We often get the impression that paganism in Britain was completely eradicated by the arrival of Christianity and its adoption by our ruling elites. We also tend to think of pagan revivals as not occurring prior to the 20th century, or perhaps the Victorian magical schools of the late 19th. However, the more I've looked at the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland over the years, the more I've come to see that the bards of our islands have concerned themselves not only with the preservation of our myths, legends and histories, but with a brand of mysticism that amounts to a pagan revival. In Wales, for example, the literature surrounding the Cauldron of Ceridwen and its magical brew of Inspiration (Awen), and the subsequent tales and poems associated with Taliesin, the Primary Chief Bard of Britain, all point to a mystical, spiritual understanding that has at its core the witch-like figure of Ceridwen herself, Patroness of Bards, magician and initiatrix.
In Ireland, the Bards (filidh) wove mysterious legends of Druids, describing their rites of healing. They also created complex systems of cyphers and hidden languages based around the Ogham alphabet, itself described as being used for magic and divination.
Nor was England left out of this medieval pagan revival if the following Prayer to Mother Earth is anything to go by. I first came across it in the 1970s in a book called Mastering Herbalism by Paul Huson. It comes from a 12th century English herbal and is very clearly pagan:
“Earth, divine goddess, Mother Nature who generates all things and brings forth anew the sun which you have given to the nations; Guardian of sky and sea and of all gods and powers and through your power all nature falls silent and then sinks in sleep. And again you bring back the light and chase away night and yet again you cover us most securely with your shades. You contain chaos infinite, yes and winds and showers and storms; you send them out when you will and cause the seas to roar; you chase away the sun and arouse the storm. Again when you will you send forth the joyous day and give the nourishment of life with your eternal surety; and when the soul departs to you we return. You indeed are duly called great Mother of the gods; you conquer by your divine name. You are the source of the strength of nations and of gods, without you nothing can be brought to perfection or be born; you art the great queen of the gods. Goddess! I adore you as divine; I call upon your name; be pleased to grant that which I ask you, so shall I give thanks to you, goddess, with one faith.
“Hear, I beseech you, and be favourable to my prayer. Whatsoever herb your power produces, give, I pray, with goodwill to all nations to save them and grant me this my medicine. Come to me with your powers, and howsoever I may use them may they have good success and to whomsoever I may give them. Whatever you grant, it may prosper. To you all things return. Those who rightly receive these herbs from me, do you make them whole. Goddess, I beseech you; I pray you as a suppliant that by your majesty you grant this to me.
“Now I make intercession to you all you powers and herbs and to your majesty, you whom Earth, parent of all, has produced and given as a medicine of health to all nations and has put majesty upon you, be, I pray you, the greatest help to the human race. This I pray and beseech from you, and be present here with your virtues, for she who created you has herself promised that I may gather you into the goodwill of him on whom the art of medicine was bestowed, and grant for health's sake good medicine by grace of your powers. I pray grant me through your virtues that whatsoever is wrought by me through you may in all its powers have a good and speedy effect and good success and that I may always be permitted with the favour of your majesty to gather you into my hands and to glean your fruits. So shall I give thanks to you in the name of that majesty which ordained your birth.”
Translated in 'Early English Magic and Medicine' by Dr. Charles Singer, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. IV. The 'thees' and 'thous' of Singer's translation have been replaced with modern English. It's also quoted in The Old English Herbals, by Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, which should open as a pdf file if you click on this title: Old_English_Herbals. Well worth a look as it's got quotes from lots of other early Anglo-Saxon and English herbals, including assorted spells and charms...
It seems we are following in the footsteps of many generations of pagan revivalists. Or perhaps paganism never fully gave way to Christianity but always hung on like silver-dewed cobwebs in our hedgerows, sparkling briefly at twilight times then all but disappearing in the full light of the day.
I trust the unnamed writer's prayer was answered, and that she or he found the healing virtues so eloquently requested from our great Mother Earth.
UPDATE, January 27th, 2014:
As so often, this particular historical mystery has been solved by my old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton. On page 384 of his book, Pagan Britain (Yale University Press, 2013), Ronald identifies this poem as a product of the late Roman Empire, reproduced in various continental manuscripts from the 6th century onwards, though only the aforementioned 12th (or possibly 11th) century herbal in England, always under its Latin title, Praecatio Terrae Matris, 'Prayer to Mother Earth.' It is translated in J. Grattan and Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (Oxford University Press, 1952).
My suggestion that it may represent part of a 12th (or 11th) century pagan revival still stands. My theory is that this took place, particularly in the Welsh courts and bardic colleges, but also in other parts of Britain, as a direct result of the Norman invasion of 1066. This violent influx of foreign culture led native Britons to look to their past, including their pagan past, for comfort, inspiration and a strengthened sense of identity. The fact that the pagan past was, by then, barely remembered (if at all) led them to look beyond Britain to fill the void, hence this Latin poem in a Saxon manuscript and the features from Irish mythology that appear in the Welsh Mabinogi, a collection of legends also compiled in the 12th century.