Indigenous Attitudes: Magic and Germanic Belief

The “Lex Salica” or “Salic Law” represents one of the earliest recorded collections of Germanic customary law. In this case the Law Code reflected the laws of the Salian Franks and their Merovingian aethelings on the eve of Clovis’ conversion to Catholicism and some 50 years after their settlement in the northern region (Neustria) of the former Roman province of Gaul.

Among its various offences we find those dealing with the practice of magic and harm done by magic, such as,

“If any one have given herbs to another so that he die, he shall be sentenced to 200 shillings (or shall surely be given over to fire).”

“If any person have bewitched another, and he who was thus treated shall escape, the author of the crime, who is proved to have committed it, shall be sentenced to 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.”

“If somebody accuses another of witchcraft, and he brings to the thing the cauldron in which the accused is said to make brews, then let the accused be fined 2500 dinars which makes 63 shillings.”

“If somebody causes another person to waste away by means of witchcraft, and he is able to prove it at the thing, then let the accused be fined 1008 dinars which makes 200 shillings”

Some observations on the above…

To start, these are not my translations and the term “witchcraft” does not reflect the original language of the laws and/or that of the document they were record in. The specific term or terms that were used were certainly not witchcraft, which is fairly English specific in the Germanic world, and, for better and for worse, simply the term deemed equivalent in these modern translations.

The technical terminology really does matter, more-and-more, as one gets increasingly intimate with the subtleties and nuances of the subject, ie. not everything called “witchcraft” or “seidhR” (etc.) actually reflect the practices of witchcraft or seidhR (etc.).

Anyway, most of the Salic laws deal with harm caused by magic; lending a general no harm, no foul sense to the spirit of the laws. There is however the one exception where presenting evidence of the mere practice of “witchcraft”, ie. the cauldron, invited a legal penalty.

While this suggests a fundamental, and very understandable mistrust of “magic”, dealing as magic does in the hidden, the unseen, and indeed the anti-social, one will note that in each of the above citations, proof is explicitly demanded by the Salic law; even if the laws only outline the details of what constitutes proof in one instance and no doubt simply assumes what for them and theirs was culturally obvious. This suggests an equally fundamental mistrust of the very accusation of witchcraft, which again is very understandable given its “hidden” nature.

Finally, except for the one vague reference to being “given over to the fire”, ie. burned, the Salica Law prescribes “common penalties” (ie. fines) to these acts. Both of the acts that indicate the practice of harmful magic, but result in no harm, are otherwise prescribed at 63 shillings. This is an amount equal to those fines associated with the theft of an entire flock of 25 sheep, the rape of a freeborn woman, the assault and plundering of a freeman, and attempted killing of a freeman. All of which were serious offenses.

Curiously, the two instances where magic resulted in death, result in a fine of 200 shillings, which, while clearly marking it as a far more serious offence than those just mentioned, falls on the low-end of the wergild (life-price) system within the context of the Salic Law. A 200 shilling fine was equal to the fine for having been found guilty of grave-robbing, or for killing either a woman beyond her child baring years or your average freeman. By way of comparison, to have killed a freeman and then attempted to hide it (ie. murder as opposed to man-killing) carried a fine of 600 shillings.

One will also note the relative lack of reference to women in the Salic Laws as they pertain to the practice of “magic”. And that even where women are explicitly referenced in relation to witchcraft, they must also be viewed within the context of the greater body of Salic law and it’s valuation of women; which, as just referenced, reckoned the life-price of a vibrant and virile young freeman as equal to a woman beyond her child-baring years, and at THREE TIMES LESS than a freeborn woman in her child-baring years!


The AD 6th century Gallo-Roman Catholic, Gregory of Tours writes casually of those with prophetic powers (spa) within the context of royal Merovingian interactions. (eg. Guntram and the seeress).

The Merovingians were of course the same people who, some 35 years prior to the birth of Gregory, gave us the Salic Law with its laws involving “magic” and “magical harm”.

Gregory also related a story in which a Merovingian queen, one of the wives of Chilperic, Fredegund I’d presume — who lived at the time of Gregory, and appears to have been loathed by him — ordered the torture of “a number of Parisian women” (and a man named Mumulus), believed to have killed her young son, Theodoric, via the use of herb potions and magic.

As Gregory wrote, “They admitted to the practice of witchcraft and the perpetration of many deaths… The queen afflicted them with even more horrendous forms of torture. Some she beheaded, others she cosigned to the flames, and still others were killed on the wheel with their bones broken.”

The Edictum Rothari (c.643 AD) is to Lombardic law what the Salic law is to Salian-Franks; a compilation and writing down of the formerly oral legal traditions of the Lombards. On “witchcraft” it states,

“If a man accuses a girl or free woman who is under the guardianship of another, of practicing witchcraft or prostitution,… if he shall persevere in his accusation and insist that he can prove it, then let the case be decided by a judical duel or “camfio” so that the matter may be left to the judgement of God”.

It also states,

“Let no man presume to kill another’s female servant for being a witch (striga or mascam) for such things are not credible to the Christian mind and it is not possible to eat a living man from the inside out.”

Here we get some insight into the seeming impatience behind the relation of the duel to the charges of witchcraft, and the notion that it represented little more than a vile slur against someone’s honour than anything more substantial.

This very Christian, very unheathen view of “harmful magic” would find further expression, as we read in Charlemagne’s Capitulary on Saxony (AD 782),

“If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person’s flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence.”

— Charlemagne, Capitulary on Saxony

This trivialization of witchcraft, the refusal to acknowledge it’s power, and ultimately the impatient will to punish the accuser, was the initial Christian reaction to Germanic “witchcraft”. And it stood in direct opposition to indigenous Germanic belief and general mistrust in magic along with accusations dealing in the unseen.

The earliest Anglo-Saxon Law Codes make no reference to the practice of witchcraft. Of course, it took Kent almost 100 years to draft laws against “devil worship”, so that is perhaps not at all surprising.

Nevertheless, the fundamental mistrust, indeed hostility, of at least the Anglii toward “harmful magic” is very apparent in a story Bede related regarding King Aethelfrith of Northumbria (late 6th to early 7th century AD) and a band of monks he encountered who were praying “against the swords of the barbarians” (ie. against Aethelfrith). Bede further writes,

“King Ethelfrid being informed of the occasion of their coming, said, “If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers.” He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest”.

It is not until the Laws of Alfred that we begin see witchcraft enter the laws as a punishable offence; though we should remember that the orthodox Christian stance of the matter of witchcraft among the Germanic peoples was, up til now, that witchcraft was just so much superstitious hogwash. With Alfred’s Laws however we not only see witchcraft introduced as a punishable crime, but we see it introduced firmly within the context of the Old Testament,

“the women who are in the habit of receiving wizards and sorcerers and magicians, thou shalt not suffer to live“.

By the time of Cnut’s Laws we see the beginning of the conflation of witchcraft, not only with “harmful magic” and its own more traditional associations with secret killing, perjury, adultery, and incest, but also with such religious practices as the “worship of heathen gods and the sun and the moon, fire or flood, wells or stones or any kind of forest tree”.

Conflation of various distinct disciplines, such as that of the spakona and seidhkona, are themselves clear in the North Germanic lore, and likely went the way of England in growing to include all sorts of heathen observances.

By the time of the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries, it had expanded to include non-orthodox Christian belief; where heathen, heretic, and witch could be used more-or-less interchangeably. We see a similar evolution to the word racist in modern timers. And it is here that we modern folk first picked up the now muddled mess that the old magical and religious lore of our ancestors had become.

As a result, such things beg to be questioned. What is worship as opposed to the practice of magic? What is good magic and what is bad magic? And to what degree should those who dabble in such anti-social pursuits as influencing society via hidden (and often solitary) means be tolerated in our midst? And to what degree should accusations regarding “things unseen” themselves be tolerated?

8 thoughts on “Indigenous Attitudes: Magic and Germanic Belief

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety

    I’m not sure occult practices are in themselves bad, nor do I believe that this was the belief of the pre-Christian ancestors. We see glimpses of this in the lore, such as the respect and deference paid to the volva in Greenland, in one of the sagas. We see this in Tacitus where he comments on the practices of the priestesses and the deference paid to the women, as well as his commentary on women who are kept separate due to the necessity of them being pure in order to prophesy. I don’t think any heathen thought of ANY of these practices as being exclusively bad until the heathen world started rubbing up against the Muslim and Christian worlds and absorbed some of their malevolance toward these practices. And I think because much of the written sources we have were written long after Christianity had become the norm, that the pre-Christian ethos is deeply buried.

    I will point out that brewing beer was a traditionally female occupation, and that by the time of Charlemagne in France at least, it was becoming a more male dominated occupation and a business – so having a cauldron large enough to produce brew, if one was female, was in itself a caused for a raised eyebrow.


    1. jameybmartin Post author

      The “seeress”, for one, clearly stood apart from the “witch”, even as the spakona stood apart from the seidhkona, as can be witnessed from Tacitus through the Merovingian period and on into the Viking Age. As mentioned in the entry, Christianity ultimately drew upon the native disdain for “magic” by conflating it with unrelated arts such as spa and religious worship in general. The Imperial Romans did the same things with magic and Celtic belief (“druidism”) prior to the rise of Christianity. But this distaste was entirely indigenous, which is why the earliest Catholic laws regarding witchcraft among the Germanic peoples penalized the accuser and sought to protect the accused. And this gels with everything we know about the native preference for light over darkness and forthrightness over secrecy.

      Far from being buried deep, it sits right on the surface. To quote Charlemagne’s Capitulary on Saxony once again, “If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person’s flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence.”


      1. thetinfoilhatsociety

        I don’t think so. The seer, if the volva’s story is to be believed, worked with the dead and the spirits of the land to prophesy. Necromancy is vilified by Christianity. It is an inherent part of pre-Christian thought and ethos.


    2. firiopen

      >I’m not sure occult practices are in themselves bad, nor do I believe that this was the belief of the pre-Christian ancestors.
      I think it’s more likely there were very firm attitudes about what was good and bad in relation to occult practice and even more so occult *intent*. In order to survive and keep social relations intact, there is a need to declare strong preferences for what is desired in a community.

      But maybe what you were trying to get at was that things weren’t so simple as Christianity made them to be? I do believe that our ancestors had more tolerance for “bad” things, and were of the belief that they were necessary to life. For contrast, for dialogue and for the tension of having the other exist as a way to have meaning and balance.

      The Christian / modern attitude is often to say bad things should be destroyed and eliminated which I think is unhealthy. (rather than bad things being accepted and acknowledged whilst still choosing against them, or to transform them for the good of the community).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. K

      Sometimes it is hard to define what is “witchcraft” or “magic” and what is something “religious”. There is often a fine line between “magic” and what a priest or shaman of some sort might do.

      For example, one old way of cursing people in Japan was to speak maledictions against someone and then burn a paper with their name on it on a shrine altar(or near it). Names could get very detailed back then, what with childhood names, clan names, birth order names, temple name, Buddhist name, and adult name, so a lot of detail could be put in to really direct that curse at someone. Shinto priests on some occasions did this at the behest of the state(usually the emperor) against those declared rebels. Buddhist monks in Japan sometimes did the same sort of thing via tantric rituals Here we have an example of religious rites used in a manner similar to “magic”.

      In Hawaii, many things certain types of traditional healers or priests(all classed as kahuna of different types) were able to do could be just as easily used for ill workings. There was a particular ritual normally used in consecrating a preserved human or animal corpse as a spirit(for ancestor or family guardian worship) habitation that could also be used to anchor a malevolent spirit to the body, which was supposed to be used to plague one’s enemies or whoever else. This was punishable by death if proven, as were most acts of witchcraft. Often the main distinction between acceptable and not was the factor of secrecy(this was a society very suspicious of that) and malevolent intent. Leaders were also concerned that curses might be directed at them, so they naturally were severe in enforcement in this matter. Most ritual knowledge like this was held by the higher castes. But sometimes, rituals were used to try and turn the gods or local spirits against an enemy in war, always at the behest of a high ranking chief. That makes me recall Egil Skallagrimson’s ritual to turn the land wights against Erik Bloodaxe.

      Egyptian priests did a ritual where they made an effigy of Apep(the evil serpent), identified an enemy at war with Egypt with the Apep figure, and then ritually dismember it just as Ra(or other gods) did to Apep in the myths. The idea was to cause Egypt’s enemy to lose just like Apep loses to Ra. Much of what ancient Egyptian priests did ended up passed on as “magic” in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

      In the Bible, just look at things like Psalm 109. It is a long list of misfortunes and awful things that are called upon some target by appeal to Yahweh. In ancient times this was not just some poetic outpouring or theoretical possibility. This would have been chanted by priests with appropriate offerings to try and get this to happen. Why else would there be things like this in your liturgical songs? When similar things were found in Babylonian (or those of others from the ancient Middle East) and rituals(at least back in the 19th century) the academics just classed it as “magic”. Characters in the Bible often bless or curse effectively with no appeal to Yahweh. And then there is Peter making two people drop dead in the Book of Acts for holding back some on their donation. Is that something a Christian today would consider an optional use of “divine gifts”? I doubt it, they would probably consider it much like they would witchcraft, but it is in the text and saint’s hagiographies have things like this too.

      In Mongol and related cultures, the main difference between a shaman and a “witch” is often how they use their knowledge. The shaman is beneficial for his group and does things publicly. A witch does things in secret and is willing to flout moral standards, engaging in malevolent workings out of spite or for pay. Witches(or evil shamans) were despised and feared in these cultures. Even a dead witch was considered dangerous, as they might become an evil spirit, so rituals were done to prevent them from coming around wherever they used to live. Still, shamans can work with dangerous or malevolent spirits(some specialize in it), but mainly for apotropaic purposes(basically getting them to be nice to their group or stay away).

      The Vedas(Atharva Veda mostly) have a lot of what is easily classed as magic. Love charms in particular. A lot of those charms are against disease too. And yet the Vedas also mention sorcerers that can take the form of animals, and not in a positive manner. There is definitely some suspicion of “magicians”, but this may have been because the “magicians” were from enemies of the Aryas. Another data point I can bring is that Yogi(or Jogi in some dialects) was for centuries in India used as a general term for “magician”. Yogis are said to gain supernatural powers with their training, and not every use of those siddhis needs to be nice. Think about how Rishis in the Hindu epics are just as able to curse as they can bless(even kings were not immune). Yogis were often feared as much as they were respected, particularly ones associated with tantra of some sort.

      In general, if it is malevolent, on an individual basis(cursing some person in revenge), beyond the pale morally, secretive(with the added bonus of being considered cowardly and unmanly), uses forbidden or “unholy’ methods, and/or is not approved of by the authorities, there is a safe bet it would have been considered “witchcraft” in a negative sense. Necromancy as thetinfoilhatsociety brought up, would not have been the problem, shamans regularly do that as well as working with land spirits. What would have factored in to making a judgment about “magic” in the old heathen societies would have been the purpose and context of the rite. Somehow eating someone from the inside out with a spell, for example, sounds like something straight up malevolent that few would have (openly) approved of, certainly society in general would not have. Using necromancy to do something like stir up the angry or restless dead, that would have likely been looked on negatively because of the purpose and what was done. Making an amulet or communing with ancestor spirits for information though, would have been just fine.


      1. K

        I am scatterbrained after a long shift. Something else to add while I am up and remember.

        I pointed out above that there are shades of gray, certainly we do not lump a lot of things into the “bad magic” category that Christians would. That said, the blog author made a great point here, one that needs to be made more often. Neopagans have done a good job conflating “witch”(stereotyped or not) with “pagan” in popular culture, as if actual past(or present) pagans all thought of themselves as witches. The Romans and Greeks made laws concerning witchcraft before there were any Christians around. They were not as paranoid about it as Christians became, but the laws did exist. Augustus actually had a bunch of magic books burned on is authority as the Roman pontiff. Apuleius the philosopher was accused of using witchcraft to charm a woman(though he successfully defended himself).

        There are some good reasons for heathens and polytheists to be suspicious of some kinds of “magic”. Look through the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri. You will find even great gods like Zeus and Apollo referred to as rather lowly daimones. There are even methods(amulets and phylacteries) for protecting the magician from a summoned god(that sounds familiar). There is also all kinds of syncretism with Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Gnostic, and Christian elements, and gods are mixed all over the place. There are spells where gods are threatened or cajoled into doing the will of the magician. Imagine if someone wrote a book on magic where “Thor” is to be summoned within a circle, trapped in it “as Set was bound by Michael”, and threatened into doing your will lest you “steal his hammer by the power of RA-IAO-HORUS”. I know exactly how I would feel about that. There is a spell in those papyri where Demeter is threatened with not being able to meet her daughter if the magician does not get what they want. There is also one that threatens Helios. This kind of thing flourished in cosmopolitan Alexandria, but imagine if classical or archaic period Greeks heard such a thing. That would have been blasphemy. I can see why many people would have seen this as bad for society too, it undermined respect for the gods and their cults. If this was common in Roman Egypt, no wonder people there turned to all sorts of eastern mystery cults and apocalypse crazes.


  2. K

    This distrust of magic(as distinct from religious or shamanic practices) is found in many cultures that are not Christian. Often the main difference is that magic is secretive instead of public. If it is harmful magic, that just makes things worse and gives more reason for distrust.

    Liked by 1 person


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