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Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic

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.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-078-1
Hardback Price: £47.50 / $67.50
Release Date: September 2005
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-079-8
Paperback Price: £22.50 / $39.95
Release Date: September 2005
Page Extent / Format: 320 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


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

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

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