Hedge Riding: The Art of the Hedge Witch

Bringing the Hedge back into Hedge Witchcraft, working with liminal spaces and the Otherworld

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The Solar Path - The Sabbats for the Hedge Witch (Part One)

Just as the Hedge Witch follows the tides of the moon, so too does she follow the cycles of the sun.  She pays attention to the length of days, and knows where it rises and sets in her local area throughout the year through careful observation. She has spent many mornings and evening watching the sunrise and sunset from the same vantage point, so that she can pull all her solar knowledge into her Craft, and make it applicable to her work.

The tides of the sun are reflected in the eight Sabbats found in modern Witchcraft and Wicca. Not all Witches follow all eight, as some prefer to follow only the Celtic Fire Festivals which mark agricultural times, rather than solar phenomena. However, we know that our megalithic ancestors followed the solstices and equinoxes with the building of their temples and stone circles, and so today many in Modern Paganism and Witchcraft follow all eight festivals. So, we follow the path of the sun in the two equinoxes and solstices, as well as the four Fire Festivals which mark important timings in the agricultural year, as dictated by the sun’s gifts and the local weather.

The eightfold Wheel of the Year was created by Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols, who were mentioned in previous chapters. They brought together folklore and traditions to create a system that had a festival around every six to eight weeks. In doing so, they found a way to connect to the natural world around them more fully in a system that honoured both solar and agricultural phenomena. And, as we like to say in Witchcraft, if it works, use it!

The four Fire Festivals are based on agricultural phenomenon from the British Isles. If you don’t live in the UK, you may adapt or follow a slightly different system to reflect what is happening in your local area. Or, you might like to follow an ancestral link and use the British system wherever you are, feeling that this connects you to the energies and linking you in with ancestral ties. Many in the Craft have reversed the Sabbats in the Southern Hemisphere, as this better reflects what is happening in that part of the world. So, around December 21st they would celebrate the summer solstice, as this is when they have their summer season. The other four Sabbats honour the tides of the solstices and equinoxes, and so are directly related to the position of the sun.

Many within the Craft equate the Sabbats with the masculine and the energy of the sun, and therefore weave the tale of the Sun God into their cosmology and mythos, telling of how the cycles of the seasons rise and fall. This is most often seen as the relationship between the Goddess and the God, the female and male energies, that come together to create a religion, spiritual path, practice or philosophy based on the natural cycles of our current environment. The most common mythos within the Craft reflects the British year and seasonal cycles, and is fairly  modern in origin, stemming mostly from Wicca. It goes as follows:

At Samhain (commonly known as Hallowe’en today) the Sun God dies, even as we see the vegetation around us dying back. The Sun God is then reborn of the Goddess at the Winter Solstice (commonly known as Yule in Modern Paganism). At Imbolc the Goddess rests while the infant Sun God grows stronger in her arms. At the Spring Equinox (Ostara) the God begins to take his first steps independently into the world. Next follows Beltane, where the God and Goddess fall in love and come together to bring fertility to the land. Then, at the Summer Solstice (Litha) the God reaches his full strength. At Lughnasadh, we honour the God and Goddess as the first harvests are brought in, and give thanks for the bounty during the harvest season. At the Autumn Equinox (Mabon) the energy of the God begins to fail, and the Goddess prepares the way for him to the Otherworld, where at Samhain he dies once again, and the cycle is repeated.

The veneration of a vegetation deity is something that is common throughout the world. Here in Britain, we have constant reminders of this deity, in the form of the Green Man, which peers at us from church roofs and lofty halls. These earlier echoes of the cycles of the seasons are still heard, and reflected in the above mythos. As well, there is the seasonal mythos of the Oak King and the Holly King known in certain traditions of Witchcraft, where the two kings battle it out for supremacy during half of the year. The Oak King wins the battle at the Winter Solstice, where the days begin to lengthen once again, and the Holly King wins at the Summer Solstice, where after the longest day has peaked, the days shorten and his power grows until once again the pattern is repeated.

The names of the Sabbats or solar festivals mentioned above are a mix of Celtic and Northern European words. This is because there is no intact tradition that has been handed down throughout the centuries, and so in Modern Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft we have pieced together the puzzle as best we can to reflect the energies of the solar and agricultural tides, with the words and traditions that best describe them. Witches, being of such diverse traditions, may follow the above mythos, or may have their own mythos to reflect what is happening seasonally around them. It is an ever-growing and evolving life path.

I incorporate deity into my Craft, because I am a religious and spiritual person. This is not necessary to Witchcraft, or to Hedge Witchcraft. You may certainly celebrate the seasonal festivals without the modern mythos described above. So, if the modern mythos does not resonate with you, then simply disregard those aspects.

You may also feel a desire to celebrate not by the calendar, but by the seasonal shifts themselves. Letting the natural world around you influence your celebrations and rituals is something that is deeply important to the Craft. It is also a practice that is based on locality, so for instance if at Imbolc you are still deep under five feet of snow, then perhaps celebrating the lambing season and the first snowdrops doesn’t resonate with you at all.

Each Hedge Witch’s practice will be different, because each is influenced by her own experience, knowledge and locality. So, you may not even use the titles given to the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year at all. You may work with the lunar tides, and create festivals that honour what is happening around you at each moon’s cycle. Or, if the natural world around you describes four or five festivals, then feel free to go with that if you so desire. If you wish to celebrate the first frost as the beginning of winter, then that is perfectly acceptable. For me here in the British Isles, the eightfold wheel of the year reflects what is happening in my part of the world. For Witches living in the north of Britain, they may celebrate the sabbats or their festivals a few weeks later, as for instance Spring arrives much earlier in the south of England than it does in the north of Scotland.

Some Hedge Witches follow the calendar, some do not. The solstices and equinoxes are times and tides that all can usually agree on, however, the agricultural/pastoral festivals may have huge differences in timing. The lambing season here is usually around February, but some local farmers have it during December, when they have the whole family on holiday to help out. This is because it is fairly mild here in the East of England, so close to the coast, and new grass is available at this time of year. In the North, this might not be the case. The first frost that we had last year came in December, as it was a very mild winter up until March, when we had a huge snowstorm, labelled by the media as “The Beast from the East”. And so, I celebrated both by the calendar, and also honoured the time of the first frost.

Celebrating by the calendar can put us out of sync with nature sometimes, but there are other benefits. With so many Pagans celebrating at these specific times of the year, we can tap into the collective energies of these days and nights, and ride those tides if we so wish. I love the feeling of celebrating Samhain alongside so many others across the Northern Hemisphere, however, I may also celebrate a little later on as well when the first frost appears.

Regarding the eight festivals, if practicing in the Southern Hemisphere, many Witches flip the festivals over, and so celebrate the Winter Solstice at the time when we would celebrate the Summer Solstice. This is because their winter is our summer, and vice versa. It must be remembered that Witchcraft is a local tradition and practice, so this makes perfect sense.

Cont'd in future blog post...

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And Coming in July 2019:

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  Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  

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