Dwarf Fever – An Anglo-Saxon Medical Spell Translated

The following “metrical charm” (so catalogued by Krapp and Dobbie) from the Lacnunga is fascinating, even if not particularly metrical. After some Christian mumbo-jumbo, a jingle recounting a seemingly pagan mythological scenario serves as an incantation to drive away a fever, envisioned as the result of possession by a dwarf. The dwarf has to be rescued by his sister after being ridden off by a benevolent spirit. The sister promises power over fever-producing dwarves by virtue of this charm.

Wið dweorh
Man sceal niman VII lytle oflætan, swylce man mid ofrað, and writan þas naman on ælcre oflætan:
Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martimianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion.
þænne eft þæt galdor, þæt her æfter cweð, man sceal singan, ærest on þæt wynstre eare, þænne on þæt swiðre eare, þænne bufan þæs mannes moldan. And ga þænne an mædenman to and ho hit on his sweoran, and do man swa þry dagas; him bið sona sel.

Her com ingangan, anspildewiht*,
hæfde him his haman on handa, cwæð þæt þu his hæncgest wære,
lege þe his teage an sweoran. Ongunnan him of þæm lande liþan;
sona swa hy of þæm lande coman, þa ongunnan him ða liþu colian.
þa com ingangan deores sweostar;
þa geændade heo and aðas swor
ðæt næfre þis ðæm adlegan derian ne moste,
ne þæm þe þis galdor begytan mihte,
oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cuþe.

Amen. Fiað.

*MS “inspidenwiht”



Against a dwarf:


Take 7 little sacramental wafers, such as one makes offertory with and write these names on each wafer: Maximiaus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martimiaus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion*. Then afterwards one must sing the incantation which is related hereafter, first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then above the crow of the person’s head; and then let a virgin go to him and hang it on his neck and let it be done so for three days; he will soon be better.


Here came walking in a healing spirit
He had his cover in hand, said you were his steed
and he would lay his ropes on your neck. They began to travel out of the land.
As soon as they were out of the land, his limbs began to cool.
Then came walking in the beast’s sister.
Then she interceded and swore oaths
That this might never injure the sick man
Nor him who could obtain this spell
Nor who knew how to chant this spell.


Amen. So be it.

*Apparently the names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Update: For more on the Seven Sleepers, see this recent post by Kate Thomas


The vanishing dwarf

Some commentators claim that we shouldn’t look for a literal dwarf here, as dweorh had simply come to mean “fever”. This is based on other remedies for fever being described as wið dweorh. But here we have a spell which operates by removing a creature which is possessing the patient, so clearly the concept of dwarf-possession was still operative, making these objections spurious.

Who’s afraid of the inspidenwiht (the dwarf of course)

The word inspidenwiht cannot be translated as it stands. Although early readings as inspiderwiht, with a meaning of spider-creature, were debunked at an early stage, the spider still can’t be ruled out.

The second n is written as a correction of a letter which must be l, h or b. Only l is phonologically likely, so inspidelwiht must be considered as an alternative readingto inspidenwiht.

Only one word starting with inspi- is know: inspinn, spindle. We know of a synonym of inspinn, spinel, so it is possible to imagine a word *inspinel, also meaning spindle. An error leading to a change from *inspinel to inspidel is possible. A spindle-creature could certainly be a spider.

The context of the word may be important:

………….her com in
gangan inspidenwiht

It is possible that the second ‘in’ is an error under the influence of the first. It may even be a result of dittography and be simply an erroneous repetition of the first. This would have to have happened in an earlier copy, as the first ‘in’ comes at the end of the line in this copy. If this is the case, then spinelwiht, without in- but still meaning ‘spindle-creature’, i.e. spider, should also be considered. So the spider is still in contention. However there is another possible emendation.

The word anspilde means ‘salutory’. It is possible to imagine a series of errors leading from anspildewiht to inspidelwiht then to the MS form inspidenwiht.

anspilde -> anspidle -> anspidel -> inspidel

The word could have become incomprehensible at stage 2 or 3, making emendation from anspidel to inspiden easier, under the influence of the series (com) in (gang)an an(spilde), which could have led to scribal error. The line-break between com in and gangan could have led to an interim error of com in/ gang in anspilde, corrected to com ingangan inspilde or something of the sort.

Alternatively, the error could have occurred not via written transmission but during oral transmission with the word anspildewiht becoming garbled and incomprehensible when passed orally from healer to healer before being written down.

The emendation to anspildewiht has the advantage of fitting with the role of inspidenwiht as a benevolent curative figure which provides the best reading of the rest of the spell. The correct combination of the adjective anspilde with wiht depends on whether wiht is feminine or neuter (it can be both). If neuter, the combination would be anspilde wiht, if feminine anspildu wiht. I choose the former as it is closer to the manuscript.

Some emendation is required, as the manuscript reading is clearly corrupt. Both “spindle-creature” and “salutory-creature” are equally possible in terms of the number of steps required for emendation. However the latter is more plausible and provides the better fit with the context and role of the character. Accordingly I have adopted it as a translation, rendering it “healing spirit”.

Coat and tie

Another difficulty is the meaning of the words hama and teage, which the wiht is carrying.

Similar to hama is M.E. hame, the collar of a draught horse. The O.E.D. says this is not known before 13th C and is distinct from hame = covering. I wonder if this word might not rather be some kind of development of ‘hem’ (as in ‘hem in’), which does not go back to hama. The meaning horse-collar is of course very suggestive, given that the wiht is riding, but it is an objection that a horse-collar is used for plowing, not riding. The attested meaning in O.E. of hama is ‘covering’, which could also mean a cloak or a blanket. If this is the meaning then the wiht is throwing his cloak over the dweorh as a saddle before attaching the bridle (teage = ties). It may also be significant that the phrase is his haman and the bridle is also referred to as his teage. This indicates he is holding his own cloak/blanket, but what his own ties would be I am not sure. Note there is a word sweorclaþ, (‘neck-cloth’) found in a gloss c. 1000 which is synonymous with teah, sal (rope) glossing latin collarium (collar, horse-collar) (viz. O.E.D. sub tie). So the hama and the teage may be more closely related than we thought.


St Cuthbert’s horse has a blanket on it.

In any case, we can envision the wiht as a creature with hands (and probably legs, as he can ride), who goes around with a cloak or blanket and carrying a rope. He throws his cloak/blanket over the dwarf, ties the rope around its neck and rides it off into the distance. Presumably the cloak/blanket has some magic power which controls whatever it is thrown over.


The definitive edition of the Lacnunga with original text, critical apparatus, glossary and extensive notes. An awesome piece of scholarship.

Edward Pettit (Editor): Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga : Introduction, Text, Translation, and Appendices (Studies in American Literature) 2 vols., Edwin Mellen Pr


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