The Future of History

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kitchen Witchcraft

Witch.  It's such a troublesome word, isn't it?  So many negative connotations.

Centuries of misinformation, prejudice and propaganda turned the very notion of "witchcraft" into something hideous and fearful.  We see similar processes at work today - in the United States, for example, where a positive word like "liberal" (meaning generous, open-minded, and inclined towards favouring individual liberty) has been turned into a political insult.  Whenever we see something like that happening - wherever a perfectly good word denoting a perfectly decent political or religious stance is transformed into a term of abuse, becoming a sort of catch-all "bogeyman" for the majority to fear and loathe - we have to question the motives of those who drive that semantic change.

One way or another, witchcraft is an extremely ancient pursuit.  It's difficult to separate "witchcraft" from its companion concept, "paganism".  Both have been enjoying something of a resurgence, lately - and, overall, that's a good thing, because this represents a return of sorts to an older and more natural way of doing things.

The term "pagan" means, simply, country-dweller (paganus).  While the more elaborate cults flourished in the cities of the ancient world, those cities were utterly dependent on rural communities to provide the food for their markets and their tables.  And those rural communities remained in touch with the processes of agriculture, the cycle of the seasons, the hardwork, care, attention and - yes - hope which are all necessary if we are to enjoy ample harvests.

Typically, city-dwellers came to look down on the country-folk as rural idiots, even though the urbanites were dependent on them for the absolute necessities.  The country-folk knew that the weather mattered.  They knew that water was essential; anything that polluted a water-source was a huge threat.  Better to keep the water-spirits happy.  And to do whatever you could to secure good weather.  And cherish the plants and animals that provide for us.

Various rituals and forms of worship evolved in order to make farming - that most essential of occupations - as successful as it could reasonably be.  We do much the same these days, only we do it all wrong: pesticides, intensive farming, GM crops are all signs of a system under immense strain.  We have forgotten how to farm, and keep trying to make it more "efficient", and to compensate for the damage we did previously, by piling on the pressure.

What the pagans of old knew - and what others, like the Findhorn Community, have discovered since - is that you can't bully nature.  You can try, but it'll backfire on you.  You have to coax it, work with it, be nice to it.  The whole thing is a transaction between us, the human community, and the multitudinous spirits which inhabit the natural world.  If we are good to them, then they'll probably be good to us.  If we ignore them, and then ruin their habitats, they'll make our lives more difficult.

So that's paganism - the cautious, conscientious and frequently joyous process of interacting with the natural environment in the hope of securing positive outcomes.  And every community had those (male or female) who were just a little bit more expert at this sort of thing than the rest of us.  They understood which plants were good for treating which ailments of the body, mind or spirit.  Though most of us lived close to nature - right in amongst it, if you like - they lived as part of nature, doing the deals that were needed to be done.  To be more precise, such people worked with the spiritual side of nature, including past members of the human community.  If a priest intercedes between man and God, the witch interceded between man and the gods.

Rachel Patterson lives in a city.  But she also knows that her home and garden benefit from a little care and attention, on both the material and spiritual levels.  A clean kitchen is one thing; a kitchen that is in tune with the seasons and used as a place in which to celebrate the seasonal round - the systole and diastole of winter and summer - is not just clean: it is happy.

Rachel's book, Kitchen Witchcraft: Crafts of a Kitchen Witch - part of the Moon Books "Pagan Portals" series - is delightful.  She writes with a great sense of fun and real love for the world around us.  And the book serves as a sort of primer, a very gentle but effective introduction to the ideas and principles of contemporary paganism.  Forget about magical oils made out of bats' wings - today, we use essential oils.  They make our candles smell nice.

What really works about this book is that it fits in so comfortably with the modern obsession with home improvement and that all important do-it-yourself ethos.  Rachel acknowledges, early on, that the kitchen (or hearth) is the heart of the home.  It is where our food is prepared and cooked - and often eaten.  It is a personal space (most cooks like to work alone) and a convivial space, a place of conversations, hearts-to-hearts.  No other room is quite like it.  And, like the hearth of old, it needs to look and smell and feel special.  We need, in effect, to love our kitchens - and to show that we love them.  We need to personalise them: not out of a catalogue, but with our own arts and crafts.

There are blessings in this book, and meditations, but nothing remotely "witchy" in the sense of diabolical (and why should there be? - who wants bad spirits running amok in their kitchen?).  As with so much that is useful in the pagan world, much of it is just sound psychological common sense, comprising various activities which can put you in a better mood and improve the mood of your environment (the two go hand in hand).  At the same time, Rachel Patterson provides quick rundowns of some of the basic elements of the pagan worldview - the regular festivals, the essential elements - and works these into her simple "recipes" for a happy home.

Anyone who is offended by anything in Rachel's book has real problems.  Only the worst kind of superstition, fostered by indoctrination, could view Kitchen Witchcraft as a menace to Creation.  But then, that indoctrination is so often applied by mindsets that are addicted to suffering.  Rachel Patterson, in her lovely, short, joyful book, implies that suffering might be natural, but it is not to be encouraged.  The kitchen should be a place of life, not death.  A few flowers, candles, stones and shells are unlikely to do any harm, and if they improve our relationships with ourselves, with our kitchens and with the world outside, then what's wrong with that?  We need more of this sort of thing.

Reading the book reminded me of the Pagan Pride festival in Nottingham, this past August.  It was a lovely event, with a pronounced fancy-dress feel (including a rather glamorous Robin and Marion duo), and amounted to little more than a relaxed and good-humoured celebration of life.

After I had given a talk on "Arthur and the Grail", we made our way out of the park, walking behind two elderly ladies who had dressed up as witches.  Lovely homemade cloaks and pointy hats.  And I was really touched to see that these two women were having fun.  They had been allowed to announce, in public, "Yes, we are witches.  We belong to a most ancient tradition."

Were they evil?  I doubt that very much. They were probably heading home for a cup of tea.  And I'd like to think that their kitchens are sacred spaces, where nourishment is lovingly prepared.

Their playfulness, their honesty about themselves, and the fact that - thankfully, at long last - it is possible, once again, to admit that you have a relationship with the earth, with water, with air, and with fire, and that you can only be happy when working with these elements to achieve balance in your life (and really delicious cakes) ... that is what I was reminded of when reading Rachel Patterson's book.

Don't get hung up on words like "witch" or "pagan".  We could all do with a little more magic in our lives - and a good place to start looking for it is in Rachel Patterson's little book of Kitchen Witchcraft.

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