During the period more or less between the Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows, we open the nursery to interested groups during what are supposed to be balmy summer evenings. I am not having a go at other nurseries when I say we don’t make much of a song and dance about this, we normally seem to be pretty well booked solid without having to blow our own trumpets in the media.This year it was a special treat to welcome the local witches, fascinating and charming people who knew their stuff and brought a most excellent picnic. Not that Deb nor I saw much of it, we were too busy collating their eclectic shopping lists. Interesting that no one bought any of the black or white magical plants we put out for them, presumably they had them all since childhood. More interesting still, although the Met Office had put out a severe weather warning centred on Bristol, it was a perfect evening, but then one would expect nothing less from a full coven, twelve of them plus one if you count me in.This raised the question, why witches to look at the garden rather than Polish plumbers or Baptist seminarists or whatever? So to provide a partial answer, I bunged some discussion points in the computer and ended up with this. No doubt someone will want to heckle but, as I say, these are discussion points, – generalisations rather than an attempt to encapsulate the ramifications of an entire belief system.
Paganism is a completely different ball game to Christianity in that it is genuinely linked to the Earth on which we stand rather than to some censorious bloke sitting on a cloud. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake”, said the bloke on the cloud, (Genesis 3 : 17) to which your average witch might retort “speak for yourself mate” because it was long ago realised that healing plants grew in the ground. However almost from that point up to Medieval and beyond it was believed that illness was a divine punishment and that attempts to cure it was to subvert God’s will, (Remember the great hooha a few years ago when some prelate preached in Wells Cathedral that AIDS was a punishment from the Christian God upon homosexuals?). Christian monastic healers, such as there were, also suffered from the paradox that the most potent medicinal plants grew beyond the cloister walls in unsanctified ground, the wild realm of the devil. The French took this fear of the earth to silly lengths, Haudebourg writes about the aristocracy who preferred to eat food which reflected their social station close to God himself, fruits from the tops of trees and birds which flew through the air, unlike the peasants who had to make do with turnips grown in soil close to the infernal regions! ( Haudebourg, Marie-Therèse page 213 in “Les Jardins Du Moyen Age” :Librairie Academique Perrin 2001) However, given that their fruit was so revolting, that a variety of French pear was named “cailloux” for instance, the peasants may have known which way up their parsnips were buttered.
In contrast to the witches who prefer to work with nature, the Christians feared it, the problem was that God had commanded Adam and Eve “to replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1 : 28) but nature was unenthusiastic about being subdued and cocked a snook at both God and man by sending fire, famine, pestilence and flood to torment this uppity creation. Not surprisingly man retreated from the “chaos” of nature to the well- ordered and sanctified bunkers behind the four walls of his cloisters (four the number of the evangelists, rivers in paradise, humours etc etc). Gregory of Nyssa wrote “Holy scripture is accustomed to use the word woods with reference to mans material existence which becomes overgrown with all sorts of passions and (in which) dangerous beasts make .their lair”. Witches became the essential intermediary between man and nature, for “Dis-ease” is the unbalancing of the humours and since the restoration of this balance by plants is the fundamental principle of medieval healing a process only fully understood by witches, their role became vital. Unfortunately as the witch-finders were forever pointing out, if witches could balance humours, they could also unbalance them, so that when men did eventually manage to subdue nature during the Renaissance, the need for the healing wisdom of witches declined as the suspicion that they had caused illness in the first place increased and the burnings flared ever brighter. Because of the equation Nature = Gaia = the Earth = Woman, the gardens of the pre- classical sorceresses onwards were wild and separate from the main stream of human life, from the inaccessible garden of the gods in “Gilgamesh” presided over by the seductive young Siduri via Circe on her island in Ovid Met 14, to the gingerbread cottage in “Hansel and Gretel” whose sinister owner lived in a remote corner of the forest; all offered a precedent to the Christians who argued that tidy gardens were good, and natural gardens bad.
To the medieval mind, the cursed earth was something best avoided, something on which one landed with a thud if one fell from one’s palfrey or hard dirt to be tilled by peasants. Medieval poetry may be full of knights wanting to have their wicked way with peasant girls in the countryside, but only so long as the missionary position was strictly observed, – anyway the symbolism of the girl being on top would have appalled the uptight medieval mind. There was also the idea that there was a sort of polarity between heaven and earth that could be short-circuited by a man lying on the ground. Thus to avoid being blasted by a lightning bolt, the man would spread a woman underneath him, who being of the earth herself would act as a kind of insulator. Curiously a belief grew up in late fifteenth century Lombardy that columbine plants would work just as well (Gilles, René “Le Symbolisme dans L’Art Religieux” La Colombe, Paris 1961). The misogynistic Christian church which depended on the production of surplus male children to preserve its place the social hierarchy resented the necessary role of women in the process and did all in its power to ensure that this was all they did, – sex for any purpose than creating children was frowned upon so that the medieval Popes were constantly sending spoil-sport missionaries to the wild hinterlands of Europe in a vain endeavour to stop the peasants from copulating in the fields to make their crops grow. Such jollities were supposed to have been halted when Jagiello of Lithuania converted to Christianity in 1386, but Frazer wrote that the Ukrainian peasantry carried on regardless until comparatively recently with the local priest joining in. “Ah well if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them” he probably said. It would be interesting to know if Michael Eavis has conducted a proper survey on whether the activities of the festival goers at Pilton have had the same effect on his grass as the Ukrainian revellers did on their corn.
Almost uniquely amongst the world’s religions, witches don’t fear their god or goddess and so, unlike Jews, Ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Aztecs and just about anyone else you can think of, they have no need of a blood sacrifice with which to appease her/him. At which point someone will inevitably pipe up, – what about the Druids? To which one might reply “What Druids? The ones invented in a Primrose Hill pub in the late Eighteenth century or the subjects of a well known propaganda exercise by Tacitus and Caesar?” Either way, their connection with the blood thirsty Celts is somewhat tenuous and even more remote from the genuine witches. With no need to conform to avoid the unpleasant collective punishments meted out by the Christian deity acting like an incompetent school master, witches did their own thing. This of course, upset the literally God-fearing who reckoned they would be zapped for the perceived sins of the witches. So they set about bullying them into behaving like the rest of their mindless congregation and burning those that didn’t with an even greater gusto. Conformity required the centralising influence of written texts but, mindful of their own safety, witches had a largely oral tradition. Ironically, they thus mirrored the literate clergy who sought a similar level of remoteness from the common herd. This is nicely put by Allen and Hatfield (David E Allen & Gabrielle Hatfield “Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, an Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland” Timber Press 2004) “Literacy”, say A & H describing the medieval dependence upon written texts such as Pliny, “…conferred upon its possessors, a privileged apartness, an apartness which could be placed at risk by giving credence to practices and beliefs unsanctioned by classical authority. Amongst these were the remedies that the unlettered peasantry derived from plants that grew among them in the wild”.
Finally witches, shamans and priestesses have always communicated with their Gods either by burning incense, derived from plant resins like the modern celebrants of the Catholic mass or by using the smoke from narcotic leaves like the Pythonesses of ancient Greece. It seems a safe bet therefore, that those disciples who saw the tongues of fire and spoke in odd languages at the Pentecostal party described in Acts 2 had had a bit more than just orange juice to get them going. No pagan garden should be without a few interesting plants to broaden one’s vision and it is not unreasonable to assume that the locked gardens of medieval monks similarly provided. (Cannabis for instance was widely grown for textile and medicinal purposes, but no one breathed a word about its other properties).Sadly the repeal of the Witchcraft laws in 1951 and the publication of Elizabeth Gould Davis’ flawed polemic “The First Sex” has allowed the socially disfunctional who simply want a crack at the establishment, and the sexually inadequate seeking compatible partners to hi-jack witchcraft to form a semi-cohesive mass under the banner of “Paganism”. This is clearly against the “apartness” of genuine witchcraft, even more so when it is blasted across the internet and has done much to bring “the craft” into disrepute. Whilst getting high, anarachy and guilt-free sex on the soft grass has its appeal, any connection with the realities of “The Old Religion” is purely coincidental. That said, at a time when the world is split between sabre-rattling politicians exploiting their monotheistic religions to justify their mutual hostility, it is hard to deny a sneaking sympathy with the modern generation. Worse, unlike their sixties prototypes, they now have to contend with politicians’ obsessive attempts at making them conform by surveillance techniques and the increasingly nit-picking legislation justified as “security measures”. Plus ca change, the sbiri of the Renaissance popes had nothing on the modern forces of law n’ order, so who is to blame the dissidents of the younger generation when they attempt to re-embrace the precepts of an earlier society, which although no better, wasn’t much worse? Doing their own thing whilst hurting neither their fellow humans nor the environment has always been the witches’ creed which should be enough for anyone. Sadly, the contrast between the strident sisterhood and our visitors the other night couldn’t be greater.