Interview with Joanna van der Hoeven

Joanna van der Hoeven

I first came across Joanna van der Hoeven during a bout of research I started after the image of the hind kept popping up in my life. I stumbled upon Joanna’s article about Elen of the Ways which made me break out in goosebumps and sent shivers down my spine. While I never did meet that elusive antlered goddess of the boreal forest myself, my feet had made that first step onto the trail of hoof prints that is the path of druidry. Joanna, a lifelong pagan who relocated from her native Canada to Britain some twenty years ago, calls herself both druid and witch, but it is her druid voice I keep hearing most. She is, among other things, the director of Druid College UK, a former Trustee and media coordinator of The Druid Network, a best-selling author, but most importantly, she is One Who Walks the Talk. — Saille Freeling

Anima Monday: Congratulations on completing your latest book!

Joanna: Thank you! The latest book is called The Book of Hedge Druidry, and it basically contains everything that I have to impart on druidry for the solitary practitioner. I’ve pretty much summed it all up in one place, and am very proud of that work. It is being published with Llewellyn Worldwide, and will be available on 8 July 2019.

On your blog you have written about the practice of hygge. I know an elder who I think embodies this idea. Her house is a true haven and all who go there are welcomed with simple pleasures like tea, a slice of pie and conversation. Her home is simple but she has created a beautiful space in the world. Visitors inevitably leave with a deep sense of peace. To me, this is powerful magic. Can practising hygge sustain us through these frightening times?

Joanna: I think everyone could do with some hygge! Basically, it means comfort, security, cosiness, well-being, sanctuary and more. It’s a Danish word for all these things, that feeling that you get when you’re in your woollen socks, sipping tea and reading a book in front of the fireplace, or stroking the cat while watching the rain fall against the window panes, or when you’re together with a small group of friends having a potluck meal and some good times. Hygge is candles, cake, smiles and simplicity.

I couldn’t do without hygge in my life. I’ve always needed it. My home where I grew up was my sanctuary, a safe haven both in the home and in the forests around it. I wrote about this need for sanctuary in one of my books, Dancing with Nemetona, which deals with working with the Celtic goddess of sanctuary. Wherever I go, I try to create a sense of sanctuary, of refuge, so that I can relax, let down the walls and just be me in a safe space. My home now is my centre of hygge, of sanctuary. Whenever new people come to visit, they always seem to comment on it in some fashion, whether they know about hygge or not!

There are many ways to come across awen. I loved reading your story about wandering around the shop called Melange Magique, a place of wonder, books and cats. Everyone should know a place like that some time in their life! A lot of people assume inspiration can only come from nature yet all kinds of places can feel sacred and inspiring. What were those early years of discovery like for you?

Joanna: When I first came to Paganism, it was easy: all I had to do was to let my love and enchantment with the natural world come through in everything I did; I no longer had to hide it to be normal (not that I ever did anyway). I have pretty much been Pagan all my life, but just didn’t have a word for it growing up. I listened to the birch tree outside my bedroom window, and watched the sun set over the mountains. I eavesdropped on the birds, and hung out with the horses who had the summer off (they pulled the sleighs in the wintertime for a local barn). Nature always inspired me, and as my world expanded, I found inspiration in new things, such as people, books, new places and more.

Walking around the store in Montreal called Melange Magique (The Magical Blend) awakened something new and yet old in me, something I had never come across before but always knew was there. There weren’t many witchy shops or places of business where I grew up in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec! There was a whole other world out there, with people like me and people not like me. That’s when I discovered that I was a witch, all those years ago, at the tender age of seventeen or eighteen. Having followed various paths over the following 25 years, I always seemed to come back to my roots, and my own path of the witch.

2018 has been called the year of the witch. For some I think being a witch is a fun Instagram fashion choice but in others I sense a real joy in taking back ownership of this word. This does not look like grandma’s Wicca to me. The feel is a little darker and a lot more interested in power. Perhaps people (men and women) are simply fed up with the domination of patriarchy. What do you think is behind the mainstream interest in witches? What do you think of the union of the political with the spiritual in general?

Joanna: I’m not one who thinks that your political view should be separate from your spiritual perspective, if that’s what you want to do. They can inform each other, if that’s how you want to roll. I personally don’t see a need for segregation of the political from the spiritual in my world, but for others it works. My own love for the natural world, for the gods and goddesses and the spirits of place very much informs all the choices and opinions I have politically, and I simply could not separate that in myself.

The mainstream interest in witches is something which I always think has been there, from the very first witch. That person was different, that person was The Other. That person was someone who could help you or harm you, could offer healing or hexes. That person had power and control over their lives, or so it seemed. There’s just something about witches that draws people in, from fantasy television writers to people interested in the tarot. Druids don’t seem to have the same sexiness lol! How many teenage Druid television series are out there? The witch is considered more dangerous perhaps, but that’s only because people don’t really know what the Druids really got up to/get up to today 😉

I know a lot of people, myself included, are utterly fed up with the patriarchy. And the fact that things are simply not changing quickly enough in terms of equality for all. People are feeling disenfranchised and powerless. People want to take back control, which is what we are seeing here in the UK, even though it’s hugely misinformed, short-sighted and a real mess. There are better ways to take back control in your life, and for me, witchcraft is one of them. So is being a druid. It’s about making conscious choices in everything that you do; it’s all about personal responsibility.

What does hedge witchery mean to you? Is there any overlap between witchery and druidry?

Joanna: Modern Wicca and druidry have much in common, namely in that they were hugely influenced by two friends, Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner. While most people know about Gerald Gardner and Wicca, few know about his buddy Ross Nichols, who helped to develop and dream up again a spirituality that incorporated nature and the seasonal cycles, based on folklore and some good ol’ awen. Working off each other, they came up with a way to do this, just with a slightly different language and flavour. Philip Carr-Gomm’s book, DruidCraft, explores this connection between Wicca, witchcraft and druidry.

I further explored the connection between Wicca, witchcraft and druidry in my little book, The Hedge Druid’s Craft, which is part of the Pagan Portals series of books covering Pagan subjects in 100 pages or less. As my personal practice is a blend of all three, I thought I’d finally write about it, and share some of the insights that I’ve had over the years. I’m now writing a book on being a Hedge Witch, so exploring it from a different angle.

The Hedge Witch is so much more than someone who forages for herbs, lives a solitary life in a cottage on the edge of the village, does kitchen witchery and dances under the moon. Hedge witchcraft is often seen today as a solitary pursuit, crafting one’s life in a magical way that reflects the talents and abilities of the practitioner. It also denotes someone who is knowledgeable in the country ways, from knowing weather patterns to herbalism and more. The term hedge witch was coined by the author Rae Beth in her book, Hedge Witch: A Guide to Solitary Witchcraft (1992). She took the term “hedge” from “hedge priest”, one who preached from the hedgerow, and who had no physical place for a congregation. A renegade, a solitary, a priest who didn’t follow the rules. This still appeals to many today, myself included.

A Hedge Witch is a bit of an anarchist. She likes to work alone, and she works in her craft daily, honing her skills and always learning more. She may think differently from those around her: she may see spirits and talk with the ancestors, she may talk to plants or animals, and she certainly walks her talk. She takes full responsibility for everything that she does, and chooses carefully. She reveres the natural world around her, but she may not necessarily view it as a religion or spirituality.  For the Hedge Witch, the path may be simply one of life’s work, of a way of life that honours the cycles of nature around her, without needing the label of religion or spirituality attached. Then again, she may honour gods and goddesses as she pleases.

But there is more to hedge witchcraft than to simply work The Craft alone, imbued with local knowledge of the natural world around you, of the green and growing things, of the cycles of the seasons. Held deep within the tradition is the art of hedge riding, of walking between the worlds, of being able to find the liminal places and to traverse the paths that lead to deeper wisdom and knowledge. The boundaries between this world and the Otherworld are manifold; you only have to know where to look. Hedges, as liminal places, demarcating once place from another, from the homestead to the wilderness, were wonderful places that could be used for just such an endeavour. To go through the hedge was to travel into another world, to follow the heart into the wilds and to receive information to bring back into this world. It was to step outside of the known and into the unknown.

Hedge riding goes back hundreds of years, if not thousands. The German word, hagazissa, meant “hedge sitter”. This is one who straddles the boundaries of this world and the next, of time and space, the known and the unknown, the civilised and the wild. They could ride that boundary line into the Otherworld, to talk with spirits and the fey folk, to bring healing and other information back to their community. Working with hedges, and with trees, has long been a part of magical traditions the world over. Hedges have been used as enclosures for thousands of years, to demarcate boundaries between the home and the wild.

The art of hedge riding can still be seen today, in the traditional portrait of a witch riding her broom. The broom is the magical tree which takes her to other worlds, alongside trees and hedges, staffs, wands and more. They are symbols of the World Tree, the axis mundi, that so many religious and spiritual traditions the world over use in their cosmology. Through this world tree, we find the roads leading to the faery realms, the realms of the ancestors, and the realms of the gods.

You once wrote that druidry is about listening to the language of the trees and wind, the pack and the herd, the moss and the fungi. What is your corner of the world saying to you these days?

I live near the coast of the North Sea, in Suffolk, East Anglia. I live on the edge of a village, right next to the heathland, near to Sutton Hoo, famous for the Saxon longship burial and King Raedwald’s palace in neighbouring Rendlesham Forest. This land is steeped in ancient history, with Celtic burial mounds and henges dotted across the landscape, Norman churches built on older, Pagan sites, and a recently discovered sacred site in nearby Woodbridge where offerings were made to the water from natural springs in the Iron Age. All of this history speaks to me, informs me of the human element to this landscape.

Then there is the heathland and forest, the sea itself that speaks to me, that tells me of change, how all this was once forest, or how Doggerland was lost to the water. The nightjars sing in the summer of long, warm evenings and the deer ghost silently through the beech wood and heather-filled clearings, their songs of grace and quietude filling my soul. The hawks circling overhead cry out their freedom and their hunger, the pigeons and collared-doves tell me when to change the water in my birdbath. Badgers and other visitors to my garden in the dark of night whisper of a world just beyond my hedge, where you never know what will come through the hole at the bottom of the garden. It’s a truly magical place.

Learn more about Joanna van der Hoeven, her books, events & courses at her website or visit her blog Down the Forest Path

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8 Comments

  1. What a great interview. My wife dances on the border between our material world and the otherworld. I am happy this last couple of years she has let herself go her own direction. She’s getting quite popular with the local tribe and longhouse. She is mixing it up so much I wouldn’t even know what to call it, but I’m enjoying the ride. She just got a key to the longhouse and they treat her like their own shaman. Very real.

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  2. Thank you – hygge – great word – quite as I would describe my place – this refuge in the middle of a forest. In the 80’s I discovered wicca, the 90’s shamanism and now learn from an indigenous law woman but all along the land/ nature/spirit is that which unfolds the truth inside of me.

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  3. What a lovely interview! I’m a student with Jo at Druid College, and her vision of Druidry is so wonderfully this-world based and practical.

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