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Remnants of Seiðr: Brauche, Charms and Incantations in the German Diasporas
Brauche magic as survival of seidhr. Some arguments are better than others, but its an interesting subject. On this device I cannot copy and paste from the text.
The Norse magic practice known as Seiðr is attested to in fragmentary sources throughout Scandinavia. Understood as both a written and spoken magic system, Seiðr (or ‘Seidhr’) was used in pre-Christian Germanic societies in the form of charms and incantations to perform the arts of healing, divination, shape-shifting, and the alteration of fate.
Having likely existed in Germanic tribes as early as prehistory, Seidhr is most prominently attested to in numerous written accounts in the Icelandic literary corpus. There is also evidence of this magic practice existing outside of Scandinavia, such as in the numerous retellings of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.
This indicates that Seidhr existed not only in Scandinavia, but on the European mainland among the continental Germanic tribes of the Migration Period as well.
This paper will shed light on the vestiges of Seidhr that have survived the centuries through oral tradition among the Black Sea-, Volga-, and Pennsylvania-German cultural diasporas of the Americas in the form of folk healing arts. These separate and distinct cultural groups, having brought ancestral practices with them, preserved a system of healing magic called “Brauche” as charms and incantations that contain pre-Christian elements.
To establish Brauche’s connection with antiquity, a summary of the history of Germanic magic practice will be provided. The summary will focus on its marginalization on the European mainland during the Conversion Era to Christianity.
Then, this paper will cite how the practice is thought to have been allowed to continue in an altered form. Next, three themes will be presented that establish Brauche’s connection to pre-Christian practice; the appealing to divine entities, the presence of the three Norns of Fate, and the observance of the phases of the moon.
Following this, several examples of Brauche incantations from each of these diasporas that exhibit these themes will be presented. [...]
Historically, Germanic magical practices were not always well received by the strictly pious. In 9th century Western Europe, the missionary efforts of St. Boniface, Charles Martel, and Charlemagne would see several centuries of forceful conversion that would culminate in a harsh set of laws seeking the death of any German tribespeople who still practiced the old rites of sacrificing at wellsprings, the performing of incantations, and observances surrounding the eclipsing of the moon.1
Despite these laws, it is theorized that pre-Christian customs continued among the Heathen Saxons to such a degree that the laws were later relaxed by allowing practices that the church could not eliminate.2
The perseverance of cultural customs among the Germanic peoples is not surprising; after all, their staying power is shown in the continued popularity of Germanic epic myths and legends that date back to the Migration Period, such as the stories of Sigurd and Sigmund in the Poetic Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs and Das Nibelungenlied.
Predictably, we also find a 9th century Old Saxon epic called the Heliand, a legend that served as a conversion tool by transferring the Heathen cosmology onto a Christian one.3 In the later 13th century Prose Edda, Jesus Christ is also listed as an earlier poetic kenning to represent the wellspring of the Norns.4
Evidence of Pre-Christian cultural practices did not just survive in ancient literature. Among German immigrants who migrated to the Americas, there exist folk-healing practices that are called “Braucherei” (or Powwow) by the Pennsylvania Germans5 and “Brauche” by the Volga6 and Black Sea Germans7 from Russia. These practices contain references to pre-Christian religion.
Considered a closely-guarded tradition among its practitioners, Brauche preserved charms that call upon young maidens and divine entities to aid in curing a wide assortment of ailments. Dr. Don Yoder, a scholar of religious studies and German ‘folklife’8 from Pennsylvania, has extensively studied Pennsylvania German Braucherei and its history.
In his research, he discovered that some variants of these charms were preserved in 18th century (and earlier) texts from Germany such as the Romanusbüchlein and Albertus Magnus Handworterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens.9
Many charms outside of Dr. Yoder’s work, however, have only recently been recorded. These other charms were found in oral tradition among the descendants of these separate German diaspora groups, particularly among the Black Sea Germans from Russia.
In Brauche in general, we find three prominent themes that can be traced back to earlier Germanic magic practices:
- The first is the divine intervention that would be received in appealing to entities for favours in healing work.
- The second is the theme of three Norns of Fate as judges10 who gauge the length of human lives as represented by strands.11
- The third theme is the correct observance of the states of the moon and their influence on magic work;12 a practice so significant to ancient peoples that the eclipse of the moon was vitally important to observe.13
One particular Norse example that involves divine intervention can be found in the fourth spell of the Hávamál in the Poetic Edda, where the god Odin claims to know a charm to break free from fetters.14 Interestingly, this verse correlates with a later Germanic charm found in a 15th century manuscript in Germany, called the First Merseberg Charm.15 This charm is one of only a few Germanic charms known that make direct reference to Heathen deities, and reads in English as follows:
Once sat women, they sat here and there;
Some fastened bonds; some impeded an army,
Some unravelled fetters,
Escape the bonds, flee the enemy!16
Examples of divine intervention occur most strongly in Pennsylvania German culture. These examples find Christian entities traversing across mountains, land, and sea to perform remedies and to cure ailments. In one such example, there is an appeal to the Virgin Mary:
Mother Mary went over the land
She carries two cups in her right hand:
One is full of blood, the other full of water,
Blood stay, water go.17
Dr. Shirley Fisher Arends, historian, linguist, and German expert who is the granddaughter of Dakota pioneers, recorded many charms and incantations that survived among individuals in her community.18 Her grandmother was a well-known practitioner of Brauche.19
One particular charm recorded by her, called “Darmgichter,” cites three virgins in the treatment of children with intestinal convulsions. The charm translates from the Central Dakota German dialect into English as follows:
There are three virgins
Standing on the sand
They have the entrails
In their hand
One to the right
And the other to the left
And the other straight ahead.
God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost.20
This verse shares a striking resemblance to a passage from the Poetic Edda in which the Norns of Fate make a prophecy for the legendary hero Helgi Hundingsbani;
Night fell on the estate, then came the Norns
Those who shaped fate for the Prince; (…)
They plied very strongly the strand of fate (…)
They prepared the golden threads
And fastened it in the middle under the moon’s hall.
East and west they concealed its ends,
The prince possessed all the lands between;
Neri’s kinswoman to the north
Threw one fastening; she said it would hold forever.21
Dr. Arends notes many further similarities with the Norns of the Poetic Edda, speculating that in the Black Sea German charm, the virgins standing in the sand are possibly the Norns of Fate performing magic on a beach in sight of the moon and its influence on the tides.22
There is also a parallel to this in the Poetic Edda in the poem of Volund where three young creatures of fate, described as maidens,23 land on a lake shore to rest and spin linen.24 In many Brauche verses, these maidens are described in the original German as ‘Jungfrauen’ for these purposes.
Another charm to treat eye disease, recorded among the Volga Germans25 and translated into English by German Language Professor Karin James at the University of Manitoba,26 reads as follows:
Three beautiful maidens
Went walking through a forest.
The first saw half the moon,
The second saw half the day,
The third blew the Fur from the eye.
In the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.27
The reference to the moon in these verses is not unique. The moon can be found in the Brauche charms of all three diasporas as an important component of a charm’s successful use.
Moon observance is further attested to extensively in Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, in which he discusses the importance of the waxing and waning of the moon in spell work;
May what I see increase,
And what I suffer cease.28
In a Brauche verse among the Black Sea Germans of the Dakotas, a similar version is found that can only be performed during the waxing of a new moon:29
May what I see increase
And what I grasp decrease.
God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost.30
This observance is also found among the Volga Germans in a charm to treat ulcers:
What I see, increases
What I have under my five fingers, decreases.
In the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.31
In these charms, it is understood that the Brauche practitioner is a medium for ‘sending’ the patient’s illness away with the waxing moon32 in what is reminiscent of a banned Heathen practice from Charlemagne’s laws called “Triumph Moon!”33
It is also noted that Brauchers are almost always women,34 and this is likewise reminiscent of a banned observance where it is perceived that women command the moon and are able to control the hearts of men.35
In 1915, Dr. Edwin Fogel collected countless folk customs and observances of the Pennsylvania Germans for the preservation of their culture. In his primary source work Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans, he recorded his community’s customs in part to prevent their appropriation by any who may exaggerate their practices.36 Among these folk customs there are numerous accounts of moon observance.37
Dr. Fogel also discusses the correlation between Pennsylvania German folk customs and pre-Christian deities.38 He is not the only academic to make this correlation. In 1914, among the Volga Germans, Pastor Eduard Seib discussed this connection by theorizing that in their charms the god Wotan was likely substituted with Jesus, Donar with the Apostle Paul or Prophet Elias, and the goddess Frigg with Mary, mother of god.39
Both Dr. Fogel and Pastor Seib’s analyses are also supported by Jacob Grimm.40 While we cannot ignore the influence that Romantic ideals might have had on the works of
academics of the 19th and 20th centuries, it must be noted that both Dr. Fogel and Pastor Seib’s analyses are in part supported by Dr. Arends’ recent work.
In her research, she states that the references to the Holy Trinity at the end of the charms were likely not originally part of the practice.41 She also notes that the Christian elements were added to protect its practitioners from accusations of witchcraft, and the Black Sea Germans themselves had no knowledge that their practices were in any was influenced or related to pre-Christian cosmology.42
How was German Seidhr able to survive the persecution of the Conversion Era? Rather than being eliminated, persecution appears to have made it adapt instead by replacing the more outright Heathen elements with acceptable Christian ones.
Dr. Timothy Kloberdanz, a professor emeritus in Anthropology from North Dakota State University, is another authority on the practice of Brauche. He cites the enduring faith of its adherents in the Judeo-Christian God from which they believe Brauche stems.43
This is a similar sentiment to Dr. Arends sources44 who felt that it was belief itself that is important.45 It may be that this emphasis on the power of belief as a whole is a persisting feature going back to ancient times and has given Germanic magic practice its endurance through the ages. In addition, Brauche is known to be a closely guarded secret; it was only passed on in confidence from teacher to successor.46 47
Finally, it should be noted that Brauche has always had an important practical utility for helping those in need in an age of premodern medicine, a time when folk medicine and remedies were the only options available. 48
In conclusion, this essay provides just a few cursory examples of the charms and incantations that allude to Brauche’s ancient connection to Seidhr - a connection that calls for further exploration. The repeated references to deities, the presence of three maidens, and the very broad and consistent presence of moon observance makes the connection to Norse Seiðr apparent.
It should also be noted that more charms and incantations might be found among other German diaspora groups in collections,49 the study of which could have a profound impact on our understanding of pre-Christian religious practice among German and Scandinavian peoples.
1 Author Unknown. “Indiculus Superstitionum Et Paganiarum,” Manuscript. Vatican. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 577, 7r, accessed Nov 14, 2016, http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/dig...l_lat_577/0017.
2 Alain Dierkens, “Superstitions, christianisme et paganisme à la fin de l’époque mérovingienne: à propos de l''Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum,” in Magie, sorcellerie, parapsychology, eds. Hervé Hasquin (Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1984), 9-26.
3 G. Ronald Murphy, The Saxon Savior: The Germanic Transformation of the Gospel in the Ninth-Century Heliand, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995), 2-117.
4 Snorri Sturlesson, “Skáldskaparmál,” in The Prose Edda, references to Christ, eds. translated by Jesse L. Byock, (Penguin: Penguin Books Ltd.: 2005), 116.
5 Thomas R.Brendle and Claude Unger, Folk Medicine of the Pennsylvania Germans: the Non-Occult Cures, (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania German Society, 1935), 7-11.
6 Eduard Seib, “Der Wolgadeutsche im Spiegel seines Brauchtums,” in Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland (North Dakota State University: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, 1967/1968), 202-203.
7 Shirley Fisher Arends, The Central Dakota Germans - Their History, Language, and Culture, revision 2016, (Georgetown University Press, 1989), 188.
8 “Don Yoder (1921-2015): The Man Who Put the ‘Life’ in ‘Folklife’,” last modified August 12, 2015. http://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2015/0...fe-in-folklife.
9 Don Yoder, “Hohman and Romanus: Origins and Diffusion of the Pennsylvania German Powwow Manual,” in American Folk Medicine, Wayland Hand, (Berkley: University of California, 1976), 238.
10 Authors Unknown, “The Lay of Fafnir,” in The Poetic Edda, trans. by Carolyn Larrington, (Oxford: Oxford
University Press: 2014), 155.
11 Karen Bek-Pedersen, “The Norns in Old Norse Mythology,” (Dunedin Academic Press: 2011), 123.
12 Jacob Grimm, “Teutonic Mythology Vol II,” translated from the fourth edition by James Steven Stallybrass, (London: George Bell & Sons, York Street, Covent Gardens, 1883), 708. 13 Ibid., 706.
14 Unknown, “Hávamál,” in The Poetic Edda,” trans. by Carolyn Larrington, 155.
15 Bek-Pedersen, “The Norns in Old Norse Mythology,” 148-149.
16 Ibid., 148. Citation translated by Giangrosso (2001, p.112).
17 Ulrich Jahn, “Hexenwesen und Zauberei in Pommern,” p. Herrcke & Lebeling, (Stettin: 1886), 72-73.
18 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 193-215.
19 Ibid., 190-191.
20 Ibid., 196-197.
21 Unknown, “First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani,” in The Poetic Edda, trans. by Carolyn Larrington, 111.
22 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 198.
23 Bek-Pedersen, “The Norns in Old Norse Mythology,” 124.
24 Unknown, “The Poem of Volund,” in The Poetic Edda, trans. by Carolyn Larrington, 98.
25 Seib, “Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland,” 205-208.
26 Karin James, Email. Re: German Translation and citation, Translated from German to English. dated; Nov 17,
27 Seib, “Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland,” 206.
28 Grimm, “Teutonic Mythology Vol. II,” 715.
29 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 191-192, 200.
30 Ibid., 201.
31 Seib, “Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland,” 205.
32 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 196.
33 Unknown, Manuscript. “Indiculus Superstitionum Et Paganiarum,” 7r.
34 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 188.
35 Unknown, Manuscript. “Indiculus Superstitionum Et Paganiarum,” 7r.
36 Fogel, “Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans,” Preface iii.
37 Ibid., 242-244.
38 Fogel, “Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans,” 8-17.
39 Seib, “Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland,” 204.
40 Grimm, “Teutonic Mythology Vol. 1,” 5.
41 Shirley Fisher Arends, Email. Re: Central Dakota Germans, their Folklore and…, 3 November 2016.
42 Shirley Fisher Arends, Email. Re: Central Dakota Germans, their Folklore and…, 26 October 2016.
43 Timothy Kloberdanz, Email. Responses to Questions, dated; 19 November 2016.
44 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 192.
45 Ibid., 217.
46 Fogel, “Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans,” 387.
47 Arends, “The Central Dakota Germans,” 190.
48 Ibid., 215, 222.
49 Timothy Kloberdanz, Email. Responses to Questions, dated; 19 November 2016.
Arends, Shirley Fisher. Email. “Re: Central Dakota Germans, their Folklore and Mythology.”
Arends, Shirley Fisher. “The Central Dakota Germans – Their History, Language, and Culture,” revision 2016, Georgetown University Press, 1989.
Bek-Pedersen, Karen. “The Norns in Old Norse Mythology,” Dunedin Academic Press: 2011.
Brendle, Thomas R., and Claude Unger, “Folk Medicine of the Pennsylvania Germans: the Non-Occult Cures,” Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania German Society, 1935.
Dierkens, Alain. “Superstitions, christianisme et paganisme à la fin de l’époque mérovingienne: à propos del Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum,” In Magie, sorcellerie, parapsychology, by Hervé Hasquin, Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1984.
Fogel, Edwin Miller. “Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans,” Philadelphia: American Germania Press, 1915.
Grimm, Jacob. “Teutonic Mythology Vol II,” translated from the fourth edition by James Steven Stallybrass, London: George Bell & Sons, York Street, Covent Gardens, 1883.
Karin James, Email. “Re: German Translation and citation.” Translated from German to English.
Kloberdanz, Timothy. Email. “Responses to Questions,” dated; 19 November 2016.
Murphy, G. Ronald. “The Saxon Savior: The Germanic Transformation of the Gospel in the Ninth-Century Heliand,” Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.
Seib, Pastor Eduard. “Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland,” in Der Wolgadeutsche im Spiegel seines Brauchtums, North Dakota State University: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, 1967/1968.
Sturlesson, Snorri. “The Prose Edda,” Translated by Jesse L. Byock, Penguin: Penguin Books Ltd.: 2005.
Unknown, Author. “Indiculus Superstitionum Et Paganiarum,” Manuscript. Vatican. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 577, 7r, accessed Nov 14, 2016, http://digi.ub.uniheidelberg.de/digl...l_lat_577/0017.
Unknown, Authors. “The Poetic Edda,” translated by Carolyn Larrington, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2014.
Yoder, Don. “Hohman and Romanus: Origins and Diffusion of the Pennsylvania German Powwow Manual in American Folk Medicine,” Wayland Hand, Los Angeles: University of California, 1976.