Behind Hedge Magic

The Hedge Witch's Way: Magical Spirituality for the Lone Spellcaster - Rae Beth 2006

Behind Hedge Magic

If this is to be a book of magical prayers for the hedge witch — who is, first and foremost, a wildwood mystic — then we must define what these terms mean. First, what is a hedge witch? Is she or he to do with plants, especially? Or to do with what grows in those thin strips of woodland that divide one field from another in Britain? When I first wrote the book Hedge Witch (known in America as The Wiccan Path) I found that many people were asking me whether I was a herbalist. They assumed that hedge witchcraft must be about using, medicinally, the many wild plants that grow in hedge banks and amongst the hedge trees — a reasonable assumption, considering that village wisewomen and cunning men of the past would have done just that. But nowadays, this is not so. For while some hedge witches are medical herbalists, most are not. The term simply means ’solitary witch’. I derived it from the nineteenth-century term ’hedge priest’. This meant a priest who belonged to no church or group, but simply went his own way, teaching or ministering beside the hedgerow, informally. ’Hedge school’, another nineteenth-century term, had the same connotations. It meant an informal school — simply a group of villagers, educating themselves. Thus, hedge witch: a solitary witch, answerable to no one, belonging to no coven; claiming the right to be what she or he was born to be — magical; learning alone from familiar spirits or by trial and error, or from other witches, informally; not governed by a large movement or institution but, nonetheless, authentic; a natural, however unrecognized; a born witch. However, I’d like to point out here that many witches who work in covens are also ’born witches’, and that most do work alone, sometimes. There is not always a hard and fast division between the coven witch and hedge witch, but the term is applied, normally, to those who always work alone.

The term has caught on. It is now widely used, here in Britain, to mean any lone witch, a solitary spellcaster. The use of plants — for their magical resonance and symbolism — may feature in many of our spells, but most of us do not have the medical knowledge of herbs as a treatment for illnesses that our foremothers and fathers would have had. So we leave that to the trained practitioners, qualified herbalists and the like, and concentrate on our magic. We use skills like ritual, visualization and enchantment (the magical use of words).

Some other terms used nowadays, which mean much the same as hedge witch, are wisewoman, wild witch, cunning man, lone witch or village witch. These all denote a solitary practitioner of magic.

What makes a hedge witch authentic? First, an ability to sense the spirit in all things. Not necessarily to see or hear nature spirits, or not at first, but simply to feel that they are there, along with a strong sense of all psychic atmospheres. Second, a natural feeling for ritual action. The inclination to mentally dedicate something (like letter writing or planting seeds or making a display of moss and feathers and pebbles, for example) to the reweaving of fate, a spellcasting. The authentic hedge witch can feel the effect psychically, because they have a fey spirit. And so they live in more than one dimension: within the mortal world, yet with an awareness of psychic energy fields and the links between these and life. Such knowledge does not come all at once, but in a born witch there are always glimmerings, from childhood onwards.

For a born or hedge witch, there is a connection between our activities — arts and crafts, gardening, walking, love, childcare, work and so on — and magic. When simple things are consecrated, by prayer and magical intention, they are imbued with the power of ritual and become spells — as when a woman who is sewing a quilt begins to picture the peaceful sleep of those who will lie under it. The sewing becomes a spell, as she weaves the thread of fate for those sleepers, and asks the Goddess to bless her work. Or, for example, when a man, hanging a picture of trees in his living room, then visualizes the leaf-filtered light of woods, and woodland atmosphere, spreading throughout his home. He dedicates it as a wild place of healing magic, and asks that the spell be blessed.

Hedge witchcraft can be this immediate. It is not dependent on much equipment or ritual regalia. It is more about consecration of what we are doing. However, it does have an area of some formality, centred on prayer and the tending of an altar, to make sure we do keep the thread of our magical existence, by having some structure. We learn from folk tradition and the books of other witches and inner guidance, to reinterpret witchcraft for today. Our ancestors used magic all the time: blessing spells for the home, to make the fire stay lit overnight, or for good health, or love, or an increase in the birth of lambs or cattle, or even to help butter form while churning the milk! The famous Carmina Gadelica, a nineteenth-century collection of Celtic poems, shows how naturally, and with how much lyricism, our foremothers and fathers used the practice of enchantment. This was the skill once common to all native cultures, all over Europe, or so we may safely assume. It springs from a knowledge that we are all part of one biosphere, psychically, as well as physically, interconnected with plants and animals and all the elements. This is an awareness possessed by all those who live close to the earth.


Today’s Pagan returns to our ancestors’ feeling for the connectedness of all beings in one Earth dance, and for each creature and tree and pool’s separate spirit — but with a new knowledge; the terrible knowledge of what it feels like to live in a world where the vibrant spirits of places and plants and creatures are now discounted, as though non-existent. For the world says that nature is empty, that it’s just raw materials to be exploited for our needs. In contrast, the witch speaks with the spirits of nature, or even speaks as these same spirits:

’To be a witch. One who speaks for the tree roots and stones. Who speaks with the tree roots’ and stones’ voices. One who speaks as the grass and rivers. Who speaks as fields and woods and hills and valleys and the salt marshes and waves and tides. Yet who speaks as what is close to home. With the mouse’s voice or the seagull’s or the fox’s or badger’s. One who speaks in cadences that go beyond the darkness and beyond stars, encompassing what is unmeasurable. One whose entire being vibrates to the spirits’ words in nature, like a reed at dawn in a pool where trout swim.’

That at least is the aspiration, as told to me by my familiar spirit. Culturally, and environmentally, this is what the world needs: voices proclaiming the poetry and sacredness of the natural world, and so invoking a healing of the wasteland which humans have created; the voices of Pagan spellcasters; the witches’ voices, in strength and beauty.

The witch is not someone without life problems. To love nature and magic and try to acknowledge the spirit in all creatures, in today’s harsh world, is often to feel overwhelmed. In other words, being that psychically sensitive can mean that even a walk down an ordinary city street can be deeply distressing, owing to the waves of misery, despair or extreme stress coming from so many passers-by. We are not all powerful. We cannot fix everything. There is only so much that we can, magically, attend to, and so we often suffer from nervous exhaustion and need to use our magic to heal ourselves. In spite of these problems, a witch stands her or his ground.

Hedge witchcraft could seem as though it hasn’t got a prayer, as they say, when it comes to confronting real problems. How can lighting a candle and putting, say, a bunch of daffodils on a table and saying a short magical prayer make a serious difference in life? But such simple witchcraft can have a deep mystical power, if it is sincere: the old lady who places a vase full of loosestrife or vervain in her room, with a prayer to the Goddess for reconciliation (on the occasion of a reunion with an estranged brother or sister) is using hedge witchcraft; the single parent who buys organic potatoes, with a prayer that organic farming may increase, and the children may therefore have a better chance, is using hedge witchcraft; the man who carries an acorn in his pocket, with a prayer to the Horned God to make him both virile and protective, is using hedge witchcraft.

Each of the above examples does involve the use of a plant, in a talismanic manner, but hedge witchcraft may also be done with shells or feathers, bought or found objects, activities, song or dance. What matters is that they should form a poetic, symbolic link with the theme of the spell, and thus invoke the relevant spirit powers.

The practice that is behind hedge witchcraft, that makes it profound and powerful, is wildwood mysticism. Or, to put it another way, hedge witchcraft is wildwood mysticism in action.

A mystic can be defined as ’one who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the deity, or who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding’.

A wildwood mystic is one who approaches these goals through worship of the Pagan deities of the three realms of the world tree. The self that we seek to surrender is the false self: the self conditioned to be out of touch with psychic and natural realities; the self taught to dismiss all intuition as silly and irrational, and all need to take account of nature’s rhythms as old-fashioned, primitive and opposed to progress; the self that sees all sense of communing with nature spirits as dangerous. We seek to surrender this self, so that we may be at one with the Goddesses and Gods, and with all life.

The spiritual truths we seek which are ’beyond the understanding’ are those of magical tides and the mysteries of life, death and rebirth.

There are five key practices for wildwood mystics.

1Pagan prayer

2Journeys to wild and sacred places (pilgrimage)

3Pagan ritual

4Inner journeying (trancework and visualization)

5Living a dedicated life (honouring nature, environmentally)

The practice around which all the others revolve is the first one — prayer. For instance, a physical journey to a stone circle or other sacred place is made into a pilgrimage most easily by our prayers. If, on arrival, we pray to the spirit of the place, and to the Great Goddess and God, then the veils part. That is, the psychic and magical aspects of the area are no longer concealed from us. We can then gain realizations and work magic.

Similarly, with our inner journeying, we can gain admission to the right level or domain within inner realms by praying to Pagan deities for guidance.

Prayer is also the foundation of Pagan ritual, and for the living of a life of ritual meaning — a consecrated life.

Each of these practices embodies an aspect of what is behind and within hedge witchcraft, empowering it. Spells give a wildwood mystic’s path direction and purpose, for what use is mysticism if it does not serve life?

Many of the following chapters will give prayers and spells for down-to-earth subjects: fulfilment in love, good fortune, prosperity, good health and a secure home and so on. In contrast to mainstream conceptions of mysticism, that of the wildwood does not seek to separate us from life or other people. It does not encourage us to transcend nature or deny natural instincts. Instead, it aims at a balanced fulfilment for all — a fullness of life.