You can probably tell that I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge! Which makes sense. The Japanese say that autumn, with its colder days and longer nights, puts us in a more contemplative and nostalgic mood, which is perfect for reading.
I’d had Hedge Witch on my reading wish list for some time, and a friend’s recommendation prompted me to buy it. It is one of the more important works in Pagan-related literature, being one of the earliest works on “Hedgecraft” and solitary practise in general. What makes this work rather unique is that it’s told in a series of letters from the author to her two “apprentices” Tessa and Glyn, passing on her knowledge of the craft.
It’s this unusual format that initially put me off buying it – as a newbie Pagan, I thought it would be better for me to read something more formally instructive, something more like a guidebook than a series of letters. But as it turns out, the “letter” format doesn’t hinder the book’s clarity at all. It provides quite a nice, personal touch. Each letter has a particular topic that it sticks to rigidly, without rambling or side-tracking as you might expect from a letter – in fact, I would say the structure of this book was even better and clearer than some of the more standard guidebooks on Paganism I’ve read! Beth’s writing is concise, simple and at times rather beautiful when she goes into descriptions of the Great Goddess, the Great God and the Five Elements.
Unfortunately, it suffers from one big problem which affects so many works on Paganism. And that is, it offers very little new if you’ve already read some of the other major works on solitary witchcraft. I found much of book was extremely similar to Scott Cunningham’s very similarly titled Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, and I have to admit that I found Cunningham’s book to be a bit more in-depth, convincing and readable.
Another issue I had with Hedge Witch was its overall tone, which I found a little too earnest and solemn. For one thing, Beth cites more dubious aspects of Pagan history as absolute fact, such as claims that neolithic man most definitely worshipped a Goddess but not a God. I find the best books on Paganism and Wicca allow for an element of doubt, presenting multiple interpretations of Pagan history or at least admitting that no-one really knows for sure how our ancestors practised magic and worshipped the Gods. After all, I think most Pagans are willing to accept that how we practice Paganism now is what’s truly important. Beth’s repeated inclusions of historical “facts” about Paganism put me on my guard. Additionally, Beth’s writing doesn’t really convey the joys and wonder of Paganism and witchcraft. She seems quite keen to stress the dangers of magic, as well as the importance and dignity of the Goddess and God, which is all very well – but I’ve always been drawn to Paganism due to the exuberance and passion for life it embodies. I didn’t feel this came through so well in Hedge Witch as it does in some of the other books on Paganism I’ve read.
Finally, Wiccans should note that Hedgecraft of this sort focusses much on shamanic trances and visions, and this is the principal form of magic Beth elaborates on here. While I do like guided meditations and similar (I’ve written my first guided meditation here), I wasn’t so keen on how Beth presents them in Hedge Witch. I feel that she exaggerates the dangers of such psychic experiences just a little too much; not only does she recommend casting a protective magic circle before entering the trance (which is fine), she then suggests that every element you encounter in your vision should be checked, literally at knife-point, to make sure it is truly the thing you wish to perceive and not an imposter. I can’t help but feel that mentally brandishing an athame at everything you meet in your vision would disrupt the flow of the experience and being over-cautious in this way would stop you from becoming truly immersed in the vision. But then I have little knowledge or experience of Shamanism, so maybe I’m underestimating the dangers of these kinds of vision quests!
While it’s an interesting, concise read and a valuable piece of Wiccan literature, I found that Hedge Witch didn’t really inform my own path to a large extent. But Wiccans with a particular interest in Shamanism may find their views differ!