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 Two)

Samhain

We all know of the modern-day Hallowe’en that falls on the 31st October, but few outside of the Craft know of the origins of this festival. Samhain is a Celtic festival that celebrates the time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin, and we can connect more easily with the unseen, both in the form of the Fair Folk (faeries) as well as the ancestors. The Celts reckoned their days from sunset to sunset, and so Samhain would run from sunset on the 31st October to sunset on the 1st November. The Celts divided the year into two halves, the dark half and the light half, and we see this reflected in much of Modern Witchcraft today. How this is divided depends on the tradition. If you are following on from the Celtic lore, the dark half of the year begins at Samhain, and ends at Beltane, when the light half of the year begins. This is the Celtic beginning of Winter and Summer, for they only considered two seasons in their worldview. Samhain means “summer’s end”. Other traditions of Witchcraft see the dark and light halves of the year commencing at the solstices, with the myth of the Oak King and the Holly King. We will explore this later when we look at the solstices.

All around us at this time of year, the leaves are falling or have already fallen, and many of the fields that do not contain winter crops lie fallow. The bright colours of the flowers are gone, and the world becomes muted, softer, both to the eye and to the ear. The birds have flown to their migratory patterns, and the insects have either died or sought hibernation. It is a time of reflection, for the harvest is now over, and we can take stock of what we have reaped, and what we have sown in our lives. We honour the Sun God as he fades into the West, his strength gone and the darkness of night lying all around us. Here in the UK, the days are especially short during this seasonal tide, with six to eight hours of sunlight (if it isn’t raining) and many, many long hours of darkness afterwards. The winds outside are howling, the rain and hail patters on the windows, and the Wild Hunt is said to ride from the Otherworld, to collect the souls of the head.

Even as the Sun God has died, we honour him and all the ancestors at this time of year. We may light a candle in the window to light the way for all those who have died this year, or we might have a Dumb Supper, a meal taken in silence with a special plate for the ancestors to feast with us on this special night. Bobbing for apples brings us fortune in the coming year, for at Samhain it is also seen as the New Year, when the cycle turns once again. The apple is a symbol of rebirth, and if we are lucky or skilled enough, we can capture it to bring us good fortune. This was a night when people avoided going out of doors as the Wild Hunt was riding the land, with the lord of the Underworld, Gwyn Ap Nudd riding at its head, collecting the souls of those who had died during the year, as well as any unwary travellers. We say good-bye to the warmth and light of summer, and welcome in the darkness and winter.

 

Yule (Winter Solstice)

The winter solstice occurs around the 21st of December, give or take a day for the precise astronomical timing. It is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. For three days during the solstices (both winter and summer) the sun rises and sets on the same place in the horizon, suspending its travels southwards or northwards before reversing direction upon rising following the solstice. In the run-up to the Winter Solstice, the sun has travelled southwards along the horizon with each sunrise, until it rises at its most southerly point at the solstice, where it rises in the same place for three days. After this, is then begins to rise more northerly with each morning sunrise, and set further north as well with each sunset. During the solstice the sun “stands still”, from the Latin sol meaning sun and sister, to stand still.

In Witchcraft, many see this time as the birth of the Sun God, who has risen again after his death at Samhain. The Goddess, impregnated at Beltane, has given birth nine months later to the God again, and the cycle continues. The sun, after standing still for three days, now begins to gain in strength, and even as the Goddess rests, he continues to grow.

Others within the Craft see this time as the tide when the darkness gives way to light through the myth of the Oak and Holly King. At the solstices, the two kings battle for supremacy for half of the year, and at the Winter Solstice the Oak King wins out over the Holly King and the light half of the year begins. At the Summer Solstice, the Oak King loses his strength, and the Holly Kings wins, beginning the dark half of the year. This battle between two kings is a common motif throughout Celtic folklore, but in this interpretation is a more modern invention, being traced back to Robert Graves’ work The White Goddess, with the myth inspired by some of the material in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and his chapter “The Killing of the Tree Spirit”.

In the southwest of Britain, the tradition of wassailing the orchards still continues to this day. It honours the apple trees (and other fruit trees, but mostly apple) by giving a libation of cider, and sometimes even the shooting of guns into the branches to scare away evil spirits (and possible be a lazy form of pruning!). Throughout Europe, evergreens were also brought into the home, their foliage reminding us of the continuity of life, and that the spirit never dies. Mistletoe, an herb that was sacred to the ancient Druids, was used in Victorian times much as it is today, in the form of the Kissing Bough, with a berry picked for every kiss until there was none left.

 

Imbolc

Imbolc occurs around the 31st January – 1st or 2nd of November, depending upon which tradition you follow. The Christian feast day of Candlemas falls on the 2nd of November, which is why some people celebrate it on this day, as it is a holiday that has melded Pagan and Christian traditions. Others who follow a more Celtic-based Pagan tradition celebrate this time from sunset on the 31st of January to sunset on the 1st February. This is known in Celtic lands as Brigid’s Day, a time to honour the Goddess Brigid. In Modern Witchcraft, we honour the returning light of the young Sun God, and the returning warmth of spring from the Goddess. In the UK, the first flowers of snowdrops are out, and the land is beginning to warm up after the winter. Elsewhere, as in North America, many places may still be under a blanket of snow, and so this is a quiet time of reflection and celebration of the lengthening days, and the nourishment of the Goddess.

Imbolc comes from the Celtic “in the belly” or “ewes milk”. At this time of year the sheep would be giving birth, providing the people with much-needed fresh milk, from which they could make new butter and cheeses to last them through the difficult early spring tides, when food was scarce as the winter’s stores ran low, and new growth was yet to be seen. In the Craft we honour this quiet time by honouring the Mother Goddess and the flow of new milk, and the strengthening light of the Sun God.

 

Ostara (Spring Equinox)

Ostara comes from the Northern European goddess Ēostre, also from which we get the term Easter. It is thought linguistically that this comes from the the Proto-IndoEuropean root “to shine”, from which we also get our word East. She is seen as a goddess of Spring, fertility, dawn and new beginnings, and is associated with hares and, of course, eggs.

Astronomically, this is the time when the hours of day and night are equal, when there is balance between light and dark, just before the tipping point over into the favour of longer days and shorter nights as we traverse the Wheel of the Year into the summer. The young Sun God is gaining independence, under the watchful eye of the Goddess. We see the play of balance, and honour both the light and dark at this time of year.

The concept of balance was playfully enacted during this time when it is said that you are able to balance an egg on its end at the precise moment of the equinox (I have yet to succeed). Eggs would be a welcome sight at this time of year for our ancestors, whose hens stopped laying over the long dark nights of winter, and who would have begun laying at this time of year. Hares were held in high regard for the ancient Celts, and it was only legal to hunt a hare on the day of the Spring Equinox, to bring fertility into your life. The chocolate eggs and rabbits of today are a reflection of these older memories.

This is an excellent time to watch the sun rise, for at this point it will rise due East, and you can orientate yourself and your space to this direction for all your magical and mystical workings.

 

Beltane

Using the Celtic model, Beltane begins at sunset on April 31st and runs through to sunset on 1st May. It is a magical time of year, celebrated in various cultures and societies. To this day, in Britain we still have the secular May Day, in which we have a bank holiday Monday on the nearest Monday. Beltane is the time when the Goddess and God have come together in joyous union, sharing their love for each other and in doing so, seeing the fertility in all nature responding in kind. The birds are singing and nesting, the trees are in full blossom and the celebration of life can be felt everywhere.

In many places in Britain, you will see Maypoles being erected at this time of year. Though many believe these to be phallic representations of the virility of the God, there is another theory that is equally valid. Ancient Celts honoured sacred trees, and often the bile or sacred tree (sometimes a pole) was erected in the centre of the village, as a symbol of the strength and power of the community. Other raiding tribes would cut down the bile of the villages they were raiding, either to destroy or gain that power. The maypole could indeed be a remnant from this, symbolising the power and strength of the World Tree, the Axis Mundi, the centre of the world.

Beltane is another important liminal time, often seen as one of the three spirit-nights, where the hosts of Faery ride out as the veils between this world and the Otherworld are thin. As well, fire is a very important part of this festival, as the bel-fires were lit on hilltops throughout the land to signal this time and tide. The Celtic god Belinus, the Shining One often considered to be a solar deity is thought to be where we get the festival’s name.

Beltane signalled the start of summer, as the Celts had only two seasons: summer and winter, with Samhain or “summer’s end) being the beginning of winter.

 

(Litha) Summer Solstice

Litha is an Anglo-Saxon word used to designate the months of June and July. These two months were called ǣrra līþa (before Litha) and æfterra līþa (after Litha). As the Summer Solstice occurs roughly in between these two months, Wicca and certain Witchcraft traditions have adopted the name of Litha for this festival.

This is the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, where the sun stands still, just as it did at the Winter Solstice. However, now the sun has reached its furthest north-eastern rising point, and its furthest north-western setting point. Here, for three days, the sun will rise and set at these points on the horizon in the same place, before beginning its journey southwards as the days begin to shorten. It is also when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky giving us the longest day, and the full moon will reach its lowest trajectory (reversed at the winter solstice).

Fire or sun-wheels were often rolled down hillsides to represent the sun’s power at this time of year, and perhaps to bring that solar energy to the land. As well, as one of the spirit nights, the Fair Folk are often out riding the land, and many are the tales of human encountering them at midsummer. In the mythos of the Oak King and the Holly King, this is when the Holly King wins the battle, and takes over the power from Oak King to rule during this half of the year. It is that point when the God’s strength has reached its peak, just before the decline in the shortening of days.

 

Lughnasadh

Lughnsasadh is a Celtic term, used to denote the “Feast of Lugh”. At this time of year, the bright and shining god Lugh held a feast on honour of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died providing for her people. The name of Tailtiu comes from Old Celtic Talantiu, meaning "The Great One of the Earth"[1]. By the calendar, this festival is celebrated on the eve of 31 July – 1st August.

Games and contests are traditional at this festival, and some are still held to this day in Celtic lands. In Wicca and Modern Witchcraft, this festival honours the cutting of the first crop, usually wheat or barley. The Sun God is seen to have given his strength to the crops, and now begins the harvest season, where he slowly fades in strength and passes his energy through the harvest until the end of harvest-time, at Samhain.

 

Mabon (Autumn Equinox)

Mabon is the Wiccan/Modern Witchcraft name for the Autumn Equinox. Its origins are hazy, but we know that Mabon in Welsh mythology is the son of Modron, and they are an example of a divine Mother Goddess and Son God duality. Mabon might be a derivative of Maponus, a god who is often associated with the Greek Apollo, and so may have solar connotations. In Welsh mythology, Mabon was stolen as a babe from his mother, and later returned, bringing fruitfulness to the land upon his homecoming, which may be why this Sabbat is called Mabon, as we celebrate the harvest. The Goddess is also preparing the way for the Sun God upon his death, as the world begins wind down in nature, and the approaching tides of winter are on the wind.

Autumn equinox is the second “equal night”, when the length of day and night are equal. It falls between 20-22 September. Harvest Suppers and Harvest Home are still celebrated widely across many UK parishes, and it is similar in sentiment to Thanksgiving.



[1] van der Hoeven, J. The Book of Hedge Druidry, (Llewellyn, 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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