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!

Imbolc and the Cailleach

Imbolc, or Brigid’s Day, was traditionally the beginning of the spring season in the ancient world. It was largely marked by the beginning of lambing, the return of milk from dairy livestock, and the blooming of the blackthorn. But it is still the dark half of the year and the time of the Cailleach, and there is a lot of folklore connecting Imbolc and the Cailleach.

In one of the most well-known, the Cailleach is associated with the Winter Queen Beira, who ages throughout the year and then bathes in a magical spring once a year to restore her youth. It is said that the spring’s magic is at its most potent on the first day of spring, or Imbolc, which is when the aged hag of winter bathes in the waters and transforms into the spring maiden. As the year once again progresses, she ages, until by Samhain she is once again the hag of winter, ruling the dark half of the year.

But in other versions of this story, Beira captures the Summer Queen Bride (associated with Brigid), and keeps her as a drudge. But on the first day of spring, the Summer King Angus rescues her and names the day “Bride’s Day,” which is how the day is known in Scottish folk tradition. This struggle of Angus against Beira, and the liberation of Bride, represents the cycle of the seasons, with Beira representing the stormy time of winter and early spring, while Bride represents the calm times of summer and autumn.

One of the aspects I find so fascinating about this tale is the seeming inversion of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Now, many modern enthusiasts and folklorists have taken another look at the myth of Persephone and Hades with the question of whether Persephone really was abducted, or if she was honestly in love with Hades and sought to escape an overbearing mother. In the same way, I like to take a second look at the story of Bride and the Cailleach and wonder if there is some other tale that has faded into the recesses of unrecorded history.

Finally, my favorite story of the Cailleach at Imbolc is the inspiration for a beloved American tradition. It was said that each year at Imbolc, the Cailleach gathers the rest of the kindling and wood she will need to keep warm until the storms of winter pass and spring and summer return. Because she controls the weather, she makes the day fair if she needs to be out for a long time to gather a lot of wood, but if she doesn’t make nice weather, it is because she doesn’t need much more wood because she foresees a short rest of winter. Now, this story has been change in the States and the wizened figure of the hag of winter has morphed into another familiar creature that is consulted as a weather augury around the beginning of February: a groundhog.

Blessed Imbolc and may the winter end soon!

[NB: You can find the stories of Beira, Bride, and Angus in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie]

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.

Folklore and Felines: The Cat Sith

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Cats have always been tenuously domesticated, at best. The relationship between human and feline is one of decided economic exchange, with little of the emotional bond that one sees throughout history between human and canine. That is not to say that our feline companions do not have a fondness for us, but the nature of cats is more solitary in many ways. And folklore echoes this human unsureness about the relationships they have with their cats.

In Scotland, the legendary Cat Sith may have been based on feral and wild cats who roam the area, or even the hybrid Kellas cat, which shares some striking similarities to the descriptions of the Cat Sith. But the Cat Sith was essentially a fae cat creature, capable of cursing households and stealing the souls of the dead. Folkloric descriptions of the Cat Sith is a cat as big as a dog that is all black, except for the white patch on its breast. Looking at images of the Kellas cats of Moray, it’s easy to see where the comparisons are drawn.

But the Cat Sith came to be associated with the folktale character of The King of Cats, as described in a story that was first recorded in the 16th century in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat. In the story, a man was hailed by a cat in the forest and told to tell his own cat that “Grimalkin is dead.” When he gets home, he tells his wife the story, and their cat jumps up and says that “if Grimalkin is dead then farewell” and left, never to be seen again. Interestingly, in this first written version, the man’s cat is female, as evidenced by the pronoun used by the mysterious cat in the woods.

Later on, this story is expanded upon. The man comes across not a single cat who hails him, but a group of cats carrying a coffin, who tell him that the king of cats is dead, and upon hearing this, the man’s cat jumps up and declares that they are the new king of cats and leaves. Of course the implication was that not only was the man unaware his cat was feline royalty, but also they could talk.

And I think this says a lot about the relationship between man and cat. While wild canines do exist, and were a threat to humans for millennia, cats are somewhat different outside of areas with large cats like lions, jaguars, and tigers. On the isle of Britannia, cats were generally either domesticated, or one of the increasingly small population of wild cats. But even domesticated cats are not entirely domestic, up to the present day. Plenty of people “own” cats who come and go as they please. While our own cat is exclusively an indoor cat, she does enjoy watching the exploits of the neighbor cats who roam the yard.

As a final note, mythology of the Cat Sith includes the ritual of leaving a saucer of milk out for the creature on Samhain eve so that they will bless your house (and to avoid the curse if the cat doesn’t get their milk). There was also a legend that the Cat Sith was a witch who could transform into a cat nine times, and on the ninth time would stay a cat forever, and may be the origin of the idea that cats have nine lives.

So as you enjoy the company of your feline friends, remember to be respectful. You never know when you might be in the presence of the next King of Cats.