There are a number of intriguing Irish texts which can only be described as spells or charms, and they still lie in great obscurity, despite calls for attention from Kuno Meyer nearly 100 years ago, and from Dr. John Carey in his excellent article in 2000 (Léachtaí Cholm Cille, issue 30). There are two “charms” in particular that interest us in our discussion of the four craftsmen: they are the first and fourth of four charms found written on a loose leaf, now in the St. Gall monastery in Switzerland. The leaf is a page of vellum, originally part of a “pocket Gospel” book written in Ireland, perhaps around the ninth century. It has a portrait of St. Matthew on the front, and a quotation from Matthew in Latin and (slightly garbled) Greek between the second and third of the charms written on the back. This quotation refers to “teaching all nations”, which is exactly what the Irish literati were doing in Sankt Gallen before the turn of the second millenium.
While it hasn’t been determined whether the charms were written before or after the page was removed from the Gospel, or even before or after they arrived in Switzerland, this one tantalising page represents the work of two or three scribes, who shared beliefs and knowledge that were important enough to carry with them on their long journey overseas. The charms themselves are “Against a Thorn”, “Against Urinary Disease”, “Against Headache”, and “Against Various Ailments” respectively. Each charm (to be spoken aloud, we assume) is accompanied by instructions on how to use them.
As indicated above, the two that particularly interest us are the first, “Against a Thorn”, and the fourth, “Against Various Aillments”. That is because the charm against the thorn mentions Goibniu by name, and the last charm invokes a remedy which “Dían Cécht left with his household”. The invokation to Dían Cécht seems comprehensible enough, but that to Goibniu, the smith of the Túatha Dé Danann, may take a little more explanation.
Here is the first charm, as edited by Stokes and Strachan, with the incantation translated by Dr. John Carey, and the instructions by Stokes and Strachan:
Ni artu ní nim
‘Nothing is higher than heaven,
ni domnu ní muir
nothing is deeper than the sea.
arnóib bríathraib rolabrastar crist assach(oich)
By the holy words which Christ spoke from his cross:
díuscart dím andelg
Remove the thorn from me,
delg díuscoilt crú
the thorn of shedding blood
ceiti méim méinni bé ái
I strike a blow on it
which makes it spring out,
which makes it spring forward, which drives it out.
rogarg fiss goibnen
The wisdom of Goibniu is very harsh.
aird goibnenn renaird goibnenn ceingeth ass:-
Let the point of Goibniu go forth before the point of Goibniu.’
Focertar indepaidse inim nadtét inuisce & fuslegar de immandelg immecuáirt & nitét foranairrinde nachforanálath & manibé andelg and dotóeth indalafiacail airthir achin
This charm is laid in butter which goes not into water and (some) of it is smeared all round the thorn and it (the butter) goes not on the point nor on the wound, and if the thorn be not there one of the two teeth in the front of his head will fall out.
The last line of the incantation, translated by Carey as “Let the point of Goibniu go forth before the point of Goibniu” reminds us of the root meaning of Goibniu’s name. It derives from gob meaning “beak” or “point”, and particularly refers to the spear-points which he was famed for making. As such, we can see how a thorn in the flesh might feel like one of Goibniu’s spear-points, and if he is responsible for putting it in perhaps he might take it out again if asked nicely!
Beyond this specific instance, there are other references in early Irish literature connecting blacksmiths with both disease and magic. An odd anecdote in Cormac’s Glossary blames Goibniu for causing a disease. As we have seen before, some people wanted protection from the magic of blacksmiths, as in the poem known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, which prays against the magic of blacksmiths, women and druids. It is clear that the power held by blacksmiths and their patron, Goibniu, could both cause and remedy harm.
The last of the four charms on this single leaf of vellum is “Against Various Ailments”. Here is the incantation, edited by Stokes and Strachan and translated by John Carey, with the instructions translated by Stokes and Strachan:
Tessurc marb bíu
‘I save the dead-alive
ardíring argoth sring
from “díring”, from “gothsring”,
aratt díc hinn
from the tumour of the headless [snake],
from wounds of iron,
arul loscas tene
from a beard which fire burns,
arub hithes cú
from an “ub” which a hound eats.
rop achuhrú crinas
May it be his blood which withers,
three nuts which decay,
three sinews which weave.
I smite his sickness,
I conquer wounds,
blood of lamentation.
May it not be an enduring tumour,
may that whereon it goes be whole.
admuinur in slánicid foracab dian cecht liamuntir coropslán
I invoke the remedy which Dian Cécht left with his household, that that whereon it goes may be whole.’
Ani forsate focertar inso dogrés itbois láin diuisciu ocindlut & dabir itbéulu & imbir indamér atanessam dolutain itbélaib cechtar ái áleth.
This is laid always in your palm full of water when washing, and you put it into your mouth, and you insert the two fingers that are next the little-finger into your mouth, each of them apart.
This seems to be a more general protection against disease, perhaps one that should be used every time one washes. It is a difficult text, hence the untranslated terms díring, gothsring, and ub.
The context of these charms is unambiguously Christian, with the third charm, “Against Headache”, written wholely in Latin and invoking the virtues of such figures as Christ, Isaiah, Noah and Solomon. Other texts provide examples of similar charms, invoking pre-Christian figures, but supplemented with Christian blessings and instructions to repeat the Pater Noster prayer. This is not unlike prayers that sometimes appear in the small ads of Irish local newspapers to this day: instructions for prayers against headaches, toothaches and many other ailments that involve both ceremonial acts, meditations and prayers to specific saints. Just as Goibniu survived long into the Christian era as the Gobbán Sáor and even St. Gobban, there has clearly always been a place for the Túatha Dé Danann exemplars in the lives of Irish Christians. And not simply as a “peasant” or “folk” practice: the manuscript sources such as this leaf from St. Gall show their importance to the most highly educated and committed Christians to have come from Ireland.