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Some notes on Old English charms: or why being a PhD student is the best.

March 17, 2014

Hey there blogging world!  It’s been a long time!  I feel bad to have left you all hanging so long there’s just been lots of stuff happening!  First, Sleeping Booty was here visiting me—for the first time ever—and we were basically having a great time and getting up to all sorts of mischief.  Since then, however, it’s been back to work and trying to get this next chapter of my dissertation sorted before the end of term (also, sorted here is euphemism for ‘have-anything-about-it-figured-out-at-all’).  Now probably to a lot of you this sounds tedious (ugh, school work!).  But really, it’s pretty epic.


Basically, for the last 2 months I have been reading about Old English charms—and let me tell, that’s some weird stuff.  First, there are elves–Every nerd’s dream, right?  But sadly I have to tell you that these creatures probably have very little in common with Arwen and Galadriel.  We are talking here about disease causing beings here… you probably don’t want to run into one.

Also, there are magic words.  You know ‘abracadabra’ ?  Well, I always thought that stuff was made up, but apparently abracadabra is common in medieval Jewish remedies for fever!  And even found it’s way into Anglo-Saxon England.  Yesterday I read this phrase: ‘Abra Alabara Galabra’.   Sound familiar?  There are also other magical-type formulas like abracadabra with other repeating nonsense sounds.  Who knew?

The other thing that is cool about these charms is that they often contain text from several languages including Old English (of course), Latin, Greek, and Old Irish.  Sometimes they even have corrupted Hebrew words.  This means that when scholars are trying to figure out what these sometimes very obscure texts say, hypotheses run from verb forms in Old Saxon to the names of angles in gnostic texts in Coptic.  Really it’s anyone’s guess and often no really knows for sure.

But yeah… so this is how I have been spending my time recently.  Reading these crazy texts that are sometimes beyond confusing but whose very insolvability makes them interesting.  And then, the next step beyond that, is thinking about the world that made them and what context they fit in there.  How did Hebrew phrases like Abracadabra find their way into England?  Given the intellectual structures in Anglo-Saxon England they probably were written down by a monk or a cleric—was that the type of person who was practicing them? Would these ‘charms’ that nine times out of ten include prayers and mention the names of the Biblical figures or saints have been considered witchcraft by the church?

When I am able to answer a few of these questions I’ll finally have a chapter outline.  But for now, I just want to say that being a graduate student is the best:  relaxing in the library… reading weird stuff… thinking about elves…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2014 7:17 pm

    Yay for elves. I’m glad you’re getting to research stuff you love!


  1. Thanks for existing | Twenty Something Condition

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