Folk Magic: Verbal Healing Charms

Technically speaking folk magic is the magic(k) practiced by the common folk in numerous cultures all over the world. It comprises numerous methods and applications. Volumes could be, and have been, written about folk magic. Obviously, I'm not going to attempt to examine the whole of it in detail in a single web page article. However, I am briefly going to shine a flashlight at some verbal healing charms of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the English cunning folk.

The small sample of verbal healing magic charms gathered here are used to illuminate a certain type of traditional folk magic to modern Wiccans.

Wicca has had many influences, including some from the traditions of the English cunning folk.

The Pennsyvania Dutch practice of Pow-wow represents a separate tradition, which grew up in the USA, independently of Wicca. However, both the traditions of English cunning folk and Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-wow practitioners do stem from a common source. The Pennsylvania Dutch came from the culture in the Germanic or Norse areas, and as such have Norse/Germanic remnants. Many of the English cunning folk had Saxon roots, which were likewise derived from Norse/Germanic culture.

Pennsylvania Dutch Healing

Most Pow-wow doctors specialize by healing through the use of verbal charms, also called "sympathetic words." Quickly glancing through the sundry charms collected here will illustrate that Pow-wow practice has a strong Christian element. Indeed, many Pow-wow practitioners, also known as braucherei, are staunch Christians who do not view what they do as witchcraft or magic. John George Hohman, who wrote The Long Lost Friend, was a Roman Catholic. Hohman believed in the power of Christian healing and subtitled the first English translation of Der Lang Verborgene Freund as "a True and Christian information for Every Body."

For example, the second charm to staunch bleeding is from Ezekiel 16:6. Interestingly, one of the charms to get rid of a wen used lunar symbolism, instead of biblical symbolism, and one of the charms to heal a sore seemed to invoke the aid of the dead.

Charms can be employed for a variety of healing purposes.

"Wild-fire" is a type of rash which is a severe form of heat rash or miliaria, specifically miliaria profunda. The affected areas becomes pink in color. It is a local inflammatory reaction, which causes large, firm lesions, resembling goose bumps. The rash has been commonly called "wild-fire," due to its tendency to spread very fast and occur at the same body part repeatedly. Other common names include "heat rash," "prickly heat," and "summer rash," although these terms may be applied to other forms of miliaria as well. Prevention includes avoiding excessive clothing, friction from clothing, excesssive soap and contact of the skin with irritants. Clothing ought to include shirts/blouses made of breathable fabrics, such as cotton. Non-medical treaments also include taking frequent cool showers. No directions were provided in Hohman's little healing book. Therefore, I intend to use this charm while taking a cool shower or applying a modern, nonprescription anti-inflammatory cream, such as hydrocortisone.

The German term Drache was orginally translated as "dragon" in the 1924 English version. Literally, it does mean "dragon," however, Daniel Harms in Johann George Hohman, The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoir, the Complete Annotated Edition edited by Daniel Harms, 2012 brought up an intriguing piece of knowledge regarding the term's use in this charm. According to Harms, "The term 'Drache,' among the Pennsylvania Dutch, is also a term applied to the will-o'-the wisp, the mysterious lights seen in the swamp." See end note 197 on p. 247. In end note 199, Harms stated that skeated meant "vanished." In end note 200, Harms wrote, "This is an example of a charm tradition known from Saxony and Thuringia, in which a disease and a dragon appear over a stream. In many versions, the dragon drowns and the disease likewise vanishes." See end note 200 on p. 247.

Thus, this charm is my own English version of the old verbal healing charm found in the English version of The Long Lost Friend. I recreated this healing charm using Harm's information above. The orginal English translation had a "dragon" flying "over a wagon." This imagery of a wagon in the charm never made any sense to me, unlike the imagery involving water. [I am delighted to have recently come across Harm's excellent version with his wonderfully informative annotations.]

This was the orginal version in German which Harms provided:

Rothlaufen und der Drach' flogen mit einander über den Bach. Das Rothlaufen vergant; der Drach' verschwand.
The Pennsylvania Dutch dialect could possibly be translated as "Roth-running ["roth," a form of "rot" = red/redness? "running"/fast-spreading] and the Drach ["dragon-light-over-water"] flew with each other over the stream. The Roth-running vergant [?], the Drach vanished.

Although I have no training as a Pow-wow doctor or a Pennsylvania Dutch braucher, I have used that last healing charm, but it was a different version. There are many versions of this charm, which are also found throughout the British Isles. For example, sometimes these three come from the west rather than the east. Sometimes these "three" are "three spirits," or "three virgins" or "three women." This type of charm mentioning "three women" or "three ladies," is one of the oldest recorded in the Christian era--reportedly there is a similar charm in the writings of Marcellus of Bordeaux (circa 400 ce). In German, this charm type is known among folklorists as the "Drei Frauen," "Dreifrauen," or "Drei Jungfrauen" charm. Another variant in Latin is known as the "Tres Mariea" or "Tres verges" charm. The version I used was:

There came three women from the East,
One brought fire,
Two brought frost,
Out fire! In frost!
Out fire! In frost!
In an English version of this charm, the burned area must be emersed in cold water while the charm is recited. When the injured area is removed from the water, it is blown on three times.

Basic first aid teaches that in the case of a burn the injured area should be immersed in cold water immediately. In the case of a small first degree burn, this treatment is sufficient. In the case of a large first degree burn or a more serious burn, such as second or third degree burn, medical attention must be sought. Nevertheless, as written, the method in this charm is a perfectly good way to treat a first degree burn.

In most cases, Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-wow healing charms or "sympathetic words" have to be recited three times. Usually the sign of the cross is made over the injury with the right thumb three times at the end of each recitation, which means, with the full treatment this gesture is repeated nine times.

Usually the Pow-wow practitioner finishes the charm by reciting, "In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen." If it says at the end of the charm, J. J. J., it means repeat three times, "In Jesus' name, Amen." (Naturally, I never added any appeal to either the Christian Trinity or Jesus when using the "three women" charm. Nevertheless, that practice is definitely part of the Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-wow or braucherei tradition.)

John George Hohman’s The Long Lost Friend is a primary source for many such charms. However, Pow-wow doctors also keep their own "papers” with sympathetic words or other charms they use.

English Healing Charms from the British Isles

The Middle English term, charme, like the Latin caramen, indicated that the healing worked primarily or exclusively by the method of the spoken word rather than by the application of botanicals. Interestingly, the early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts also referred to galdor, which was a type of spoken charm. For example, a verbal charm to get rid of parasitic worms was called a wyrmgealdor (wormcharm). Other Anglo-Saxon healing charms also contained directions which stated "sing this gebede." Gebede was the Old English word for prayer.

The English cunning folk often recited verbal healing charms, but accompanied them with the use of other charms to reinforce the magical virtue of each. One 15th century charm, which invoked St. George, invoked his protection from illness by nightmares. It could be recited. It could also be written, like the Pennsylvania Dutch himmels-briefs, and hung over a stable door, over a horse, or over one's own bed. If it was written and hung up, a flintstone with a natural hole through it was hung up with it.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
Seynt Jorge, our ladys knygt,
He walked day, he walked nyght,
Till that he fownde that fowle wyght;
And when he her fownde
He her beat and her bownde,
Till trwly ther her trowthe sche plyght
That sche sholde not come be night
With-inne vij road of londe space
Ther as Seynt Jeorge i-namyd was.
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Another version of this was given by Reginald Scot.

S. George, S. George, our ladies knight,
He walkt by daie, so did he by night.
Untill such time as he her found,
He hire beat and he hir bound,
Untill hir troth she to him plight,
She would not come to hir that night.

It ought to be noted that in English folklore, a stone with a natural hole was often called a hagstone. In Scotish lore, it was known as a mare-stone. Such a stone was used to protect against the nightmare spirit or hag, which is the same fowle wyght St. George bound. Hence the use of the flintstone with a natural hole in it along with this verbal charm is a classic example of "reinforcement."

There were several English charms for staunching bleeding. One popular charm to staunch bleeding was to quote Ezekiel 16:6 from the King James bible, which paralleled a cure used by the Pennsylvania Dutch practitioners. Another from the British Isles was a Scotish cure to stop bleeding.

The water's mud
And runs aflood
And so does thy blood
God bade it stand and so it did
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, stand blood!
A toad-stone, which was a smooth, black, oval stone, was to be held upon the injured person while the above charm was recited to reinforce the virtue of the charm.

A 13th century charm used in Catholic England to stop blood involved singing thrice the Latin Paternoster.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur Nomen tuum; adveniat regnum tuum; fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra; panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris; et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen

Longinus miles lancea ponxit Dominum et nestitit songuis et recessit dolor.

Then the charm, mentioning Longinus, was recited. Presumably, someone applied pressure to the wound as the prayers were recited. The Latin phrase below the Latin Paternoster is some what imperfect Latin--as was not uncommon in medieval Latin charms. It could possibly be translated as "Longinus, the soldier with the spear, pierced the Lord, demanding the blood and the sorrow went away."

This phrase is a Bibical reference to John 19:34 in one of the soldiers, later dubbed "Longinus," stabed Jesus on the cross with a lance or spear, piercing him in the "side," to establish that he had definitely was already dead. From this wound issued both blood and water. The verbal healing charms involving this biblical incident are refered as "Blood and Water" (in German Blut und Wasser) charms or "Longinus" charms. These charms were used in many parts of Catholic Europe and were often applied to staunch excessive bleeding.

In 1885, Ellen Emma Guthrie collected a Scottish charm from Shetland to heal ringworm.

For three successive mornings before breakfast, the person afflicted with ringworm applies the cure (medicine) to the part afflicted while reciting the words:

Ringworm! Ringworm red!
Never mayest thou either speed or spread,
But, aye, grow less and less,
And die away among the aise [ashes].
S/he also takes a pinch ash, held between the forefinger and casts it into the hearth-fire. Ellen Emma Guthrie, Scottish customs, local and general, (1885) p.200. [A 21st century interpretation could allow for applying the prescription medicine according to the physician's orders while reciting the words, and then burning a small slip of paper with a red circle drawn on it in candle flame.]

Another version, from Galloway, Scotland, was collected by Robert Chambers in 1842:

Ringworm, ringworm roun',
I wish ye may neither spread nor spring,
But, aye, grow less and less,
Til ye fa' li' i' 'e ase [ash] and burn!

For a cure of toothache, one of the 19th century cunning folk might suggest ginger or oil of clove reinforced with this verbal charm:

Jesu Christ, for Mary's sake,
Take away the Tooth-ach
The words were written on three separate scraps of paper. As the words were recited, each scrap was burned.

The invocation of the "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," accompanied almost every form of verbal charm when spoken over someone.

In the 19th century, verbal charms might also be written on pieces of paper, folded a prescribed number of times, and worn in a little charm bag on one's person like the Pennsylvania Dutch himmels-briefs were. Kate M'Aulay sold such a charm against the toothache to a shepherd in 1855.

The paper, which was folded eight times, said:

Petter was Laying and his head upon a marrable ston weping and Christ Came by and said what else [ails] thou Petter Petter answered and sad Lord god my twoth Raise thou Petter and bee healed and whosoever shall carry these Lines in my name shall never feel the twothick. Kett McAulay.

There were numerous versions of this toothache charm involving St. Peter all over the British Isles.

This 18th century Latin charm was also carried against the "euel of aking of teth" (evil of aching teeth) in the British Isles. Though it was written in Latin instead of English, I present it here for purposes of comparrison to the one sold by Kate M'Aulay in the 19th century. The imagery is the same in both the 18th century and 19th century versions. Both recount a non-biblical Christian tale of Saint Peter's toothache being healed by Jesus. Both versions state that if the text is written down and carried, whoever carries it will be protected from or free of toothaches.

I believe that since the charm was written and carried, the act of carring it was another type of reinforcement in order to reinforce the effectiveness of the words.

Though I have not read any folklorist suggesting that theory, my personal opinion involving the 18th century charm version is that before the written charm was first handed to the toothache sufferer, it was supposed to be read over him/her. The reason I have this theory is that the words in caps at the end of the charm were abbreviated instructions on how to recite it aloud.

The cross symbol + indicated the speaker should perform the sign of the cross while saying "AGIOS" thrice. The word, "PATER," indicated to recite one Our Father. The word, "AUE," indicated to recite one Hail Mary. The word, "CREDO," indicated to recite one Apostle's Creed.

I am not sure what "TORAX CALAMITE. TORAX RUBEE. TORAX LIQUIDE. OMNES" was intended to mean, but if I was to hazard a wild guess, I would speculate it means something like, "Stop calamity. Stop red. Stop liquid to all gums."

Aue rex noster. Aue spes nostra. Aue salus nostra.
Adoramus te christe et benedicimus tibi.
Dominus noster iesus christus noster omnipotens
super mare sedebat. Et Petrus tristis ante eum erat.
Et dixit Dominus Petro, Quare tristis es?
Respondit Petrus et dixit, Domine dentes mei dolent.
Tum Dominus ait, Adiuro te migranea et maligna per patrem
et filium et spiritum sanctum et per duodecim apostolos
et quatuor euuangelistas, Marcum, Matheum, Lucam, et
Johannem, ut non habeas potestatem nocere N[omen] hoc breve
portanti. + AGIOS + AGIOS + AGIOS + PATER . AUE . CREDO.
GUMME. (B. L. Sloane 2457, fol. 19v)

[translation to modern English]
Hail our King. Hail our Hope. Hail our Salvation [health/wellbeing]. We adore you Christ and we bless you. Our Lord, Our Jesus Christ, Our Almighty was sitting upon the sea. And Peter, sad, was before him. And the Lord said to Peter, Why are you sad? Peter answered and said, Lord, my teeth hurt. Then the Lord said, I adjure you ache and evil through the Father and Son and Holy Spirit and through the twelve apostles and four evangelists, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, that you not have the power to harm N. [name] who is carrying this narrative. + HOLY + HOLY + HOLY + FATHER. HAIL. I BELIEVE. TORAX CALAMITE. TORAX RUBEE. TORAX LIQUIDE. ALL GUMS.

In Sommersetshire, this verbal charm was likewise written down on a piece of paper:
Peter sat on a marble stone
When by here Jesus came aloan
"Peter what makes you for to quake?"
"Lord Jesus, it is the toothacke."
"Rise Peter, and be heled."

Yet, not all healing spells combined charms to reinforce each other. An old English cure for cramps, including menstral cramps, simply used a verbal charm:

Cramp, be thou painless,
As Our Lady was sinless,
When she bore Jesus.
Another old English healing spell for a child with a flemmy chest, marked by coughing and noisy breathing, used lunar imagery, which is similar to the Pennsylvania Dutch "sympathetic words" to cause a wen to disappear.

Take the child out to face the thin, crescent waxing moon. Pat or rub the chest with your hand while looking at the moon and saying:

What I see, may it increase,
What I feel, may it decrease,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Healing charms pass with travelers from one culture to another, like other folklore. There is a British verbal charm which is a Shetland cure for burns. The verse is very similar to one of the Pennsylvania Dutch "sympathetic words" which was used to heal a pernicious sore.

Here comes I to cure a burnt sore.
If the dead knew what the living endure,
The burnt sore would burn no more.

This charm was recited thrice over the affected area. However, the accompanying gestures in the Shetland burn cure are more appropriate to a burn. Instead of making the sign of the cross three times at the end of each recitation, the affected area was gently blown on thrice.

Old German Healing Charm

There is an old German healing charm found in Northern Germany that was used for sprains, which shows the similarity between the English cunning folk charms and the Dutch Pow-wow charms.

Then charmed Woden
As well he knew how
For bone sprain
For blood sprain
Bone to bone
Blood to blood
Limb to limbs
As though they were glued.

--10th century manuscript found in Saxony

This English-language charm is a loose translation of one of the Merseburg Incantations, originally recorded in Old High German in a 9th or 10th century manuscript. These two incantations are the only known examples of Germanic Pagan belief preserved in the Old High German language. The Merseburg Incantations were discovered by Georg Waitz in 1841. The theological manuscript containing the two charms had been stored in the library of the cathedral chapter of Merseburg. (Quite interestingly, there are examples of similar charms against sprains thoughout the British Isles--a subject worthy of examination elsewhere. See Charm of the Sprain.)

In any case, I found this translation in Thompson's Magic and Healing (1989) which I purchased in 1990. In December 1991, I fell and injured my left wrist. An x-ray revealed no broken bones, but I had banged it up pretty good. My doctor wrapped it up in an ace bandage, which I could take off for washing, but should re-wrap afterwards. He gave me a prescription of co-tylenol and told me to keep it elevated for about three weeks. After my nightly shower, when I would re-wrap the injured wrist, I would recite this charm. I don't know that it made me heal any faster, but I still used this particular version anyway. The charm provided comfort--I suppose--in that it allowed me to actively participate in my body's natural healing process.

My particular story is not unique. Wiccans often avail themselves of conventional medicine and advice from medical professionals while using alternate healing methods too. It is another classic case of reinforcement. In my case, the healing charm mentioning Woden reinforced the healing capabilities of conventional medicine.

I hope these few examples of verbal healing charms have illuminated some aspects of this traditional folk magic.

Further reading:

Robert Chambers, Popular rhymes, fireside stories, and amusements, of Scotland, 1842.

John George Hohman, The Long Lost Friend; a Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as well as Animals, 1846, 1856. This same information was orginally published in German under the title, Der Lange Verborgene Freund, which meant "The Long-Hidden Friend." In late 19th century reprints, it was titled, Pow-Wows, or The Long Lost Friend. The term, "Pow-Wow" appeared nowhere in the text. (John or Johann George Hohman and his wife Catherine immigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1802 and settled near Reading. He printed and sold chapbooks, books, and broadsides. He was a Roman Catholic German.)

John George Hohman, The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoir, the Complete Annotated Edition edited by Daniel Harms, 2012. Originally published in 1820 near Reading, Pennsylvania, under the German title Der Lange Verborgene Freund, this text was the work of immigrant John or Johann George Hohman. This 2012 version is a SPECIAL EDITION of Hohman's work. The 2012 version was edited and annotated by magic scholar Daniel Harms and includes both the German text from 1820 as well as later texts and a vast hoard of information on the subject. I urge people to buy this 2012 version.

G. F. Northhall, English Folk Rhymes: A Collection of Traditional Verses Relating to Places and Persons, Customs, Superstition, Etc., 1982.

C. J. S. Thompson, Magic and Healing, The History and Folklore of magical Healing Practices From Herb-lore and Incantations to Rings and Precious Stones 1947. Reprint, 1973, 1989. The 1989 edition was published by Bell Publishing Company, distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.

Carl Lindhl, John McNamara, John Lindow, Medieval Folklore, A Guide to Myth, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, 2000, 2002.

Lee R. Gandee, Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister, 1971.

Silver RavenWolf, American Folk Magick: Charms, Spells, and Herbals, 1998, originally published as HexCraft: Dutch Country Pow Wow Magick, 1995. The charms recorded in RavenWolf's book are heavily Wiccan-ized. I'd advise anyone reading her book to also get a copy of Hohman's The Long Lost Friend.

Merlyn, of Connections, Gardnerian Wicca and American Folk Magic ,

I've noticed whenever I bring up Pow-wow or and Pennsylvania Dutch Healing Charms, someone will ask about the Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs. Therefore, I have included a short article about them on this Wicca website--even though they have no connection to Wicca.

Copyright 2008, 2013, 2014 Myth Woodling. Most of the information in this article was collected in snippets into my personal Common Day Books during the 1990's. I have reassembled these snippets into a coherent order and attempted to backtrack to several of my original sources, which are included in the further reading list above. The Pennsylvania Dutch healing charms recorded here are not the same--precisely--as in the English version of Hohman's The Long Lost Friend. That is because if one reads enough folklore articles, one can find examples taken from the "papers" of other Pow-wow practitioners. For example, I have a note in my Common Day Book that attributed the "To heal a sore" charm to the "papers" of a Pow-wow practitioner named David Shull. (And, no, I don't remember where I got that snippet of information.) I was delighted to find in 2007 another version of the St. George charm against the nightmare spirit in Medieval Folklore. I was equally delighted to find more information in 2013 about Pennsylvania Dutch healing charms in the annotated and edited version of The Long Lost Friend in which Daniel Harms provided illuminating information on a healing charm for wildfire. Both books are listed above in Further Reading.

Charm of the Sprain

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