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.
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