Ecofeminism & Ancestral Skills & The Reclamation of Food 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. And from harvest to preparation to consumption, no aspect of food production was left untouched by magical ritual. Many ecofeminists see the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected, but because the banning of magic, the subjugation of women, the domination of the earth – and the capitalist overtaking of food production – all went hand in hand,  I see food magic as an important site for ecofeminist intervention. 

Long before food was bought and sold for profit, our hunter-gatherer ancestors once roamed over the land, foraging the food freely provided by the fields and woodlands, rivers and oceans. And in every part of the world, before the advent of capitalism, women played a major role in agricultural production. For the most part, men were 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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And while there were exceptions, according to Eleanor Leacock ( Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society) and feminist author Silvia Federici, in these early cultures women were not yet second-class citizens. Federici states “they had access to land, the use of its resources and control over the crops they cultivated, all of which guaranteed their autonomy and economic independence from men.”  Many of these early food economies are often referred to as “gift-giving” meaning food was seen as a ‘gift’ of mother nature, freely exchanged and distributed to all, and not surprisingly, war was virtually unknown!

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It was with the shift to ownership of crop and land, that food became increasingly hoarded by the wealthy through imperialistic conquest. And 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. 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? Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen, believes it was all about the money.  Agriculture left the food supply in fewer and wealthier hands and its control was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilisation by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialisation and sustained economic growth.”

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And according to Federici, what this meant for women was that they had to be removed from the centre of food production and replaced with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit. This set the stage for “the “housewifization of women” as their labour (and bodies) were transformed into “economic resources” for exploitation.  This process was repeated with the colonisation of indigenous peoples whose access to the lands and territories which traditionally fed them was denied, and their gift giving economies, food gathering and distribution practices (i.e. potlatches) banned.

But the point of this post is recognising that in early gift-giving societies women’s work was about waaay more than food production.  Food was sacred, and no aspect of harvesting, preparing, cooking, baking was left unblessed. All were part of a powerful “sympathetic” magic intended to honour and nourish the earth – thus providing prosperity and abundance for all.

Theirs was a deeply animistic world in which the earth was alive. For them “magic” meant knowledge of the workings of nature and each season, plant, tree and flower had a purpose. They were not separate from the web of life but in a reciprocal relationship with it. And they empowered and helped fertilize the earth by weaving magical symbols into gathering baskets, carving them into pots and creating ritual foods to be consumed in communal celebrations. Today de-toothed today as folklore, wives tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of an ancient religion that sought to harmonise with the life-giving powers of nature.

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But for the new capitalist order to succeed, this reverence for the earth had to be replaced by obedience to the Church and State, and by the middle ages, women’s magic was designated as witchcraft and punishable by burning. Federici argues this persecution of women’s ‘old ways’ as witchcraft was necessary to the desacralization of nature, paving the way for its transformation into a lifeless “resource” for economic exploitation.

No longer could women 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?”  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 (often personifications of the earth), created magical crafts and baked sacred foods.

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And according to Alex Knight, as she writes in “Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism  these women “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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That’s why I see food magic as an eco-feminist practice, one that is deeply subversive to the patriarchy. (By this, I do not mean men in general, but a political and economic system that benefits the 1% off the backs of many.) Reclaiming the old ways of giving thanks and offering blessings, is part of our ancestral heritage, a legacy of ritually living in harmony with the earth, of recognizing the sacrality of all life, whether it be a berry, a jug of milk or a sheaf of grain. And it reminds us there was once a very different way of living, one in which women’s work was at the centre of a peaceful, egalitarian economy in which the earth freely fed and nourished all her children, no matter their ability to pay.  

Today both the rewilding and ancestral skills movements are reviving many traditional female activities such as wild food harvesting, open-hearth cooking, food storage, pottery, weaving, fermenting, herbal medicines etc. While the goal is to reconnect with nature and find more sustainable ways of living, there is far more emphasis on reviving practical skills than on reviving spiritual practices such as women’s magic. (I want to acknowledge that there was also men’s hunting magic and rituals, but these also seem to be overlooked).

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Few are the pottery and basket weaving classes that focus on the magical history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest.  Few are the foraging courses which teach the arts of ceremonial gathering, the ancient devotions, prayers and songs to honour the earth. Few are the workshops which reconnect us to the old ways of blessing the hearth, the rituals of creating and offering sacred foods, dishes and feasts…

While food magic may seem like a bit of fun at best and primitive superstition at worst, I believe it has a great deal to teach us about living in balance with mother nature (and each other). If we wish to revive ancestral skills and wisdom 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 means more than just reviving practical skills and living sustainably, it means ritually acknowledging and thanking the earth 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!

31 thoughts on “Ecofeminism & Ancestral Skills & The Reclamation of Food 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

  11. I hadn’t seen this post before, and it settled right into my heart. It seems to support everything I’ve been feeling lately about re-connecting to the nature of being a woman through foraging and ceramics, and the desire to imbue both of those acts with a deeper, sacred meaning. How beautiful and thought-provoking, Danielle. Love it.

    1. Thank-you so much Betsy & thank you for sharing. Comments like these make all the time spent writing worthwhile. Much gratitude and love!

  12. Thanks to Miss Wondersmith, I found this amazing essay, Danielle, even though I am already following your blog. I started reading Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch while I was walking parts of the Camino, back in May. It was incredibly disturbing to read about how already in the Middle Ages we were alienated from our ancestral foodways, healing arts and rituals, and influential roles as women; and with such force, cruelty, and deliberateness by the nobility and the Christian church. And then the same strategies were used against all indigenous people during the centuries of colonization that followed. Needless to say, I looked at the uncountable churches and cathedrals along the Camino with very different eyes than my travel companions! I will try and capture some of my thoughts and insights on my blog…still a lot of sorting to do as Federici left me in a deeply perturbed state of mind. It’s a phenomenal book but difficult to read emotionally (at least for me).

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