My Review of Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions In Early Modern British Witchcraft And Magic by Emma Wilby.
This book is a remarkable and in-depth academic study of early modern English cunning-folk and witches involvement with Familiar Spirits such as Tewhit, Greedigut, Vinegar Tom, Jack Robin and Wag At The Wa, with boggles and puckles, hob gobblins, hell waines and firedrakes. Wilby proposes that early-modern witches and cunning-folk had relationships with spiritual beings similar to those of shaman in other traditional societies, such as finding stolen items, curing illnesses or causing it and providing all sorts of advice as needed.
Whilst ”Most people today would consider themselves to have little or no knowledge about early modern familiars. In reality, however, the basic dynamics of the relationship between a cunning woman or witch, and her spirit ally, is easily recognizable to all of us, being encapsulated in narrative themes running through traditional folk tales and myths from throughout the world. Classics such as Rumpelstiltskin, Puss in Boots, the Frog Prince and so on, are representative…These fairy stories and myths originate from the same reservoir of folk belief as the descriptions of familiar-encounters given by the cunning folk and witches in early modern Britain.”
Written in three main sections, the first summarizes the animistic popular world view of early modern Britain. Presenting the illiterate or semi-literate common people as uneducated in the Christian orthodoxy and regarding the earlier ‘unintelligible’ Latin Catholic rituals and later Christian religious practices as ancillary to their folk beliefs, living cheek to jowl beside and within a world populated with very real spirits of various origin, influence and intent. Drawing on Christian heresy trial accounts as well as popular folk accounts Wilby then describes these spirit-allies and their differences between those identified with ‘witches – the demon familiars, and those who assisted ‘cunning folk’- the fairy familiars.
The quality of faery nature is well expressed in this popular rhyme which recorded in 19thC is likely to be much older;
”Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf, I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca’ me fairy, I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gin guid neibour ye ca’ me; Then guid neibor I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht, I’ll be you freend baith day and nicht.”
The rhyme implies that the definition of the faery was dependent upon the actions of their human allies. In other words, the human could choose to employ the same fairy to good or evil ends, and it was the moral position of the spirit’s user rather than that of the spirit itself which determined the latter’s moral status at any given time.” Many comments recorded in Emma’s study of the confessions of cunning folk convicted of witchcraft suggest that this ambiguous amorality of the familiar spirit may have been standard. The familiars remained cooperative provided their ‘contract’ was honored – that their human partner would provide respect, or food and shelter, or in some cases promise of the soul…
In the second part of the book the argument is presented that most previous studies of cunning folk and witchcraft in Britain have tended to prioritize the social role, of healing, divination etc, over any thorough examination of the relationship between the practitioner and their fairy familiar or spirit guide.
Here the author draws compelling parallels between traditional shamanism as practiced in North America, Central Asia and Siberia, with the British practitioners experience as revealed through the evidence of both witch-trials and folk accounts. ”The relationship between shamans and their spirits is like the relationship between cunning folk or witches and their familiars…” although they could indeed represent themselves as a man or woman, or an animal such as a dog, stereotypical cat, raven or toad, they also could be entirely immaterial and perceived only in the ‘flight’ to the other and inner realms of trance states.
The ambiguity remains consistent however wherever the spirits may be based as the author quotes Ronald Hutton historian’s notes that ”among traditional Siberian cultures some spirits were regarded with ‘respect, affection, solicitude’ while others were seen as ‘groups of efficient but untrustworthy thugs….and would punish with death any human master or mistress who shirked the duties of the shamanic vocation”. That witches generally first encountered a familiar or demon spirit during a pivotal moment of extreme stress, they may have for example family members may have fallen seriously sick – which happened often in earlier times, or they may have lost a farm animal to illness – which could lead to ruin or even death in a poor agricultural farming society. Wilby compares these pressures and threats to the sort of preparation to encounter a guiding spirit that shaman in traditional societies undertake – fasting, depriving themselves of sleep, and creating other physical extremes.
Wilby also argues that the concept of traveling to a sabbat is often seen to be the Christian interrogating authorities interpretation of the witch accompanying a fairy into fairyland, where they may learn magical such as how to use medicinal plants to heal, however this interpretation of the evidence as biased by elite intervention may not necessarily be correct due to the peoples own obfuscation of any clear boundaries between the folk faith and Christian church orthodoxy as it was(n’t) understood.
In the final section of the book Wilby considers whether the evidence suggests that peoples encounter experiences were primarily visionary and trance derived via a number of diverse methods, or alternately more paraphsyical than psycho-spiritual in nature and presents Paracelsus claim for the latter that ”Everyone may educate and regulate his imagination so as to come thereby into contact with spirits, and be taught by them”….This view in no way negates the reality of Familiar and Faery spirits, but rather places their existence in the shamanic realm of trance and ecstasy, the trance is not necessarily of the ”all fall down…”variety.
That similar beliefs may have also existed on a popular level are suggested by Robert Kirk’s claim ( author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
) that perception of a spirit will continue so long as the seer can keep their eye steady without twinkling. Thus relatively ordinary activities could mask powerful contemplative techniques which developed a sustained ‘monotonous focus’ in which state the hidden realms all around us may be perceived. Employing ‘monotonous focus’ and ‘psychic destabilization’ like the shaman, the common and unlettered folk – women, children and poor men, were capable then of skills as intimated by the sixteenth century German magician Cornellius Agrippa. In support of such views and highlighting the similarities between early modern cunning folk and witches and the encounter experiences of Siberian and Native American shamans, she references Mircea Eliade’s claim (author Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
and much more) that shamanism is at root a psychological tendency rather than a religious belief…”we see no reason for regarding is as the result of a specific historical movement…as produced by a certain form of civilization. Rather, we would consider it fundamental in the human condition”. Despite the Victorian, early twentieth century and even relatively recent historiographical tendency to ‘pathologize’ and thereby dismiss as unimportant the visionary dimension of the familiar encounter, as boastings and ravings of the half crazy, and strange, mad outpourings, nightmares and collective fantasies, of mental illness and schizophrenia, Wilby points out that since the 1950’s advances in psychology, ethnography and comparative religion have rendered such simplistic diagnosis untenable. That ”magical cures of cunning folk were effective on many levels…that charms prayers and ritual were effective in curing psychosomatic aspects…divinitary techniques may have led the client to subconsciously reveal their wishes or suspicions…” Earlier and reductionist views such as those of Sir James Frazer who held that tribal magico-religious belief systems were (merely) an amalgamation of cause and effect magical technologies designed to meet basic survival needs, have been eloquently dismissed by subsequent academics such as the prominent scholar of religion Ninia Smart ”Frazer’s theory neglects the perception of the numinous…” It has become clear that the range of potentially healthy states of consciousness is considerably broader than previously imagined, that there is more to the experience of spirits and faeries than self delusion and misrepresentation, here we discover genuine spiritual experiences of envisioned guides and sacred beings.
To conclude her study ”because there has been little attempt to analyze the ‘fantasies’ of cunning folk and witches in relation to visionary experience as it is found in magical belief systems and religions throughout the world including Christianity…” Wilby examines a variety of comparative religious perspectives and their similarities with the narrative encounters of early modern cunning folk and witches. Despite their acknowledged moral ambiguity – they are not characterized by any Christian anti worldly ‘moral purity’ of action or intent but display the full range of human motivations, their widespread theatricality such as dressing in dark gowns or carrying ominous stave’s ”carved with heads like those of satyrs” and their use of deception, the cunning folk and witch visionaries are portrayed as Britain’s ‘unrecognized mystics’ who experienced spiritual revelations of a higher dimension. In this context Wilby’s assessment of Christianity and other religions suppression of unorthodox spiritual perception and practice (outside of their own orthodox canon of wise men, miracles, healing powers and prophecies ) is seen to be about the Church and State avoiding loss of authority and of maintaining a monopoly over all things psychic and spiritual – at any cost. This position was contrary to the common folk belief that magical practitioners skills sprung from a divine origin ”It is a gift which God hath given her…(by virtue of this gift, she) doth more good in one yeere then all these Scripture men will doe so long as they live.” Indeed, after the Reformation, cunning folk even took on the role previously played by the Catholic Saints and had been compared to Christ himself. The author also portrays the similarities between Christian (and Old Testament) mystics and their visionary relationships with Angels and Christ, and the cunning folk and shaman envisioned encounters, that essentially derive from the same numinous origins and are clothed in the imaginal furnishings of the ‘seer’ and their psycho-spiritual and cultural environment. In our modern world with the decline of Christianity and contrasting rise of interest in many ancient traditions and folk beliefs, it is indeed fascinating to see how ”a mysticism unsupported by societal organizations and which was upheld by no sacred buildings, no visible iconography, no sacred books, no formalized doctrine or cosmology and no institutionalized ritual…how such formless and invisible constructs could have challenged the Christian Church for the hearts and minds of ordinary people”, yet they have done so and the invisible faery spirits of folk legends, faery tales and the cunning folk-witch encounter narratives, are revealed to be within reach once again.
Wilby’s hypothesis then is that the fairy encounter narratives of cunning folk and witches recorded in the early modern witch trials evidence a surviving trend of folk beliefs extending unbroken from a pre christian shamanic world view. Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, 2006, the author makes an overwhelming case for the long term existence of an ancient British-Shamanic tradition. She also re-configures our understanding of witches and cunning folk as animist shamans embedded in local communities. This is an iconoclastic reversal of modern academic opinion that witches experience of spirits and their attested narratives were either the product of mental illness or more likely perhaps an enforced or contrived collusion between the often illiterate prisoner and their elite and educated religious inquisitor. That magical practitioners across the length and breadth of Britain had stood up in courtrooms and ” ‘persisted in telling long and involved stories about faries’ despite the fact that in doing so they often knowingly condemned themselves to death” demonstrates in a definite way as could be possible the conviction, integrity and respect with which the cunning folk regarded their familiar spirits.
Emma Wilby’s book is a remarkable, timely and novel way of looking at them (Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits ), and one of the most courageous yet attempted. (Ronald Hutton, University of Bristol)
Fascinating and well researched … a genuine contribution to what is known about cunning folk and lays very solid foundations for future work on the subject. (Brian Hoggard, White Dragon)
Emma Wilby s conclusions and her explanation of how she drew them, laid down here in the commendable modern academic tendency towards plain English that has moved away from the previous generations overly complex sentence structure, is worth its weight in gold. (Ian Read, Runa).
Anyone with a genuine interest in Faeries and Spirits, Cunning Folk and Witches, Shamanism and Native British Spirituality both early-modern and contemporary, should turn off their electricity for a while, take a long tiring walk in the forests, hills and glades – or a series of them,
and then by candle bright some magic night
should read this book with deep delight,
If Faerie spirit thou wouldst see, look inside the air and be,
beyond the realm of earthly need,
the magic of divinity ~