Folklore

Medieval Magic: Alchemy, Witchery and Magic from the Middle Ages

We are fascinated and utterly enthralled with the Medieval Times. It’s no wonder we have Medieval themed restaurants, festivals and amusement parks. We crave the old tales of knights, princesses, wizards and fortressed castles surrounded by moats. Battles and holy quests. The Middle Ages remind us of magic long past. Whisk yourself away in our compendium of Medieval Magic: alchemy, witchery, and magic in the Middle Ages.

Medieval Magic: Alchemy

One of the main forms of magic in Medieval Times was Alchemy. This form of magic was a mixture of science, philosophy and mystical beliefs. The alchemists believed in order to achieve success one must be fully pure: body, heart and mind. Purification was essential. Alchemy was based on the philosophy that when elements combine in certain ways they create amazing things. For example, changing a metal into gold OR making potions and elixirs that provide the drinker with immortality. Alchemy used strange symbols and names to define the elements and chemical compounds. It was based off ancient works from China, India, and Egypt. And off the writings of Aristotle.

Alchemy became a serious science by the 13th century. Alchemists raced to achieve their goals: securing potent medicines, explaining the cosmos, and finding immortality (i.e. via the philosopher’s stone). Alchemy was the fore-father to modern chemistry – alchemists succeeded in creating chemical compounds as well as identifying elements. A few famous alchemists from Medieval Times include Roger Bacon, Nicholas Flamel, Thomas Charnock, Paracelsus and Thomas Aquinas.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Of Harry Potter fame, the Philosopher’s Stone wasn’t just made up for the books. It’s based on an alchemical belief in a substance that provides everlasting life. It was also thought to have the ability to transmute lead or mercury into gold. Many an alchemist spent his life in search of the philosopher’s stone. In Medieval Times, the effort to find this elusive magical substance was called the Great Work or Magnum Opus. Albertus Magnus saw metal transmuted to gold, which in turn spawned rumors he had found the philosopher’s stone.

Legend has it knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone was passed down to Biblical Adam from God and then down through the Biblical patriarchs. There were even theories it was once housed in the Temple of Solomon. Within the philosopher’s stone symbol lies the union of all elements, essentially perfection.

The Knights Templar: Pagans or the Wrongly Accused?

The order of the Knights Templar, also known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, was a Medieval age military group founded by the Roman Catholic Church. In modern media and literature, they are most often depicted as Crusaders and knights; however, the majority of the Knights Templar were financial officers above all else. They became the largest financial order throughout the Christian state in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries with property and strongholds everywhere through Europe and into the Middle East. They are well-known for wearing a white mantle with large red cross on the chest/back area and chainmail.

The Knight’s Quests and Friday the 13th

Legend says the Knights Templar went on quests to discover sacred objects such as the Holy Grail and Jesus Christ’s burial shroud. They were rumored to have possessed these objects among others. These legends have fueled modern films such as the Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As with many Medieval Christian institutions, the Knights came to an abrupt end when King Philip IV ordered their arrest and execution on Friday the 13th in October 1307. There is much speculation of this being part of the superstition surrounding Friday the 13th.

The King accused the Knights of sodomy, sorcery, and worshiping the Devil or what others speculate was the horned being Baphomet. Others claim it wasn’t Baphomet at all, but a severed head that the Knights spoke to and worshiped. Their supposed confessions to these accusations were under torture.

Were the Knights Templar an Underground Medieval Magical Order?

The debate as to whether the Knights Templar were an underground pagan or Gnostic order continues. I watched a documentary recently in which the Knights Templar scholar swears the worship of the head was true. This piece reminds me of the Celts’ concept of the soul being housed in the head. It’s reminiscent of Bran’s legend, the giant Celtic god whose head was placed where the Tower of London stands. His ghostly head guards England from invaders to this day. Others say the head might have actually been representative or the actual head of John the Baptist.

Herbal Cures and Medieval Magic

For as long as there has been illness, there’s been those who believed they could cure with herbal remedies and magic charms. The Middle Ages were no different. There were alchemists, wizards, midwives, cunningfolk and others who claimed to know how to use herbs to heal or harm. Typically the herbal remedy was prepared in a ritual way with prayers or incantations said over them before administering to the ill. Herbs combined with faith healing seemed to be the norm.

The Lacnunga: Medieval Magic, Anglo-Saxon Medical Texts

The Lacnunga is a Medieval Anglo-Saxon book of remedies dating to at least the 10th century with remedies that are much older. The most well-known part of the Lacnunga is the 9 Herbs Prayer. The first part of the prayer goes like this:

“Mind you mugwort
what you disclosed
what you rendered
at Regenmelde
The first you are called
oldest of plants
you mighty against 3
and against 30
you mighty against poison
and against infection
You mighty against the evil
that fares through the land”

The 9 sacred Anglo-Saxon herbs are: mugwort, plantain, shepherd’s purse, nettle, bettony, chamomile, crab apple, chervil, fennel. This was an effective remedy for a skin condition caused by infection and inflammation. These herbs were ground down and then made into a paste as a salve to put on the skin. Of course while preparing said salve, the preparer was also to say the prayer/incantations and focus on the healing energy of each ingredient.

A haunted and magical castle from medieval times - chillon castle.
Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva, Scotland

3 Medieval Haunted and Fairy Castles

Chateaus and haunted castles have to be my favorite aspect of Medieval magic. And Europe is FULL of them! From Scotland to France to Italy and everywhere in between, here are just a couple intriguing fortresses where the mystical melds with the mortifying.

Chillon Castle in Geneva, Switzerland

Chateau De Chillon is located on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and was established in the 10th century but is believed to have been a fortress site before a castle was there. The castle originally was a Roman outpost, guarding the roads through the Alpine passes. Then it came under control of the Savoy family, then the Bernese. During the Savoy period, Chillon Castle was a summer home to the counts. Then during the 16th century it was used as a prison until the Bernese took over AND then again used as a prison in the 1700s.

Of course with all of the history, the dungeons and multiple prisoners and hangings at Chillon, you would guess that there are indeed legends of hauntings. The Savoy family is said to haunt the Castle, as well as numerous prisoners and more recent poets and artists that were drawn to Chillon.

Chateau D’ Angers in France

Chateau D’ Angers is a 9th century castle located in the Loire Valley in France. The Counts of Anjou founded the fortress and then expanded on it to its current size in the 13th century. Before the Chateau was built on this site, it was a Roman fortress because of its defensible location. As you might guess, though this Medieval castle is beautiful and mysterious, it has a darker side. There are dungeons located in one of the towers of the castle, where shackles and chains can be seen still attached to the walls. This dungeon was used as a prison for the “mad” in the 19th century.

Numerous kings and dukes have resided and worked in Chateau D’ Angers over the last thousand+ years. This castle has seen much love and much tragedy. It was also used during the two world wars. the Nazis severely damaged the building in World War II when an ammunition dump in the castle exploded. As you might guess, the Chateau is reported to haunted and houses a famous Medieval French tapestry called the Apocalypse Tapestry which is nothing short of terrifying. Elaborate embroidering of the devil, multi-headed beasts, and the end of the world gives visitors more than the cold chills.

The Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle

I always found the tale of the Fairy Flag fascinating! The fairy flag is ancestral heirloom of the MacLeod Clan and kept in the Dunvegan Castle on the majestic Isle of Skye in Scotland. The Fairy Flag itself dates to at least the fourteen hundreds, probably earlier. It is made of silk that is either yellow or brown and is covered in red “elf dots”. It is the subject of belief in fairies and it’s believed to have protective magical properties. Scholars and historians have examined the flag and believe it originated in the Far East, while there’s some conjecture it may have been from the Crusades or from Vikings.

Legend has it the flag was gifted to the Clan by a fairy woman who married one of the Clan members and returned to fairy land after 20 years in the human realm. She left the flag to her husband and family and told them if they were to fly it in the face of battle, that their Clan would survive. The Fairy Flag has been unfurled during at least two historical battles including the Battle of Bloody Bay in 1480 and the Battle of Glendale in 1490. The MacLeod Clan is very protective of the Fairy Flag and to this day keep it preserved at Dunvegan Castle along with a few other heirloom relics.

The MacCleod Clan’s Dunvegan Castle where the Fairy Flag is preserved to this day. Isle of Skye

More Medieval Magic & Witchcraft

Where there’s wizards and alchemists, there are also witches. Both good and evil. In the Medieval Times, magic was acceptable in certain forms. And by certain people. Alchemists were thought of as noble scientists, while women who seemed to have supernatural powers were feared, accused and executed on many fronts. They didn’t call it the Dark Ages for no reason! The Dark Ages were a time of con-artist witch hunters, twisted accusations, torture and execution. You didn’t want to be called a witch in the Medieval Ages!

The Hand of Glory: A Grisly Form of Medieval Witchcraft

A grisly magical item used in Medieval Times is known as the Hand of Glory. Legend has it the hand of glory was made from a hanged man’s hand. Pickled with salt, buried at a crossroads and hung upside down at the church door for so many days. A candle was made from man’s fat, sometimes mixed with baneful herbs, animal urine, and the man’s hair. Then placed in the hand of glory and lit a burglar’s way into a dark house he planned to rob. The hand of glory froze or entranced anyone in it’s light and opened any locked door, giving the burglar the chance to “rob them blind”.

Sometimes the candle was placed in the hand, other times the fingers were lit. An antidote: rub a salve made of cat’s gall, the blood of a hen, and other noxious ingredients over your threshold. There’s some speculation whether the hand of glory was made from a dead man’s hand OR if it was the Mandragora plant. The mandrake root which has been known since ancient times for its use in witchcraft.

A legitimate Hand of Glory, made from a dead man’s hand, is on display at the Whitby Museum in England. This relic was found in the roof of Hartby Cottage in Danby and was used as recently as 1820! The Hand of Glory has influenced books, poems, and movies over the past 2 centuries and continues to do so.

The hand of glory is a grisly Medieval magic tool used by thieves and burglars.
The Hand of Glory relic on display in Whitby Museum.

For the Detection of Theft & Recovery of Stolen Goods

As you can tell, thieves were a real problem in the Middle Ages. If you weren’t on the top of the feudal chain system, you were on the bottom and a peasant. You had to work hard for everything and sometimes hard work wasn’t enough. So people resorted to stealing. But if you had very little and someone was stealing from you, clearly that’s a problem too! So people turned to Medieval magic to find their stolen goods. Reginal Scot wrote the Sieve and Shears method in The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584.

“Stick a pair of shears in the rind of a sieve and let two persons at the top of each of their forefingers upon the upper part of the shears holding it with the sieve up from the ground steadily. And ask Peter and Paul whether A, B, or C hath stolen the thing lost, and at the nomination of the guilty person the sieve will turn round.”

Medieval Magic: Alchemy, Herbs, Witchery and Magic in the Middle Ages

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