Love Magic in Medieval Irish Penitentials, Law and Literature

Love Magic in Medieval Irish Penitentials, Law and Literature

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Love Magic in Medieval Irish Penitentials, Law and Literature: A Dynamic Perspective

By Jacqueline Borsje

Studia Neophilologica, Vol.84, Suppl.1 (2012)

Introduction: One of the earliest medieval European witch trials took place in Ireland, when Alice Kyteler was prosecuted for being a witch in Kilkenny in 1324. On the whole, however, only a few witch trials took place in this country. It may, therefore, be surprising to see a contribution on early medieval Ireland in a volume dedicated to early modern witch trials. In fact, when Christianity settled in Ireland in the fifth century, an attempt was made to eradicate belief in witches. We read this in The First Synod of St Patrick, a document concerning ecclesiastical discipline in the form of a letter, which may date from 457 CE or the sixth century. The belief in witchcraft and the public accusation of such is condemned as follows:

A Christian who believes that there is such a thing in the world as a lamia, that is to say, a witch (striga), is to be anathematized – anyone who puts a living soul under such a reputation; and he must not be received again into the Church before he has undone by his own word the crime that he has committed, and so does penance with all diligence.

Please note the feminine forms of lamia, a dangerous woman with supernatural powers, and striga. This contribution analyses some early medieval Irish descriptions of beliefs related to socalled witchcraft. This material is important because it is not influenced by the manuals for ‘witch’ hunters that were current during the witch crazes. One thread in this contribution is ‘love magic’, which I define as verbal and material instruments by means of which erotic and affectionate feelings are believed to be aroused or destroyed in a supernatural way.

Another thread in this contribution is a plea for a dynamic reading of texts from multiple perspectives. This thread has its context in a debate between the disciplines of theology and the academic study of religion. The former discipline, especially in systematic studies such as dogmatics and ethics, takes a normative stand in religious matters whereas the latter tries to avoid this. Let me illustrate this.

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