Shingles is a painful skin rash around the area of a nerve infected with a virus called varicella-zoster. It is very unpleasant for sufferers, usually lasts from 2-4 weeks, and can be treated with anti-viral medication. About 1 in 4 UK citizens will suffer from it at some time in their lives. In Welsh Folk-Lore: a Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales (1888), Elias Owen gives the following curious, Eagle-related cure for shingles:
"The manner of proceeding can be seen from the following quotation taken from 'The History of Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant,' by Mr. T. W. Hancock, which appears in vol. vi., pp. 327-8 of the Montgomeryshire Collections.
“This custom (charming for the shingles) was more prevalent in this parish than in any other in Montgomeryshire. A certain amount of penance was to be done by the sufferer, who was to go to the charmer in the morning fasting, and he was also to be fasting. The mode of cure was simple - the charmer breathed gently on the inflamed part, and then followed a series of little spittings upon and around it. A few visits to the charmer, or sometimes a single one, was sufficient to effect a cure.
“The power of charming for the 'Ryri' is now lost, or in any event has not been practised in this parish, for several years past. The possession of this remarkable healing power by the charmer was said to have been derived from the circumstance of either the charmer himself, or one of his ancestors within the ninth degree, having eaten of the flesh of the Eagle, the virtue being, it was alleged, transmitted from the person who had so partaken to his descendants for nine generations. The tradition is that the disorder was introduced into the country by a malevolent Eagle.
“Some charmers before the operation of spitting, muttered to themselves the following incantation:-
Male Eagle, female Eagle,
I send you (by the operation of blowing, we presume)
Over nine seas, and over nine mountains,
And over nine acres of unprofitable land,
Where no dog shall bark, and no cow shall low,
And where no Eagle shall higher rise.”
The charmer spat first on the rash and rubbed it with his finger over the affected parts, and then breathed nine times on it.”
W. Jenkyn Thomas, writing in The Welsh Fairy Book (1908), tells us that:
"Huw Llwyd of Cynfael was the seventh son of a family of sons, and therefore he was a conjurer by nature. He increased his knowledge of the black art by the study of magical books, and he ate Eagle's flesh, so that his descendants could for nine generations charm for the shingles."
Let me make it absolutely clear that I am in no way encouraging anyone to eat Eagle flesh. Eagles are a beautiful and endangered species and should not be harmed in any way at all. I should also remind readers that Eagles are legally protected and damaging them or their nests is a criminal offence. I'm posting this for its historical interest, and its interest in linking Eagles with healing. As to the form of the healing, note the repetition of the number nine in the incantation, reminiscent of similar repetition in the Anglo-Saxon 'Nine Herbs Charm.' The 'Nine Herbs Charm' also includes blowing the poison out from the afflicted person. I have yet to try the shingles charm, but it may be that it works without the necessity for you, or one of your ancestors, to have eaten Eagle flesh. I suspect that, as with many unconventional healing methods, the real key lies in the strength of belief of both the charmer and the charmed. Indeed, the same applies to conventional medicine more than some doctors care to admit.
The idea that Eagles offer a cure for shingles may owe its origins to the similarity between the Welsh words eryr, 'Eagle,' and (swyno'r) ryri, 'shingles,' but no doubt also relates to an archaic belief encountered elsewhere, including in the 'Nine Herbs Charm,' that disease can be caused by the attack of malignant serpent spirits. In native British tradition, shingles was referred to as a serpent wrapped around the body. There is a long and widespread tradition that Eagles will attack and kill snakes. Put the two together, and the idea that an Eagle could attack and kill the disease makes mythical sense. William Elliott Griffis, in his Welsh Fairy Tales (1921), says that shingles -
“... is called also by a Latin name, which means a snake, because, as it gets worse, it coils itself around the body. Now the Eagle can attack the serpent and conquer and kill this poisonous creature.”
Sadly, Eagles have long been persecuted by farmers and game-keepers. Golden Eagles were driven to extinction two centuries ago in England and Wales, though one or two have recently been seen again and there are said to be one or two breeding pairs in the Lake District. In Scotland, they're doing better, with estimates of up to 450 pairs. There are, however, still instances of game-keepers poisoning them. Ironically, much of their diet consists of rabbits, which farmers view as pests.
There is a legend that thunderstorms are created by the beating of the wings of great Eagles who circle in the clouds that shroud the high peaks of Snowdonia, called Eryri in Welsh, 'the Place of Eagles.' I have flown with them, and know it to be true. One day, I trust that physical Eagles will return to Eryri. Until then, here is a picture created digitally to show how magnificent they will look when they do. They are big, with a wing span up to 8 feet. They are also fierce, intelligent, powerful and beautiful. Long may they continue to soar the skies!
This piece is extracted from a booklet in the forthcoming British Druid Order Druid course. The drawing accompanying the charm is from a 12th century Irish manuscript.