Excellence in Scholarship and Learning
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 Price:||£47.50 / $67.50|
|Release Date:||September 2005|
|Paperback Price:||£22.50 / $39.95|
|Release Date:||September 2005|
|Page Extent / Format:||320 pp. / 229 x 152 mm|
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
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 …
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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