Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Friday, August 19, 2005

Analysis of "Witch of the Westmereland"

A few years ago, I wrote music reviews for The Rising Wind magazine. This is one that I wrote at the time, though it turned more into an analysis of the lyrics than an actual music review, so it was never published. Still, I think it's interesting, so I'm going to share it with you now.

Many casual listeners assume that this ballad of a wounded knight seeking redemption and healing is an actual medieval piece, but it was written in the twentieth century by Archie Fisher. However, just like the great Arthurian tales, "Witch of the Westmereland" is written on two levels; a spiritual metaphor lies within a fantastic adventure.

At the song's outset, we meet our hero, a knight who is wounded and battle-weary; he could be a veteran of virtually any war in any era, and his war need not have been literal. Visitations from animal guides including ravens (sacred to Odin) and a hare (sacred to Eostre) inform him that his wounds cannot be healed by any normal means. His are spiritual wounds which will require supernatural healing. Both creatures direct him to seek out the "maid who dwells by the winding mere." An owl (sacred to Athena and a symbol of wisdom) further instructs the knight in the method of finding the witch he seeks: He must cast goldenrod into the witch's lake.

Throughout his adventures, the knight is aided by the three companions traditional to a knight: his horse, his hawk, and his hounds. In medieval folklore, these were often seen as extensions of the knight himself, symbols of his skill and strength. So it is significant that our hero tells them to wait behind as he approaches the mere. Like every spiritual seeker, he has to set aside his own ego and accomplishments before he can approach his subconscious, the gateway to Divine power.

However, as he approaches the mere, it's interesting to note that the knight bears the four magical tools with him. His sword and shield are at his side, his horn is ready should he need to summon his hounds, and the goldenrod he needs to summon the witch fills the role of the phallic wand. Of course, we don't need Freud to point out the significance of the knight placing his goldenrod in the witch's lake.

The knight's shield is of particular interest. Every time it is mentioned, from the second line on, it's referred to as "the rowan shield." Now, traditionally, shields were made from lindenwood, and poets dating back to the Beowulf period have consistently talked about linden shields. Rowan, on the other hand, is often associated with warding off magic. Could it be that this knight is not only spiritually wounded but also has built up shields that cut him off from the magical possibilities of the world?

In any case, once the knight uses the goldenrod to perform the Great Rite Symbolic on the lake, the witch springs forth from the water like a mystical revelation emerging from a seeker's subconscious. Unexpectedly, the witch has a centaurian form, half-maiden and half-horse; she represents the union of the human being with nature. The knight blows his horn to recall his helpful beasts, for he will need all of his faculties to catch the witch once she has entered this realm.

When at length the half-horse witch is apprehended by the knight's hounds and hawk, she transforms entirely into a maiden, clad in blue and silver as she stands in the moonlight. She commands the knight to sheathe his sword and lay down his shield. Once he has abandoned the aggression (or alternatively the logic) of the sword and the defensiveness of the shield, she kisses him three times; thus the knight is blessed by all three aspects of the Goddess. She then binds his wounds with the goldenrod, showing him that he has had the capacity to heal himself all along. Finally, he lies in her arms, achieving the Great Rite of union with the Divine Source. As the sun rises, he likewise rises from her embrace, not only fully healed, but also made invincible, for "none can harm the knight who's lain with the witch of the Westmereland."

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At 6:00 PM, Blogger edwardhuron75975807 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:22 PM, Anonymous pilgrim23 said...

Well done. Now follow up with a review of The Return. Waybacks have it on their Burger after Church CD and it is yet another Fisher marvel!

-Bartholomew A Green

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...


I love this song, and your commentary is very interesting. I am going to have to learn to play and sing this; it really moves me.

While net-searching for the lyrics,
I found http://www.lyricsandsongs.com/song/451074.html

These folks seem to think Stan Rogers wrote this song.

It is credited to Stan on Chordie.com, and has the exact same altered lyrics: To Wit, "Witch of the Westmoreland" (?)

The research has been fascinating, and I must visit Ullswater some day...

Thank you,

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


first I'd like to explain why I cannot log in by any account this page accepts... I do not use the internet often (and I do not use Google at all), I don't have a homepage, and I'm barely literate when it comes to computers... I simply have no idea what to do. Well, as I do not see a true need to have this comment published, it should not be a problem. In case You want to contact me, please post some kind of mail address even an idiot can use and I'll gladly send You mine.

Your comments concerning this song have been quite interesting to read. I would like to add some information, though - the use of a rowan instead of a linden shield holds quite a bit of extra significance, for example...

There has been a slight confusion in the naming of trees and plants in the germanic languages. A rather common problem is the fact that rowan trees have been named "boar's ash" in the past (a name that is still common in Germany, and Germans keep mixing both kinds of trees up...).

The common ash is considered a man's tree. It is sacred to Wodan and Donar, and twigs cut before sunup on a solstice day are said to staunch blood...

Rowan is sacred to Donar and Brigidh. It is said to have healing powers, and the celts considered it to be the "tree of life". Rowan shields in folk lore designate their bearer as a herald; sometimes they symbolize purity and the spiritual quest.
Other names for rowan are "wild ash", "witchbane" or "witchwood"...
Need I say more?;)

Goldenrod is quite interesting... Is has strong abortive qualities and was sometimes used in ritual contexts.

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Jeanne said...

Excellent analysis. I love this song. I sing it to my kids (2 and 2) every night. They call it "Land". I think Stan Rogers actually credits Archie and notes a painting in his liner notes on it.

One additional thought for you; I think he dies in her arms. He has risen hail and sound with the sunlight in the day, I think is the notice that he's passed on.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger gerald said...

Ah, very nice, lots of information about the construction.
I have always focused on the healing power of the feminine, the service of the feminine, the need of the male, and the result of the fair union.
(And I always thought rowan just meant "round", so I missed tons and tons of stuff!
Thanks. You help the artist greatly by showing the craft and care. The field of teaching appreciation


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