We get asked “what is a Folk Practitioner or what is folk magic?” on many occasions. we also get asked What is the difference between what you do and what a witch does? Is it witchcraft? Are you religious? Do you worship a lord and lady or speak to the de’il? Do you follow the immanent and emanant mysteries of your gods? Do you worship nature? Do you bang your drums and dance around ?
This is no fault of anyone. Folk practices have been adopted in a lot of modern magico-religious approaches. This or course has caused a lot of confusion when discussing what folk practitioners do and how it differs from Wicca, Traditional Witchcraft, shamanism, Druidry etc. In my mind, the difference is really rather big. I’m writing this as a kind of FAQ to help explore some of the differences and why they are important and to maybe help those who don’t know. It’s by no means exhaustive and I invite comment on these ideas from others.
Folk practices as you may imagine are very old. Very old and adaptable. Very much like people and their culture. Scottish folk practices have their roots far back in an older way of life. Scottish community and folk practices developed over time from the melting pot of Gaelic, Norse, Pictish, Angles, Norman and Saxon influences. All of these different influences had, and still do have, an impact on what folks did on a day to day basis.
We are very lucky to find that a lot of this information has been preserved in literal format by folks such as Alexander Carmichael, Marion McNeil, Bates and Reginald Scott and others. There is a huge collection of information that discusses seasonal practices, songs, prayers, festivals, celebrations and day to day things people believed in and carried out. One beautiful example of folk practice are the songs (known as a rann’s) sung to plants before picking them, on awakening, reaping, seed sowing, sleeping etc.
So, how is this not Wicca, Traditional Witchcraft or Druidry et al? Well, all have a tendency to be accompanied by a set of “beliefs” defined by their creators. Some witches are religious such as in Wicca with the Lord and lady. Others, such as Trad witches may involve the Gnostic mystery’s of lucifer or honour a spirit such as the Bucca and look at the seasonal wheel as different representations of this figure and involve themselves in the immanent and emanant mysteries. Druids believe in a variety of ideas but most experience a pantheon of gods and goddesses. All of these different traditions do borrow from folk magic and merge it into their systems in some way or another. Some might call it witchcraft (as a craft of a witch or wise). I would argue this is not the case in Scotland. Scottish Folk practitioners disregarded witches and viewed them as evil. They would be greatly insulted by this appropriation and conflation of their way of life to that of a Witch.
The defining difference is folk practices aren’t religiously based. Folk practitioners don’t necessarily follow any god/goddess or they can, in fact, follow any religion such as Christianity, Catholicism, Islam etc. You don’t need a particular set of “beliefs” or “faith” to be a folk practitioner. Folk magic approaches are older than current religious ideas we have. They were preserved in some ways though Christianised in surviving literature. In Scotland, the saints replaced local spirits of wells and hills and Christian/Catholic teachings were used to call on saintly figures whilst people maintained a belief in the fairy folks at the same time. To me, it is an example of how the folk belief in animism ran alongside other religious ideas.
In my view, (and this should be acknowledged as my own lens of understanding as it now stands) Scottish folk practices link to animism. To Scottish folk practitioners, everything has a spirit. To me, this is consistently demonstrated by the collected information and the tales we have of the Daoine Síth (the good folk) that still prevail. Honouring these spirits and building relationships with them is the concern of folk magic practitioners like myself. We honour “otherworld folk” from our local area and maybe work with such ideas of the Slaugh or the host of the dead. Once the relationship is developed or suitable “pacts” engineered, these spirits then choose to help in the ever so practical work of folk magic. This relational way of working also extends to the local land and plants that inhabit it. You seek the aid of the plant “spirit” by showing it respect and singing them particular songs etc. It is hoped by asking them to help it makes the herbal medicine or charm stronger. Scottish folk magic practitioners believe in the “otherworld” a place where their ancestors and “others” like the síth/sidhe and plant spirits inhabit. This otherworld isn’t very far away, it’s like it’s just out of step with our own world. It’s easily accessed at the liminal times such as dawn, dusk, midnight, Bealtainn and Samhuinn, and places such as fog, door steps, thresholds, on hills, near bogs and water and many other ways such as divination and techniques such as second sight etc.
Folk magic spells would also be created from plant leaves and roots, stones, water and lots of different things. For example, stones being used for healing, cloths tied to sacred wells for healing, wool spun and tied to people to effect a change, young children passed through Holy stones, Holy stones used as ways of seeing the other world, writing phrases, Rowan wood crosses, and red thread etc. The list of these charms is endless.
Another characteristic of Scottish folk magic and practices is the lack of elaborate rituals, specific tools, times of day and clothing needed to get access to the practice. It’s all pretty much straight forward and common sense stuff requiring no special gear. Over time, you may acquire some objects that start to hold special meaning but these are totally up to yourself; your spirits and your preferred way of working. Folk practices are an everyday occurrence and nothing requiring more work than a pointed finger or to circumambulate something three times etc can be very effective. Wicca and other magical traditions use ceremonial magic techniques such as circle building, invoking and evoking various deities etc. Folk practices don’t have this elaboration.
Scottish folk magic also has its base in ancestry. A lot of Scottish people know their ancestry really well. Some can even trace their ancestry back to the Tuatha De Dannan and the Milesians etc. Ancestors are the only “outside help” called upon by some folk practitioners and this is clearly demonstrated in the ways Scottish folk construct their ranns (meaning runes or charms). In the construction of the rann someone’s actions are always emulated. The phrase “as so and so healed this let me heal this” is very common and this structure is repeated in other ways. This is typical of Scottish Folk magic. Sometimes the “so and so” may be replaced with a figure linked to the thinking of the folk practitioner so here we get figures like Mary, St Michael or other named spirits popping up.
Though there are many types of Scottish folk practitioner. Scottish Folk practices were carried out by everyone daily to some extent. Folk had to take their own “safety” from the machinations of witches and the Síth into their own hands. Today we might call them superstitions but these are commonly held beliefs we still have to this day. Crossing fingers and knocking on wood to help avert a bad outcome or offer protection are commonplace for good reason. Outside of the everyday occurrence of these activities, you have those who might also be healers, midwives, lykewakers or death midwives, spae-wives (fortune tellers), folk herbalists, diviners, fairy doctors, those with the second (or second hand sight) etc along with their everyday roles in the community. It’s important to note not all folk practitioners would do these activities. Not all folk practitioners would be herbalists and diviners and spae-wives but maybe have a particular skill in a particular area; with limited skill in one form of divination as a way to contact the spirits.
Folk practitioners, would mostly divine through augury, lots and/or omens to see what is affecting those who came to see them. For example, the presenting issue was of “hill, water or kirk”. The clients who came to see them might have been “elf-shot” or otherwise affected by the síth or the malificarum of Witchcraft. Witches, to the folks at this time and to folk practitioners, were evil and responsible for a lot of harm. If witches or the Síth had caused the malady, or the folk practitioner was unable to effect a cure, they might suggest they saw the wise woman or man or the area priest and the folk practitioner would pass them on, one of the first referral systems. This is because not all folk practitioners have the ability to manage illnesses that have their roots in the “doings” of the otherworld and in the evil of witchcraft. They might also refer them to the town priest for similar issues if the problem was one of faith.
In brief, a folk practitioner might hold one of these roles in their community and use folk magic ranns and spells to effect change for your community. You don’t necessarily need to see “spirits” or into the otherworld, divine, use herbs, “cross” over into the otherworld, have an attending familiar and the nine yards of things at all. We all have different gifts and abilities. Some though who are lucky to make this a full-time career will be able to and these would be the gifted minority (and a rare minority at that) who would be termed, fear/bean feasa – wise man or woman.
The only practitioners who have the ability to work with the sidhe and those inflicted by “elf-shot” were the wise men and women and fairy doctors and this was a profession they would undertake full-time. These people are few and far between and their gifts are given to them by their relationship with the good folk. The good folk can also take their gifts away easily, sometimes quite dramatically such as removing an eye etc. Normally this may happen if the wise man or woman charged for using their gifts or for displeasing the good folk in another way. These good folk and the associated tales of figures who helped the wise man or woman, I think, represent the archetypical familiar stereotype we hear so much about in witchcraft circles these days. But as you can see the relationship is very different when looked through the eyes of Scottish folk practice. In Scottish folk practice, the sith is the one in power and control and the work is done in relationship with them. In Ceremonial Magic and some forms of witchcraft, the Witch holds the yoke over the spirit. Also to be a ceremonial magician you also need a strong faith in the Christian gods.
Who you are as a folk practitioner is really decided by the community a folk practitioner lives in. I have written about this before and you can find the link here. But to summarise morality wasn’t a question in folk magic. Folk practitioners would “work with both hands” to use a modern term i.e. they did what was needed to be done in support of the community they helped and supported. Following on from the older traditions people’s reputations were earned. It’s not my place to name myself “keeper of the stones” or “wise man” or any other bombastic title. My title, and what reputation I have, is decided by my community.
I hope that this short discussion has been helpful to define some of the differences between these ideas. It’s reassuring for me to see these approaches are being incorporated into contemporary life and practice. People are starting to once again re-explore their own roots and history. They are starting to become interested in exploring stereotypes of older times and reigniting relationships with the communities and the lands around them through foraging and herbalism. So who knows? It might mean that your local mechanic is a “car whisperer” and has an uncanny knack or “kenning” what is wrong with your car. Your Lollipop lady a gifted folk herbalist able to offer minor cures to those who pass her by , maybe your Local Policeman is divining the location of your stolen goods and people are putting up protective charms in their houses to protect themselves from threats both real and imagined from this world and the other.