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.”
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.
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).
and then by candle bright some magic night
should read this book with deep delight,
beyond the realm of earthly need,