The Charm of Nine Herbs – The Methods

Mugwort, plantain which lives facing the sun, lambscress, burdock,chamomile, nettle, crab apple thyme and fennel

  • a salve for keeping thus: chop the leaves finely and mix with the apple pulp and a salve base.
  • a plaster or fomentation – make a paste of water and ash, and mix the fennel with oil and beaten egg. You can use a salve before and after.
  • Sing this charm three times over the herbs before you work them, and also over the apple. Sing it over the patient, (both mouth and ears) and over the wound each time you apply the salve.

This part involves more than average guesswork, as the text seems more than a little garbled. You will note that it is prose and not poetry for what it’s worth, and also that this bit substitutes lambscress for houseleek. Perhaps this is a substitution the scribe made because houseleek was less available locally, but the word is ‘lombescyrse’, so this is not just a best guess. The word for crabapple is different too, ‘wudusuræppel’ rather than ‘wergulu’, so the prose addition may have been made in a different part of the country from the poetry. This may explain the Odin and Christian references too – we are looking at an amalgamated text.

I am interested in the singing. In later monastic practice, time was measured in the length of time it takes to say prayers, and it may be that singing the charm was the same sort of thing. But in the light of the religious references, perhaps we can guess that to the Saxons, just as physical healing was also a redemptive act, and not just a metaphor for salvation, spiritual healing brought genuine comfort and strength, and was not just a placebo.

April in the Territory of Rain

This is not really a typical month, as it has certainly not been the territory of rain. There hasn’t been any serious rain all month, and not much in March. The pond is low and I’m already watering things that I wouldn’t usually need to worry about until June. On the other hand, until last weekend, it wasn’t really cold, so we have had a beautiful month, with blossom – the cherry coming a good fortnight earlier, and the apple just opening. Daffodils and primroses weren’t battered by winds, and the wind anemones flourishing and spreading.

The cow parsley is just beginning on the road verges, along with white dead-nettle and garlic mustard – the first time I’ve seen it here, and the bluebells are out. Soon it will be time to go to Inchmahome, where the bluebells are like a flood under the old chestnuts and oaks, and the geese will be nesting.

Migrant birds are back, though not in large numbers yet, and the dawn chorus is pretty impressive. We had on major disappointment, in that robins made a lot of progress on a nest just below my study window, but then abandoned it. They haven’t gone far, however, as I still see them foraging.

There have been some changes, most of them quite encouraging. Wrens chaffinches and gold-finches are about in greater numbers and there are more song-thrushes. There are more skylarks in the fields this year, but I haven’t seen any lapwings at all, nor heard a curlew. The biggest change is the lesser black-backed gull colony. The warehouse they used to nest on was demolished, and though a good number tried to nest among the rubble, they were disturbed by surveyors, and I saw no chicks at all. This year fewer gulls have come back, and only the boldest are on the site – which isn’t being developed at all yet. Some of them are on chimneys, and some of them must be on the river bank, but it seems awfully quiet without them.

The other change is the deer. Once the sight of a deer coming down from the crags was a rare thing, but now you can see them browsing in the fields furthest from the road almost every day. As the human community begins to struggle with our social and environmental pressures, some quiet resurgence may be beginning among our neighbours. I’m taking all the hopeful signs I can get!

The Charm of Nine Herbs – the Indications

Now these nine herbs * prevail against nine demons,

against nine poisons * and nine epidemics,

against the red plague * against the foul plague,

against the white plague * against the blue plague,

against the yellow plague * against the green plague,

against the brown plague * against the lingering plague,

against the harm of serpents * against the harm of water,

against the harm of piercing * against the harm of scratching,

against the harm of of cold * against the harm of of infection.

Whether any ill comes * airborne from the east

or anything comes * from the north

or anything from the west * against the people,

Christ is the remedy * like no other.

I know a unique * flowing river

and the nine serpents * may not come near it.

All its plants * are medicinal,

the waters are calm * both salt and fresh,

and with them * I heal you from evil.

I tried to identify the nine plagues by analogy and even looked up the four humours to see if there was any relevance, but without much success. It is hard to second-guess the short-hand other cultures may be using as a mnemonic. Alice Oswald had some interesting things to say about the use of colour in ancient texts – it was as much about emotional resonances and visual effects as about pigments, so that the Greek ‘wine-dark sea’ isn’t purple as much as swelling, and ‘grey’ isn’t that mix of black and white we know, but something reflective and shimmering ( I couldn’t help thinking of Tolkien’s elf-cloaks). So perhaps red isn’t simply like the rash of scarlet fever, but inflammation, and yellow isn’t simply jaundice – and so on.

I’ve noticed the Odin references in other places, but this passage, just to even things out, contains a reference to the book of Ezechiel 47:12, which deals with the river flowing from a renewed Jerusalem. In Christian times, this was taken as a metaphor for baptism, but I don’t think our scribe was thinking of merely spiritual healing here. This is a medical text, as we’ll see next time when we reach the methods of using the herbs. We are looking at a world-view where religion is a practical, embodied science. I can’t imagine what Anglo-Saxons would think of ours!


Low Carbon Conference in Stirling

Interesting things I heard yesterday at the Low-Carbon Conference held in the Iris Murdoch Centre at Stirling University:

  • the tools you build to look for stuff shape not only what you find, but the way you then look at the world at large. It isn’t just finding what you expect or want to find, it changes the way you think and speak about looking and responding. And, as the tools you build are shaped by your intentions, they aren’t ever neutral. And as we can’t ever rise about our intentions, what we can do is to be aware of them, ask ourselves if they are the only ones, and if anyone else has a take on the situation we should also be listening to.
  • venture capitalists aren’t all about the figures and the bottom line. What they want from a new project is a good story. I suspect they will do the figures themselves, so I’m not letting them off just now, but the point is that venture capitalists are looking for imagination and possibilities, so the world is less closed and pragmatic than we might imagine.
  • Orkney is self-sufficient in renewable energy, but can’t necessarily deploy it in ways that improve the quality of life for a population who suffer heavily from fuel poverty. The interesting consequence is that Orkney people are very knowledgeable, and come together in many diverse ways to make things work. Also that co-operation is time-consuming, because community is something that is not a given – it has to be worked for.
  • Environmental studies have their fashions like everything else. It’s not cool to be green any more – ‘blue humanities’ (i.e. study of water bodies) is where it’s at. There is a serious point here, as we can’t just see the sea as the space between the important bit, but —–
  • Scotland is unusually open to arts and creativity, and has a lot of networks outside the establishment. I’ve often thought this, but it was nice to hear it confirmed by people outside Scotland. One example is this community arts project:
  • if you thought that academics need to be more adventurous, less hide-bound and prescriptive, less top-down in the way they address environmental problems, these people are already on it. I said so to one of them, and he said they are not all like that, but basically, I left thinking the future might be in good hands.

The Charm of Nine Herbs 8 and 9 Thyme and Fennel

Two for the price of one this time.



Thyme and fennel, * all-powerful both
The Lord wisely * shaped these herbs
Holy in heaven * where he hung
Established and sent them * into the seven kingdoms
To heal the rich * and the poor alike
They will stand against pain, * they will combat the plague
Fight against three * and against thirty
Against the devil * and the terror
against the wiles * of evil creatures.

There is some argument that the eighth herb should be chervil rather than thyme, but I am not convinced. Chervil is negligible medicinally, whereas thyme is seen as very powerful to this day. Fennel is used as a digestive herb, soothing cramps, and easing the liver. Historically it has always been associated especially with fish, counteracting the oiliness of salmon, and perhaps mellowing the tang of salted cod or herring. It was used against witchcraft, and said to improve eyesight.

Thyme is still used as a decongestant – thymol is an ingredient of all those chest rubs for coughs and colds – and a disinfectant. Recent research suggested that it is even effective against MRSA and clostridium difficile, but I have not heard the outcome. Interestingly, however, I discovered that at one time it was used for stress, for nightmares, and against ‘phrensie and lethargy’ – an Elizabethan phrase, I imagine, for bipolar disorder.

The rest of the charm consists of instructions for the administration of the herbs. These are pretty difficult, some of them magical incantations and/or Christian prayers, some of them practical. I will be posting them next week.




Burnedthumb Spreading its Wings

There are a few opportunities to catch me in action coming up.

First of all, there was the interview on Pulse Radio, which you can now hear on Mixcloud at

Then I have just received notice that InterlitQ, a wonderful on-line resource  based in Argentina, has published five of my poems, including the title poem of Haggards. You can read them all here.

And for the future, I will be reading some poems and talking about artistic responses to environmental and social upheaval at a conference at Stirling University on the 19th April entitled Connecting with a Low-Carbon Future – further details here. I’ll be talking about The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the Dark Mountain Project.

And in June I’ll be at Expressing the Earth, a conference organised by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics from the 22nd -24th June. I’m talking about herbs, landscape and ways of knowing, but there’s a packed programme of talks, workshops, films, music and field trips, along with the chance to meet other artists working in many different genres – and hopefully produce new collaborations and ways of creating art. Tickets are on sale now, and I can only encourage anyone interested to move fast, because we have had a lot of interest already.

The Charm of Nine Herbs 7 Crab apple

I live in a village which keeps the last remnants of ancient monastic orchards, and we still have a lot of fruit trees. When I first came here, ‘plundering’  was a regular amusement for boys from across the river, and you would find dropped apples on the bridge wherever some irate gardener had chased them. In the last year or two, a local group has planted a community orchard, and it is nice to think we are continuing an old tradition.

This is the plant * called crab apple

A seal sent this * over the sea-waves

for the healing * of alien infections.

These nine prevail * against the nine plagues.

A worm came creeping * a man slaughtered it.

Then Woden took * nine herbs of wonder.

He cut the adder * into nine pieces

apple and illness * fought it out

so that illness would never * abide in his house.

Nine herbs for the nine plagues, and at last a bit of genuine magic and paganism. Two lines later, however, we are back into the Christian references. It all reminds me of the man in the saga who was a Christian but invoked Thor during thunderstorms and in times of stress.

Too sour for munching from the tree, crab-apples have been used for cider and vinegar, and in jelly. The vinegar is often used as an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of arthritis and gout, and a gargle with cider vinegar will often help a sore throat. Apples are also comforting to upset stomachs, strengthening the liver and digestion. They were often mixed with spices to add to the effect, and for a while their scent was believed to dispel infections.


Burnedthumb on the Radio

I’ve had a very exciting week. Tuesday saw the launch of Jim Carruth’s Black Cart, published by Freight Books. Jim read several of the poems, dealing with farming and rural  life in Ayrshire. They are knowledgeable and unsentimental, and later in the year, when I hope to get back to thinking about Grounded Poetics, I’ll have a lot to say, but for now, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But in the morning before that I had the pleasure of recording an interview with Shirley Whiteside of Barrhead’s Pulse Radio. This is a community radio, which receives a commendable amount of support from the local area, both in terms of advertising and help from the local authority, but also in active involvement from volunteers, including the local school.

I was recording for a programme called Booked, and talked about poetry at large, my poetry in particular, and encouraged people to read, write and participate in poetry events. I reviewed some recent poetry – Sheila Templeton’s Gaitherin, (published by Red Squirrel Press),Marion McCready’s Madame Ecosse, and the samplers from House of Three. And I read a few things.

It will be broadcast tomorrow (that is the 2nd April) at 2:00pm.

The Charm of Nine Herbs – 6 Chamomile

Remember now chamomile * what you made known

what you ordained * at Alford

That no-one should ever * lose his life because of infection

if he had chamomile * with his food.


I’ve struggled a bit with this one, as I can’t imagine cooking with chamomile, but chamomile tea is a great digestive herb, served afterwards as a tea, and has both anti-inflammatory and anti bacterial properties. I knew someone who said she cured an ulcer by drinking chamomile tea, too, so I can imagine it must have saved a few lives in those days.

The official translation of the herb mægðe is mayweed, a common wild plant, but checking with the herbal dictionaries on line, I discovered that, although it is similar to the true chamomile, its chemical components are so much harsher that it has been designated as a poison.I am going with the Roman (true) chamomile, anthemis nobilis, which Grieve identifies as the Saxon ‘maythen’.

The place name Alford is a bit of a puzzle too, though there is an apochryphal reference to the Decrees at Alford, alleged to be when Christ left his apostles significant teachings – including this. Pagans also claim that this is the lore of Woden; I am not sure that contemporary herbalists made much distinction between their sacred sources!


The Charm of Nine Herbs – 5 Burdock

A burdock plant photographed in June on the island of Seil.

Put to evil to flight, now burdock,* let the great be diminished

 the lesser be increased * until both are healed.

This, I admit, is a weird one, a flight of fancy, perhaps, but not without some thought and information behind it. I had even speculated that these two lines may simply belong to the lines about nettle, and ‘attorlaþe‘ (literally plague-defier’) might simply be a nickname. However, further research indicates otherwise.

Attorlaþe is usually translated as either cockspur grass,  or betony, but I haven’t found either option particularly convincing. Cockspur grass has very little use in medicine – the only recorded use is to shorten labour, as the grains often act as host for the fungus ergot. Otherwise it is regarded as poison to cattle and sheep, and an invasive pest. Betony has a long tradition of use as a wound herb, a nerve tonic, to relieve anxiety and calm the digestion, and this looked quite plausible until I found another text which referred to a remedy for coughs – a mixture of betony and ‘lesser attorlaþe’ – which tells me that there must also be a greater variety.

Then there is that rather magical incantatory ‘let the great be diminished, the lesser be increased’. I was baffled by this until I came across the term ‘alterative’ which is used for herbs which are used to restore and rebalance the system, particularly the digestion, liver and kidneys. I looked up native herbs which are used as alteratives, and dandelion and burdock topped the list – and there is both a greater and a lesser burdock used in traditional medicine. I’m not altogether satisfied with this identification; it is no more than a best guess. But it is a guess that does not make the assumption that the charm is no more than a superstitious curiosity, but is a genuine element of the history of herbal medicine.