When somebody gets the water-elf-disease, their nails will turn dark, their eyes will tear up, and they’ll want to look down. Give them this remedy: carline thistle, hassock, the lower part of iris, ewe berry, lupine, elecampane, marsh-mallow sprout, water-mint, dill, lily, cockspur grass, pennyroyal, horehound, dock, elder-wood, earth-gall, wormwood, strawberry leaf, comfrey. Soak in ale, add holy water, and sing this galdor three times: 


The best slaughter-band against wounds I’ve drawn, 

so wounds won’t burn, won’t burst, 

won't fester, grow foul, 

won't throb, the wound won’t worsen, 

sore won’t smolder. Let him hold the holy water, 

that it sting him no more than it does land by the sea. 


Sing this many times: “May the Earth weaken you with all its might and main.” You can sing this galdor on the wound. 


Gif mon biþ on wæterælfadle, þonne beoþ him þa handnæglas wonne and þa eagan tearige and wile locian niþer. Do him þis to læcedome: eoforþrote, cassuc, fone nioþoweard, eowberge, elehtre, eolone, merscmealwan crop, fenminte, dile, lilie, attorlaþe, polleie, marubie, docce, ellen, felterre, wermod, streawbergean leaf, consolde; ofgeot mid ealaþ, do hæligwæter to, sing þis gealdor ofer þriwa:


Ic benne awrat betest beadowræda,
swa benne ne burnon, ne burston,

ne fundian, ne feologan,
ne hoppettan, ne wund waxsian,
ne dolh diopian; ac him self healde halewæge,
ne ace þe þon ma, þe eorþan on eare ace.


Sing þis manegum siþum: Eorþe þe onbere eallum hire mihtum and mægenum. Þas galdor mon mæg singan on wunde.

Translator's Note

This work, a metrical poem with prose framing, is called a galdor in Old English (plural: galdru). The noun galdor is related to the verb galan (“to sing,” “to enchant”) and is generally translated “charm.” I have retained the Old English word in my title so as not to put a Modern English word's connotations on the piece and to preserve its "strangeness."

When translating Old English verse in general, I attempt to follow the basic formal features of Old English meter and prosody—four main stresses to a line, relatively strong caesura, alliteration in every line. However, in order not to make the translation too far from idiomatic Modern English, I do not follow the precise rules to the letter. In the particular case of this galdor, I've stayed closer to the phrasing and literal meaning of some words than I otherwise would, because of the emphatically performative nature of the galdru as a genre and their regularly idiosyncratic metrical qualities. For example, in line two, I stay with the number of stresses in the original, though these do not conform to what scholars think of as “correct” OE meter. I’ve also tried to imitate the terseness of lines like 2b-4 though syntactically they function somewhat differently from the original.

The galdru are strange things to modern eyes and ears. They are medico-spiritual texts—associated with healing and protection performed with herbs (worts), but assumed to have some degree of healing efficacy in their own right. Such practices attest to a time in European culture when humans were seen as more “porous” (to borrow a term from philosopher Charles Taylor) to the surrounding world. This notion of “porousness” assumes that the individual is not neatly confined inside one’s own body and mind, and that creatures like elves and mares (cf. “nightmare”) can somehow readily “get inside” oneself. This being the case, certain words (like prayers and charms), materials (holy water, relics, certain plants), and practices (wearing amulets and medals, making the sign of the cross) can shield the body and soul from such intrusive forces. Because of this difference in mindset from a mainstream modern worldview and their essentially practical nature, galdru can be difficult to understand. Their treatment of elves, dwarves, Woden (Odin), and the salutary power of words are from a time when elves and dwarves were not merely folklore or silly stories for children, when the power of plants and poetry was not seen as outlandish and/or sentimental, but simply the case. The galdru are enticing texts, having an eclectic mix of features from prayers, poems, medical prescriptions, and recipes, all brought together with (to us) fun invocations and wardings off of ill-defined Germanic terrors.

Jacob Riyeff


In the Classroom