A Dragon without a Wagon, or Thinking about the Long-Lost Friend

I wanted to give you some insight into the sort of work I’m doing right now with The Long-Lost Friend.  This is difficult for me, because my brain has to move out of Focused Project Mode to explaining details.  Nonetheless, here’s a small example:  a remedy for erysipelas, also known as wildfire, a bacterial skin condition causing rashes.  Today it’s treated with antibiotics, but two hundred years ago in Pennsylvania, you might go to a powwower for it.

Hohman’s original:

Rothlaufen und der Drach’ flogen mit einander über den Bach.  Das Rothlaufen vergant; der Drach’ verschwand.

My rough and literal translation (I’m not certain about “vergant”):

Wildfire and the dragon flew together over the brook.  The wildfire disappeared, the dragon vanished.

Both English translations sought to keep the rhyme, but they did so differently.  The 1850 version, the most commonly available today, has the following:

Wild-fire and the dragon, flew over a wagon,
The wild-fire abated, and the dragon skeated.

The 1863 version is as follows:

St. Anthony’s Fire and the Dragon’s red

Together over the brook they fled.

St. Anthony’s fire is done,

The Dragons they are gone.

Overall, the second version is more in line with the original text (though somehow the dragon has multiplied and gained a color therein).   The underlying logic of the charm is to tie together the erysipelas with the fiery nature of the dragon.  After creating these two persons, we then juxtapose them with the stream and its cooling water, which effectively drives both away.  I want to avoid passing judgments on what version of a charm is more “correct,” but the 1863 version more clearly reflects the rationale behind the original piece.

The Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, as mentioned before, is proving to be a more and more invaluable reference.  For example, on the above charm it has a section devoted to similar incantations connecting dragons with various ailments.  One notable element of these is that, in many, the dragon is explicitly drowned.

I’m also following up the references therein to find other sources, though I can’t devote too much energy to this for any one charm.  Despite my misgivings about Google Books, I’m finding it and The Internet Archive to be invaluable resources for the project with their reprinting of circa 1900 German journals and books.  As a reward for those who have read this far, for instance, page 293 of this book (big file warning) is the start of a little-noted charm-book, containing spells similar to those Hohman details written down two years before The Long-Lost Friend

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. This is probably just a coincidence, but in college my wife and her friends highlighted a friend’s North Dakotan accent by having her say “The Farmer in the Wagon chased the Dragon over the Creek.” (or as she said “The Farmer in the way-gun chased the dray-gun over the crik.”) She says she can’t recall were the sentence came from.


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