Herbs and spirits: The Way of the Wise

Old Norse medical practices are revealed in this examination of spells and concoctions

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Getting sick in days of old, from saga times to the 19th century, was just as human as it is today. But in a time without antibiotics, anesthesia, or MRIs, how do you treat the ailment? You might try certain herbs. Or then again, you might try certain magic spells.

In The Way of the Wise, author J.T. Sibley details the cures, treatments, and techniques used to promote health in old Norway. It is a colorful, fascinating overview of how rural Norway dealt with medical issues, as well as a detailed reference book focusing on rural medical practices, both physical and magical. It is, according to the author, “the most detailed account of the old ways in the English language.”

The author, J.T. Sibley, does claim that things weren’t as backward in Norway as elsewhere. “In rural Norway, medicine for man and beast was perhaps the most sophisticated in Europe.”

Much was magical in nature, but practical knowledge was passed down and used successfully from the saga times into the 20th century, although anesthesia was either unknown, ineffective, or not available in rural areas.

Smacks of magic
But perhaps the supernatural treatments were the most important. Even today, “Medicine, the act of healing disease or injury, smacks of magic.” Not knowing about viruses or germs, the folk healer had to determine the causes of illnesses another way. What sent them? Evil spirits?

The supernatural beings that could cause disease include the underjordiske (under earth ones) and local gnomes, both types of vettir. “It was critical to stay on the good side of the supernatural powers if one wanted healthy animals or people.”

And in order to achieve a cure, the Wise Woman (or Man) often had to call on those shadowy powers.

Healers in the past wrote down their recipes in the svartebøker, “black books.” They had to be fluent in spellcraft as well as the use of medicinal plants. Many of the remedies were quite effective. Back in the old days, one chewed willow bark; today one takes an aspirin. The same active ingredient is found in both.

But the theatrical aspect was also important. The rural folk didn’t know about viruses or bacteria and blamed evil forces for many maladies—witches, dwarves, or even a walking dead person.

Sometimes Thor or the Devil or other “seriously aggressive divine beings” would be called upon to chase off the disease demon. Local gnomes and spirits—the nisse and vettir—were also “paid off.” Pagan and Christian elements were often combined in magical treatments.

Old Norse drugs
There were medicinal concoctions. Various plant materials—herbs, fungi, mosses—were gathered from the wild or cultivated in secret places. The herbs collected on Midsummer Night, the summer solstice, were especially auspicious.

When distilled alcohol, brandy and aquavit, came into common usage at the end of the 1500s, it became popular as a base to steep plants. “Alcoholic preparations also made for an excellent way to get a stubborn Norwegian to take his or her medicine.”

Some medicinal plants were more common in the Viking or medieval times, but have now become scarce. Others, imported from foreign lands and cultivated in monastery gardens, may now be found growing wild in many parts of Norway.

According to the author, a Norwegian royal decree from 1672 specified that drugstores had to maintain herb gardens for their prescriptions. Some of the old traditional medicines and therapies are now becoming acceptable in some cases, and in Norway today, there are specified standards for herbal medicines.

Veterinary magic
Domestic animals were critical to the survival of the people in rural areas. Thus, the rural folk had to have basic veterinary skills. They also had to have magical skills. It was thought the nisse could cause disease by biting. Various incantations were used, as well as herbs. One common treatment involved collecting bread and salt from nine different farms, giving the whole concoction to the sick cows. In some areas, when calves weren’t thriving, one could take the holy chalice from the church and have the calves eat out of it.

A long-needed treatment
Some practices, notably magical ones, continued into the 20th century, and several researchers documented what they could while folk medicine was still being practiced in the 18th through the 20th centuries. And in fact, some treatments are still to be found.

The book includes an encyclopedic section with details on cures and ailments in various locations and eras throughout Norway.

On the book cover, a painting shows a technique for diagnosing internal problems. A bowl of water is placed on the chest. A round piece of stiff flatbread with a hole in its center is placed over the bowl. Molten lead is dribbled through the hole. The lead would congeal into various shapes, which the healer would use to make a diagnosis.

Magic and herbal concoctions were not sufficient, however, to guarantee decades of healthy life. “Folks rarely lived long enough to suffer from a long, slow disease; heck, just staying alive to see one’s fortieth birthday was considered a feat.”

The book contains several chapters detailing various remedies in use in rural Norway, including veterinary medicine. It also has several appendices detailing herbs, the laws of magic, and presenting Norwegian to English disease and herb names.

Encyclopedic and fact-filled, The Way of the Wise is a long-needed and captivating treatment of Norway’s old medical practices and beliefs—it is also a fascinating read. It can be obtained through Xlibris.com.

Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Odins of Raven, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects for several publications.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.