Once upon a time all food was wild – and it was the women who gathered it. But what we’ve 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 birth of agriculture – all went hand in hand, so rewilding and food foraging come forth 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, these 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).
With the shift to farming and the ownership of land and crop things changed. Food went from being a ‘gift’ of mother nature freely available to all, to a ‘product’ of human labour, a commodity to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow. And this meant removing women from the center of food production which fed families and tribes, and replacing them with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit.
While the new system of agriculture is believed to have been a boon, providing more food for all on a predictable basis – 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?
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 civilization by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialization and sustained economic growth.”
And according to feminist Silvia Federici, what this meant for women was that 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”.
But the point of this post is recognizing that this “women’s work” in early societies was about waaay more than production. Food gathering and preparation were not just labour in the way we define it today (as an economic measurement). They were once processes full of spiritual ritual which honoured the sacred network of all living things, and our place in it.
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. Magical symbols of fertility to promote bountiful harvest were woven into gathering baskets and carved into pots. And ritual foods were consumed in communal celebrations.
Today de-toothed as folklore, wive’s tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of a ‘women’s religion’ that sought to harmonize with the life-giving powers of nature. And it was the destruction of their old earth worshiping ways that was a top priority for the church and the state (the new capitalistic order).
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?”
The persecution of womens ‘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 labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, and maintaining the home. This process was repeated with the colonization of indigenous peoples whose land was appropriated as they too became second class citizens.
Many ecofeminists see the domination of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected– and many place a priority on environmental activism in their work. Others seek to revive our spiritual connection to the earth i.e. if we see nature as ‘sacred’ then perhaps we might think twice about plowing down ancient rainforests or spraying fields with toxic chemicals. But I’d like to take it one step further, because I think it was the banning of ‘earth’ magic that severed women from their source of empowerment.
Reclaiming magic is about recognizing who those witches actually were – women who lived outside the bounds of societal constructs of being good wives and obedient daughters. 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…”
Many of these women were herbalists and midwives, but most were just everyday women – not ‘witches’. They just stubbornly clung to the old pagan and nature rituals, the crafts and magical foods traditionally used to bless their families and communities with good fortune and prosperity.
Today the rewilding movement is reviving many traditional women 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” rarely acknowledges their original spiritual/magical context. I would love to see a magical basket weaving workshop that focuses on the history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest.
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.
Returning to the magical ways of harvesting, processing and preparing wild foods reminds us that food is a sacred gift of mother nature, not just a commodity to be bought and sold on Wall Street. Harvesting plants in tandem with moon cycles or creating a recipe for wild pesto (utilizing the magical properties of wild herbs) may seem a bit of fun, but we think it is deeply important that we revive our foremother’s fundamental faith that by ceremonially harvesting and ritually preparing our food, we can create an energy of blessing for ourselves, each other and our communities.
Our early hunter gatherer ancestors saw no division between themselves and nature, between spirit and the material world. They believed that our souls and the soul of earth (anima mundi) were inextricably intertwined. And so like my foremothers before me, I understand magic as a way to honour and enhance the life-giving fertility of the earth, integral not only to the well-being of ourselves and our communities– but to nature herself.