Hedge is a Teutonic term originally meaning any fence, boundary or enclosure, later meaning a specific type of living thicket planted to act as a fence, enclosure or boundary.
Old High German (language used roughly from 500 to 1050 C.E): hegga, hecka
Old Dutch (600 to 1150 C.E.): heggehn
Old Saxon or Old Low German (800 to 1200 C.E) : haeg
Anglo-Saxon or Old English (550 C.E to 1250C.E): hecg, hegge, haga, hecge or hege
Middle English (11th century and about 1470 C.E): hedge, hegge, hedgen, heggen
Suffolk dialect (at least 1300 C.E. to present day): hetch
Modern English (1550 C.E to modern day): hedge
Middle English hagathorn meaning “hedge thorn” becomes the modern hawthorn
Old Teutonic stem haja- meaning “behind the hedge” gives rise to the Old English haja, Middle English heye, haye and thus the English hay. Behind the hedge lays the hay field.
The old words for hedge also gave rise to the words hawk (hedge-bird), haggard, edge and hag (witch).
Old English for hedgerow is heggeræw.
Saxon haegtessa and the Old English haegtesse, roughly translates to hedge-rider, hag-rider, witch and witch-fury.
In a 13th century Icelandic text called the Poetic Edda, we find a long poem called Hávamál, and in that poem the god Odin recites a list of Rune-spells he has learned while hanging upon the World Tree (axis mundi). This part of the Hávamál has come to be called the Song of Spells (by grell). The tenth of these spells particularly interests and inspires Hedgewitches. There are many translations of this verse; here are four of them.
For the tenth I know,
if I see troll-wives
sporting in air,
I can so operate
that they will forsake
their own forms,
and their own minds.
~ Benjamin Thorpe
A tenth I know: when at night the witches
ride and sport in the air,
such spells I weave that they wander home
out of skins and wits bewildered.
~ Olive Bray
If I see the hedge-riders magically flying high,
I can make it so they go astray
Of their own skins, and of their own souls.
~ Nigel Pennick
A tenth I know, what time I see
House-riders* flying on high;
So can I work, that wildly they go,
Showing their true shapes,
Hence to their own homes.
~ Henry Adams Bellows
* House-riders: witches, who ride by night on the roofs of houses, generally in the form of wild beasts.
From these translations we can infer that a Hedgewitch or Hedgerider is thus a person with some shamanic qualities. They can ‘ride’, as in travel through and over, the boundary of this world and into the Otherworld. They can leave the “enclosure” or “hedge” of their own body, experience soul-flight and send their spirits to wander in the night. It would also seem that Odin has the power to confuse their spirit flight and to return them back to their own bodies.
One thing we must take into account is that many scholars see the usage of haegtessa or hedgerider etc in the Song of Spells to be mistranslated. Here is the tenth rune spell in Icelandic, as you can see, the word haegtessa does not appear. However, many books written about witchcraft in the modern age use the tenth rune spell as an example of Hedgewitchery and cite the word haegtessa. I should also note that the Song of Spell is written in Icelandic, and haegtessa is Saxon.
Þat kann ek it tíunda
ef ek sé túnriðir
leika lopti á
ek svá vinnk
at þeir villir fara
During the Middle Ages hedge begins to be used prefixed with other words to denote something that is born in, or belonging to, the outlying hedges or woods. Something or someone mean, base, low, odd, outlandish, an outsider. Such as hedge-priest, hedge-press, hedge-vicar.
The Raubritter or the robber barons in Germany during the late Middle Ages were sometimes called hedge-knights and even referred to themselves as hedge-riders. They were no doubt referring to the fact that they rode on horses amongst the hedgerows. These knights would descend from their fortified homes and prey upon the peasant class, raiding their cattle, robbing them and even holding people for ransom.
Ernest F. Henderson in “A Short History of Germany” writes: “The knights themselves only saw the humorous side of the matter, and gloried in such names as “hedge-rider”, “highwayman,” “bush-clapper,” “pocket-beater,” and “snap-cock.” “
Now we must fast forward to the surge of interest in solitary Wicca, Paganism and Witchcraft takes off in the 1980s and sky rockets, we see more and more books and classes available on the subject as the years go by. The introduction of the internet insures that solitary practice is here to stay.
Ronald Hutton in his “The Triumph of the Moon” writes: “Alongside coven-based pagan witchcraft there appeared at the end of the 1980s a formally constituted strain which catered for the solitary practitioner. It was largely given identity by the West Country writer Rae Beth, who standardized for people the delightful term of ‘hedge witch’.”
It would seem the people who began to use the term Hedgewitch as a solitary Wiccan practitioner were looking at the usage of hedge from the Middle Ages. They were inspired by such terms as hedge-preacher but had not gone even further back in the history of the word.
During all this we also see a burgeoning interest in home based practice, as well as the nature oriented Witchcraft movement. Terms such as Kitchenwitch, Hearthwitch, Cottagewitch, Greenwitch all start gaining popularity. By the early 1990 you begin to see more and more fictional character called Hedgewitches in fantasy and other genres. In 1994, the now defunct Association of Solitary Hedgewitches (ASH) was established as a contact organisation for solitary Witches to network.
In the 1990s an interest in shamanic traditions also begins to grow tremendously within the Pagan and Witchcraft communities. We also begin to see more and more references to shamanic practices as a part of Hedgewitchery. Even Llewellyn Publications jumps on the bandwagon, adding to its “Witchcraft Today” series a book by Chas Clifton called “Shamanism and Witchcraft Today” wherein the Hedgewitch and Hedge-rider make appearances. Once we reach the year 2000 the term Hedgewitch has grown to mean not only a solitary witch but also one who practices shamanism, herbalism and who is typically found in wild and rural areas.
In the year 2000 Eileen Holland writes in “The Wicca Handbook”: “Hedgewitch: a walker-between-worlds, a non-Wiccan witch with a shamanistic path.”
In “Being a pagan: Druids, wiccans, and witches today” by Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond, written in the year 2001, a self proclaimed Hedgewitch named Deborah Ann Light speaks about her practice: “A Hedge Witch is a Witch who lives in the country. We collect things. We wander the roads and byways and gather what we find caught in brambles and under rock and in the roots of trees.”
At this point Traditional Witchcraft and other Non-Wiccan forms of Witchcraft had begun to gain popularity. Once reclusive, more and more Traditional Witches write books and create websites, stepping into the limelight for the first time. These Witches lay claim to the word Hedgewitch, saying that it has always meant a shamanic practitioner of folk magick. That it is a Path within Traditional Witchcraft, and the usage of the term for a solitary Wiccan to be incorrect. Proving the claim that Hedgewitch was used by Traditional Witches prior to Rae Beth’s writing in 1990 is impossible unfortunately, due to the very fact that there is no written evidence. Traditional Witchcraft is secretive and the practitioners often oath bound into silence.
What we do know however is that the voices of the Traditional Witchcraft community were heard and the usage of the term Hedgewitch began to sift back into a definition more in keeping with what we find in the Havamal.
In a Chapter titled “Dancing on the Edge: Shamanism in Modern Britain” written by Gordon MacLellan from the 2003 work “Shamanism: a reader” edited by Graham Harvey we find: “But we do not have an extant shamanic tradition to draw upon. There are claims for surviving hedge-witch practices, some of the old covens have lasted down the centuries and there are tantalising echoes of still fuller traditions fading with our older generations. Descriptions of the Highland seers sound very like those of entranced shamans. Folk tradition is full of spirit-catchers and witch-bottles and the proper ways of living with the spirit world of Faerie.”
By this time even Rae Beth was correcting and adjusting her original definition of “Hedgewitch” stating that at the time of writing that famous book she had not properly done her research into the history of the word. Her spirits had spoken this word to her and she had applied it to her practice at the time without understanding. Today she is encouraging the growing trend of using “Hedgewitch” to mean a spirit walker, one who knows, a shamanic practitioner of Witchcraft. In an interview in the DruidCast Podcast Episode 38 she makes such a statement.
“HedgeWitche’s cores practice is centered around the Underworld journey and therefore, around the invoking of trance. There is NO WAY you can enter the Underworld without the alteration of your consciousness, for you will have to experience the inner to access the Underworld. That alteration is done by trance – it is the experience of the inner – without the key of trance, the door will stay fully locked. And so if you want to be a Hedgewitch you need to know how to invoke trance.” From “Hedge-Rider: Witches and the Underworld” by Eric De Vries in 2008
From all this we have the modern English word Hedgewitch. There can be variations in the spelling of this term, such as “Hedgewytch”, some may use all lowercase lettering as well. There are also a few related terms, such as Hedge-Riders, Night Travelers, Myrk-Riders (“myrk” being the old spelling for “murky”, or a kind of darkness), Gandreidh (wand-rider). The old term of Cunning Folk is sometimes used, and also Walkers on the Wind.
Today its exact usage is still being shaped and taking form. The simplest definition would be a Witch whose practice is earth-based, involves the use and study of folk traditions, the practice of spirit work and divination, and is shamanic in nature.