The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons


The Anglo-Saxons believed that nine herbs had special powers against illness and evil

The Nine Herb Charm

” A worm came crawling and tore a man asunder. Then took Woden nine magic twigs and smote the serpent that he in nine pieces dispersed. Now these nine herbs have power……… This text from the Lacnunga, a tenth century Anglo-Saxon herbal, provides a myth to explain the origin of the nine sacred herbs. Worm is Anglo-Saxon for dragon, and Woden, the sorceror god, is now better known by his Norse designation, Odin.

The Lacnunga is a collection of nearly two hundred herbs used by the Anglo-Saxons and kept now at the British Library in London. Whoever compiled it gathered material from a wide range of sources, mostly Anglo-Saxon, hence it is not a systematic account, but more of an anthology. One of its contents is the Nine Herb Charm, a quote from which is given above.

Saxon Beliefs

The Anglo-Saxons thought that diseases were spread on the air as the wind blew poisons around. In a pre-scientific age when viruses were unknown this was a reasonable idea that gets to grip with the fact that some disease is spread by air. However, they entrusted healing to herbs and charms. Herbs would be applied with the appropriate incantations to attempt to heal the patient.

 

The Nine Herbs

Mugwort: [Artemisia vulgaris] This is the first of the nine. Its name derives from the fact that it as a wort [plant] that was used as an ale flavouring, hence it flavoured your mugs. It continued as an ale flavouring right into the Middle Ages, and as healers used to administer herbs in alcohol, mugwort-flavored ale would be a popular medicine. It was believed that pillows stuffed with Artemisia would grant good dreams, and that if applied as an infusion in bath water it would restore vigour. It gave stamina to last on long journeys.

Plantain: [Plantago major] This tough little herb grows on paths and resists being trodden on. The Anglo-Saxons believed that if the fresh leaves were applied to wounds they would act as a poultice to draw out poison and would stem bleeding in minor wounds. An application would ease burns and stings.

Tonic Herbs for Body and Soul

Watercress [Nasturtium officinale]: Known to the Saxons as Stune, this was believed to be a general tonic. Considering that the watercress is known for its nutrient value, the Anglo-Saxons might have been onto something useful here. Then comes the mystery. What on Earth was Atterlothe? The word has defied translation, but it is likely to be a redundant name for something else. Its place in later versions of the nine herbs charm was taken by Betony, {Betonica officinalis] which in traditional herbal medicine was known as a general tonic. Chamomile [Chamaemelum nobile] is number five.. This was said to lift spirts.It also is known to have antifungal qualities and can be used as an infusion, as can betony. Chamomile leaves can be made into a tea.

Two Common Plants

Surprisingly the Lacnunga names nettle [Latin Urtica dioca, Saxon Wergulu] as number six. While it is commonly regarded as a troublesome weed, nettle is very nutritious. In general stinging and thorny plants are full of nutrients, so full in fact that they have had to develop stings and thorns as a strategy against being eaten. Nettle was believed to stimulate appetite. This is not surprising, as its roots deep-mine the subsoil to bring up mineral nutrients,When you are run down appetite disappears, so a nutrient rich tonic is a good appetite stimulant. To eat nettle, pick only the young leaves and boil them, so that the sting disappears. They are good in stews, but if you use them in soup or stew, add no salt, as they taste very salty.

Crab apple [ Malus sylvestris] was thought to promote deep sleep and renewed energy. Why this is so is not known. But the Saxons believed that it was accomplished against poison. Possibly its nutrient value ensured that people who crab apples did not lack mineral salts in their diet, an early version of the saying that an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Two Common Culinary Herbs

Chervil [Anthriscus cerefolium] was thought to restore the will to live. Why this is so is unknown, but in herbal medicine it is used as a stimulant and is said to lower blood pressure. Known as the silent killer, high blood pressure must have claimed many lives in the past, and sufferers probably felt generally unwell, so anything that lowered the blood pressure would have manifested itself in a general sense of wellness.

Fennel [Foeniculum vulgare] is an excellent herb which exists in three species. Its leaves, seeds and roots are all edible. The Anglo-Saxons believed that it promoted good eyesight and gave strength and courage. It is used in modern herbalism as a means of easing digestive problems. Babies take fennel water for wind, and it is popular among adults for the same reasons.

Conclusion

The nine were not ther only healing herbs used by the Anglo-Saxons. There were plenty of others, such as hawthorn berries, which are good for high blood pressure and sorrel, which is used for bladder problems, but they were said to have special status. Why this is so no one knows for certain. But it is worthy of note that two of them have the species name officinalis and officinale, which was always applied to plants which had a use in herbal medicine.

Article Abridged and found here:  Suite101: The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons 

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10 responses to “The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons”

  1. Jason Wingate says :

    The opening quote sounds like Kundalini to me.

  2. Karen Wan says :

    Fascinating information. I’d like to learn much more about herb usage, both past and present, so thanks for getting me started. The recipe for apple, fennel and blue cheese salad also looks tasty!

  3. Supersede says :

    Reblogged this on supersede.

  4. Alex Jones says :

    Good herbal information there. For each disease there is a plant in the world with a cure for it.

    • otove says :

      Jacob Bohm believed in a signature for each plant, that there was visible in the exterior Form of a plant, a clue as to what the plant would heal, i.e., lungwort for Pulmonary problems, Pilewort for, well, arm, piles. I just wonder where the idea came from.

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