Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

The Charm of Nine Herbs – the Indications

Now these nine herbs * prevail against nine demons,

against nine poisons * and nine epidemics,

against the red plague * against the foul plague,

against the white plague * against the blue plague,

against the yellow plague * against the green plague,

against the brown plague * against the lingering plague,

against the harm of serpents * against the harm of water,

against the harm of piercing * against the harm of scratching,

against the harm of of cold * against the harm of of infection.

Whether any ill comes * airborne from the east

or anything comes * from the north

or anything from the west * against the people,

Christ is the remedy * like no other.

I know a unique * flowing river

and the nine serpents * may not come near it.

All its plants * are medicinal,

the waters are calm * both salt and fresh,

and with them * I heal you from evil.

I tried to identify the nine plagues by analogy and even looked up the four humours to see if there was any relevance, but without much success. It is hard to second-guess the short-hand other cultures may be using as a mnemonic. Alice Oswald had some interesting things to say about the use of colour in ancient texts – it was as much about emotional resonances and visual effects as about pigments, so that the Greek ‘wine-dark sea’ isn’t purple as much as swelling, and ‘grey’ isn’t that mix of black and white we know, but something reflective and shimmering ( I couldn’t help thinking of Tolkien’s elf-cloaks). So perhaps red isn’t simply like the rash of scarlet fever, but inflammation, and yellow isn’t simply jaundice – and so on.

I’ve noticed the Odin references in other places, but this passage, just to even things out, contains a reference to the book of Ezechiel 47:12, which deals with the river flowing from a renewed Jerusalem. In Christian times, this was taken as a metaphor for baptism, but I don’t think our scribe was thinking of merely spiritual healing here. This is a medical text, as we’ll see next time when we reach the methods of using the herbs. We are looking at a world-view where religion is a practical, embodied science. I can’t imagine what Anglo-Saxons would think of ours!






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