Nine Herbs, Nine Worlds

background information on the charm

The original charm of the Nine Sacred Herbs that Woden discovered is listed in an 11th century manuscript called the Lacnunga. By the time I ran across it, I already had an herb garden. Reading it struck me with the force of a blow; I knew that this would be an important part of my practice, if I could just find the herbs! Fortunately, as I counted them off, I realized that I wouldn't have to be acquiring them. They had already found me.

Mugwort was the first of the Nine that I read about. Since I'm not allowed, by the order of the spirits that I work with, to use techniques from cultures other than the ones they specify, I'm always looking for European or Eurasian alternatives to practices that most Americans have borrowed from Native American practices. Smudging with white sagebrush was one of those practices, but when I discovered Mugwort as the first of the sacred herbs, I knew that this was my alternative. For years, the Mugwort plant in my garden had been spreading itself everywhere; I had to continually hack back and pull up new Mugwort seedlings. In my garden, it grew six feet tall. "This is all very nice," I would say as I looked at its enormous silvery bushiness, "but what do I do with all of it?" Once I discovered its purpose, I knew why it had been growing there in abundance, waiting for me to figure it out.

Some of the other herbs, like Plantain and Nettles, were local weeds that had colonized my garden from the outside. I'd pull them up, and they'd come back again. There were Crabapples on my farm from long before I'd bought it, planted by old Finnish farmers of a century ago. Fennel and Chamomile were annual herbal basics that I planted every year. Watercress had been brought to me in a pot by a friend, who told me that she saw the plant and suddenly knew that it needed to come to my house. At the time, I thanked her and didn't think much of it; later I was to remember that with some wonder.

There is some argument over the last two herbs. One is generally translated as "Chervil", but the chervil that we use today in gourmet cooking is actually French chervil, and it is a later development. The plant that the English people knew as Chervil in the 11th century is occasionally still called "British chervil", but we generally know it as Sweet Cicely. Like Fennel, it is slightly licorice-flavored, and its greatest bounty are its seeds. Since the two are considered to be a pair, it makes sense that they would taste similar and both be seed plants as well as foliage plants. Besides, I had a huge clump of it in my garden.

The last herb is referred to as "atterlothe" in the song of the Nine Herbs, and there is a huge amount of disagreement on what it refers to. Some suggestions have been betony, bistort, cock's spur grass, sainfoin, belladonna, or viper's bugloss. Rather than just be stumped like everyone else, I resorted to divination; I lined up all the possibilities and asked my runes if one of them was correct, and if so, which one. The runes told me that it was viper's bugloss. I have no reason to doubt them, and there's no more conclusive proof for any of the others.

I'd read about viper's bugloss, but I didn't know what it looked like, so I looked it up first in my herb books and then in a wildflower book....Oh. So that's the name of that big prickly blue-flowered plant that grew up in the middle of my garden. Well, there we were: nine herbs already on the property and ready to be used. Now I just had to figure out what they were good for. I looked up folk research on their magical uses and listed them, but except for Mugwort, I had no clue on their shamanic uses. So I did it the old-fashioned way; I sat with the plant and let it speak to me. I ingested them, I let them move through my body, I asked them to tell me their stories, and they did. The uses that I have listed here are the results of that communication with these nine powerful plant spirits.

In the pages that follow, I've listed their traditional medicinal, magical, and household uses, as well as the information that I gleaned from their spirits. I have also listed my somewhat-trimmed version of the song. Part of what was strongly communicated to me when I read it was that I should learn to sing it properly, even though there was no music left to reference. So I studied the Old English words slowly, over a period of months, and a tune began to form behind them line by line. It didn't come from me, it came through me, bit by bit. I don't know how close it is to the original, but it is acceptable to the Gods, and that's what counts.

I did move the words around a bit, to make it more coherent. The song itself reads like something remembered from an oral tradition, and scribbled down without quite knowing all the lines. Parts of it seem to be moved out of place; I took the liberty of moving them back into a more coherent form. The poem calls three of the four directions at the end, and stops at a half-line; I added in the fourth one, which nicely fills out the line.

I also cut the line about Christ watching over things, near the end. I didn't do this out of any animosity towards Christianity, although it does seem a bit inappropriate as Woden is the main star deity of this poem. However, the Christ line is the only line in the whole song that is only one line long. It has no alliteration, and it is not connected to the lines before or after it, while they are connected to each other. It looks jarringly like someone stuck it in randomly during the writing-down process, in order to put a little bit of Christianity into a pagan charm, perhaps to make nice with the authorities. It doesn't feel like it belongs there, and when it is cut, the verse flows better.

I really would have preferred to learn the song in modern English, but as I tried to sing it that way, I realized that it wasn't going to work. Part of the power of charms in the old Germanic-descended languages is in their alliteration, and translating it ruined that, and it just didn't have the same power. When I painstakingly began to learn it in Old English, it revealed its beauty and power to me. If you decide to try it in the old tongue, don't be discouraged. The pronunciations aren't as hard as they look, and you don't have to get your accent perfect in order for the alliteration to work. English departments in local colleges may have someone who might be able to help with pronunciations as well.

According to the charm, one is supposed to sing the song three times over each herb, and then twice at the subject that you're trying to heal, once in each ear. I've found that it's enough to sing the verse that applies to the herb in question three times when you harvest and prepare it. You can also sing that verse when you use the herb by itself in some way; for example, you can sing the Mugwort verse while purifying an area with Mugwort smoke. Of course, the nature of the song is such that singing one verse makes me want to sing the whole thing, and I often do.

You will notice, as you read the entries for the herbs, that like the worlds, their uses line up in complementary pairs with a single center. Mugwort is central, the purifying herb; Viper's Bugloss and Crabapple are like unto the surgeon's knife and the post-surgery healing salve, respectively; "fille and finule", the "mighty two", are for seeing the light and the dark; Watercress and Nettles are for watery shaping and fiery boundaries; and the powers of Chamomile bring you up into the light while those of Plantain take you down into the darkness.