A Witch or a Spae-Wife?

My friend Ash made a thoroughly enlightening video on IGTV the other day in which he explained the difference among the different kinds of Scottish folk practitioners. It was a delightfully succinct-yet-informative video, and it reminded me that Gaelic is not the only language of Scotland because he made sure to give Scots names for practitioners as well. It echoed the sentiments behind this piece from Cailleach’s Herbarium, in which Scott reminds us that “witches” were and are something quite specific in Scottish folk practice and that the idea that any practitioner of magical craft is a “witch” is a relatively new idea.

But Ash’s exploration of the differences among wise or canny folk and other practitioners of magic has led me down a research rabbit hole as I grapple with my own personal craft. I’ve spoken before about how I’m not really a witch (blighting cattle and consorting with the De’il isn’t really my cup of tea), and I had settled on the term “wise woman” as a way to describe what I do — a little wort cunning and herb lore, a little charm work, a little spirit travel, and a little divination. But my research is bringing me to the conclusion that my practice might be more akin to that of a spae-wife (or spey-wife), the diviner and seer of Scottish folk practice.

Because whenever I think about the conversation around the word “witch” and how it doesn’t really describe my practice, I also need to think about what words I do like to use for my practice, and “spae-wife” was a new word to me, learned from Ash’s video. And I like new words.

The word comes from the Old Norse word “spa,” which means to prophesy or foretell the future and was adapted into the Scots language to describe a woman who specialized in fortune-telling magic, although some accounts of the spae-wife painted her as similar to a wise woman, with aspects of medicinal or healing arts at her disposal. She might have been consulted for folk remedies, charms, or to help women in childbirth. In particular, though, the spae-wife specialized in divination, whether by dreams, cards, bones or stones, omens, or the traditional frith ceremony. The role seems to have been more common in the Orkney Islands, and the name “spae-wife” as opposed to “taibhsear” indicated that this was primarily a lowland role for magical practitioners.

And I love this. As I move through my practice, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to divination, seership, and my connection to the spirit world. It doesn’t hurt that my patron deity is a psychopomp of sorts, bridging the physical world and the world of the ancestors. So I am sampling this word, rolling it around in my mouth and brain and seeing if this might be a good word for my practice.

Part of coming into my own as a practitioner has been accepting that I am meant to share my craft with others. And part of that has been clearly revealed to me by doing a bit of a soft-opening of my divination services to my closer friends on social media. But this piece is also an announcement of sorts that I do offer divination services. I primarily use cards right now. I’m not really a medium, in that I cannot consistently and consciously channel spirits, though I get messages now and then, but I enjoy performing divination and passing messages along to those who seek them. If you are interested in a card reading, you can see more information on my Divination page. And hopefully, I can try to figure out how to offer remote readings of other kinds soon.

For now, I’ll remain an obscure online spae-wife, casting my stones and reading my cards, and waiting. Beannachd leat!

The Kinship of Magic and Herbalism

IMG_0891

One of the earliest written accounts of the use of herbs in European history is the Physica of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun, mystic, and scholar of natural science from Germany. From her writings, it is clear that herbal healing and knowledge of natural remedies was intimately linked to concepts of magic and spirituality. From the introduction of her chapter on plant lore, she says that different plants have the ability to not only affect the physical body, but the spiritual one as well.

From there, we can look at Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician (later retitled The Complete Herbal) and see how, in his descriptions of plants and their preparation and use, he takes into account not only the physical properties of each plant, but the metaphysical. He discusses the astrological correspondences of plants alongside the physical effects in the body.

This is why I am so insistent upon studying the history of my paths. While in the modern day, herbalism has take steps to become “more scientific” in an attempt to gain legitimacy among the world of “modern” medicine, the fact remains that the earliest roots of herbalism are entwined with the roots of magic, witchcraft, and metaphysical study.

And so much of medicine and healing, in any tradition, is intuitive and undefined. When I was being treated for migraine headaches, the doctor told me that there is not as much science behind treating migraines because it’s not entirely known what treatments will work for which people. He started me out with a medication that I knew worked for my mother because those sympathies often exist, but it was a guess. In the same way, how often have you heard a story of a medical issue where the doctor “had a feeling” they should try something, despite not seeing clear signs outwardly in tests?

In the same way, herbalism embraces this vagueness and uncertainty. The herbalist strives to treat the whole person. In a similar way, my experience with acupuncture showed me the benefit of treating the whole person, not just the specific complaint. I had gone to the acupuncturist for help conceiving, but found that the most fruitful sessions we had were those in which he treated my past grief. Medical science is only recently catching up to the ways in which the body is interconnected and seemingly distinct issues are part of a whole.

So in the same way that modern medicine grew out of the herbalism that was intimately interconnected with folk magic, we are still learning and expanding that story in ways that we don’t yet understand. We know these connections are there, but we don’t know exactly what they are. They are like the explanations for the cycles of eclipses or the changing of the seasons before we had observed them through space exploration. The human body will always be that which is most familiar and yet often most foreign to us. And what else is that which we know exists but don’t yet understand but magic?

Red Thread and Fiber Magic

IMG_0851

One of my favorite book series as a girl was Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. The books follow the life of a young magic-user in a fantasy realm, but one aspect of the story that I always found fascinating was when the main character is teaching a group of young people to act as their village’s magical practitioners and is teaching them the crafts involved in enchanting using household tasks, particularly fiber.

As someone who crochets, spins, and sews, fiber arts are something that intrigue me in the context of my craft, and in the folk practices that call me, thread and string are key players in common charms. So when I saw that my go-to yarn source had come out with a new three-ply wool yarn, I decided to look into string and thread charms more deeply.

My first stop was my book on Scottish charms and the writings of Scott Richardson-Read of Cailleach’s Herbarium. My trusty book of Scottish charms and amulets talks of the “rowan and red thread” charm, where two crossed sticks of rowan wood are tied together with red thread. Incidentally, this charm reminds me a bit of the “god’s eye” charms we made in elementary school. The color red has associations with protection and counteracting harmful magic across cultures. And Scott has written of the snaim, or three-knot charm, using red, three-ply wool string to perform a ritual knotting and chant to banish the evil eye.

Though I have no cattle to be blighted or any mysterious illnesses of my own, the use of folk protections like this appeals to me, especially when it involves a medium that I feel a close connection to. I’ve taken up spinning because I appreciate the meaning and symbolism of both spinning a thread, as well as the focus that goes into it. While my current batch of wool is undyed grey Shetland wool, perhaps I should consider dyeing some red fiber to spin my own thread for protection charms. Even without the threat of baneful practitioners who might curse me, a little protection is never a bad idea.

And this is the philosophy of practice that I find so attractive about traditional folk magic — it is not about large rituals, but about weaving magic in with the mundane. In the same way that the pre-Christian beliefs were intertwined and syncretized with Christian belief, the mundane and the sacred are blended in such a way that the magic imbues all areas of daily life. It isn’t about specific rituals, but about finding the magic in small charms. As I crochet a project, sew an apron, spin a skein, prepare a meal, or simply make a cup of tea, intent and focus lend magic to all of these actions, making them into small workings, even when I am not sitting down to “do magic.” It is all magic.

Eventually perhaps I may need to put some of these ideas together. I’ve thought for a while of creating my own special shawl to wear when I’m doing particular workings. While I had hoped to use my own handspun yarn, I worry that it will not be rugged enough to stand up to near-daily wear, so I have been looking at using commercial yarn. And crochet is similar to a series of knots. Perhaps a three-repeat pattern would be a powerful way to knot intention into the piece. And perhaps I should run a red thread through it to remind me of the protection of mundane crafts.

The Veiled Lady

HeadScarf2

Recently, I posted a picture of myself working on my Materia Medica in which I am wearing a head covering. I tried to pre-emptively explain it because in the past, when I’ve covered my head in public, I’ve gotten a fair number of comments or questions about it. But then a friend pointed out that it is only natural that I would feel drawn towards head covering or veiling, as my main deity is known solely as “the veiled one.”

Head covering or veiling exists in many spiritual and religious traditions for many reasons. Sikhs cover their hair to protect their crown chakra; Jewish people cover their head as a representation of their observance of Jewish law and custom; some Christian faiths cover, either all the time or specifically during services; and Muslim women will take the hijab as an expression of their faith. In pagan communities or among other practitioners, veiling is seen as an act of connection with a deity, or else a way to protect spiritual energy that is expressed through the hair or head.

Historically, head coverings also have a long and global history. My own covering is inspired by medieval European coverings, as well as by modern head scarves. I have found myself falling in and out of covering my head for various reasons — for hair protection, to keep things clean, to cover them when they’re not, and as a way to alleviate the pressure of updos on days when I have a headache. It was not until my friend’s comment that I realized that some of this was subconsciously an expression of my connection to a deity who is named for her head covering.

I have always felt the need for a shawl or veil while meditating. In fact, I have one shawl in particular, a black-and-white plaid, that holds a special connection to my spiritual practice and that I often use during my practice. And shawls, scarves, and blankets are a large part of my own personal ability to feel secure in an environment. It probably has a bit to do with why I feel most connected to my spiritual path during the colder months.

So as I found myself deepening my practice and my connection to the Cailleach, I also found myself covering my head more often. And with that, I felt the desire to have a special wrap. So I made it. It is made from unbleached natural linen and hand-sewn, with my intentions and attention sewn into every seam. It is easy for me to tie and secure and washable so I can use it to help keep my hair clean. It is both practical and a wonderful way to feel connected to my practice, even on days I don’t do some kind of formal working.

If you’re interested in more writings about veiling, from the perspective of a Jewish witch who addresses both Jewish and modern witchcraft traditions of veiling, Z from Jewitches has a beautiful post that helped me on my journey. All of her writings are fantastic.