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!

Red Thread and Fiber Magic

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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.