Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wyrt Wizard - the blog begins

I will be blogging here about plant lore and uses in both modern and historical times. My interests include gardening and cooking, as well as exploring medicinal and household uses of herbs. I am especially interested in Anglo-Saxon times, which had some of the earliest known instances of medical herbal writings in the vernacular language, but I will be considering medieval times generally and occasionally venturing into other historical times.

The name of the blog was inspired by wyrtgælstre, an Old English compound word. Wyrt has the meaning plant or herb; it survives in modern English as wort, found in plant names such as St. John’s Wort and mugwort. Gælstre comes from the Old English words for singing and performing incantations. The word appears to be documented only once in the Old English written record. In a lunarium or lunar prognostics calendar (MS Cotton Tiberius, A. iii), the writer ominously predicts the fate that will befall the child born on the fifth day of the lunar month (original Latin, Old English gloss, and modern English translation as provided by Roy Liuzza in Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: Studies and Texts from London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.III, 2010); italics added for emphasis):

puer natus uix euadit. post quinque annos sepe inutilis moritur. puella pessima moritur. quia malefica & herbaria qui recumbit moritur.

cild acenned uneaðe ætwint æfter fif gear oft unnytt swylt. mæden wyrst swelt for þi yfeldæda 7 wyrtgælstre se þe gelið he swelt.

A boy born will scarcely survive past five years; he will often die useless. A girl will die the worst death because [she will be] a sorceress and maker of potions.

 Fifth day of the lunar month. The new moon in July 2013 was on July 8 at 07:14 Universal Time ( The crescent was first visible to the naked eye around July 10, which is taken as Day 1 of the lunar month. Day 5 would then be on July 14. This picture was captured from the U.S. Naval Observatory  What the moon looks like now page on July 14, 02:50 UTC.
Thomas Oswald Cockayne (Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, Volume 3, 1886, p. 18) translates wyrtgælstre simply as “herborist.” Gratten and Singer provide a more sinister translation of wyrtgælstre as “restraineress with herbs” or “spell binderess” (p. 38 of Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine). In their Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Bosworth and Toller define the term as “A woman who uses herbs for charms”, and Stephen Pollington offers “wort charmer” as a translation (Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, p. 54).

The 11th century writer of the lunarium made it clear that it was a poor fate to be a wyrtgælstre. I wondered whether the word may have had a more favorable connotation before the re-introduction of Christianity to England, when singing to the herbs to produce the desired medicinal or other effect may have been a sought-after skill. Unfortunately, we have no written record to answer this question one way or another. I considered calling the blog Wyrtgælstre to rehabilitate the term in modern times, but the word’s meaning and pronunciation are unfamiliar today. I compromised by retaining the first part (wyrt), which has at least some familiarity today in its wort form, and changing the second part to something more modern. I chose wizard as a replacement for gælstre, in part for the alliteration and in part because wizard has a more general meaning than other possibilities. The term is used not just for sorcerers and magicians with pointy hats, but also to indicate skill in some field, such as a math wizard. By exploring plant lore and uses, we may all become more like plant wizards or wyrt wizards.

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