In 1692, local people found the body of Reverend Robert Kirk on the Fairy Knowe of Doon Hill in Aberfoyle, Scotland. Kirk had written “The Secret Commonwealth” about the fair folk of the Knowe. Legends arose that Kirk’s writing about the fair folk had angered them. They whisked him away to their realm and left a changeling in his place.
A cloutie is a piece of cloth tied to a tree branch. In similar spell work, some people also leave offerings under the tree. The word “Knowe” is a Scottish variant of the word “knoll.” Aberfoyle lies north of Glasgow.
In the 70s, an excavation of the Fairy Knowe, revealed that it was the remains of an Iron Age roundhouse fort called a broch. That broch had been built on top of a naturally occurring knoll.
A representative from Forestry and Land Scotland said that some of the “clouties” threatened the local eco-systems. They were not biodegradable. Forestry and Land Scotland said they would work with locals in the future to avoid future conflict.
Clouties occur throughout Britain and Ireland. This may reflect an ancient Celtic tradition. Unfortunately, the tradition has long since fragmented into different streams. Some parts of that tradition are now lost. Some current traditions may focus only on the behavior of the ritual, but lack a coherent magical theory of how it works.
In addition to fragmented traditions, people have invented plastic and synthetic materials. Original and intact Pagan cultures had no knowledge of these materials. Ancient traditions would have no understanding of how these materials might impact the spirits of land, sea, and sky.
Three cloutie traditions
A quick Google search revealed three different current interpretations of cloutie spell work. This search was by no means an exhaustive, and other interpretations no doubt exist. All three sources reported “cloutie pollution.” People had tied the following items to trees, like clouties: children’s toys, jewelry, plastic streamers, and stuffed animals. None of these can bio-degrade.
The Culture Trip stresses the importance of nearby healing wells. According to this site, people would visit the wells on the cross-quarter days to perform cloutie spell work. First, the person with the cloutie would dip it into the water from the well. Then, they would say a prayer, and tie the cloutie to the tree or bush.
If their working involved healing, the ritual would have another step. The person with the cloutie would dip the cloutie in the well and wash the afflicted area of the body. Then, they would tie it to a tree. As the cloth would rot away, so would the affliction.
Terri Windling considers clouties to be an offering to the local spirits. The cloth would first be dipped in well water, and pressed against the troubled part of the body. While thus pressed it, becomes linked to the affliction. It is then tied to tree and left to decay.
Rainbow Serpent Adventures considers that the sacred well does the magical working.
The person making the cloutie would approach the well and wet the cloth. They would wrap the cloth around the afflicted body part. The cloutie would form a link with the ailment. Then, they would tie the cloutie to the tree. As the cloutie rots, the ailment will wither away.
Rainbow Serpent argues that offering magic has become confused with banishing magic. If someone wants to gain something, they should use offering magic. If someone wants to get rid of something, they should use banishing magic.
Offering magic involves granting a wish in return for the offering. An offering should be something of value to the person making the offering. If the offering has no value to whoever is making the offering, the magic will fail to work.
Rainbow Serpent considers cloutie spell work as a type of banishing magic. The magic occurs as the item rots away. The cloth offering does not have to be of value. People can use rags, but only if those rags can decay and disappear. This decay nourishes the ecosystem around the well. It also causes the spell to work.
Traditional organic material such as wool or linen degrades relatively quickly. If someone ties non-biodegradable cloth to the tree, it will fail to rot away, thus negating the spell.
The people tying clouties to trees in Scotland probably do not identify as Pagans. Pagan identified people may also use ecologically harmful items.
The Wild Hunt spoke with ecological activist and witch-at-large Macha NightMare about this issue. NightMare, reported that in her practice people leave nothing behind after rituals except ash. She also stated that they frequently cleanse the area by picking up litter.
Using Rainbow Serpent’s terminology, this clearing of the area could be considered an offering of care and time to the land spirits. The goal of this offering would be permission to enter the natural world.
Nightmare feels that for magic to work, rituals should use biodegradable or recycled materials. People can leave small amount of food for animals, birds, and insects. Ritual materials should not end up in a land fill. If some recyclable material used in a ritual ended up in a landfill, they would become tainted.
According to Nightmare, some Pagans make offerings to the earth of afterbirth and post-hysterectomy uteruses. These tissues can bio-degrade and nourish the local ecosystem.
Virtually all Pagan traditions are broken and fragmented to some degree. No Pagan tradition can address issues related to materials like plastics that only existed after the displacement of intact and original Pagan culture. Those traditions have to be invented, like those products. When in doubt, we can select that tradition which “treads most lightly upon the earth.”