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  You are in: Home > History > Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits  

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic

Emma Wilby

Emma Wilby is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter.

Contains the first comprehensive examination of popular familiar belief in early modern Britain
Provides an in-depth analysis of the correlation between early modern British magic and tribal shamanism
Examines the experiential dimension of popular magic and witchcraft in early modern Britain
Explores the links between British fairy beliefs and witch beliefs
In the hundreds of confessions relating to witchcraft and sorcery trials in early modern Britain we frequently find detailed descriptions of intimate working relationships between popular magical practitioners and familiar spirits of either human or animal form. Until recently historians often dismissed these descriptions as elaborate fictions created by judicial interrogators eager to find evidence of stereotypical pacts with the Devil. Although this paradigm is now routinely questioned, and most historians acknowledge that there was a folkloric component to familiar lore in the period, these beliefs, and the experiences reportedly associated with them, remain substantially unexplored.

This book examines the folkloric roots of familiar lore in early modern Britain from historical, anthropological and comparative religious perspectives. It argues that beliefs about witches’ familiars were rooted in beliefs surrounding the use of fairy familiars by beneficent magical practitioners or ‘cunning folk’, and corroborates this through a comparative analysis of familiar beliefs found in traditional Native American and Siberian shamanism. The author then goes on to explore the experiential dimension of familiar lore by drawing parallels between early modern familiar encounters and visionary mysticism as it appears in both tribal shamanism and medieval European contemplative traditions. These perspectives challenge the reductionist view of popular magic in early modern Britain often presented by historians.

List of Illustrations

Preface: Walking with Spirits – A Cunning Woman’s Tale Acknowledgments

Part I: Demon and Fairy Familiars: The Historical Context

Introduction to Part One
1. A Harsh and Enchanted World
2. Cunning Folk and Witches
3. The Magical Use of Spirits
4. Human and Spirit: The Meeting
5. The Working Relationship
6. Renunciation and Pact
7. Demon and Fairy: The Interface

Part II: Anthropological Perspectives Introduction to Part Two
8. The Shaman’s Calling
9. Spirit Worlds and High Gods

Part III: The Experiential Dimension Introduction to Part Three
10. Phantasticks and Phantasms
11. Psychosis or Spirituality?
12. The Unrecognized Mystics
13. Greedigut and the Angel Gabriel
14. The Freedom of Magi


“Wilby’s thesis is that the image of the familiar spirit is not an elite fiction imposed by prosecutors, but represents the folk beliefs of magical practitioners–cunning folk who practised beneficent magic, and witches who were more malevolent. She goes further, arguing that the concept of the witch’s familiar derives from ancient British animistic religion. Part III of the book, The Experiential Dimension, suggests that at least some of the accounts of encounters with familiars and witches sabbaths describe the vision experiences of British cunning folk who regarded the fairy folk as sacred spirits. This argument is strengthened by comparisons drawn to the visions of Christian mystics. Wilby points out, correctly, that we do not think of cunning folk as mystics because they do not conform to the pious and ascetic norms established by Christian saints. The book is carefully organized and clearly written.” Moira Smith, Journal of Folklore Research

“Emma Wilby examines in abundant detail the statements in which witches and cunning folk described their encounters with spirits ... [and] argues that these statements ... are evidence of archaic animistic beliefs persisting into Early Modern times; occasionally, they hint at experiences of religious intensity comparable not merely with shamanism, but with the visions of medieval Christian mystics. This is bold stuff ... Emma Wilby’s views challenge those of other current historians, notably Owen Davies, who sees cunning folk as far more pragmatic and down-to-earth, and Diane Purkiss, who interprets the encounters of witches with fairies as compensatory psychological fantasies. The debate between these and other scholars will be very instructive.” Jacqueline Simpson, Folklore

“Wilby demonstrates that the acquisition of familiars and other types of ‘spirit guide’ is something that is part of a shamanic tradition stretching way back before the early modern period. The way this experience has been demonized and made part of the witchcraft ‘heresy’ has distracted modern researchers from seeing it for what it is. It was a hugely important part of the experience of a cunning person and it’s neglect has meant that our view of cunning folk has been somewhat distorted until now. Wilby’s book is fascinating and well researched. It is 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

“Wilby valuably sets the ground for further exploration of the role and character of folk magic within community and tradition and is to be recommended for that.” John Billings, Northern Earth

“Sometimes a book can be academic and very readable – this work strikes that happy balance for me … a fascinating, riveting and downright encouraging re-view of the magical underpinning of mainstream culture.” Jan Morgan Wood, Sacred Hoop

“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 generation’s overly complex sentence structure, is worth its weight in gold.” Ian Read, Runa: Exploring Northern European Myth, Mystery and Magic

“One of the few books to treat in any detail, and perhaps the only one to treat at length, the topic of the witch’s familiar … these kinds of consideration are very fruitful for understanding much fortean material …” Fortean Times

“Wilby has gone a long way to clearing the muddy waters of mainstream pagan history, and in providing a stage for the true spiritual nature of magic practice in Early Modern Britain.” Pagan Times Australia

“Wilby demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the subject, makes some insightful observations and writes in an accessible style. The strength of the work is in its use of comparative material from a wide range of sources to look at early modern records of witchcraft and magic.” Judges’ Report, Katharine Briggs Folklore Award 2006

Cunning folk and familiar spirits: shamanistic visionary traditions in early modern British witchcraft and magic looks at the evidence for visionary ritual and belief, rather than accepting that narratives of fairy beliefs were created in the search for diabolic pacts. This is an interesting attempt to interweave shamanism and folklore into witchcraft and certainly a useful dimension to witchcraft studies.” Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature

“Emma Wilby’s Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits is a bold, yet careful and intellectually rigorous, attempt to examine a hotly contested area of British history: the epistemological status of the stories of visionary journeys and experiences told by cunning people (practitioners of popular magic) and accused witches during the period of the witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Wilby explains, such stories have often been considered to be the ramblings of deluded or tortured people – stories that to traditional historians of fact do not mean anything definite and so are unworthy of or resistant to analysis as sociological or historical data. But with the linguistic turn of historical thinking in recent years, these empiricist dismissals have given way to a belief that such stories might be read through various theoretical paradigms (psychological, feminist, or narrative, for example) and found to be meaningful after all. The difficulty with such readings is that sometimes the theory comes to predominate – often anachronistically – over the substance of the story. This can leave the reader feeling that the original teller has been badly served by academic attempts to categorize their experiences too rigidly, and that what such analysis has achieved has simply been to ‘explain away’ the mystery of the story and diminish its teller’s individuality in the service of some wider aim. In some cases, the story is crudely retold to suit the notions of the scholar, which is unforgivable when one considers that the story is often the only known remnant of the life of its teller. When the tellers were the victims of witch hunts, the further disservice done to them by academic history is particularly evident.

Wilby’s book proposes to address this vexed issue. In its intellectual sophistication and ethical awareness it offers an excellent model of how the stories [End Page 115] of witches and cunning people might best be approached. In this it follows in the footsteps of at least two of the author’s major influences, Ronald Hutton and the late Gareth Roberts. Both of these scholars’ works sensitively walk a line between the traditional (and flawed) concept of academic objectivity and the (laudably acknowledged) human subjectivity that inevitably will and certainly should connect the author with his or her theme. This is especially true if, as a literary scholar, one sees in the teller of the story a version of one’s self as a writer – partial, creative, and subject to influences well beyond the scope of one’s text. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, then, begins promisingly by reproducing almost word for word the story told by Bessie Dunlop, a woman tried at Edinburgh Assizes in 1576. Bessie herself is allowed to explain how she met with the ghost of a man who took her on various journeys – emotional and physical – to visit fairy-like creatures, and also brought her medical and prophetic knowledge that she used in her work as a cunning woman. Wilby’s care as an editor is evident, with copious textual annotations and clear indications of where a word has been modernized or a meaning inferred or guessed. Her point is to allow us to hear Bessie speak in her own dialect voice as nearly as is possible, and to draw our attention to ways in which such a hearing is not possible, or may be susceptible of further investigation or interpretation.

Once she has established her stance on the ethics of reading the stories of and writing about witches and cunning people, Wilby is able to proceed with her own analysis of their words. She follows scholars such as Carlo Ginzburg and Ga’bor Klaniczay in granting the stories of visionary journeys a relationship with the real (if hard to access) world of popular superstitions and religious beliefs of their time. Here is a world of hints and mysteries, but to ignore it or dismiss it as completely inaccessible is clearly as undesirable as to declare that it is the readily legible evidence of a pan-European fertility cult. In this dangerous territory, Wilby ventures where many scholarly reputations have come to grief – Margaret Murray’s being the bitterest example.

Wilby’s conclusions turn out to be a challenge and inspiration to everyone who is interested in the popular magical cultures of the past or the present. Persuasively and accessibly, she rejects the idea that visionary experiences can be seen merely as fictions, arguing instead that they belong to a long, orally transmitted tradition of spirituality that sat in uneasy relation to Christianity. Early modern people, sums up Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, did experience (not simply invent under questioning) visions of ghosts, fairies, devils, and other creatures of hybrid nature, and did believe that through such contacts they could gain knowledge of another world. Spirits were not metaphors or drives or narrative strategies to them, but rather ‘autonomous [End Page 116] envisioned entities’ – real and apparently distinct from the seer. This does not mean that such shamanistic figures worshiped any non-Christian god in organized ‘covens’ or went to sabbaths such as demonologists proposed – rather, it suggests the strongly individualistic nature of such religious experiences, which were not (or sometimes not strictly or wholly) Christian but were not part of an alternative monolithic faith either. Wilby calls this eclectic experiencing ‘the freedom of magic’, and suggests that it represents an unrecognized mystic tradition of the British Isles.

This is by far the most persuasive account of such a ‘tradition’ that I have read. It avoids sloppy thinking and overstatement in a way that is rare and very creditable. It is exciting and fulfilling in its own right without needing to make unprovable claims. Optimistically and humanely, it makes its strong case for a British shamanic tradition. Whether readers agree with Wilby’s conclusions or not, this is a very important book.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft

“Wilby does not support the notion of an ‘old religion’ nor an enduring singular ‘tradition’, and she does not read the trial and confession sources uncritically. Rather, she approaches the sources with the interpretative framework of ‘shamanism’ … Not only does the term ‘shaman’ work consistently in what might appear to be an incongruous setting, but it also re-configures our understanding of witches and cunning folk … Approaching them as animist shamans embedded in local community relations constitutes a considerably nuanced analysis.” Journal for the Academic Study of Magic


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
320 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
September 2005
  Illustrated:   Yes
Hardback Price:
£47.50 / $67.50
Paperback Price:
£22.50 / $39.95

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