Anglo-Saxon Druid Wannabe’s – the Case of the Irish Runic Charm

Three Mysterious Rings

I recently started following the work of blogger Dutch Anglo-Saxonist, who combines an enthusiasm for serious Anglo-Saxon scholarship with a keenness for Dr Who, Tolkien and comics which I find extremely refreshing. In one of his recent pieces he discussed the Anglo-Saxon runic rings in the context of the rings in Tokien. On that issue I have nothing to add, but the piece got me interested in the inscriptions. Wikipedia has a good introduction here.

Most interesting are a set of runic inscriptions found on 3 rings probably all dating from the C9th. Two of the rings, the Bramham Moor ring and the Kingmoor ring, have identical inscriptions and a third, the Linstock Castle ring, has an inscription which is very similar, but different enough not to be a copy. Okasha classifies all three rings as intended for men, on the grounds of their diameters.

The inscriptions, converted from the runes to latin script, are as follows:

Bramham Moor Ring
ærkriuflt | kriuriþon | glæstæpontol

Kingmoor Ring
ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpon | tol

Linstock Castle Ring
ery.ri.uf.dol.yri.uri.þol.gles.te.pote.nol

Bob Page’s transcription of the Linstock Castle ring, on which Wikipedia and some others rely, is missing the 6th word “uri”, which is clearly visible in Stephens’ engraving (p.158). Okasha (Elizabeth Okasha, ‘Anglo-Saxon Inscribed Rings‘, Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 34 (2003), 29-45) has the same reading as Stephens. I don’t have access to the relevant page of Page’s book and can’t source a photo to clear this up. Stephens counts 5 rings, but I believe that his 1 and 5 both represent the Kingmoor ring and 2 and 3 are two different reports of the Braham Moore ring. Page also mentions another report of a ring which he believes to be a  variant description of the Linstock Castle ring.

The only difference between the first two rings seems to be related to space saving. On the Kingmoor ring, which has a diameter of 27 mm, the last three letters (TOL) are incised on the inside of the ring. On the Bramham Moor ring, which is a bit bigger at 29 mm, the entire inscription is on on the exterior, but the 4th- and 3rd-last letters (NT) are joined in a bind-rune to save space. The Linstock Castle ring, 29 mm in diameter, has the entire inscription on the exterior.

The differences are small but significant. All occurrences of the rune |Æ| are replaced by |E| on the Linstock Castle ring and all occurrences of the rune |K| are replaced by |Y|. It should be noted that the shapes of the |K| and |Y| runes are somewhat similar, but that they appear to be clearly enough inscribed in all 3 rings that the difference could not simply be due to accidental botched carving of these exemplars.

These transformations point to two separate levels of transmission/copying. The change from |Æ| to |E| must have taken place during manuscript copying in latin script, although it is possible there may also have been some degree of oral transmission. On the other hand, the replacement of |K| by |Y| must have occurred in the process of copying one runic inscription to another.

The Linstock Castle inscription is broken up into short words, while the Braham Moor Ring is broken into longer groups. If we break the Linstock Castle inscription at the equivalent breaks in the Bramham Moor inscription, leaving the word breaks, the result is a verse with end-rhymes.

ery ri uf dol
yri uri þol
gles te pote nol

While this is probably significant, and points to a charm, there are reasons to suspect that the apparent word-breaks in the Linstock Castle ring inscription do not reflect any semantic groupings.

The Leechbook Charm

This is because the combination ‘ærkriu’ in the other two inscriptions corresponds to a sequence in a charm in Bald’s Leechbook, which contains the following charm. Note the sequence “ærcrio” in the last line.

æȝryn. thon. struth. fola
arȝrenn. tart. struth. on. tria
enn. piath. hathu. morfana. on hæl
+ara. carn. leou. ȝroth. weorn .lll.
ffil. crondi. ƿ. |X|. mro cron.
ærcrio. ermio. aeR. leNO.

This passage have been identified as corrupt Old Irish. Meroney ( Howard Meroney, Irish in the Old English Charms Speculum, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1945), 172-182) attempted a translation:

Irish
ær greann. tonn. sruth. fola
ær greann. tart. struth. on. ?.
?. ?. ?. mor-?. onn ail
+ara. carn. leou. groth. fern.
fil. crond i. f[ern]. ?. mro cron.
ær crio. ?. ær. leunu.

He takes 111 to be the Ogham letter with the name wern/fern, meaning alder. ƿ is the equivalent AS rune, ‘wynn’.

Translation
Against irritation of skin stream of blood
Against dry irritation such a stream …
… big-… ashtree stone
Upon his cairn with them curds, alder
(that is the tree) W ? grinding-stone. Prohibition
against bleeding … for afflictions

Not a very satisfactory rendition, but good enough in my view to confirm that the original was indeed Irish.

The correspondence between “ær crio”, meaning “against bleeding” and “ærkriu” in the inscriptions on the Bramham Moor and Kingmoor rings is striking and leads to the hypothesis that the inscriptions on the rings are a charm “against bleeding”. Interestingly, Meroney believes that the Leechbook charm actually prescribes bleeding for a skin infection, but the author of the Leechbook thought it was to stop bleeding, to judge from the introductory sentence in Anglo-Saxon.

Getting the Spell Right

If “ærkriu” means “against bleeding”, it follows that:

  • the |K| runes in the BM and KM rings are closer to the original charm than the |Y| runes in the LC ring, meaning that the |Y| can be treated as a transcription error; and
  • the word-breaks in the LC ring do not correspond to the original charm, if ær/er is one word and the next word is kriu/yriu.
  • if kriu is a word in line 1, then it is probably a word in line 2, so the word-breaks are wrong there as well.

Using the text of the BM and KM rings as the base and grouping to allow for ær kriu in line 1 and kriu in line 2, we get

ær kriu flt
kriu ri þon
glæs tæ pon tol

The combination “flt” seems suspect. The corresponding letters on the LC ring are ‘fdol’. Note both sequences have f and l and d is the voiced equivalent of t, but coming before the l instead of after it. The BM/KM pattern lacks a vowel, so the LC version is perhaps to be preferred. Similarly the sequences “pon tol” in BM/KM and “ponte nol” in LC are similar. Both start with “pon”, while “tenol” and “tol” start and end with the same letters. Perhaps the “te” in “tenol” is a repetition of the preceding “te” (“tæ” in BM/KM). In any case, the longer sequence is more likely to be closer to the original.

Lastly, we have the issue of end-rhymes. But if this is some kind of Irish, the Irish system of end-rhymes only required vowels to be the same, not consonants, so þon and nol would already rhyme and there is no reason to prefer “þol” to “þon”.

So our final version of the spell from the three rings is:

ær kriu fdol
kriu ri þon
glæs tæ pon tæ nol

Practical Magic

Whether any more words than “ær kriu” in line one and “kriu” in line two can be traced back to Old Irish originals I very much doubt. But the important thing is that here we have a three-line magic charm against blood loss in the form of nonsense doggerel. While it appears to go back to some charm in Old Irish, it is written in Anglo-Saxon runes, not in Irish Ogham script.

This looks like there was some process at work whereby Irish medical charms were put in writing by Anglo-Saxon monks. Although Meroney believes that the Leechbook texts are evidence of continuing contacts between English and Irish medicine, it seems more likely that this process occurred only in the north during or shortly after the conversion, when the Irish influence was at its highest. In some channels of transmission, these charms were subsequently reduced to doggerel by generations of copyists who had no idea what they meant. In other channels, such as those which gave rise to the Leechbook, the texts retained some of their original form, perhaps with the assistance of bilingual clerics.

At a later stage various people started to produce wearable charms against bleeding to death in the form of rings and rendered the old charms in runic script to enhance their effectiveness and marketability. It seems likely from the texts that there was a close link between the producers of the Bramham Moor and Kingmoor rings, while the Linstock Castle ring was produced by someone at a greater remove.

Presumably, as well as being used on charm rings, such charms were used orally when ministering to injured persons. In that case, here we have a real Anglo-Saxon spell against bleeding to death if you get hit by an arrow or spear or cut by a sword. It is short enough to be recited and rhymes at the end of the lines, making it easier to remember. The fact that no one knew what it meant was likely part of its power, similar to the modern magician’s use of “abracadabra”, which is very ancient and is probably a corruption of a Hebrew sacred formula (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraxas#Hebrew).

You might want to print it out and put it in your wallet, so that next time you are walking down the street and someone is shot right in front of you, you can try it out. Just be sure to call an ambulance first!

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