Eithne Cullen is in discussion with best-selling fiction and business author: self-professed Witch, Psychotherapist, Rewilder & Cat Herder, Elen Sentier.
I wasn’t sure what Elen was going to be like. Her books encompass a truly broad sweep: from fantasy fiction to gardening, life-coaching and business books. She describes herself as a “heartful, badass, witchy business co-pilot.” As a teacher, writer, poet and nature lover myself, who’s also passionate about helping to create a better world, I decide to jump straight in with a direct question.
So, when Elen’s friendly face appears on screen, warning me of possible cat interruptions with one breath, while commenting on the books on the shelf behind me with the other, I ask: “Witch or business woman?” She replies without hesitation:
“Is there a difference? You have to be both as a writer. A writer can’t just hand over her stuff to a publisher and expect the publisher to do all the promotion work, because they just don’t, so I have to be a business woman.”
When I ask how she transitions between the worlds of stories she inhabits as a writer, she tells me about the ways the magical world and business world align. Part of this is her training as a psychologist and her work in coaching. She tells me about her time in the corporate world, the civil service, and bringing some of her own influences into her team and its work. I loved her example of how, as a senior data analyst at The Ministry Of Defence, she explored the phases of the moon with her team, because she noticed how efficacy dropped off at certain times.
She contexualises further and tells me a bit more about her career journey which started with training in dance and drama and subsequently went into teaching. When this didn’t suit her own idea of working with young people, she moved into admin roles, which eventually led into work in a Commando training centre and the Ministry of Defence. This took her to London, where she stayed for some time. Remembrance Day, when we commemorate the sacrifices of our service men and women, is an important day in November. Linked to Elen’s work with the MOD, we touch upon this.
Elen emphasises the importance of service and what it means to her:
“There’s a difference between ‘macho’ strength and real strength. In the old ways the hierarchical male dominance over female doesn’t apply; femininity and strength go together.”
She adds that, in traditional and indigenous cultures, what you’re good at is more important, with skills taking precedence over any constraints of hierarchy or gender. Elen draws on examples from the animal kingdom to make this point more strongly, citing studies of wolves. Their society is based not on the ‘alpha male’ dominance of popular opinion, but a not-quite-classless social grouping, in which adult wolves are constantly self-asserting themselves as decision makers, trackers and protectors.
This leads on beautifully to my next question around her own closeness to the Old Ways of British Magic, where the goddess is the land, the creator and the god is her protector. Elen tells me how firmly the roots of magic and witchcraft are enmeshed with her own family history:
“Both my parents and most of our relations were followers of the Old Ways of Britain, cunning folk and wise women, as we say in Britain.”
When we move on to her experience of the Old Ways, Elen describes growing up in the tradition: ploughing with horses, connecting with each other and the land, ploughing the corn dolly from last year’s harvest into the first furrow of the new ploughing. She differentiates between this system of beliefs and “a religion of the book,” the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
As an example, she describes an event in a village she lived in where the local vicar was interested in the Old Ways. One Christmas Eve, he allowed the festival ‘The Night Of Mothers,’ to be held in the church. The women sat in the sacred place singing, telling stories, connecting to each other and to the earth. In the morning, the men brought them breakfast in the Lady Chapel. She celebrates this as proof that people don’t have to be stuck, that there can be a meeting point and open-mindedness.
We continue speaking about traditions. Again, we think about the time of year and All Hallows, a Christian festival celebrated on the first of November; a great way to start unravelling another interesting thread.
“A hallow is something sacred to you; a sacred object, sacred places and customs. You might have heard of the ‘dark gathering.’ This is where we gather to celebrate hallows. We dance, call the dead to wish them well, share thoughts and memories in a reverent, caring way, connecting with the other world. These traditions come from the heart.”
She continues, telling me of laying a place for a person who has gone and also including animals in this circle of remembrance, giving an example of leaving some meat for the kites: “We take from nature so its only right we give back.”
Now I have a better understanding of what Elen means by the ‘Old Ways,’ I’m ready to tackle the term ‘witch’. She explains it means ‘wise woman,’ with the male equivalent being ‘wizard’. She draws on history to further my understanding:
“They knew how to work across the worlds as herbalists and midwives. In sailing communities, they helped summon the wind and made knots. Witches were also women who were seen as wise; older women children could go to with their questions.”
Elen effortlessly applies this to today’s world, with a particular focus on business practice:
“Those of us who practise the Old Ways learn how to work with people. It’s the same thing in psychotherapy. If you follow the Old Ways and adopt those skills, you can look after yourself in difficult situations. You learn to work with everything. For example, stopping for a moment and looking at the clouds can actually give you an answer! We’ve forgotten how to use our instincts and our intuition; we can use this in a modern way in life, in business, with your children, with your family.”
We go on to talk about writing and her key piece of advice: to write from the heart. Elen tells me she also applies this maxim to her coaching work, reminding people to own their stories.
“We are all our own story. It’s what brought us here. Often, we don’t like bits of it, but despite this, we can’t just erase what we don’t like from our memories. It’s therefore important we live authentically, living out who we really are.”
Knowing much of Elen’s work and belief system is focussed on nature – animals, the seasons and living in a beautiful place – I want to go back to something that is close to my heart: what nature means to us as individuals and as a society. Her rejoinder comes swiftly: “It’s simple; you try living without it – you won’t!”
Elen describes a TV programme about a scientist looking at the presence of fungi in so many of the products we use. We can’t live without them. Similarly, she reminds me about how much we’re hearing about not being able to live without pollinators. “Nature is that to me… it’s our manager.”
She talks about her involvement in gardening, calling herself a wildlife gardener and how she encourages others to create gardens and she shows them how to do things. I’m surprised to discover she’s had three winning gardens at Hampton Court, but equally, can see how her passion for trees, the fox, the stoat and the sound of birdsong would translate. She affirms this:
“The more people get to see this, the more connected they become to nature and to themselves.”
We dip into roots of language around what she does, and she explains how the term ‘cunning woman,’ drawn from the Norse root verb to ‘ken,’ has translated into ‘knowing’. I come away from our discussion with a deeper knowledge of the world around me and also a sense of connection. So, this seems to be a great way to draw things to a close. Elen’s views about so many aspects of the world we know and the way we experience it make sense to me. She has reminded me that we feel, we know, we learn to know ourselves and our world. Perhaps that’s why as writers we are always making sense of the world and sharing it with others.
Connect with Elen on X: @elensentier
From 28 November you can listen to our Write On! Audio podcast interview with Elen Sentier. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo, or find us on Podcasters.Spotify.com.
You can hear great new ideas, creative work and writing tips on Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo, or find us on Podcasters.Spotify.com.
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We are all our own story. It’s what brought us here. Often, we don’t like bits of it, but despite this, we can’t just erase what we don’t like from our memories. It’s therefore important we live authentically, living out who we really are.