The “impetus” for creating this protective text…
was apparently the same epidemic of the plague of the 60s of the 7th century,
or some other, more local epidemic,
which an anonymous author calls mortalitas hujus anni
“the pestilence of this year.”
So we are in the midst of a modern day plague.
And we have no cures, no vaccinations, and no toilet paper.
Can we look to the magic of antiquity for answers?
There were two basic responses to the medieval plague, and they were NOT handwashing and social distancing.
They were of course religion and magic, and the two did overlap from time to time, although how much is now a matter of conjecture.
The most obvious form of religious protection was the lorica, (meaning “breastplate” armour) a protective incantation with Irish roots and still well-beloved among our British cousins, over at the Church of England.
The most well known lorica is perhaps the Deer’s Cry, Faeth Fiada, part of the larger Breastplate of St. Patrick. The backstory of this incantation is that it was intoned by Saint Patrick to hide his party of monks from heathen soldiers as they were passing nearby in the fog.
Here is a particularly beautiful one, composed by Arvo Pärt, which unlike some notable women, even has its own Wikipedia article:The Deer’s Cry (Pärt).
And if you liked that one, you will really like what their incredible sopranos do with Barber’s Agnus Dei.
But back to incantations for plague….
There is really a wealth of information in this Russian-language link, but at this point I am just going to mention it in passing, and let the google algorithm magic do its thing.
According to this Russian website, courtesy of Google Translate:
The “impetus” for creating this protective text, as suggested by M. Herren and on what he bases the dating of the text, was apparently the same epidemic of the plague of the 60s of the 7th century, or some other, more local epidemic, which an anonymous author calls mortalitas hujus anni “the pestilence of this year” (see [Herren 1973]). Latin loriks, of course, are usually attributed to the early Irish scholarly monastic tradition, and the transfer of this type of poetry to the vernacular soil is usually dated to a somewhat later time.
This is what everyone says. You will find some version of it all over the internet. The Lorica (the Saint Patrick one) is attributed to 8th century Irish manuscripts, written and preserved by monks, but I have yet to see one. The earliest one in use is easy enough to find though.
The copy-text for the original poem in 8th-century Irish was Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus: A Collection of Old-Irish Glosses, Scholia, Prose, and Verse, Vol. II, edited by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan (Cambridge, 1903). The poem appears on pages 354–358.
Here it is on Internet Archive. With tons of footnotes.
And a beautiful thing it is.
This is not Latin, it is some kind of Irish.
And this is not the only place you will find it. When Seamus Heaney (see my sidebar) and Ted Hughes (of Sylvia Plath fame) set out to compile a collection of all the poetry that they considered part of the necessary British heritage, but that they had not been taught in school, they included a translation of this protective poem in their anthology The School Bag, Faber & Faber, 1997.
How to make this into a search term…hmm…could try to copy it out…Crist lim, Crist reum, Crist in degaid ... and take it to YouTube…I bet someone has done it. Or try the Gaelic word lúirech as your search term. Oh, it’s on Wikisource. We have the entire text. https://wikisource.org/wiki/Thesaurus_Palaeohibernicus/Patrick%27s_Hymn
A short digression and rant…
But we are still very firmly in sausagefest territory here. And looking at the translators listed by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in their book doesn’t help any. One translator was Whitley Stokes, who first married Mary Bazely, the daughter of Col. Bazeley, Bengal artillery, and later married Elizabeth Temple, daughter of William Temple;… they had a daughter….
One of his daughters, Maïve, compiled a book of Indian Fairy Tales [WikiSource] in 1879 (she was 12 years old) based on stories told to her by her Indian ayahs and a man-servant. It also included some notes by Mrs. Mary Stokes.
Who is that, Maïve’s mother? Or Whitley’s mother? Accuracy, please. His sister, Margaret Stokes, was an artist and wrote two books on early Irish saints. Where are they? We need moar saints.
Okay, moving on…
We know the monks did not pull these invocations or loricas or whatever out of thin air, they were based on something, probably druidic and even Icelandic stuff. We just have to go back further in history, before the monastery stuff. Just list, and see what comes up in the algorithms. Everything plague is trending right now, we should be able to find plenty.
Ha! Vikings! Good.
Two nineteenth century collections of Icelandic folklore contain folk-prayers bearing the title brynjubaen. This word is a compound…. The first occurrence of the word brynjubaen in print seems to be in Jón Árnason‘s classic collection of Icelandic folklore. There he prints three prayers entitled brynjubaen [singular: brynja], giving as his source manuscripts (kver) from western and southern Iceland. These are violent incantations aimed at banishing the petitioner’s enemy to the…
This Icelandic brynjubaen is promising.
But we didn’t count on the libraries being closed in time of plague, so these things are probably locked up tight behind a paywall, waiting for the results of the Darwin Award competitions. Anyone who is still standing afterwards with library card intact, gets to read it.
So we will leave this for later…
Names for plagues
So if you have a kind of plague or disease, what kind of name do you call it? And do you use Latin or what.
There are a ton of these in the Irish literature.
The “jaundice of Conallus,” is a type of localized plague. (See Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, Dublin, Hodges, Smith, and co. 1856)
Then there’s flava ictericia, “yellow jaundice”, mortolitas magna (the great mortality), and the great pestilence called “The Boye Conneall.”
I’m just going to put these out there, with their sourcing, and move on.
Neimhidh afterwards died of a plague, together with three thousand persons, in the island of Ard-Neimhidh”, in Crich Liathain”, in Munster. … … This is translated Flava Ictericia, the yellow jaundice, by Colgan.
Cron-Chonaill. This is translated Flava Ictericia, the yellow jaundice, by Colgan. Acta Sanctorum, p. 831, col. 2 : “Mortalitate Cron-chonnuill (id est flava ictericia) appellata, hi omnes sancti, præter S. Kieranum et S. Tigernachum extincti sunt.”
“Colum of Inis-Cealtr is also mentioned in the Annuls of Ulster as dying of the Mortolitas magna in 548, and in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, at 550, as dying of the great pestilence called “The Boye Conneall;” but the Editor has not been able to discover any further account of him
Cétnad nAíse, a pre-Christian Irish lorica with seven sea daughters
Let’s go back and look at https://www.ruthenia.ru/folklore/mikhailova3.htm again. This is in Russian, but it has some great stuff, if you can get past the translation barrier.
First, we find a reference to the Cétnad nAíse, (see here for dicussion of the various translatons), subtitled “A Chant of Long Life” (Admuiniur secht n-ingena trethan). This is very exciting, because finally we have something with women in it – seven daughters of the sea. The text also seems to be much earlier than the 8th c stuff, and it is a type of lorica, but it does not seem to have so much of the trappings of Christianity as Faeth Fiada (the “Deer’s Cry”). The original is found in only one copy of a Middle Irish metrical treatise.
Translations of Cétnad nAíse:
The Song of Amergin
Here is a similar poem:
When Amairgen G lúngel, son of Míl’s, first steps upon Ireland, with his right foot, (obviously some kind of ritual meaning) he composes a poem with a series of thirteen “I am…” lines, from the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions). There seem to be a lot of these floating around, with no indication of which is canon. More versions here, and invocations. Another one here. This is nice.
I am a stag of seven tines,
I am a wide flood on a plain,
I am a wind on the deep waters,
I am a shining tear of the sun,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am fair among flowers,
I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke.
I am a battle waging spear,
I am a salmon in the pool,
I am a hill of poetry,
I am a ruthless boar,
I am a threatening noise of the sea,
I am a wave of the sea,
Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen ?
The Celtic saint Brettifa / Brettiva / Brigid, or whatever (see the notes at December 21: the feast day of Thomas the brewer), another one of these Icelandic connections, also had something to do with plague, but now I have forgotten where I saw it, it’s probably in that Russian text somewhere.
According to Wikipedia, Bridget of Sweden made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1350, at the peak of the plague, so this might prove a promising path of inquiry.
There is also a Saint (and Celtic goddess) Brigid of Ireland. And a cross of St. Brigid. Here is the cross and how to make it.
Since there are a lot sheltering at home right now, here is also the St. Brigid house blessing.
May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.
How to make a cross of St. Brigid
And here is how to make the three-cornered Brigid cross.
Another tutorial on making the three-armed Brigid cross. The rushes are pulled, not cut. Ha, no iron that would interfere with magic spells. Similar to the triskelion or Manx three legs symbol.
Here is a Brigid ‘lúireach’ or lorica, a modern one, Lúireach Bhríde, written by poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin (tsk, her Wikipedia article has a nasty template on the top)