Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

February 15, 2008

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
Sussex Academic Press, 2005

  “‘What are you crying for, my girl?’ it says; and after this and that she told it. ‘I’ll spin the skeins for you,’ it said, ‘and every day you shall have three guesses at my name, and if you don’t guess it by the end of the month, you’re mine forever.’”
— Briggs

 The familiar spirit is a concept that is irrevocably linked to our ideas about witches, one that modern witchcraft has tried to assimilate by encouraging its adherents to become crazy cat ladies. That’s all well and good, but are pets really familiars? Most people I’ve spoken with say yes, to which I reply (if I’m feeling brave, witty, or inebriated), do you send your canary off to curdle your neighbour’s milk? I mean, I would, if I had a canary. 

Forming intimate relationships with non-divine spirits (and sending them off to do your bidding) is one of those ideas that doesn’t sit easy in the predominately white, middle-class culture of modern day witches. For some people, it’s right up there with that whole green-skin pointy hat fiction. To others, particularly those interested in traditional witchcraft or ‘shamanic’ and folkloric-based traditions, the idea is a viable one. 

Emma Wilby uses historical cases to show that not only did cunning folk and witches have different sorts of familiar spirits, these spirits were also remarkably similar to the helping spirits of shamans in various aboriginal cultures. Her argument was that while cunning folk were not shamans in a classical sense of the word, they may have been using remnants of shamanistic folk traditions, particularly in their use of familiar spirits.  

As far as academic texts go, this one reads fairly easily. It does have a few dry bits, but the writing usually flows along quite smoothly. The first part reviews familiar lore amongst witches and cunning folk (divided as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ magic-users, respectively), showing the connections with the faery and devil familiars, and how these beliefs interacted in a Christian setting. The author seems to focus on just one case a lot of the time, perhaps because it was the best documented, but I think that a wider range of detailed sources would have helped her argument.  

It is interesting to note the overlaps between the faeries and the dead, where the familiar from the main case was a man who, upon death, went to join the faeries (not all of whom were deceased humans). The author covers the basic services that a cunning person would provide to their community, how such practitioners often met their familiar spirits, and the future relationships between human and spirit. She also discusses various bargains and pacts that were made with the spirit in exchange for favours or magical assistance.   

The second (and rather short) part of the book covers classical shamanism in aboriginal cultures, with information gathered by anthropologists in the eighteenth century. It could be considered a stretch to use Siberian and North and South American data for an argument about British witchcraft, but the similarities are there, particularly in the spirit relationships.

Part three focuses on the experiences of the witches and the cunning folk in their time period and location, looking for explanations that could have caused people to experience such visions, and raising questions as to what is the true nature of mysticism. The lines between a spiritual experience and madness, in their time as in ours, are difficult to draw.

I think the main difficulty with this book is its accessibility. It’s too scholarly for most pagans to bother reading and strays a bit too far from the accepted ‘history of witchcraft’ for most historians to tangle with. As it’s published by a university press, the price itself puts the book out of the range of most impulsive book buyers (except me, who would rather read than eat). This is unfortunate, as the book provides fascinating insight into the lives of cunning folk and witches, and gives a great deal of information (not to mention excerpts from primary sources) on a topic that today has become associated with bringing Fluffy to circle.  

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