I’ve been unwinding new discoveries over time, while digging in folklore and actual old transcripts of what books could be found of folk remedies in Scotland and surrounding areas. As I have done so, I’ve discovered lots of fun things. First, much to the great chagrin of a lot of neopagans and self described witches, a “witch” was not necessarily what people now try to reframe as the folk healer and do-gooder of old. They weren’t particularly considered good people. They had their uses, to be sure, but overall not necessarily some utterly benevolent soul, innocent child of nature that 20th and 21st century pagan folks keep insisting they were. They could do good, surely, and they weren’t afraid to do harm either. There were cunning men and women and fairy doctors and general do-gooders; in charge of solving problems like curses and hexes from actual witches or ill inentioned faery folk, and who were in charge of medicine for the community, midwifery, and random other wise-people stuff. In my digging for actual herbal folk remedies, I came across a couple of names I was less familiar with. There’s the spaewife, which I had heard but didn’t know much about, and then the Cailleach-chearc, or henwife, about whom I knew nothing. Both have their places in Scottish legend and folklore, and in history too.
The Spaewife could render cures, or medicines but was also thought of as a seer, teller of futures, and such. She might live a little bit on the fringes of society. If you were under a hex from a witch or malefic being, she probably had the skill set to solve that little problem. She wasn’t a witch herself, precisely, but a close and more benevolent approximation. Close enough, I should say, to get herself burned, between 1500 and 1700 in Scotland. Then there was the henwife, or Cailleach Chearc, who I find completely interesting. A wife, probably mother, and certainly a mother to the community, this woman was a domestic, home keeping woman with her poultry and her household and her baking, and she just so happened to be able to dispense medicine, folk cures, a few charms or spells, and some wisdom about womanhood to girls about what a wedding night was going to be like, or what to do about morning sickness. A henwife might really annoy the local priest but may have been a little less likely to be targeted for a burning, I think. Both figures fascinate me. If you wanted to know if your husband’s ship was going to make it through the storm or if he was going to die, you probably go see the spaewife. Likewise, if you think a witch has made your cow sick, or made your husband infertile and you need that hex lifted. If you need something for your ear ache, or a charm to handle that problem with your husband’s tendency to drink too much or stare a little too much at the younger wife next door, the henwife is probably who you go see. The two of these add up to what some 20th century (and after) people think witches were, and how they see themselves now.
For my part, I felt some connection to both, having a great deal of Scottish blood running in my veins. I have attributes of both, as well. I can do some of what both of these figures can do, though not all.
As a child of this modern world, if I have a serious medical condition, I’m heading straight for my local physician. There’s no doubt about that for me and I don’t feel less magical for that. However, I do see a place for the spaewives and henwives of this world, though we probably don’t call them that anymore.
Below are a couple of blogs that just touch on these topics, just for your reading entertainment. They have some more information, and some references. You can find a lot more bits and pieces if you dig around google, and a lot of them take you to texts of folklore, and a few bits and accounts from people still living, who knew the name of a person who served this way in a local village where their grandparents grew up. I saw one photo in my browsing, of a woman’s grave marker along a women’s history exhibit, with her title “spaewife” inscribed below her name.
Myth and Moor: Hen Wives
Hag of the Hills blog- the Spaewife