Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism – Book Review

13Paths

While eagerly anticipating the release of Daniel A. Schulke’s The Green Mysteries, I have been fortunate enough to receive a copy of Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism, a companion volume of essays on topics related to plant magic. As a long-time admirer of Schulke’s landmark Viridarium Umbris, one of the first modern works to treat esoteric herbalism in depth, I harbour high expectations of these new titles.

Thirteen Pathways is a slim volume (138 pages) containing four essays, a short preface and bibliography. I have the trade paperback edition, which is nicely bound and printed and features beautiful illustrations by Benjamin Vierling. I found the preface particularly refreshing, written in a simple style in the first person, it clearly outlines the objective of the work:

The purpose of Thirteen Pathways is therefore to examine routes by which we can learn the occult nature of plants, and in doing so, incorporate their powers in our own mystical pursuits, and beyond.

Those familiar with Schulke’s writing will be aware of his characteristic style, which tends towards the poetic, archaic and sometimes obfuscatory. Although Thirteen Pathways retains certain poetic flourishes it is, on the whole, an approachable text, clearly and lucidly written. It is my hope that a similar style has been adopted for the forthcoming Green Mysteries.

The first, titular essay was by far the most inspiring in my reading. Schulke briefly outlines the history of Occult Herbalism, and some common misconceptions relating to the subject. This is followed by the thirteen ‘pathways’, or ‘philosophical routes’ and thirteen ‘gardens’. The pathways are given Greek titles and consist of physical, intellectual and magical approaches to gaining herb knowledge and experience. The gardens are described as visions of symbolic landscapes centered around particular ethnobotanical relationships, such as healing or funerary plants.

Unfortunately, the scope of this essay allows only for a brief summary of each pathway and garden, but it is enough to stimulate and inspire the reader into further exploration. The pathways listed do not prescribe working methods but allow the practitioner to examine their own. Thus it is not a working manual so much as an enquiry into the ideas behind varying approaches. I have long felt that there is an over-emphasis in modern ‘traditional’ witchcraft on entheogens and poisonous plants, to the exclusion of other forms of plant magic. In the ‘gardens’, Schulke helps to redress this balance by placing equal value on diverse varieties of human-plant relationships including perfumery, cosmetics and cloth making. Familiar with the idea of planetary ‘gardens’, I enjoyed the originality of Schulke’s ethnobotanical approach. I believe ‘Thirteen Pathways’ to be a stimulating read for any esoteric herbalist, although not one aimed at the beginner.

Admittedly, I was less excited by the other essays included in the book. I had already read ‘Transmission of Esoteric Occult Knowledge in the Twenty-First Century’ in volume 2. of Verdant Gnosis. The final two essays are very short and approach the topic from a more academic perspective, looking at the history and anthropology behind occult herbalism and drawing upon diverse global traditions for examples. I found both of these pieces to be broad overviews of loosely related concepts, rather than deep investigations of particular practices. There was little I had not encountered previously. For example, the content of ‘The Green Intercessor’ on fallen angels will be familiar to readers of Schulke’s past work and books like The Pillars of Tubal-Cain (Jackson & Howard, 2000.)

For those who have enjoyed Schulke’s previous publications, I consider Thirteen Pathways a worthwhile acquisition. I am curious to see how the ideas expressed in the titular essay are addressed and expanded in The Green Mysteries, and have high hopes for the forthcoming volume.

Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism can be purchased from Three Hands Press.

Undefining the Hedge Witch

hedgewitch

Where does the term ‘hedge witch’ come from and what does it actually mean? If you begin to research this question, you are likely to come across two popular answers:

a) Hedge witch is a term coined by Rae Beth in her 1990 book Hedge Witch: A Guide to Solitary Witchcraft. It describes a solitary practitioner of a Wicca-like religion. According to Beth :

This is rather like the old-time village wise woman or wise man: one who ‘knows’ and worships the Goddess and her consort, the Horned God; one who practices spellcraft for the purposes of healing and teaches the mysteries.

or – b) Hedge witch is derived from the Old High German ‘hagazussa’ via the Anglo-Saxon ‘hægtesse’ and means ‘hedge rider’ – referring not to a physical boundary hedge, but a metaphysical one. I first came across this definition on Dawn Jackson’s site in the early 2000s and have since found it reflected in subsequent books and websites on traditional witchcraft. Sarah Anne Lawless states:

The word hedgewitch comes from the Saxon word haegtessa meaning ‘hedge-rider’. The hedge in hedge witchery is not a fence of shrubs and wildlife, but instead represents the border between our material world and the otherworld – the unknown.

Both of these definitions, while containing a kernel of truth, are based on assumptions. By examining these assumptions it will become apparent that neither is fully satisfactory in a historical sense, and that an alternative source may be necessary to explain the term.

Rae Beth’s book is a primer on neo-Wicca, and contains most of the fictionalised history promoted by similar works in the latter part of the 20th century. Beth is correct in assuming that there is a historical precedence for the ‘village wise woman or wise man’ (a figure discussed in current scholarship as a ‘cunning woman/man’) but incorrect in assuming these individuals practiced anything like Wicca. That said, it may very well be true that Beth coined the term ‘hedge witch’ in modern parlance or, at the very least,  that she was the first modern pagan or occultist to use it.

The second definition relies heavily on linking ‘hedge witch’ to ‘hægtesse’ and ‘hagazussa.’ The problem therein being that etymology is a slippery, shape-shifting creature that rarely gives a straight answer. The meaning of these Old High German and Old English words has been debated by scholars since the 19th century, with interpretations including: forest-demon, fence-rider and whore – it is also synonymous with ‘lizard’. I am inclined to agree that in general, ‘hagazussa’ and its derivatives indicate some sort of witch or female spirit associated with flight and crossing the boundaries of enclosures. The word ‘hag’ is rich with meanings, including witch, fury, old woman, enclosed wood and as a verb, to harass! I feel that the similarity and connections between ‘hag’, ‘witch’ and ‘hedge’ (which might possibly be related to hag by way of OE: hecg – fence) has led to an irresistible temptation among modern witches to state that hagazussa = hedge witch.

However, sharing linguistic roots is not sufficient evidence of a direct ancestry between two words that appear centuries apart. To prove that ‘hedge witch’ is derived from ‘hagazussa’ and ‘hægtesse’ would require evidence of use in the intermediary period and I can find none. The earliest use of ‘hedge witch’ I have so far been able to uncover is in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, Horticultural Trade Journal 1895, where it is given as a common name for the fungus Phallus impudicus. 

If ‘hedge witch’ was not in use prior to Rae Beth’s book, then where did she get the term from? I think it likely that she’d been reading fantasy fiction. In 1977 Dianna Wynne Jones uses the term ‘hedge-wizard’ contemptuously in her novel Charmed Life. By the 1980’s ‘hedge-witch’ also appears in the work of Debra Doyle and James Macdonald. I have no doubt there are other, potentially earlier, examples I’ve yet to uncover. The ‘hedge wizard’ has since become a popular trope of fantasy fiction and can be found in the works of Mercedes Lackey, Terry Pratchett and George R. R. Martin. The term even has a wikipedia page, which describes the hedge-wizard as being of a low educational background (not formally schooled) and associated with rural settings, noting that it may be used in a derogatory sense.

The OED gives the following definition for ‘hedge’:

Born, brought up, habitually sleeping, sheltering, or plying their trade under hedges, or by the road-side (and hence used generally as an attribute expressing contempt), as hedge-bantling, hedge-brat, hedge-chaplain, hedge-curate, hedge-doctor, hedge-lawyer, hedge-parson, hedge-player, hedge-poet, hedge-wench, hedge-whore, etc.

I believe it is in this sense that hedge-wizard and hedge-witch enter fantasy fiction, and from there, or through a similar logic that Rae Beth adopts the term. Her concept of a solitary, rural, self-taught or apprenticed ‘wise woman’ is, after all, not too far from the OED definition. The connection here is not so much a relation to literal or spiritual hedges, but in the lack of formal education, professional qualification or association with a body of practitioners.

So where does this leave us? Does it invalidate ‘hedge witch’ as an identifier for modern witches? Is it actually an insult? Can the term be re-rehabilitated and reclaimed in any way? The following is my personal opinion; I have long been fond of the hedge witch. I feel Rae Beth’s use of the term inspired a lot of people who were looking for a form of witchcraft more like that of the cunning folk. The phrase fills a necessary gap and is perhaps more comfortable as a self identifier than wise-woman, cunning-man or fairy-doctor. The word ‘hedge’ is very potent to anyone living in a country like Britain, where hedgerows define so much of the landscape. It is also a symbolic word, suggesting liminal places and boundaries to be crossed, both physical and metaphysical. Even the derisive use of ‘hedge’ suggests a certain anarchic spirit, a solitary figure, self-taught and practical. Hedge witch is not a grand or flattering title, but that is part of its charm, indicating a rough and rustic craft.

It cannot be denied that modern paganism and occultism has been influenced by fantasy fiction, in the same way that pre- and early-modern magic was influenced by classical mythology and folk tales. The word ‘witch’ itself, was derogatory for centuries, and so there is an amusing irony in this compound term . Like ‘witch’ I think ‘hedge witch’ can be re-claimed and re-invented, to serve those who identify with it. While I would argue with anyone who tried to define ‘hedge witch’ as either a solitary Wiccan – or – a practitioner of spirit-flight, I don’t see why it cannot be used by both. The hedge witch may not be a direct descendant of the hedge-rider, yet the ‘hagazussa’ is certainly part of European witchcraft’s history. Etymology is a fascinating subject, but an imprecise one, and a poor tool with which to establish one’s historical authenticity. I have long been frustrated with the endless debates over how to define ‘witch’ – as if a word could have only one meaning. There is freedom to be found in undefining the words we use to define ourselves and a humility in acknowledging their messy origins. So, accepting that it owes as much to 20th century fantasy as pre-modern history, I am very happy to call myself a hedge witch.

 

Bibliography:

Beth, Rae, Hedge Witch

Davies, Owen, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History

De Vries, Eric, Hedge-Rider: Witches and the Underworld

Jackson, Dawn R., Hedgewytchery 

Lawless, Sarah Anne, Hedge Witchery

Morris, Katherine, Witch Words: The Origin and Background of German Hexe

Oxford English Dictionary: Hedge

Image: Wellcome Library, London