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The Old Village Witch

by Kate Aimson

Originally published at Beltane 1996

One summer I was walking with a neighbour along a lane after a long afternoon's walk. We passed a flower which I did not recognise, and as I was looking at it she said "those women that they used to call witches, all that it was was that they knew the herbal cures for things, using the plants around them."

This sentiment is often heard, often as an apology for witches, or some sort of guilt thing for all the old ladies executed for witchcraft. Fine, so we have solved the mystery, cleared up the silly old folk tale of the witch and we can feel only contempt for the patriarchal formal authorities who persecuted these women for practising a bit of home-grown, natural medicine on their neighbours.

But the thought occurs to me: "So they knew all the medicinal uses of plants - HOW?" We are talking about people who did not generally have books, with no mass communication, no nationally accepted names for plants, no agreed scientific classification of flora (or none that a village woman would be aware of). May be we actually are talking about witchcraft after all.

That same year the same neighbour came to tell me that her grandma had told her that when she was small she ran errands for an old lady, and that old lady had told her that when she was small a witch lived in my house. She remembered two things about her: that they were frightened of her, even though she was known to be good, and that she used to be seen gathering herbs and plants, perhaps along those lanes and woods where I walk.

Thinking about this lady, living in her small stone cottage, I have some ideas about the old witches and their herbal lore. If there was no scientific recognition of plants, or even reference books, some other factors must have been involved in the witch's knowledge of healing herbs. I suggest a threesome of factors involved: GUIDELINES, INTUITION and KNOWLEDGE.

With these three, a witch could solve a problem or help someone with a particular complaint at a particular time.

KNOWLEDGE: this is the knowledge of plants, their names; which are poisonous, which have specific and accepted properties; and tried and tested usage of plants and methods. If the witch did not have a book to make notes in, this knowledge would be stored in the memory.

GUIDELINES: a witch's long experience tells in what kind of ways certain types of things are used. She would know to use a certain plant, but if it was not available guidelines would allow her to substitute one of a similar effect. Guidelines could be such things as the colour of plants and flowers, where they live, what kind of leaves they have, what family of plants they belong to. Guidelines would say which part to use in what way for what ailment. These guidelines would be accumulated with experience and experimenting through force of necessity.

INTUITION: call it what you will, this is the interesting part. This is magickal knowledge, direct communication with plants, intuition, meditation, inner guidance. WITCHCRAFT. A complete separate kind of knowledge from experience, this knowledge comes from an external source.

Here likes the religious and spiritual experience of the witch. Here she keeps in touch with the universal and seasonal round. Here rituals are necessary to keep in touch, and to pay her dues. Without giving back she will not receive. Without being in touch she will not have access to inspiration and guidance.

Over the course of her long life, the witch would have developed these in the following ways.

KNOWLEDGE: perhaps with mother or aunt showing and telling the names. Someone else can tell you the names, but you need to go and look at them and learn them. This knowledge can be written down as an aid to memory. Writing it down will merely help you to remember. Knowledge grows in the memory, and written notes help and are there to prompt you.

GUIDELINES: these come from experience. There might be generally accepted guidelines which you might have been taught. If a witch had a book, she could make a note of what she has tried and how it worked out. This would gradually build up a spellbook which could be referred to. Without a book, it would be memory work. As aids to memory, traditions, customs, rhymes and chants come into their own.

INTUITION/MAGIC: this comes from experience of, and closeness to, the Goddess and the story of the year. Also from meditation, thought and worship, in whatever form they would have taken for a village witch. I would suggest that she must have practised ritual of some kind because if she wasn't involved in ritual she wouldn't be involved enough and not practised enough at the contact between herself and the natural and spiritual world. A witch would need to build up a relationship with plants to have a direct communication with them. This intuition is not the same as knowledge or guidelines, although they help to make educated guesses possible, and also to understand the terms in which the answers are phrased. This fact deals with knowledge of the essence of things, and the altering of things within their essence. This is the place where decisions and changes are made. This is where spells a cast. This is MAGIC.

So I would suggest that for these old women to have had access to knowledge of plants and their healing properties, they must have had spiritual communication with the essences of the plants. To do this, they must have been practising, perhaps unconsciously, the things that we try to follow today to be witches. I would suggest that the old village witch was a witch rather than a nice old lady who was quite good at making herbal cough mixtures for her neighbours!