Rewilding & Ecofeminism & The Reclamation of Magic

rewildingwomen

Okay so let’s start by going back to the very beginning – women and wild food. Because once upon a time all food was wild – and it was the women who gathered it. But what we’ve forgotten today was that no aspect of food, from harvest to preparation to consumption, was left untouched by magical ritual. And because the banning of magic, the subjugation of women, the domination of the earth – and the birth of agriculture – all went hand in hand, I see rewilding and food foraging as a site for ecofeminist intervention.

Many ‘rewilders’ seek to return to a more undomesticated state, a time when prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived “in harmony” with the earth. Roaming over the land, these ancestors foraged the food freely provided by the fields and woodlands, rivers and oceans.  Men were mostly in charge of hunting and women were largely responsible for the harvesting and cultivation of plant foods as well the processes that accompanied it, cooking, baking, food processing, and food storage (basketry, pottery, and granaries).

magicalpot

With the shift to farming and the ownership of land and crop things changed. Food went from being a ‘gift’ of mother nature freely available to all, to a ‘product’ of human labour, a commodity to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow.  And this meant removing women from the center of food production which fed families and tribes, and replacing them with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit.

While the new system of agriculture is believed to have been a boon, providing more food for all on a predictable basis – this was hardly the case. Early farming was estimated to produce only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging— and it took way more work too! So why farm?

rewildingfarming1

The answer is still not clear. But Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen, believes it was all about money. Agriculture left the food supply in fewer and wealthier hands and its continued control was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilization by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialization and sustained economic growth.” 

And according to feminist Silvia Federici, what this meant for women was that they no longer had access to land, and control over the crops they cultivated (which ensured their economic independence.) Now “their work, and their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the State and transformed into economic resources”.

rewildingwomen1

But the point of this post is recognizing that this “women’s work” in early societies was about waaay more than production. Food gathering and preparation were not just labour in the way we define it today (as an economic measurement). They were once processes full of spiritual ritual which honoured the sacred network of all living things, and our place in it.

In the ancient world “magic” meant knowledge of the workings of nature. Every plant, tree and flower had a purpose and no food activity from gathering to eating, was unblessed. Magical symbols of fertility to promote bountiful harvest were woven into gathering baskets and carved into pots. And ritual foods were consumed in communal celebrations.

sacredcakes

 Some remnants of these sacred foods still remain today. In Sweden buns dedicated to St. Lucia date back to midwinter “pagan” festivals of light occurring at the time of the winter solstice. But their twisted and sun wheel shapes were originally magical solar symbols for abundance, as the saying for St. Lucia intimates: “Honor St. Lucy with great good cheer, and you shall have plenty for all of the year!”

Today de-toothed today as folklore, wive’s tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of a ‘women’s religion’ that sought to harmonize with the life-giving powers of nature.  And it was the destruction of their old earth worshiping ways that was a top priority for the church and the state (the new capitalistic order).

By the middle ages, women’s magic was designated as witchcraft and punishable by burning. No longer could they paint or carve magical symbols on their hearths, pots and dishes. No more weaving corn dollies for fertility, or offering honey mead, milk, or eggs to fruit trees in wassailing rituals – or else!  In her book Caliban and the Witch Federici asks us to consider why this war was waged against magic and women? “Just what is supposed to be eliminated when these women are condemned to the stake?”

witch

The persecution of womens ‘old ways’ as witchcraft not only contributed to the desacralization of nature (paving the way for its transformation into a “resource”) but as Federici argues, it set the stage for “the “housewifization of women”. Now reduced to second-class status they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, and maintaining the home. This process was repeated with the colonization of indigenous peoples whose land was appropriated as they too became second class citizens.

Reeve_and_Serfs

Many ecofeminists see the domination of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected– and many place a priority on environmental activism in their work. Others seek to revive our spiritual connection to the earth i.e. if we see nature as ‘sacred’ then perhaps we might think twice about plowing down ancient rainforests or spraying fields with toxic chemicals. But I’d like to take it one step further, because I think it was the banning of ‘earth magic’ that severed women from their source of empowerment.

Reclaiming magic is about recognizing who those witches actually were – women who lived outside the bounds of societal constructs of being good wives and obedient daughters. They were women, who Alex Knight writes in “Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism “represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities…”

Many of these women were herbalists and midwives, but most were just everyday women – not ‘witches’. They just stubbornly clung to the old pagan and nature rituals, the crafts and magical foods traditionally used to bless their families and communities with good fortune and prosperity.

corndolly

Today the rewilding movement is reviving many traditional women activities such as wild food harvesting, pit cooking, basket weaving, fermenting, herbal medicines– but what is still largely neglected is the ancient connection to women’s magic. (I want to acknowledge that there was also men’s hunting magic and rituals, but these too seem to be overlooked). The rewilding focus on “primitive skills”, “ancestral skills”, “survival skills”, or “bushcraft” rarely acknowledges their original spiritual/magical context. I would love to see a magical basket weaving workshop that focuses on the history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest.

rewilding

Seeking balance with nature may be the goal of many rewilders, but that means more than just living sustainably. For our hunter gather ancestors these ‘skills’ were deeply spiritual activities, and living in balance meant ritually and magically acknowledging and thanking nature for her life-giving gifts. 

So as a rewilder and an ecofeminist, I see the work we do at Gather as a way to revive the ancient ways of knowing, of being in “right relationship” to nature and the great cycles that govern all life on the planet. We see foraging the “wild” food that nature provides freely each season, as deeply subversive to the patriarchy (and by this I do not mean men in particular but a political and economic system that benefits the 1% off the backs of many).

wild-herbs

Returning to the magical ways of harvesting, processing and preparing wild foods reminds us that food is a sacred gift of mother nature, not just a commodity to be bought and sold on Wall Street. Harvesting plants in tandem with moon cycles or creating a recipe for wild pesto (utilizing the magical properties of wild herbs) may seem a bit of fun, but we think it is deeply important that we revive our foremother’s fundamental faith that by ceremonially harvesting and ritually preparing our food, we can create an energy of blessing for ourselves, each other and our communities.

Our early hunter gatherer ancestors saw no division between themselves and nature, between spirit and the material world. They believed that our souls and the soul of earth (anima mundi) were inextricably intertwined. And so like my foremothers before me, I understand magic as a way to honour and enhance the life-giving fertility of the earth, integral not only to the well-being of ourselves and our communities– but to nature herself.

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24 thoughts on “Rewilding & Ecofeminism & The Reclamation of Magic

  1. I think it’s interesting to consider the taboos on women working with plants during their period which is almost universal across many cultures. Does this come from before patriarchy? Or is this part of patriarchy? I don’t know the answer.

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    • That is a whole topic in itself! If you want to learn more I recommend two books “The Wise Wound” by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove and Sir James George’s famous classic The Golden Bough.

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  2. Pingback: Rewilding & Eco-feminism & The Reclaimation of Magic | trrssmightymite

  3. Great article. This is a subject that I am increasingly passionate about. Please note that it is Silvia Federici who has written and spoken extensively on this subject, and not “Syliva Frederico”, as she is incorrectly called in the article.

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  4. What a beautiful and thoughtfully-composed article! I’m so sorry to be nit-picky (and please do not take this as criticism of your piece, which I find highly enlightening and lovely in its articulation of many of the things I and the women around me have been contemplating of late) but I noticed you refer to Silvia Federici as Silvia Frederico and thought you might like to amend that.

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  5. Another advantage conferred by agriculture was food storage. Grains allowed for food sources in hard times, as well as providing currency or wealth through the commodification of resources. The stability of populating an area also allowed high cultures to arise, and a more rigid hierarchy which mostly dominated over women.

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  6. Thank you Danielle. This was so beautifully written and resonated so deeply on many levels.
    As one who practices Earth-based spirituality (but does not identify as Wiccan), I have had reason to ponder — but have never truly connected with — the word “magic,” both in its archaic and modern interpretations. I should confess that up until this past year or two, I have never felt called to plant and harvest my own food . . . but through my recent journey of gardening from seed, I have been confronted with the undeniable meaning of *magic.* Experiencing the process of planting a seed in soil, watching it sprout and grow, and then eating the food it produced — I have come to know magic.
    I love your explanation — “In the ancient world, ‘magic’ meant knowledge of the workings of nature. Every plant, tree and flower had a purpose and no food activity from gathering to eating, was unblessed.”
    To this, my spirit says YES. *This* is the magic of our foremothers.
    I love your way of weaving the threads of food and magic and patriarchy, symbolism and religion, and the ultimate removal of women from their inherent sovereignty and power.
    I also connect deeply with the term “Rewilding”, as I have chosen this year to change my last name to Wilding on my upcoming birthday in June, as a means of breaking the patriarchal tradition of taking a man’s name in all phases of life and reclaiming my inherent sacred feminine wild nature.
    I have shared your essay with my Red Tent Community.
    Thank you for this work. ❤

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  7. I think there are some real assumptions here. I am not trying to deny the persecution of women or the patriarchal, ecocidal nature of our culture at all, but I do think that to assume that “men hunted” “women foraged” is to buy into a culturally defined script. Also there are many baskets/bags traditionally made by males as well as females. As the book Male Witches in early modern Europe by Lara Apps and Andrew Gow points out, men were persecuted in considerable numbers as well. Men and Women were part of colonial culture and oppressed indigenous populations. also the “primitivist” assumption of gatherer-hunter cultures being benign ignores the extinction of the megafauna. I am not denying the fundamental ecocidal nature of capitalism and our culture and I totally agree that we desperately need to re-connect to the planet and that foraging and hunting (with respect) and learning traditional skills is an excellent way of doing this. But I feel that we really should not create a “golden age” myth or deny our complicity in the ecocide.

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  8. Pingback: The Hulk Pie | Andrea Hejlskov

  9. What an interesting post. I have never though of wild food as being specifically related to women, but everything you say really does make sense. Only just discovered your blog but looking forward to exploring more!

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  10. Wow, this post really spoke to me! Since becoming a Mother, I have been seeking a place in this Western world where I am not confined to the boundaries of “housewife,” living in a place where my hard work goes unnoticed, unrewarded, and largely unacknowledged. I would love to return to the old ways of life, where we work with Mother Nature, and here begins my journey of discovery and practice… Thank you!

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  11. Loved this post. Thank you for sharing it. Where I live is very close to nature and we are blessed with an abundance of opportunity to rewild much of our experience with life in general out here.

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  12. This article mirrors an increasingly prevalent trend that I’ve observed in bushcraft, re-wilding, and Anarchist-Primitivist undercurrents, which is the conflation of gatherer-hunter spirituality and Iron Age pagan/heathen religions. You write:

    “Seeking balance with nature may be the goal of many rewilders, but that means more than just living sustainably. For our hunter gather ancestors these ‘skills’ were deeply spiritual activities, and living in balance meant ritually and magically acknowledging and thanking nature for her life-giving gifts.”

    Earlier in the piece, you directly link this ritual magic and spiritual connection to European pagan traditions, such as corn dollies, wassailing, and sacrificial offerings of honey, mead, milk, and eggs. While I appreciate and commend this piece for encouraging rewilders to seek deeper spiritual connection to the earth, it irks me that you’re also glorifying what are undeinably Iron Age religions. All of the traditions you mention – the dolls, the offerings of milk, et al., and wassailing – are intrinsically and inseparably bound to agriculture, pastoralism, hierarchic domination of the land and of women, specialization, and the beginnings of extreme alienation from our ancestral connectedness with the land. Fertility rites, especially those involving fetishes made of agricultural crops such as corn, are a result of domestication and alienation. Wassailing inherently involves domestication, control, and domination of the landbase, and is a ritual celebration of orchards, harvests, and agricultural victories – entirely the result of domestication and alienation. Offerings of milk, mead, honey, and eggs? All are agricultural/pastoral products, and they’re all (most egregious of all the alcohol) results of domestication and alienation. Traditional European witchcraft? Ditto.

    I know this reply seems contentious, but it’s not my purpose to be combative. I’ve just noticed in recent years the very pervasive trend of well-meaning re-wilders and primitivists to stop their critique well short of the Paleolithic and to then glorify the Iron Age and its religious traditions. I think it’s crucial to avoid this perilous pitfall, and look into extant and extinct “spiritual” traditions of actual forager societies.

    Daniel Everett has a number of works detailing his conversion from missionary to atheist anthropologist while studying and living with the Pirahã people in the Amazon. They’re known as an incredibly empirical people, and provide insight into our skeptical, areligious forager past.

    I also HIGHLY recommend this article by a friend, which thoroughly deconstructs and debunks Iron Age religious beliefs and their origins in domestication:

    https://hastenthedownfall.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/to-rust-metallic-gods-an-anarcho-primitivist-critique-of-paganism/

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    • First of all, thank-you for the link, it was very interesting! But I’m not sure I understand the nature of your comment. You write “Fertility rites, especially those involving fetishes made of agricultural crops such as corn, are a result of domestication and alienation.” Are you implying the impulse towards magic came about as an alienation from the natural world – i.e. our transition from hunter/gatherers to early farmers?

      The way I understand it, (and I could be wrong!) rites like these are most likely rooted in what were originally shamanic practices- which predate the Iron Age and stretch back to the Upper Paleolithic. And isn’t it pretty well accepted that these early societies used magical and ritual practices to ensure good hunting and fertility?

      Like the hunter gather societies that remain today, theirs was deeply animistic world, one in which nature was alive and in reciprocal relationship with us. So I see corn dollies, wassailing and the sacrificial offering of honey, mead, milk and eggs, not as evidence of alienation, but as an extension of the same impulse that once drove our shamanic, animistic, pre-historic ancestors to acknowledge, honour and harness the “magic” in nature.

      Here is a link on the subject that I just love. http://genealogyreligion.net/tag/foragers

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