What is a charm?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about charms with help from scholars Joseph S. Hopkins, Jonathan Roper, and others, discussing the use of charms in storycraft, and providing you with an example and an exercise on the topic.

Folkloric Discussion of Charms

I've situated charms in a wider exploration of folk belief, but scholars also situate them in verbal lore. Jonathan Roper writes that charms are a "force of patterned traditional utterance, a force which, when performed in a certain arena, and sometimes accompanied by gesture and medicine, has been credited with the power to bring about changes in health, fortune, safety and emotional state. So, verbal charms, or what are now commonly known as “spells”, could be defined as traditional verbal forms intended by their effect on supernature to bring about change in the world in which we live" (2003b, 8).

I like Roper's description because it anchors charms in both genres and provides us with a definition to explore. First, they are patterned traditional utterances that may include alliteration, assonance, repetition of words or parts of words, rhyme, near-rhyme, and other poetic devices (Roper 2003b, 9). Second, they are performed in certain arenas or contexts. Monika Kropej writes that in Slovenian charms, moon phases are especially important because they "can greatly affect the outcome of a ritual, hastening or impeding the healing process" (2003, 67). Other contexts may include situations of lack or illness the charm is intended to address; pain in need of abatement, binding spells to prohibit a person from causing harm, petitions for the help of saints, and so on (Kropej 2003, 68-73). Third, there is the gestural component of Roper's description, which he describes as an "enactment," adding that "Healing charms may be accompanied by particularly elaborate rituals involving massaging or stroking, blowing upon or spitting on the sick part of the patient, the application of special preparations etc." (2003b, 36-37). Finally, there may be actual medicine in a charm. Andrea Bargan writes that Germanic charms contained true medical prescriptions often based on much-respected herbs (2017, 34). Together, these components work in both the supernatural and the natural worlds to effect change.

There are two more charm elements not mentioned in Roper's description that I'd like to address here before we look at an example. First, charms may be written down, in which case they are still counted as verbal lore but function as talismans (Roper 2003a, 50). This is important to the present newsletter edition because the fictional example below contains talismans. Second, charms may contain other kinds of material culture besides herbs; knives, foods, and other ingredients or accessories may also play a part in their creation and performance (Roper 2003b, 36).

Merseburg Charm II: For an Injured Horse

Joseph S. Hopkins is a Germanic scholar who recently undertook a translation and discussion of the Old High German Merseburg Charm II, which was discovered in 1841 by Georg Waitz and published with commentary by Jacob Grimm in 1842. Hopkins writes that both Merseburg charms "provide an extraordinarily rare window into the pre-Christian beliefs of the continental Germanic peoples" and goes on to illuminate the cosmological underpinnings of MZ II in an article well worth reading in its entirety (Hopkins n.d.).

Merseburg II contains several charm elements familiar to scholars of the genre, but for the sake of brevity, I'll limit my discussion of it to those that offer insight into folkloric belief. Jonathan Roper writes that narrative charms often contain a "historiola" or little story, "in which the protagonists or protagonist (usually a saint, or a Biblical or Apocryphal character, sometimes represented with their particular attribute) overcomes an antagonist – whether that be a malevolent character, force or disease" (2003b, 22). When the charm is spoken over a patient, that person becomes "a character in the epic or mythic world" (Roper 2003b, 24), and it is hoped that the beneficial outcome of the historiola will manifest in that person's life.

The power of these narrative charms lies in belief; specifically, belief in their primary characters. Through poetry, gesture, material culture, and other charm elements, the healer mediates between the supernatural and natural worlds to effect a change in the patient similar to the one described in the charm. In the case of Merseburg II, the primary characters are pre-Christian Germanic gods, and the historiola describes their efforts to heal an injured horse. This means that those early Germanic people who recited the charm probably believed in the power of these gods and hoped their own injured horses might be healed by it.

Now let's look at the charm itself:

English Old High German
Phol and Wodan rode to the Wood,
There, Baldr’s foal wrenched its foot.
So charmed it Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister,
so charmed it Friia, Volla’s sister,
so charmed it Wodan, as he well could:
so bone-wrench,
so blood-wrench,
so joint-wrench;
bone to bone,
blood to blood,
limb to limb,
—so joined together be!
Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza
du uuart demo baldares uolon sin uuoz birenkict
thu bigolen sinhtgunt * sunna era suister
thu biguolen friia, uolla era suister
thu biguolen uuodan so he uuolaconda
sose benrenki
sose bluotrenki
sose lidirenki
ben zi bena
bluot zi bluoda
lid zi geliden
sose gelimida sin.

Notes: English translation by Joseph S. Hopkins, 2019; Old High German from Merseburg Domkapitel Cod. 136, fol. 85r, viewable from TITUS (Goethe University Frankfurt) here (formatting and light emendation by Hopkins).

How Charms Have Been Used in Fiction Writing

This month, I'm sharing part of a scene from one of my own stories; "Every Broken Creature," which appeared in the F is for Fairy anthology. The story fictionalizes an actual - and immensely tragic - historical event, the first documented execution by fire of a man accused of sorcery in Iceland. In this scene, magistrate Magnús Björnsson confronts the soon-to-be victim Jón Rögnvaldsson with rune charms written on paper, which have been found while searching Jón's house:

Dagur was dying. His skin lay over his bones like a shroud upon a skeleton and his phlegm, when he was able to cough, was bloody. Now and then, he slipped into a fever delirium and called out for his mother, but it was Jón who poured medicine into the boy's failing body while his father was away in the days that followed.

He was packing Dagur's feet with an onion poultice when the magistrate came to arrest him.

"I found these on the table in your house." Magnús Björnsson held up a fistful of papers as if they might contain a murder confession. He was a tall, spare man of thirty-eight years, keeper of the King's goods in Eyjafjörður county, a Lutheran reformer who had brought a loathing of Catholics and sorcerers alike from Copenhagen to Iceland.

"They're healing staves. I drew them to bless the medicine I was making. My father taught me how to do it." Jón rose from Dagur's bedside, a note of rebuke in his voice. "Why were you in my house, and why did you take things out of it that don't belong to you?"

"So your father was a sorcerer." Magnús slipped the papers into the pocket of his cloak and stepped away from the stairwell.

Sigurður took his place and leered at Jón; a bully wielding a borrowed club. "He used them to kill my horses and raise the dead, right here in my house while I was asleep" (MacCath, 2019).

This example draws upon historical elements of charm creation and use in Iceland; the crafting of talismans by writing combinations of runic letters and other symbols on paper, the utilization of pre-Christian charms by Catholic Icelanders prior to the Reformation, and the ways these activities were later demonized by Lutheran clergy and believers. The fragmented accounts I read before writing the story did not indicate that Jón's talismans were "healing staves," though there was a sick child in them who blamed Jón for his illness, and there was also a man named Sigurður who accused Jón of killing horses and trying to raise the dead. The talismans themselves were at the centre of these accounts; a commonplace magical working in Catholic Iceland that may have cost more than one life when country people slow to adopt the new religious paradigm found themselves on the receiving end of its power.

How Charms Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Longtime readers of this newsletter will know I like to encourage writing that takes folkloric principles and applies them in unusual ways. So let's bypass the frequent use of charms in fantasy fiction and briefly look at ways they might be applied in science fiction:

Patterned Traditional Utterances: A patterned traditional utterance might mean something far different to a sentient artificial intelligence than it does to a human being, and the complex mathematical poetics of AI charms might not be comprehensible to anyone else.

Arenas and Contexts: Sentient beings evolved to live in extreme environments (e.g. high atmospheric pressure, lava, permanent darkness) might believe that changes in these environments are integral to charm work, and the situations of lack or illness their charms are meant to address might be related to physiological and psychological processes far different from our own.

Gestures, Medicines, Talismans, and Material Culture: A disembodied being might not know what any of these things are but might have equally important replacements for them.

These are just a few ideas among many you might consider, but I hope they encourage your imagination to travel in new directions.

An Exercise in Writing with Charms

There's a great deal more I might have written about the structure of traditional charms, and while I do plan to include some of that material in a future book, you might be at a disadvantage now when it comes to writing your own charms for fiction. So try one of these ideas instead:

  1. Write a science fiction scene that references a charm based on one of the ideas above.
  2. Write a scene about a cultural or religious conflict over the use of charms in general, as I did in "Every Broken Creature."
  3. Write a scene in which a charm doesn't work, works differently than intended, or works perfectly.
  4. Write another kind of scene that includes a reference to charms.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of curses.


  • Bargan, Andrea. 2017. ‘Transylvanian Saxon Charms as Part of Old Germanic Folklore’. Messages, Sages and Ages 4 (1): 33–40.
  • Hopkins, Joseph S. n.d. ‘Translation: Second Merseburg Charm’. Mimisbrunnr.Info: Developments in Ancient Germanic Studies. Accessed 17 December 2019. https://www.mimisbrunnr.info/mimisbrunnrinfo-translation-mz-ii.
  • Kropej, Monika. 2003. ‘Charms in the Context of Magic Practice. The Case of Slovenia’. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 24: 62–77.
  • MacCath, C.S. 2019. ‘Every Broken Creature’. In F Is for Fairy, edited by Rhonda Parrish. Poise and Pen Publishing.
  • Roper, Jonathan. 2003a. ‘English Orature, English Literature: The Case of Charms’. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 24: 50–61.
  • ———. 2003b. ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms’. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 24: 7–49.

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