The Spaewife

 

“O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Why chops are guid to brander and nane sae guid to fry.

An’ siller, that’s sae braw to keep, is brawer still to

gi’e.

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.

 

O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Hoo a’ things come to be whaur we find them when we try,

The lasses in their claes an’ the fishes in the sea.

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.

 

O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Why lads are a’ to sell an’ lasses a’ to buy;

An’ naebody for dacency but barely twa or three

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.

 

O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Gin death’s as shure to men as killin’ is to kye,

Why God has filled the yearth sae fu’ o’ tasty things to

pree.

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.

 

O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar wife says I—

The reason o’ the cause an’ the wherefore o’ the why,

Wi’ mony anither riddle brings the tear into my e’e.

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.

 

– The Spaewife, Robert Louis Stevenson

 

*It’s gey an’ easy spierin’ – meaning it’s an easy question to ask.

 

The Spae-wife of the Clachen

The Spae-wife of the Clachen.
A group of distressed people gathering before the hut of an old woman, sitting at the door at right with black cat at her feet and a horseshoe hanging over the entrance, through which a male figure is seen in the shadows; cutting from the ‘Illustrated London News’, 7 June 1851, p.542, with part of an illustration of the inauguration of monument to Frederick the Great on the verso. 1851 Wood-engraving
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Spae (from Merriam-Webster online) – chiefly Scottish, meaning foretell. Origin Middle English span, from Old Norse spā; akin to Old High German spehōn to watch, spy.

From Dictionary.com: verb (used with object), spaed, spae·ing. Chiefly Scot.

to prophesy; foretell; predict.

 Middle English span, from Old Norse spā; akin to Old High German spehōn to watch, spy.

A spaewife is a female prophetess, a seer, a diviner, one who sees. In Norse shamanism she was called a  spákona or spækona – a seeress, and stories of such women are found throughout Norse mythology. The völva’s (Norse shamanic seeress) practice involved spá and in an account called Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva) the first poem of the Poetic Edda, Odin, the father of the gods consulted a völva to find out what was in store for all the gods. 

It must be made clear that in Scottish belief, a spaewife was vastly different to a witch. In the early modern period in Britain, witches were seen as practitioners of maleficium.

” In early modern Britain the term ‘witch’ generally denoted an individual who was seen by others, or perceived by themselves, as being able to employ magical powers to do harm. The type of harmful magic most feared by contemporary villagers was ‘maleficium’. Maleficium was witchcraft at it’s most basic – the manipulation of occult forces at a distance with malevolent intent.”

Emma Wilby, “Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic”, p42, Sussex Academic Press.

 

Villagers would visit a cunning man or woman, or a spaewife for healing, to foretell the future or to counteract the harmful effects of a witch’s spell.  Walter Traill Dennison, a 19th century folklorist and Orkney native wrote of the folk tales of Orkney and the role of the spaewife there. The spaewife was said to possess:

 

“..all the supernatural wisdom, some of the supernatural power, without any of the malevolent spirit of witches.”

He goes on:

“The women of this class were skilled in medicinal and surgery, in dreams, in foresight and second-sight, and in forestalling the evil influence of witchcraft. Such women were looked upon with a kind of holy respect.”

I wrote a blog a little while back about Grissel Jaffray, a woman burned in Dundee as a witch. I’ve updated the photos as the one I used to show her plaque wasn’t clear to read. One thing I had never noticed about the plaque before is that Grissel is noted as being a spaewife, not a witch. Perhaps she could see things others could not and was sadly burned for it.

IMG_1945

I’ve noticed the term spaewife hasn’t been completely disregarded in modern usage, there are those among the pagan and magickal communities claiming the title for themselves. It will be interesting to see if the definition changes over time, and if it will become another branch of the tree in terms of a separate practice. I would be interested in hearing from people who practice spae, so drop me a line if you do 🙂

Mar sin leat an-dràsta! 

 

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One thought on “The Spaewife

  1. Pingback: Rediscovering old names for known things | Nine Waves of Blessing

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