Rewilding & Ecofeminism & The Reclamation of Magic

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 many “rewilders” have 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 capitalist overtaking 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, our 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).

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These early cultures were very different from ours. Women were not yet second class citizens and had control over the food they harvested, which granted them economic autonomy. These early food economies often referred to as “gift-giving” meaning food is not “sold” for profit or personal material gain but freely distributed to all. Typically, a gift economy assumes an identity of connectedness with both the natural world and fulfills a purpose that benefits the whole society. But it was with the shift to ownership of crop and land, that food went from being a ‘gift’ of mother nature to a ‘product’ of human labour to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow. 

While agriculture is believed to have been a boon, providing more food for all on a predictable basis – back then, 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?

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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 civilisation by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialisation and sustained economic growth.” 

And according to feminist Silvia Federici, what this meant for women was removing them from the centre of food production which fed families and communities and replacing them with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit. 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”.

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And it brought an end to egalitarian societies (long before food and property were hoarded by the wealthy through imperialistic conquest) when war was virtually unknown. So as a rewilder and an ecofeminist, I see foraging the free “wild” food that nature provides 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).

But the point of this post is recognising that “woman’s work” in early gift giving societies was about waaay more than production. Far more than just labour in the way we define it today (as an economic measurement) it was a religious activity considered vital to the well-being of community.  Harvesting, cooking, baking were spiritual rituals honouring the great mother of all, the earth. 

For them “magic” meant knowledge of the workings of nature. Every plant, tree and flower had a purpose and the earth was alive. Women wove magical symbols into gathering baskets and carved them into pots to promote her fertility, and ritual foods were consumed in communal celebrations. Today we still still enjoy these holiday (holy day) foods but they were one part of a powerful “sympathetic” magic intended to honour and nourish the earth – thus providing prosperity and abundance for all.

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Today de-toothed today as folklore, wives tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of a ‘women’s religion’ that sought to harmonise with the life-giving powers of nature. Many ecofeminists see the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected, but the destruction of their earth-based food magic was critical for the new capitalist order to succeed. And severing women’s connection to the goddess, land and food became priority number one for the Church and the State. 

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?”

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The persecution of women’s ‘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 labour of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, and maintaining the home. This process was repeated with the colonisation of indigenous peoples whose land was appropriated as they too became second class citizens.

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Reclaiming magic is about recognising who those “witches” actually were – yes, some were healers, herbalists and midwives, but many were just everyday women who stubbornly clung to the old ways. They observed the old nature holidays, left food offerings for their goddesses (personifications of the earth), created magical crafts and baked sacred foods.  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…”

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Today the rewilding movement is reviving many traditional female 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” so rarely acknowledges their original spiritual/magical context. Where are the basket weaving workshops that focuses on the magical history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest?

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While it may seem like a bit of fun at best and primitive superstition at worst, I believe reclaiming women’s magic has a great deal to teach us about living in balance with the earth.  If rewilding means returning to a time when we lived in harmony with mother nature (and each other) can we really ignore what was a fundamental spiritual understanding of these early gift giving societies? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors saw no division between themselves and nature, between spirit and the material world. Seeking balance with nature may be the goal of many rewilders, but that means more than just living sustainably, it means ritually acknowledging and thanking nature for her life-giving gifts.  

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

26 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.

    1. 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.

    1. I can easily make the connection between rewilding and childbirthing. Our local hospitals here have come a long ways for women wanting to rewild that experience.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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. <3

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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/

    1. 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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