The Spaewife

People gather before the hut of an old woman who sits at the door with a black cat at her feet. A horseshoe hangs over the entrance, through which a male figure is seen in the shadows. This (wood-engraved) cutting is taken from the ‘Illustrated London News,’ 7 June 1851, p.542.[1]

The Spae Wife

Hidden awa, in a neuk o’ the fair,

Slicht, an sleekit, an sly,

The spae wife sits, in the spae wife’s tent,

Watchin the fowk gaun by.

Hidden awa, in her lang-luggit lair,

Her skill, the gift o’ the gab,

The spae wife sits, in the spae wife’s tent,

A wyver, wyvin her wab.

Her een’s twa lichtit spunks o’ fire,

Her hair’s a corbie’s wing,

She’s steep’t till the core, in the Black, black airt

Her truth’s a birlin ring.

Fur Misery’s a mairket place,

That’s trade fur as the sizzens,

The spae wife kens, the fly auld jaad,

That Hope sells mair nur besoms.

Her Ace o’ Trumps is promises,

She’s skilled at the hinneyed lee,

Thoombin the cairds o’ Fortune

Tae ken fit weird ye’ll dree.

Fur fit’s afore, ye’ll nae win by,

Bit a nod’s as guid as a wink,

An some wid sup wi’ the Deil himsel,

The Ace o’ Spaads tae jink.

As iron boos  i’ the blacksmith’s haun,

As meal mells wi the miller,

The lassie’s thochts on a pyock o’ dreams

The spae wife’s thochts on siller.

In Scottish belief, a spaewife was a valued member of the community, much like the charmers, both being quite distinct from a witch – the latter was perceived elsewhere as a malefic practitioner of magic. Spaewives were consulted for healing and to foretell or divine the future; sometimes to lift a curse. 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 19th -century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, informs us of the nature of the Orcadian wise-woman, or spae-wife, who was said to possess: “…all the supernatural wisdom, some of the supernatural power, without any of the malevolent spirit of witches.”

Expounding her qualities yet further, Walter Traill Dennison says that: “The spae-wife in Orkney was generally well-regarded in her local community, treated with an awed-respect that, in many cases, probably bordered on fear.”


The Spaewife – Robert Louis Stevenson

“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.

Spae*

Merriam-Webster online: Chiefly Scottish, meaning – foretell. Origin Middle English span, from Old Norse spā; akin to Old High German spehōn to watch or spy.

Dictionary.com: Chiefly Scottish, meaning to prophesy; foretell; predict. From Middle English span, from Old Norse spā; akin to Old High German spehōn to watch or spy.

A spaewife is a female prophetess, diviner and a seer, a diviner; she is one “who sees.” In Old Norse magical practise, she was referred to as spákona or spækona, appearing as a seeress (Vǫlva) in the sagas and legends. The Vǫluspá (Prophecy of the Vǫlva) is the first poem of the Poetic Edda, and it reveals how Óðinn sought out her wisdom and prophetic virtue.

A Spaewife, spae-wife or Spey-wife, is a Scots language term used as the title of several works of fiction: Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Spaewife“[see above]; John Galt’s historical romance The Spaewife: A Tale of the Scottish Chronicles; and Paul Peppergrass’s The Spaewife, or, The Queen’s Secret [a tale of Queen Elizabeth I]

[1] © The Trustees of the British Museum

~ by meanderingsofthemuse on September 17, 2021.

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