British witchcraft is Pagan. Recorded evidence shows that spells of healing especially drew strongly from Christian sources, sometimes the mainstream Bible and occasionally from apocryphal sources. In medieval times, Catholic priests would as a matter of course in medical cases perform benedictions over water to heal a man’s eyes and bless an ointment or medicinal draught before it was administered. There were graces before meals, and a benediction over ale. Priests said benedictions over weapons about to be used in warfare, blessed the plough, and said a benediction over a hunter’s nets for catching wild animals. They prepared holy water to disperse fiends. This ecclesiastical custom is not finished, for in the winter of 2010/11 the Bishop of Lincoln blessed the Lincolnshire gritting machines and snowploughs at their depot. In Gaelicspeaking Scotland, charms known as An Soisgeul - The Gospel - were sewn into clothing as a protector long after Protestantism was in the ascendancy. They consisted of a verse of scripture, a hymn or words of benediction, written by a priest. Many of these benedictions ceased when the Protestant sect became dominant, but among vernacular culture all over Great Britain, they continued, mostly unobserved by the authorities. So the tradition of saying benedictions, prayers or spells, frequently empowered by “the three holy names”, the epithets of the god of the Christian trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost - remained embedded in traditional culture.
A Welsh healing spell preserved in the ancient writings of the physicians of Myddfai tells us: “For all sorts of agues, write in three apples, on three separate days. In the first apple + o nagla pater. In the second apple + o nagla filius. In the third apple + o nagla spiritus sanctus. And on the third day he will recover.”
A charm against worms from Bridgend, Glamorgan, in Wales, was recorded in 1909,
“God the Father down did ride
Quick and fast the fork he tried
He lifted worms that were out of sight -
One was black, the other was white; One was mottled, one was red; Soon the worms were killed and dead;
Heal, O Lord, as soon as said!” (Trevelyan 1909, 226)
A Devonian bruise charm invokes the sun and the moon as well as the three holy names:
“To charm a bruise -
Holy chica! Holy chica!
This bruise will get well bye-and-bye,
Up sun high! Down moon low!
This bruise will be quite well very soon!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen”
(Hewett 1900, 68).
In her book Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, published in 1900, Sarah Hewett gives a number of magical formulae from Devonian witchcraft:
“Charm for Obtaining Love and for Success in all Undertakings: Whoever wears this charm, written on virgin parchment, and sewn up in a small round silken bag continuously over the heart, will obtain all the love he or she may deserve and will be successful in every undertaking” (Hewett 1900, 74).
“Charm for Protection from Enemies: This talisman should be made from pure cast iron and engraven at the time of the new moon. Before suspending it round the neck fumigate it with the smoke of burnt spirits of Mars (a mixture of red saunders, frankincense, and red pepper), or a ring of pure gold might be made, with the characters engreven on the inside. The size and form of the talisman is immaterial so long as the proper time for making it is observed and the prescribed incense is used before it is worn. In any form it will protect one from enemies, and counteract the power of the evil eye!” (Hewett 1900, 73-74). The talisman bears the Christian sigil chi-rho, the lower arm of which is in the form of an anchor. Around it is “vince in hoc” - “conquer in this [sign]” - and the sigil of Mars. Another instance of Christian sigils used in witchcraft in England, a direct parallel with folk-magic traditions in mainland Europe and the hoodoo practitioners in the United States.
The formula Abracadabra is the most widely known and immediately recognizable magic word. A prescription for its use, as a talisman against fevers, is said to come from the third century CE Roman physician Q. Serenus Ammoniacus who directed it to be written in the form of an inverted triangle, each line losing the final letter until there is but a single A.
Sarah Hewett recounts how this talisman of Abracadabra was given by a white witch to a person who desired to possess a talisman against the dominion of a grey witch, pixies, evil spirits, and the powers of darkness. It was written on parchment and enclosed in a black silk bag one inch square. The owner was told that if it should ever touch the ground, it would lose its power.