Why you should study the history of magic and where to begin

One of the many issues that face newcomers to the occult, paganism and witchcraft is that of authenticity.  It is the eternal bugbear of modern witchcraft, which has a rather messy relationship with its own history (or lack thereof). Looking back on my own journey, I can see how important authenticity once was to me. I spent years tunnelling further down the rabbit hole, looking for ‘real witchcraft’ – the further down I went, the more I began to doubt that such a thing existed. Thankfully, I now have a more relaxed relationship with the witch archetype but in the process of searching I became fascinated with the history of magic itself.

The quest for validity is often ignited by a disillusionment with the poor history of some occult and pagan authors. If what you’ve been fed is largely fiction masquerading as historical fact then the desire to know the ‘truth’ is completely natural. There are entire systems, like reconstructionist polytheism, born out of the desire to be historically authentic. In occultism, there has been a hunger for ‘ancient’ knowledge since at least the early modern Renaissance. Magicians placed great value on the writings of the sage Hermes Trismegistus, a supposedly pre-biblical figure who, among other things, invented astrology and predicted the birth of Christ. However, in 1614 Casaubon dated the hermetic corpus to no earlier than the 3rd or 4th century AD, damaging the image of Trismegistus as idol of prisca theologia. The occult and pagan communities would suffer similar ‘revelations’ in the 20th century, leading to disillusionment with the historical claims of their authors.

In the 1970s and 80s, a couple of English magicians decided to look at the problem from a different angle. They came up with a system that values results over tradition – chaos magic. Most magical systems are eclectic and syncretic, but chaos magic is openly so. Its practitioners may use the Greek Magical Papyri one day and the Simonomicon the next. Both are considered valid – as long as they work. In this instance, authenticity is provided by results and experience, not historical precedence. After all, what is the point of calling the Gods with ancient hymns if they don’t answer? Why write your curse in Latin if English will suffice?

I agree with the chaos magicians that results matter, but I’m also a historian by training and I recognise that chaos magic, like all occult systems, is a product of its time and takes on many elements of the late 20th century world view (while apparently rejecting others.) Historically sourced magic may not be more authentic purely because of its antiquity, yet there is a great deal of benefit to be gained from a thorough study of the subject.

The most obvious reason for taking up the study of the history of magic is that it will make you more discerning. You are less likely to buy into a system, idea or author on the basis of a false history if you can spot such claims the minute you open a book. This background knowledge will also allow you to pick apart syncretic systems like the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Thelema or ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ and discern their influences.

Crucially, an awareness of the history of magic will liberate you from the search for the ‘one true’ or valid path. There have been many effective systems of magic developed over the centuries and all have been eclectic and syncretic rather than pure streams of ancient magic. It highlights that modern magic, of any variety, is part of a non-linear tradition of adaptation and innovation, valuing the old but reworking it alongside new ideas and a changing world view.

The history of magic is also worth studying as a resource, a treasure trove of old charms, incantations, herb lore, spirit names and amulets. It’s juicy stuff and relevant to the needs and wants of modern practitioners. People in Hellenic Alexandria or 18th century France used magic for many of the same needs and desires we have today. Modern popular magic has retained some historical elements, but many methods have been forgotten and may be worthy of re-examination and incorporation into your practice. At the same time, the claims of historical magicians for the miraculous properties of certain stones or the abilities of certain spirits to influence the physical world might inspire healthy scepticism about the verity of all ancient magic.

However, the reason I am passionate about the history of magic, and the wider history of ideas, is that it allows us to try out different world views. If we want to understand how a Renaissance magus or a 19th century cunning woman practiced their magic, we need to come to terms with how they saw the world. Essentially, we are made to rearrange our mental furniture from the default set-up of our disenchanted culture to one in which magic is far more widely accepted as a part of reality. By studying the history of magic, you will encounter a diverse range of practices and a wide variety of ideas about how and why those practices work. The study of history requires as much imagination as it does fact checking, although this is an imaginative exercise inspired by evidence rather than in spite of it!

The difficulty, I openly acknowledge, is in knowing where to start. Unless you have studied history at a tertiary level, it can be daunting to the face the mass of scholarship available, even though the field we call the ‘History of Western Esotericism’ is comparatively small. At the end of this essay, I’ll list a few resources I’ve found invaluable, although none of them are definitive. However, there are some basic academic concepts that are good to familiarise yourself with before you begin. Perhaps the most important is the difference between primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary sources are documents or other objects created in the period of history being studied. A 15th century manuscript or a Roman lead curse tablet is a primary source.
  • Secondary sources are documents from a later period, attempting to interpret primary sources. A book by a modern scholar or a podcast on medieval magic is a secondary source. 

Any claim made by a historian in a secondary source should be backed up by evidence in a primary source. Sometimes, in entry level books or overviews of a subject, these claims will be backed up by other secondary sources – but these will be referenced. You should always be able to follow a statement back to the primary source(s), that is good history. Secondary sources are full of interpretations, theories and opinions about the primary sources. They’re helpful to our understanding, but don’t take them as verified fact.

The second concept to keep in mind is the difference between the history of magic and the history of witchcraft. If you attended an academic conference on witchcraft hoping to learn about historical magic, you might be a little disappointed. That’s because the study of the European witch trials is not primarily the study of people who were actually practicing magic, but of the strange cocktail of religious, social and political factors that led to the torture and death of ordinary women and men as ‘witches’. That’s not to say there is no overlap between the two, fairy beliefs and the medieval grimoire tradition certainly influenced the idea of witchcraft in the minds of persecutors. However, the focus of this field of study is very different and less concerned with the practice of magic than popular beliefs about witches. Likewise, the history of magic is not exclusively, or even predominately, a ‘pagan’ or polytheist history, it spans religions and cultures, transforming and adjusting to the dominant world view and religious structures of each place and time.

So, where does one start chronologically? The obvious answer would be the beginning. As far back in time as we have written or archaeological records. However, I would explicitly caution against doing this. The truth is that it’s much easier to start in a later period and work backwards as you build up a familiarity with concepts, authors and even the language needed to grasp primary sources. Our modern, western world view is perhaps more similar to that of the 19th century CE than the third, and thus more recent history may be more approachable. To that end, the reading list below has been arranged, roughly, from modern to ancient. Of course, if you have a particular interest in one period over another, by all means begin there.

You may notice that I’ve only included academic studies of magic, and not those produced by occult publishers. This century has seen a resurgence of evidence-based history in occult publishing, a trend we should applaud. However, there is also another sort of history – let’s call it ‘mythic history.’ All religions and many esoteric traditions have a mythic history alongside the history of their foundation and development as supported by the sources. Mythic history serves a vital purpose, inspiring practitioners through the power of story, filling in gaps with potent symbolism and linking the physical with the immaterial. I do not wish to dismiss mythic history, or those who write in this vein, but simply to differentiate the two.

A very short History of Magic reading list

This list is not meant to be exhaustive but hopefully provides a good starting point for the history of magic in Western Europe. If it is weighted towards the middle ages, this betrays my own research interests. I have chosen to include books I have actually read, rather than trying to cover periods I am less familiar with. I have opted for more general and approachable studies over edited collections and those that feature specific texts or individuals and, in doing so, have no doubt left out some classics of the field. Further reading may be found by perusing the bibliographies of these works or searching within the period of interest.

  • Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft.
  • Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern
  • Owen Davies, Popular magic : cunning folk in English history and Grimoires : a history of magic books
  • Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe
  • Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition*
  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Carolina Escobar-Vargas, Magic and Medieval Society
  • Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages
  • Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England
  • Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo Saxon Magic
  • Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

*Yates was a pioneer in this field and her books are engaging and well worth reading, however, some of her theories have since been discredited.

While some of these books are available as affordable paperbacks online, or from your favourite occult bookshop, others can be difficult or expensive to acquire. I suggest looking into your local university library and their access options. You may be able to take out a membership, or get a reading card to peruse their shelves without being an enrolled student.

Academic journals in this field include:

Additionally, there is an exceptionally good podcast, SHWEP (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) which aims to trace the evolution of esoteric ideas in the west. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those seeking an in-depth education in the history of magic.

I hope this will inspire practitioners not already immersed in the history of magic to begin to explore it. We’re living in an exciting time, where this field of study is expanding and becoming more accessible through exhibitions, popular and academic books, podcasts, video lectures and conferences. Whether you are searching for authenticity, ancient incantations and recipes or simply a better understanding of where modern systems of magic come from, you will find many rewards for your exploration of this fascinating subject. I must warn you however, that the history of magic is a thoroughly addictive pursuit.

The Herbs of Greece

Circe depicted on a 5th century BCE oinochoe in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

I’ve just returned from a week in Greece with a suitcase full of dried herbs and blue glass mati. This was my first visit to the country and I was excited to encounter some of the local herbs, several of which have legendary status in the region’s mythology. Greek herbalism has an ancient lineage, reflected in the earliest European medical texts. These are the herbs of Theophrastus, Hippocrates and Crateuas, gathered by the rhizotomoi on the sacred mountains and compounded in the pharmaka of Circe, Medea and Chiron. They are still known and loved by the people of Greece today.

I should like to return to Greece and spend some time in the countryside meeting these herbs in the wild, an opportunity I did not have on this trip. Fortunately, Athens is replete with wonderful herb and spice shops, many located on Evripidou, in easy walking distance of Monastiraki station. My favourite was Elixir (Ελιξιριον, Evripidou 41, Athina 105 54 – look for the witch on the sign). In Britain most herbs sold in stores are chopped almost to powder but those in Greece are sold whole. The staff pulled great branches from wooden drawers and broke off stems and leaves for me. The quality and freshness was impressive and many herbs were wild-harvested. Organic herbs are also available at speciality supermarkets.

For those new to Greek herbs, a little research before visiting these shops is worthwhile. Although you will find most of the proprietors speak English, the herbs are almost exclusively labelled in Greek and shopkeepers are generally unfamiliar with English common names (if they even apply.) Of course, herb folk may recognise many of the herbs from Northern Europe – lemon verbena and linden were particularly popular. However it seems a pity to purchase herbs that grow closer to home when new and exciting encounters are available.

To this end, I’ve put together a short guide to four Greek herbs you will find in almost any herb shop in Athens – and one resin that I became particularly enamoured with during my stay. These herbs are also available from online suppliers, although at a far steeper price than in Athens. I must add the disclaimer that I am only beginning to experiment with these herbs and so am relying largely on research rather than experience. It is always challenging to research ethnobotanical lore and plant magic when you do not speak or read the native language. For that reason I would welcome corrections and/or additions from Greek speakers.

Diktamo / Δίκταμο ‘Dittany of Crete’

Origanum dictamnus

The most legendary of Greek healing herbs, dittany is a member of the oregano genus with soft downy, ovate leaves and small pink flowers. Native to Crete, it is now protected in the wild and instead cultivated for the herbal market. It makes a pleasant, savoury tea with a flavour somewhere between marjoram and sage.

In Greek folklore, dittany has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, indeed the Cretan name for it is erontas (from Eros) and it is given to newlyweds. Another tradition states that one must be truly in love to gather it from the rocky mountains and valleys in which it grows, these passionate young harvesters being dubbed erondades.

However, dittany’s greatest reputation is as a healing herb. There is a legend that when struck by poison arrows, the goats on mount Ida (Crete) would eat dittany to cure themselves. This is repeated by Aristotle, Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen among others. The tale was inherited by the Romans and Venus heals Aeneas with dittany in Virgil:

Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.

Aeneid, Book XII.411–415, Loeb edition

Mount Ida is named for one of the nymphs who nursed the infant Zeus, hiding him in the Idaean cave.

The herb has a reputation in ancient and medieval sources as something of a panacea, but it is particularly recommended for gastric distress and difficult childbirth (best to avoid during early pregnancy.) It has also been recommended as a poultice for wounds.

Tsai Tou Vounou / Τσάι του βουνού‘Mountain Tea’ ‘Shepherd’s Tea’ ‘Ironwort’

Sideritis spp.

Known as ‘mountain tea’ or even just ‘tea’, this is the most popular herbal tea in the country. I found tins of it in AirBnB’s and it was more common on cafe menus than camellia sinensis. There are several different varieties in the genus. The one I purchased is ‘Olympus mountain tea’ (Sideritis scardica) which is widely available and apparently grown near the holy mountain. It has a mild flavour and is usually consumed in winter with lemon and/or honey. Mountain tea is prepared as a decoction (boiled in the water) rather than as a tisane (steeped tea).

Given how prevalent mountain tea is in Greece, it is surprisingly unknown outside the Mediterranean. The latin name of this genus comes from the Greek word σίδηρος (sithiros) which translates as ‘he who is made of or has iron.’ In ancient sources it was considered a remedy for wounds caused by iron weapons, which may have been indicated in sympathy by its spear-like growth. The plant has been analysed and found rich in iron, among other minerals.

In modern Greece, it is considered a cold and flu remedy and a tonic for general health. Recent research has demonstrated that sideritis may be beneficial to patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The herb also appears to have a reputation as an aphrodisiac in Turkey and Bulgaria.

Kistos / Κίστος – ‘Rock Rose’

Cistus spp.

Of all the Greek herbs I tried during my travels, this was my favourite. As a tisane, the flavour is unusually tart, a little like the liquid from pickled vegetables, but very refreshing. The pink flowers open and blossom in the cup; it is an enchanting plant.

The rock rose produces a scented black resin called labdanum. Herodotus (5th cent BCE) writes that goatherds would send their animals to graze on the bushes and then comb the resin from their beards. In the 19th century labdanum was harvested by means of a rake with leather thongs attached called a lambadistrion, however the modern method seems to involve heating the wood. Labdanum has been used medicinally, cosmetically and as incense across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.

In Hesiod’s account, the Gorgon Medusa was seduced by Poseidon on the isle of Kisthene in a field of what may have rock rose flowers – given that the island is named for the plant.

…and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old.  With her lay the Dark-haired One (ed. Poseidon) in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.

Hesiod, Theogony 270-276, trans. Evelyn-White 1914

Rock rose is used medicinally to fight infection as an antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial herb. It is therefore employed for colds and flus and has even been shown to resist HIV and Ebola.

Fliskouni / Φλισκούνι – Pennyroyal ‘Mountain Mint’

Mentha pulegium

The most infamous member of the mint family – a plant that has caused the death of countless women and small children, or so the internet would have you believe. The dangerous reputation of this herb comes from a handful of reported cases of women taking lethal doses of the essential oil as an abortifacient. As any herbalist or aromatherapist will tell you, very few essential oils should be consumed internally and never in large doses (though my sympathy is with the women who felt the need to resort to it). Pennyroyal essential oil should not be used topically either, as it contains concentrated levels of pulegone – an organic component toxic to the liver.

However, dried pennyroyal is sold in grocery stores in Greece as an after-dinner tisane to aid digestion, so perhaps the Greek wikipedia entry is a little less paranoid. That said, Pennyroyal has been used traditionally as an abortifacient, and indeed famously so in the ancient world. It should therefore be avoided during pregnancy and not given to small children, who may be more sensitive to pulegone. The particularly cautious may wish to avoid using this herb altogether, although there are no reported cases of fatal adult poisoning from the tisane. Research has shown a vast difference in the amount of pulegone found in wild pennyroyal (ranging from 0.1 to 90.7% of the total oil), which may also explain why a few people have had bad reactions to the herbal infusion. Pulegone is also found in lesser quantities in cat mint and peppermint.

In ancient Greece, pennyroyal was sometimes added to a drink called kykeon. This beverage was commonly made from water, wine, honey and barley and flavoured with herbs. In Book X of the Odyssey, Circe prepares kykeon for Odysseus’ men, adding unnamed herbs to change them to swine. The addition of pennyroyal (glechon or blechon in Ancient Greek) is mentioned in the Homeric hymn to Demeter:

She [Demeter] asked instead for barley and water to drink mixed with tender leaves of glechon. Metaneira made the potion and gave it to the goddess as she had asked; and great Deo received the potion as the precedent for the Mystery.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 207 ff; trans. Wasson et al. 1998

Scholars have debated whether the kykeon given to initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries had hallucinogenic properties, either from additional secret herbs or ergot present on the barley. However, it almost certainly contained pennyroyal.

Pennyroyal is also a powerful insecticide, recommended by Pliny and other ancient authors to deter fleas. Coincidentally, I had a chance to try this out, as Athens has a large population of stray cats. I discovered flea bites when I woke on my first morning there so I strewed the bed with dried pennyroyal and was not bitten again!

Mastica / Μαστίχα – ‘Mastic’

Pistacia lentiscus

On my first night in Athens I had a glass of Mastic liqueur and was delighted by the flavour – it was like drinking incense, a mix of frankincense and pine resin with a touch of myrrh. I soon discovered many mastic-flavoured delights in Greece, including infused springwater, lemonade and lokum. I purchased the raw resin and an oil to experiment with back home.

Mastic is a yellow-white, translucent resin harvested from lentisk trees on the island of Chios. The tree is said to ‘cry’, an effect produced by making multiple small incisions in the trunk, creating ‘tears of Chios.’ There is certainly a melancholy reputation to this ‘wounded tree’. The production of mastic gum has been crucial to the island’s economic importance for centuries. Mastic was particularly prized by the Ottomans who conquered Chios, the gum was provided to the Sultan and his harem for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

In ancient sources mastic is described as a ‘chewing gum’ to clean teeth and freshen breath. It was also prescribed for lung conditions, digestive problems and snakebite. Mastic was used in Egyptian embalming mixtures and is one of the sixteen ingredients listed in Plutarch’s recipe for kyphi, likewise appearing in the recipe inscribed on the temple at Edfu. Mastic occurs in post-medieval grimoire texts as a suffumigation of Mercury, the Sun and Gemini. Chios mastic is added to the holy oil of the Greek Orthodox church. Both the scent and taste are cleansing and invigorating.

Magic and Women

On the 1st of June, I attended the Magickal Women conference in London, organised by Sue Terry and Erzebet Barthold. The mission of the conference was to highlight the contributions of women, past and present, to the spheres of mysticism, esotericism and the occult. Only people who identified as women were invited to speak, although those of all genders were welcome to attend and indeed the audience was encouragingly diverse. The speakers came from a range of backgrounds; independent researchers, practitioners of alchemy, ceremonial magic and neo-pagan traditions, artists, musicians and dancers.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki opened the event with an amusing and community-focused discussion on the survival of magical beliefs. Christina Oakley-Harrington of Treadwells gave a keynote speech on the role women have played in regards to owning, leasing or controlling the space in which ritual orders have practised over the past two centuries. I was impressed by her sensitivity to the challenges young people face now in acquiring spaces of their own in which to practise, an issue that is changing the shape of magic in this century.

I enjoyed many of the papers, particularly those on female surrealists and lesser known 19th century figures. Inevitably, I found others frustrating in their historical inaccuracy and adherence to narratives (eg. ‘the burning times’, Frazerian comparative religion, the ‘dark ages’) that have been thoroughly debunked for decades. However, the most inspiring and encouraging feature of the conference was hearing from women in fields that are publicly dominated by men, including ceremonial magic and alchemy.

High magic requires a great clarity of thought, you see, and women’s talents do not lie in that direction. Their brains tend to overheat.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett

What is the reason behind the gender divide in magic and occultism? The common perception is that, since at least the middle ages, men have practised learned, ceremonial, ‘high’ magic – geomancy, traditional astrology, grimoire magic, image magic etc. Meanwhile, women have instead focused on intuitive, folk or ‘low’ magic involving herbs, charms, amulets and ‘fortune telling.’ The simplistic explanation usually given for this is women’s lack of education and general illiteracy until the late modern period and the persecution of so-called ‘women’s magic.’

However, the sources we have on magical practice show a far more varied and complex picture of gendered magic. In the personal account of a medieval monk, that of John of Morigny, we find that, not only did he teach his sister Gurgeta to read, but that she learned via the Ars Notoria, the most popular magical text of the middle ages (an unusual case perhaps, but one that highlights that women could get access to these books). Cunning folk were as likely to be male as female. Even educated male physicians compiled books full of charms, palm reading and remedies involving dead birds and frogs. After the arrival of print, access to grimoires broadened not only to the working classes, but to women, who were increasingly literate. In the early modern period, women were occasionally persecuted for owning and reading the same texts as their male counterparts. Meanwhile, male priests were persecuted for practising love magic with hair and menstrual blood.

The Golden Dawn, the most influential British magical organisation of the 19th century, featured female magicians in key roles as leaders, temple owners, artists, teachers and creators of a ritual corpus. The Golden Dawn in particular, stressed the equality of the sexes in their order and in the study of the occult arts. In the 20th century, Dion Fortune wrote some of the most influential and intellectual texts of occult philosophy that had an equal, if not greater influence, than those of her male contemporary, Aleister Crowley.

If not from historical precedent, where does the gender divide in magic come from? Why is it still apparent in a world where women are doctors and astro-physicists? Where are the books on alchemy, solomonic, goetic and astral magic written by women? Why are our prominent occult women in this century, frequently Wiccan priestesses and witches, tarot readers and herbalists? There is an unaccountable divide that seems to mirror that found in universities, with men dominating the STEM subjects and women filling classrooms in the Humanities.

My suspicion is that this is partially the result of viewing the wider history of magic through the narrow lens of the witch trials. I also suspect the feminist witchcraft of the late 20th century played its part in this divide. With its focus on goddesses and priestesses, it took the narrative of the witch trials as a key point in the history of misogyny. In that sense, it is correct, far more women then men were persecuted for “witchcraft”. Yet these women weren’t witches, they were victims of a paranoia about an imagined cult. By reclaiming the witch archetype for feminism, we seem to have lost sight of both male witches and female magicians. While I applaud the intention behind this movement, I think that is perhaps time to accept that there is more than one archetype of the ‘magical woman.’

I value the tarot as highly as geomancy, but I want to see women doing both. I want to live in a world where women can be not only witches and priestesses, but also ceremonial magicians, traditional astrologers, lab alchemists and hermeticists. There are plenty of women in academia studying and publishing on the history of these arts, yet female practitioners are not represented nearly so well in the occult press, podcasts or conference circuit. I recognise that I too am at fault here – and will make an effort to better represent my gender in these fields. I encourage other women reading this to do the same, to take up one of these arts that interest them so that the next generation will have role models and mentors in the fields currently dominated by men. I look forward to the next Magickal Women event and hope to see an even broader scope of occult traditions represented.

Viriditas: the Green Mist

I love this time of year, when the land is stirring again and plants, insects and birds return in a rush of colour and music. Yes, autumn is enchanting with its mists and ambers, but it is a time for farewells. Spring is full of greetings. I go out each morning to meet plant-friends I haven’t seen since the year before. I drink water of cleavers, nibble hawthorn leaves, cook nettle soup and begin the process of medicine making, renewing an apothecary depleted by winter’s ills. More than anything, I love to stand in the sun and breath in the rich cocktail of phytochemicals released by the unfurling leaves and blossoms, enveloped in the rising green mist.

The Green Mist‘ is a tale collected by 19th century folklorist Marie Clothilde Balfour in the Lincolnshire Carrs. It describes the healing powers of the returning vegetation in the spring. The green mist is awaited by the rural folk and greeted with offerings of bread, salt and ‘strange words’. A young girl in poor health wishes to her mother that she might survive until the green mist rises, to ‘wake the spring with thee’ – believing the green mist will make her strong again. The idea that there is healing, not just in the consumption of medicinal plants with specific constituents, but in the verdant power of vegetal growth is widespread in pre-modern culture.

Viriditas, a Latin word with the classical definition of ‘greenness, verdure, viridity’ and ‘freshness, briskness, vigor’ was adopted by the 12th century abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, to express the divine in nature. The saint and sibyl of the Rhine used the term frequently, extending it from the realm of plants to the human body to describe our ability to heal, grow and thrive. To Hildegard, viriditas, the very breath of God, imbued all living things. In choosing a word belonging to the vegetal realm to express spirit, rather than more traditional metaphors of breath, fire, or light, she may have been inspired by her homeland. The lush surroundings of her first monastic house at Disibodenberg are located between two rivers and the ruins of the monastery are still full of verdant life, so green you can almost taste it on the air.

The ruins of Disibodenberg

In a temperate regions, the greening of the land brings with it a great rush of energy that can be experienced with all the senses. Hildegard would have been familiar with the burbling sound of rising sap, the fresh, raw scent of blossom and volatile compounds, the taste of green shoots and pot herbs, the delicate softness of young beech leaves and of course, the colour green. Green so intense, after the greys and browns of winter, that it leaves an after-image on the retinas. The still-transparent green of new leaves that filter the light beneath the canopy, turning the woods into an underwater world imbued with shades of a single colour. In these bio-regions, green seems to be the source of life itself.

Foragers and gardeners, whose eyes are trained not only to differences in species of plants, but the varying states of individuals, will have a whole internal palette of greens: the green that indicates the right time to gather young bramble leaves or nettle, the green that suggests lime or hawthorn leaves are still tasty and tender, the green that differentiates a flourishing plant from a dying one. This attention to colour helps herbalists to select those plants which have the greatest medical potency. Why do we pluck one leaf and not another? Because it expresses a greater viriditas.

On an esoteric level, those who work deeply with plants may experience a sense of euphoria or even ecstacy during the rising of the green. The licentious traditions surrounding May Day in Britain encourage humanity to imitate the fecundity of the green folk, to engage with and embody this surge of life-energy in the plant kingdom. We dress as flower queens and jack-in-the-green and dance around tree trunks (may poles) bedecked with greenery. Even the dew is held to have rejuvenating properties at this time of year.

In astrology Mars, and Aries which has its ingress at the Spring equinox, represent the potency and drive of human life, the red of blood and passion. Venus demonstrates the equivalent force in the vegetal. Her sacred month in the Roman calendar was April and she rules Taurus, into whom the sun enters as the temperate North blossoms. To the philosopher Lucretius, Venus was a personification of the creative force itself. At Pompeii she was worshipped as Venus Physica, Venus of nature (physis), from the root φυίω – to grow. Hildegard von Bingen’s treatise on natural philosophy was entitled Physica and as the middle ages progressed this term became fysike (physick) – the healing arts. Our very concept of medicine is bound up with Venusian generation.

In our own century, researchers in east Asia have begun to demonstrate that human health is improved by exposure to landscapes dominated by plant life, such as forests. One Korean study looked at the anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic and neuroprotective properties of terpenes absorbed from forest air. Studies from Japan have demonstrated that shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) can increase the body’s immune response and help to prevent cancer. Although there has, as yet, been little interest among orthodox medicine in the West, as these studies provide explanations that satisfy a materialistic world view the concept of ‘ecotherapy’ may gain wider acceptance.

In healing we seek the power to regenerate ourselves. What more potent source of the regenerative power can we access than that of the plant world as it comes back from the death of winter? Our bodies are not walled off from the natural world, we are permeable, and as the green mist rises we inhale, absorb and imbibe viriditas.

Human Exceptionalism and the Source of Magical Power

In medieval Europe ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic were defined rather differently than they are today. While we may be concerned with the intent of the practitioner, our ancestors were more interested in the source of their power. Influential authorities claimed that all magic worked by the influence of demons, and was thus dangerous to the souls of those involved. A handful of intellectuals argued that at least some magic was fulfilled by the influence of planetary forces and/or the occult virtues placed inside plants, stones and animals by God or Nature. Practical manuals of magic included invocations to God, saints, angels, fairies, demons and Roman deities. There is rarely any suggestion that magical power is found within the magicians themselves. If the practitioner is able to gain some personal power, it is always acquired through an outside force.

I’m struck by the contrast between this attitude and that of modern popular magic. Most introductory books insist on the power we have as individual humans ‘inside us’ — untapped psychic potential and the ability to manipulate the universe through our will. We are told that, through training, meditation, focus and ritual, we can increase our own power over other humans and the world around us.

We’ve inherited this concept from the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; a movement born in an imperial culture that saw personal power and dominion over the natural world as its birthright. Furthermore, the decline of religious belief and rise of atheism in the West led to an increasing deification of the human. When you place humanity just under God in the hierarchy of being – and then start to question God, it doesn’t take long for our enterprising species to assume the top rung. Influences from the emerging science of Psychology and the influx of Eastern philosophy played their part in this re-investment of magical power. All of a sudden you get suggestions that we, puny mortals – are actually gods in disguise, if only we realised our own potential. Such ideas are evident in the work of Crowley, Franz Bardon and Dion Fortune – all of whom inspired the founders of Wicca and the Neo-Pagan movement. Magical traditions may be counter-cultural, but they are still a product of their time.

The idea of personal magical power is also prevalent in the stories we tell about witches, wizards and humans with superhuman powers. In late 20th century fiction and films, magic is often depicted as a form of energy that some special humans can draw upon to gain even more power over the world around them – a neat analogy to fossil fuels perhaps. Half a century of this fiction, and the rise of the New Age movement has helped cement the idea that, if magic exists, it is inside of you. The stones, plants, words – even the Gods – are only window dressing. They help you to feel magical and access your own power. They are interchangeable and a really powerful magician can do without them altogether. This is a projection of our own desire for dominion and the belief that we, as humans, are somehow more sentient, more resourceful, more supernatural than the other beings we share our world with. It is human exceptionalism in the extreme.

As a philosophical experiment, I want to see what happens when we reject this idea completely and return to a pre-modern perspective on the source of magical power. In this world view, humans are mortal, fairly short lived and limited by their own physical and intellectual abilities. However, they inhabit a world full of spirits. Whether these spirits are conceived of as angels, demons, the dead, fairies, planetary intelligences or the animist divinities of place – it is they, and not us, who have magical power. If common plants, stones and animals have occult properties that can help you, and the most powerful being you know is not yourself, but a spirit – then how do you access this power? You ask for help.

The asking can take many forms, and I am by no means suggesting that medieval magicians were polite about it. They were as likely to command, demand and adjure as petition, but whether they asked ‘nicely’ or not – there was the inherent acceptance that other beings had power and agency beyond our own. The magician worked through contracts, pacts and allegiances, or through petitioning a saint or herb. Magic required communication with the Other. To my mind, there is nothing more beautiful than the early medieval, Anglo-Saxon herb charms, in which the spirits of the plants are addressed by name and asked for their aid:

Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.

(The Nine Herbs Charm)

How have we come from this to ‘You can replace almost any herb with Rosemary’ ?

If the magic is not ‘inside us’ – but out there, in a world populated by non-human beings, then we cannot work alone. In fact, we cannot achieve anything more than the ordinary  humans we live with. I do not believe that magic is forcing our Will upon the world. Such an attitude, far from being empowering, is full of hubris. We have been forcing our will on the world, without magic, for the past two centuries and it has led us to the brink of ecological collapse. Perhaps we have been too focused on finding our own power to realise that it is not inside us, but all around us? It is time to step back down from our pedestal, and go humbly among the fields and hills, not shouting our demands, but open once again to their needs and wants, to working with beings older, wiser and stronger than we are. A witch or magician is only as powerful as their allies.

Re-enchantment and the role of the Magician

universe-and-man-larger

In the early 20th century Max Weber, a German Sociologist, proposed that the modern world had been ‘disenchanted.’ He described the Western world view as having de-mystified nature, instead relying on a rational, materialistic outlook embodied in science, bureaucracy and the law. Weber attributed this change to the introduction of Protestant forms of Christianity and the scientific revolution. Although later scholars have argued that this process has been incomplete, there is still a great deal of evidence for a decline in magical belief at all levels of Western society over the last three centuries.

The magician (under which term I include all practitioners of magic) cannot escape disenchantment. Although they may personally espouse a world view that denies scientific materialism as a dominant ideology, they remain part of a society which widely considers magic to be fictional. This has affected a change in the status and role of the magician and increasingly marginalized their skills and work. Although magicians have for centuries been ‘outsiders’, there was once a place for licit magic whether in the form of priesthood, divination, healing or protection. Other forms of magic, including necromancy and maleficia, were historically perceived as genuine threats and legislated against. Although we now have, (at least in the UK), more freedom under the legal system – this too is a symptom of disenchantment. We do not legislate against things we consider ‘imaginary.’

The way magicians respond to disenchantment varies. Some find explanation for their experiences and practice in the hard and soft sciences; psychology, quantum physics etc., thereby conforming their magical world view to loosely fit the more widely accepted scientific one. Others simply ignore disenchantment, embracing their place outside of the shared world view and seeing no need to justify or explain their beliefs. A few, myself included, study historical world views in an effort to better understand why the modern world rejects magic. By replacing our mental furniture with that belonging to an older culture, we attempt to experience the world as it was pre-disenchantment – through the eyes of an ancient Greek, a medieval Christian or a Renaissance philosopher.

I feel that all of these methods of dealing with disenchantment are valid. Yet while they allow us to come to terms with the fact that we believe in magic in a society that does not, they rarely do much more. I’m interested in findings ways that magicians can actively influence the shared world view of their cultures, in favour of re-enchantment.

Re-enchantment is a challenge. Many of us have struggled to overcome skepticism, prejudice and even fear-for-our-own-sanity in becoming involved with magic. We know that this process is not easy. However, I also believe our society is ready for re-enchantment. We have come through the industrial era and seen the damage that is done to our world and ourselves by a quantitative, materialist world view. An increasing interest in magic-as-fiction reflects a desire for magic-as-reality. Even within the occult community there is a push away from seeing magic as a glorified self-help tool, towards re-engagement with the spirit world and learning from other cultures who have maintained an enchanted perspective.

Magicians – as individuals who have succeeded in re-enchanting their own reality, are perhaps the best placed to encourage re-enchantment in our cultures. I feel the heart of this mission lies in engagement. Making connections with others in our communities who suffer from disenchantment and helping them re-connect to magic, whether through history, nature, story, music or art. I am greatly inspired by magicians who do not simply ‘preach to the choir,’ but actively share their experience and knowledge beyond the occult and pagan communities. This does not necessarily mean becoming a public magician, outing one-self as a witch/druid/mage etc. As empowering as that may be for the individual, I’m not sure it does much to convince a dis-enchanted public who view such titles are belonging to pure fantasy.

I do not have the solution to dis-enchantment, but I am very interested in finding new ways to overcome it. I believe this must be done by putting aside the ego – the desire to be seen as magical ourselves. I feel our methods must be subtle, but powerful; stories and rituals and healing shared. If we are to re-enchant the world for others, it is not enough to tell them about magic, they must be allowed to experience it in some undeniable way, for themselves.

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