Most of us have heard of witches and many of us have heard of various types of witch, such as White Witches and High Priests or Priestesses. However, a word that is less commonly used and, therefore, less prominent on most radars, is ‘Hedgewitch’. While this might sound like something out of a book by JRR Tolkien, Hedgewitches have a long tradition and many are still practising today. However, there is more to them than their name might first suggest.
Twigs, Mud and Elderflower
The Reader’s Direst Book of Pagans describes Hedgewitches as having “twigs in the hair, a thin covering of mud and a distinctive odour of cat-piss caused by its close association with Elderflower and other pungent herbs”. It also goes on to say that “though once considered poisonous, the Hedgewitch may in fact have healing properties”.
These images and thoughts may well be how Hedgewitches were perceived in the suspicious Middle Ages. Indeed, it may well be how they chose to live; Hedgewitches never have been associated with covens and prefer to keep themselves to themselves.
But today, you are just as likely to pass a Hedgewitch in the street and not realise it. They look and behave just like the rest of us. However, in times gone by, Hedgewitches were viewed with suspicion and fear, predominantly because the burgeoning rise of Christianity taught that anyone practicing any of the ancient, Pagan rites and rituals was likely to be an agent of Satan. As a consequence, many Hedgewitches chose to live on the outskirts of society, often in solitary locations, away from prying eyes.
The majority of Hedgewitches will admit to being Pagans – but ask different practitioners which deities they serve and you will get a variety of different answers. Hedgewitches tend not to affiliate themselves with a particular god or goddess. Instead, they are closer to the ancient Pagans than even some of the most ardent devotees. They tend to embrace the power of nature as a whole, rather than ascribing to particular beings. However, having said that, there are also those that will worship particular spirits and gods.
Hedgewitches were often the ‘wise women’ of villages and settlements and were sought out due to their healing abilities. They did – and still do – use magic and rituals to support their cures, but the majority of their work was based around herb lore. The name ‘Hedgewitch’ would seem to suggest someone who rakes through bushes and plants, in order to find the appropriate plant to treat a certain ailment or illness. However, just as there is more than meets the eye where these witches are concerned, there is more to their name than you might think.
In the physical world, the world ‘hedge’ says exactly what it means; Hedgewitches did forage for the cures that nature offered – yet the word also has a deeper more spiritual association.
The Symbolic Hedge
In the world of Paganism, the word ‘hedge’ was used to symbolise the barrier between the known and the unknown; the fine line between the spiritual realm and the psychic. Others refer to the Hedge as ‘the Veil’, but Hedgewitches have embraced this term and made it their own. If you hear a witch of this sort talking about the hedge, they are just as likely to be talking an aspect of their spirituality as they are to be talking about plants.
While Hedgewitches were often sought out for their curative powers, they were also employed for darker deeds, such as the casting of curses and the preparation of poisons. It might be that they would charge a person to cast a curse and the next day, seek payment from the victim to break it. Hedgewitches are nothing if not pragmatic!
Hedgewitches offered no allegiance to anyone and, as a result, were both feared and revered. This lack of loyalty is often described amongst witchy circles as ‘walking the Crooked Path’; Hedgewitches will go where life takes them, rather than allying themselves to specific belief systems or people.
Tools of the Trade
Hedgewitches of the Middle Ages had an array of paraphernalia. Some were practical instruments, such as pestle and mortars used to crush herbs, some were talismans through which they believed they could channel natural powers and others were purely for effect, designed to reinforce their images as people not to be crossed or altogether trusted.
However, the modern Hedgewitch has no need for such theatrics and their tools are minimal; all that’s really required is a sharp knife, a kettle, a pestle and mortar and a notebook – or a good memory. Just as the ancient Pagans tended not to commit rites and recipes to paper, for fear of being exposed as witches, many modern Hedgewitches follow that same path, but more out of tradition than fear of the Inquisition. Any further tools that are required tend to be made out of natural materials. Using anything synthetic is thought to interrupt the flow of natural magic and lessen the potency of spells and curses.
Wildcraft and Other Methods of Magic
Another aspect of this form of witchery is known as ‘wildcraft’. You might think that it would be easier or more convenient for modern Hedgewitches to grow their own herbs and plants, so they can knock up a cure or potion as and when required. However, part of the spiritual aspect for Hedgewitches is losing themselves in the natural world. To this end, they prefer to study where wild plants grow and learn about the activities and habits of wild animals, first hand.
The term Hedgewitch can also be a misleading one. Although the ancient witches may have dealt mainly with herbs and plants, modern Hedgewitches are just as likely to favour the use of crystals or Reiki to channel their powers.
The Crooked Path may wander of its own volition, but Hedgewitches will bend that Path to suit their own needs and preferences. However, what is common to them all is that they will only take as much as they actually need, leaving no mess or clutter and showing complete respect for their source materials. At the end of the day, everything they use is provided by Mother Earth, and Mother Earth is whom they are ultimately answerable to.