What is a Hedgewitch?

 Hedgewitchery, or Hedgecraft, is a kind of combination of Witchcraft and Shamanism. For the most part, this path comes from the Traditional Witchcraft and Cunning Folk traditions of Europe from ancient to modern times. It is something of an eclectic or syncretic tradition, but just how much so depends on each individual practitioner.


The basic modern definition of Hedgewitch is comparable to older definitions of wisewoman, cunning man, medicine man, shaman and seer, seid workers and völur, herb healer or folk healer. It is loosely based on such traditions from throughout history. Hedgewitches are involved with herbalism and healing, along with a deep love for and understanding of Nature added to the mix. If you think “Hedgewitch” and picture the strange old lady who sold herbs and magickal charms, acted as midwife and healer in the ancient times, you are not far off. Nor are you far off if you picture the wise sage who would cast bones to divine the future or journey in the Otherworlds to heal members of his community.


Throughout history, shamanic, wise-woman and cunning-man traditions have risen and fallen all over the world. These kinds of traditions have never truly died out. In recent years, more and more people within the Western world are turning to them and adapting them to modern times. Modern Hedgecraft is the study, adaptation and practice of these ancient nature-based, spiritual, shamanic and healing traditions in our modern lives.


Hedgewitches can come from any cultural background, but the majority of Hedgewitches seem to come from European ancestry. This means that most Hedgewitches will practice based on the folklore and traditions of the ancient Celts, Vikings, Romans, Greeks, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons and so forth.


Most Hedgewitches look to their own heritage to find inspiration and lore. Yet some are drawn to the traditions of other cultures. Some may seek to learn from other cultures to gain a better understanding of their own heritage, as well as a greater respect for others. Hedgewitches are not opposed to the study of modern tradition as well, for they strive to bridge the gap between old and new. To blend old traditions with a modern lifestyle in a workable and practical manner is a hallmark of Hedgecraft.


The shamanic aspect is the most important of all in Hedgecraft, for to call oneself a Hedgewitch is to call oneself a shaman, prophet, oracle, spirit worker or seer. A shaman is a person who traverses the axis mundi and who enters the Otherworlds to commune with ancestors, gods and spirits for many purposes and using many different techniques (by james). The word “shaman” comes originally from the Turkic word “šamán” and translates as “one who knows”. This word has been used by peoples of the Turkic-Mongol and Tungus cultures of Siberia for many centuries. It was introduced to Europe from Siberia to Russia and then into Germany.


Later, white colonists coming to the New World and Africa applied the words “medicine man” and “witch doctor” to the healers and holy people of tribal cultures. These titles were eventually replaced by “shaman”. This is why people of European decent are often told by “shamans”” of other races and cultures they should not call themselves “medicine men” or “shamans”. Those of us who have white skin need not borrow words from other cultures for such practices. For we do have our own traditions and words, and names, for such people, and we can (and should) use them with pride.


“Hedgewitch” comes from the Saxon word “haegtessa” and the Old English “hægtesse”, which can roughly translate to “hedge-rider”, with “haeg” meaning a “hedge””, “fence” or “enclosure”.However “hægtesse”, and the shortened “haeg”, not only translates to “hedge-rider” and “hedge” but can also be translated as “hag”, “witch” and “fury””. From this we have the modern English word “Hedgewitch”. Since we take the name for this form of Witchcraft from the word “hedge”,let us take a look at what a hedge means to the Hedgewitch.


The concept of a boundary hedge in a spiritual and magickal sense stems from the tradition of hedgelaying, or growing hedgerows. Hedgerows are carefully landscaped intricate layers of plant-life. The European landscape has been crisscrossed by hedgerows since the time of the Roman occupations and possibly before. The Anglo-Saxons also used hedgerows extensively, and many of these ancient hedgerows still exist today. The early European colonists in the New World put up hedgerows, though often with different species of plants. In Europe the most common species growing in hedgerows are the hawthorn and blackthorn, whereas in North America cedar and juniper hedges are more common.


These often-large rows of shrub, herb and tree are boundaries for farmsteads, pastures, villages, ditches and roads. In ancient times, at the very edge of a human settlement, there was a sturdy hedgerow keeping the wilderness and wildlife out of field, pasture and garden. Crossing a hedge means crossing a boundary of some sort, such as walking into the wild, going from wheat field to cow pasture, or entering another person’s property.


A hedgerow is not just a boundary, but is also a protective home and shelter to all kinds of wildlife, such as rabbits and birds. They provide shade and act as a windbreak. The hedgerow is also a place where foxes and hares being hunted may hide and where hunters will send their hounds to flush game. Hedgerows were also very important in keeping the herds in and the predators out.


Berry and fruit bearing trees and shrubs are grown in hedgerows, making them a source of food for both animals and humans alike. They may also have both healing as well as baneful herbs and plants growing within them. While beautiful, these hedgerows will typically sport thorn bushes and other plant life that can be hazardous if you are not respectful of the hedge and what grows and lives within.


For the Hedgewitch, “the Hedge” is not just a physical boundary but also a metaphor for the line drawn between this world and the next, between reality and dreamscape. It represents the threshold between the many Worlds. In short, the Hedge is what many Pagans refer to as the Veil. It is also the boundary between civilization and the wild, the place where the wildwoods and the urban jungle meet.


The more one learns of the tradition of laying hedgerows, as well as about hedges themselves, the more the use of “hedge” for this Craft becomes clearly appropriate.


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 theHávamál has come to be called the Song of Spells. 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.


A Hedgewitch 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 also appears that at least one god knows how to confuse their shamanic travels and send them packing back home!


The true origin of the term “Hedgewitch” may never be known. It is a modern English term, likely to have originated in Great Britain within the last century. Yet a word does not have to be old to be legitimate. English is still a young language; it is changing and growing all the time. Our ancestors had their own names, in their own languages, for such traditions. “Hedgewitch” is for our culture, in our language. There can be variations in its spelling, such as “Hedgewytch”, and 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). Cunning Folk is sometimes used, and also Walkers on the Wind.


Throughout history and in many cultures the Hedgewitch (wisewoman, cunning man, shaman, etc) lived at the edge of the community, often amongst or just beyond the outlying hedgerows. Hedgewitches in history were typically folks who lived somewhat on the fringes of society, not just by actually physically living beyond the township, but often by being outspoken women and men who did not follow societal norms.  Just as shamans in other cultures often live somewhat apart from the people they serve, so did many of the folk healers, seers, spirit workers and such folk in Europe and its colonies. For one of the causes that these shamanic-type practitioners take up is to speak the truth, even when the truth is ugly. Also they will do what is needed for people, even if it goes against the grain or wins them no popularity in the community at large.


A wonderful example of this is Biddy Early, a folk healer who lived in Ireland from 1798 to 1874. Biddy served her community not only with herbalism but also by using her intuition and utilizing magical charms. She had a bottle containing a mysterious dark liquid which she would peer through. By some sort of scrying method with this bottle, she would divine the necessary cures for her clients. This bottle went everywhere with her and was on her person when she died. Biddy was outspoken and would often speak strongly against the abuses that the peasant folk around her endured. She was also known to have many unkind words for the Catholic Church and its parish priests as well. In 1865 Biddy was accused of witchcraft and taken to court. Despite her reputation as a troublesome and strange woman, few people were willing to testify against her and she was released. Biddy died of old age some nine years later.


These folk healers, spirit workers, and “Hedgewitches” served the community in many ways. They earned a living through such means as divination and prophecy, midwifery, healing, protection spells, house blessings, crop and livestock blessings, herbalism or wortcunning and understanding nature. One of the most common practices was the selling of magickal charms and spells of protection from curses and bad luck.


A Hedgewitch might sell one member of her community a small curse or ill-wish one day, and then charge its victim a fee to break the curse the next. Therefore, people who followed such traditions were respected and likely a little feared because of these abilities. They were also looked upon as a little strange because they had such a close relationship with both the natural and spiritual worlds.


In modern times, a Hedgewitch is usually (but not always) found outside the city, perhaps on an acreage or farm, often practicing by herself or within the family. They work much as the cunning folk of old, helping neighbors, friends and family with ailments, shamanic healings, and even blessing the odd field.  Hedgewitches will work in cultivated gardens and farmsteads, but often prefer time spent in the woods and other wild areas. They may very well be the only modern Witches you can find tromping through ditches and vacant lots or even climbing out of a stinking culvert.


A Cottagewitch, Hearthwitch, Greenwitch or Kitchenwitch works mostly in her garden and in her home. A Hedgewitch will practice largely in the home as well, but will likely spend more of her time gathering her herbs and practicing her craft in rural or wild places than many other Witches. A Cottage or Hearth witch, Greenwitch or Kitchenwitch may use some trance or shamanic techniques in her practice, but has probably not received the call to Shamanize. To Shamanize is to be called by your spirits or the gods to become a shaman, to serve your community, spirits and gods as a Hedge-rider. A Hedgewitch has the “fire in the head” also commonly known in this Path as the Cunning Fire. A Hedgewitch is “one who knows”.


Although many of the traditions that a Hedgewitch draws from have changed – after all, lore is lost and knowledge changes over the centuries – you will find most Hedgewitches prefer to practice as close to traditionally as possible. Yet still in a manner practical for these modern times. Hedgewitches are very adaptable. You may find a Hedgewitch casting a spell on a modern tractor that comes right out of a book on Cornish folklore, for an example.  Another Hedgewitch might play a drumming CD on his stereo while he performs a traditional rite to bring about a much needed weather change.


Often the typical deities of a Hedgewitch (should she have any at all) will be the Witch Queen and the Master of the Craft from within the cultural context they are working in. Not exactly the Wiccan Lord and Lady but close enough that many Wiccans feel comfortable taking up the work of a Hedgewitch. Working with the Mighty Dead and their own ancestors is also a very important part of this Path. They will also work with familiar spirits, land and nature spirits, Totems, their Fetch and the like, all to assist in their work. Hedgewitches look to these spirits to provide bits of lost lore and also for inspiration and aid.


Hedgewitches use herbal concoctions known as flying ointments, as well as shamanic techniques such as drumming and meditation, to induce altered states of consciousness. This is not something that Hedgewitches take lightly, nor do they use such techniques and ointments as a short-cut to the Mysteries. They understand very well the dangers of this practice and enter into such rites and workings with eyes wide open. They will experiment with their ointments and techniques, often for years. They increase the potency gradually, rather than simply “jumping in to the deep end”. Many foolish young Pagans have done that, and then learned the hard way the consequences of such actions.


Hedgewitches often refer to shamanic journeys as “Walking the Hedge,” “Riding the Hedge,” “Oot and Aboot,” or “Crossing/Jumping the Hedge.” They also have a tendency to spend much of their lives with one foot on either side of the Hedge, which makes them eccentric to say the least. It is said that being called to become a Hedgewitch and then answering that call can make you a shaman, a poet or a madman, or some mixture of all of the above. Hedgewitches are known to be outspoken and to be less interested in fitting-in. They also will often see and experience things whilst Walking the Hedge that changes the way they perceive the ordinary world around them. Giving them different and often opposing views on everything from politics, to social rules to fashion sense.


A Hedgewitch walks freely into caol ait, Gaelic for the “thin places” between one world and another. They learn not only to find such places, but how to use them effectively. More experienced Hedgewitches can open them even when the Hedge is at its thickest between the Hallowed Feasts. The Hallowed Feasts are the holy days that fall between the solstices and equinoxes, and are often called High Days by modern Pagans. The most well known of these days would be Samhain, or Halloween.


Spirituality in Hedgewitches varies and depends on the individual; usually they look to their own heritage and ancestry. The only tradition Hedgewitches typically follow is a reverence for nature, though some may come from a more formal Pagan path originally.

Hedgewitches commonly do practice some form of Paganism, but many make no claim to any practice but that of Hedgecraft or Hedgeriding. It seems rather a lot of Hedgewitches practice a form of Traditional Witchcraft, such as that which is based on the work of Robert Cochrane.  More and more Wiccans are also taking up the work of a Hedgewitch, perhaps because Traditional Wicca lacks a strong shamanic element. Many (in fact possibly most) Hedgewitch look to historical accounts of witchcraft, magick, healing and religion for inspiration and as a basis of their magickal and spiritual Paths.


The main distinction between Hedgewitchery and other forms of Witchcraft is that Hedgewitches often have less interest in the heavily scripted and ceremonial aspects of some types of modern Paganism and Witchcraft. For they have a highly individual and often unique way of relating to life, spirituality, magick and Creation.  A Hedgewitch prefers the freedom and joyfulness of spontaneous workings that come from the heart. For the Hedgewitch there is no separation between normal life and their magickal one, for their normal life is magickal. The Craft they practice strongly reflects this belief.


Hedgewitches do whatever comes naturally to them; they follow their instincts, and their heart. This does however charge the Hedgewitch with the need to know themselves and their own hearts well. It also does not free them from the need to properly research and study. Rather it means each Hedgewitch must work to achieve a balance of intuition and research, instinct and study, spontaneity and script.


Most Hedgewitches do not cast circles in a Wiccan sense.  They may either have other methods to mark sacred space, or not bother at all. After all, Hedgewitches believe that all space is sacred. Some Hedgewitches may do such things as Lay a Compass Rose or Plough the Bloody Furrow in their practice. But whether they do or not, and how exactly they go about it, will vary. With these methods Hedgewitches attempt to “dig down” into the magickal, natural forces and energies of the Otherworlds and draw them into their working space. The center, usually marked by some symbol of the axis mundi, is the focal point and other directions lain out ritually. At the center a gap in the Hedge is created so that Hedgewitches can interact with, or enter into, the Otherworlds.


These Witches do not typically follow one particular moral code, but rather their own personal ethics and often some version of the credo to “do what is needed” and to “Know Thyself”. Until they can face who they truly are and who they wish to become, they cannot create a functional magickal and spiritual practice. Hedgewitches do not take up the Wiccan Rede of “harm none” for they understand that sometimes in order to heal one must do harm, and sometimes to harm is to heal.


Hedgewitches walk the Crooked Path, the Path that winds and twists its way between the right-hand and left-hand Paths, between right and wrong, between light and dark. Hedgewitches walk all borders and prefer the grey areas, having little interest in all black or all white magick or spiritual workings. The Crooked Path also refers to a Path that twists and turns within a landscape, not a road that cuts straight through it and thus damages that very landscape.


Most Hedgewitches use few synthetic objects in their spells and rituals. Their tools are typically very practical, such as a walking stick.  Often they will use a stang, even pruning shears, and their tools are handmade by them as much as possible. Most Hedgewitches use only what is needed, meaning they do not clutter an altar (if they should use an altar at all) with items that will not be actively used during a working or rite. They also are practical enough to utilize what is on hand or readily available. Substitutions are acceptable when given thought.


Hedgewitches usually study herbalism, wildcrafting, rootwork and wortcunning with gusto. They seek knowledge and understanding of the ways of Nature, such as the cycle of the seasons and the wildlife and plant-life in their area. Hedgewitches may know how to grow herbs in a garden, but are more likely to study where and how they grow in the wild and how to gather them. They usually have a great deal of lore on trees and plant life, animals, and the wilderness in general.


Hedgewitches tailor their Path to suit themselves. Some may focus on wortcunning, while others study midwifery, or focus on animal husbandry.  Others may be well versed in healing with crystals. Many Hedgewitches choose to be a jack of many trades, but a master of none or few. This means that a Hedgewitch must learn wherein their own talents and abilities lay, also to accept their own limitations and not take on more than they can handle. Here again we find the need to apply the axiom “Know Thyself”. Hedgewitches are called to serve their communities, whatever shape that community may take, and will use their natural talents and the knowledge they have gained to do so.


While Hedgewitchery is something of a solitary path, this is not always so. Some of their practices, especially the shamanic ones, require a trusted friend or group to watch over their body while their soul is elsewhere. Even the most hermit-like Hedgewitch can still be found at the local Pagan event now and then. Some may have friends or domestic partners who follow another Pagan, Heathen or Witchcraft path, and they will often happily join in any ritual or activity if invited. Yet most Hedgewitches may just be rebels and rabble-rousers; this is after all, an Outsider Path.


The daily spiritual practice of a Hedgewitch will be adapted to her individual abilities, interests, and lifestyle. One Hedgewitch may start his mornings offering up prayers of thanksgiving as he collects eggs from the chicken coop. Another Hedgewitch may spend her mornings in quiet meditation on her patio; sipping tea and watching the deer graze in her lawn. A third Hedgewitch may say a quick prayer at the household shrine before racing off to work. And when it is needed, each Hedgewitch will spend a day fasting and preparing for a night of ritual work or Hedge Crossing.


So what the heck is a Hedgewitch anyways?


You may prefer rural or wild settings and may be a little wild yourself. You might be looking for a tradition that is adaptable and practical, one that combines “old school” Witchcraft and a modern life. You may be seeking tradition that adds a focus on European-based shamanism and the practical application of folklore to the mix.


Are you looking for a tradition that leans heavily on natural magic, understanding the land and the practice of healing lore? Do you want a tradition that focuses on personal experience, experimentation and doing-it-yourself? Perhaps you wish to blaze your own Path, like the Witches of old? You might just have that Cunning Fire burning in your head, heart and soul.


You may just be a Hedgewitch.


The tenth Rune-spell I do know

Is to gaze deep into the murky night

And spy the Hedgewitches flying high,

Sending their spirits far and wide

I see their true forms

I can confuse their wandering souls

Then turn them ‘round and send them home

Back into their bodies, back within their own skins