I did promise a summary of my MEMSA paper at some point, so here it is. Most of the ideas have been rewritten and shortened for the blog, rather than taken directly from the paper itself, so I do apologise if there are parts which are unclear. Please feel free to post in the comments section if anything needs clarification.
The central example in the paper I delivered in Durham about demonic attacks on the body came from Felix’s Vita Sancti Guthlaci (The Life of Saint Guthlac). In chapter 29, Guthlac faces his first encounter with the devil, who attacks him with the poisoned arrow of despair:
Cum enim omnes nequitiae suae vires versuta mente temptaret, tum veluti ab extensor arcu venenifluam desperationis sagittam totis viribus iaculavit, quousque in Christi militis mentis umbone defixa pependit. Interea cum telum toxicum atri veneni sucum infunderet, tum miles Christi totis sensibus turbatus de eo…
‘So, testing all his wicked powers, with crafty mind he shot, as from a bow fully drawn, a poisoned arrow of despair with all his might, so that it stuck fast in the very centre of the mind of the solider of Christ. Now when meanwhile the poisoned weapon had poured its potion of black venom, then every feeling of the soldier of Christ was disturbed by it…’ (trans. Colgrave)
As with most modern readers, there was no hesitation in my mind when I first read it that this passage was a touch of metaphorical flourish on Felix’s part, particularly the analogy of the bow and arrow. But after discovering the afflictions associated with (elf-)shot (ofscoten) in the Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbook (more on that later), I began to wonder if this depiction of the devil fit into the wider literature of malevolent archer-beings. Leslie Lockett’s thesis that the mind was corporeal in Anglo-Saxon thought lent even greater to weight to the validity of my inquiry – a real, if invisible, arrow that pierces the corporeal mind, which goes on to spread its poison from the mind into the rest of the body.
The key word in this passage is the Latin veluti, which means ‘as if’ or ‘like’. It could be taken to refer to the entire bow-and-arrow construction, but it could also refer only to the phrase ab extensor arcu, ‘from a bow fully drawn’. My Latin is far from perfect so I had my reservations about my own translation; but if you look at Colgrave’s translation, he has also opted for the latter meaning. The bow is almost certainly a metaphorical construction to explain how the devil fired the arrow, but the arrow (saggitam) itself can be, and perhaps even should be, taken literally.
With this working hypothesis, I looked for parallels, which were surprisingly forthcoming. Consider this section from entry LXV of the Lacnunga, which reads:
Mea gibre pernas omnes libera
tuta pelta protegente singular
ut non tetri demones in latera
mea liberantur, ut solent, iacula
‘Deliver all the limbs of me, a mortal,
With a safe light-shield protecting every member,
So that the foul demons cannot into my sides
Hurl shafts, as they are accustomed’ (trans. Pettit)
The demons are depicted as wielding shafts that they can hurl into the human body, a motif that is re-emphasised several lines later as ‘invisible/nails of the shafts that the hateful ones fashion’. In Book V, chapter 13 of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, he also provides a story of a man who is visited by two nequissimi spiritus, very wicked spirits who proceed to stab him in the head and in the feet, causing poison to spread through his body until he dies. (This passage apparently has strong parallels to the ‘Knife in the Dark’ in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo is stabbed by the Witch-King.) Although there are no projectiles in this episode, Bede’s account gives evidence for the belief in demonic poisons that can enter the bloodstream through a piercing weapon.
Putting these three examples together – Guthlac, the Lacnunga and Bede’s HE – there appears to be a consistent trend of demons injuring the human body with the aid of a supernatural weapon that can pierce into the flesh. The arrows of the devil are, of course, a perfectly Biblical concept. In Ephesians 6:16, the Apostle Paul calls upon believers to take up the shield of faith that protects them against the arrows (the Latin Vulgate uses tela, ‘darts’) of the most wicked one. Presumably, this was intended as a metaphorical construction and was indeed taken as such by most of the Christian West, but the Anglo-Saxon writers may well have interpreted these arrows/darts literally. How did that happen? I offer a two possible reasons.
I’ve briefly mentioned the occurrence of ofscoten in the medical texts. Alaric Hall’s Elves in Anglo-Saxon England rightly problematises the translation of ofscoten into ‘elf-shot’, but he does not deny that the pain caused by elves were probably attributed to some sort of invisible projectile that they fired into the body. It could be argued that these beliefs about elves subsequently crept into beliefs about demons, but since we know nearly nothing about elves before the advent of Christianity in England, it is just as possible that these existing beliefs about demons firing projectiles crept into later depictions of elves.
An alternative, and reasonably stronger, suggestion is that the apocryphal Book of Enoch influenced the Anglo-Saxon understanding of demons. In the Book of Enoch, demons are described as teaching the art of smithing to men. Elizabeth Coatsworth has suggested that the image of smith in f.10 of the Old English Hexateuch might depict him forming ‘the earliest stages of forming a blade or spearhead’. Interestingly, smiths also make an otherwise inexplicable appearance in the remedy in the Lacnunga known as Wið færstice. Although only a fragment of the Book of Enoch has been found within an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, the illustrations in the Junius 11 manuscript strongly suggest that the artist was aware of the apocryphal book. Later on in Guthlac’s vita, demons also toss him in the air on the points of their spears. Could these associations with smithing have formed the basis for the Anglo-Saxon belief in demonic piercing weapons?
Unfortunately, at this stage I can only offer hypotheses rather than firm answers, particularly since the pressing deadline of my dissertation means that I have to prioritise the completion of my assessed work rather than trying to probe even further into this fascinating topic. But it’s very possible that Felix’s depiction of the devil firing a poisoned arrow of despair into Guthlac captures a unique synthesis of beliefs about demons from various influences – Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the Book of Enoch, pre-Christian beliefs about elves. Karen Jolly has proposed that Christianity and Germanic folklore bled into each other to create an ‘Anglo-Saxon Christianity’. Not only does this episode fit that category perfectly, but it also predates the elf charms by several centuries. Definitely one I will be coming back to when I’m finally able to kick-start my academic career (at least 5 years away, sadly…)
Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Judith McClure and Roger Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth. ‘The Book of Enoch and Anglo-Saxon Art’. In Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, pp.135-150. Cambridge: D.S. Powell, 2003.
Felix. The Life of St Guthlac. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Hall, Alaric. Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of belief, health, gender and identity. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007.
Jolly, Karen. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England. Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Karkov, Catherine. Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England: Narrative Structures in the Junius 11 Manuscript. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Pettit, Edward. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from the British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga. 2 vols. Lewiston; Queenston; Lampeter: The Edward Mellen Press, 2001.