Cunning Folk and Familar Spirits

Peter Rogerson
Magonia 93, September 2006

A care-worn young woman, going about her business, meets a stranger; an elderly man with a grey beard, wearing a grey coat and the clothes of the past generation. He carries a white wand in his hand. He asks her why she is so sad. She explains that her husband, baby and cow are all sick. Her husband will recover he says, but the other two will die. This comes true and she meets him again and again. He is a soldier who died in the wars of a generation ago.
He takes her to meet the fairy folk, who disappear into a lake, and gives her medicine and power of healing. He gives her messages to give to his son, tells her that the Old Catholic faith is better than the new reformed one, yet on other occasions tells her to abandon Christianity. He becomes her familiar. She is living in seventeenth century Scotland and so gets burnt at the stake for witchcraft.

This is the kind of story which appears time and again in witchcraft trial evidence – encounters with boggarts, which have some of the properties of fairies, some of ghosts and some of demons. These stories have usually been interpreted as having filtered down from elite culture and its demonological obsessions, as being produced by the courts and agreed upon by terrified defendants. Or else obtained by torture or seeming torture. Emma Wilby argues that these are in fact accounts of actual visionary experiences, and that many of the accused in witchcraft cases were the cunning folk, the local healers and magicians, the people you went to her herbal cures, love potions, to find lost goods or detect criminals. They could use their skills for good or ill and were often morally ambiguous.

For those with some background in anthropology, this sounds familiar, for this is part of the global shamanic tradition. The shaman is powerful but often ambiguous figure, healer and destroyer. The shaman may use all sorts of slight of hand and other tricks to make his/her performance more dramatic. Emma Wilby goes further and argues that the shaman was part of an authentic mystical tradition, and as shamans so were the cunning folk. This is hard for us to grasp because Christianity equates spirituality with moral uprightness, and today with a variety of socially approved attitudes, we find it difficult to understand that the same person could be both a charlatan and a religious visionary. Yet Emma Wilby suggests the experiences of the witch/cunning person with their familiars have parallels in the language, especially the sexual language, which mystics may employ about Jesus. We should also remember that one such cunning person and treasure finder Joseph Smith, went on to found one of the fastest growing world religions.

The familiars are seen here as shamanic spirit guides, envisioned often in the form of animals, reminders that these stories come from a time in which people had a vastly more intimate relationship with animals than we have today.

People lived in a world where poverty, hunger, backbreaking physical labour, the absence of artificial lighting, and a pre-literate story telling culture, combined with a total belief in spirits (and even possibly both the incidental or deliberate ingestion of mind altering substances), combined to make visionary experiences all the more profound, especially from that four percent or so of the population of have fantasy prone personalities.

This thesis is not quite as new as it may appear, for it is a restatement, in academic terms of the popular spiritualist belief that the witches were the psychics and mediums of the past, unjustly persecuted. One can certainly see that there is continuity between the shamans’ spirit guide, the familiar, and the modern day spirit guides of the mediums. Modern mediums do not of course normally converse with tail wagging dogs and suckling ferrets (though remember Gef the Manx talking mongoose) having now got better company in the form of racially stereotyped pantomime foreigners etc.

Looking at the stories presented here, Magonia readers will detect similarities to modern visionary experiences Think of Cynthia Appleton and her Venusian familiar for example, and there are other stories, not all of them published in which similar themes occur. Perhaps Emma Wilby would have gained some considerable insights from a study of modern anomalous personal experiences.

How secure is this thesis? I must confess to my doubts, No doubt some of the those accused of witchcraft were local cunning folk, healers, bewitchers and the like, but by no means all. Many more were probably just the wrong person at the wrong time.
As I read through this book, I noticed that Emma Wilby uses terms such ‘cunning person’ quite indiscriminately, solely on the basis that they confessed to either meeting with supernaturals of one kind or another, or having familiars, and not that they had an actual local reputation as such. Take one example, Jane Weir of Edinburgh. Wilby calls her a ‘cunning woman’, in fact Jane was the victim of years of sexual abuse by her puritan brother Thomas, a pillar of the local Kirk. In his old age he confessed to multiple sexual crimes and misdemeanours, and was accused of being a witch, because, well, only witches committed incest with their sisters and had sex with cattle. Only after Thomas’s arrest did Jane confess to all sorts of fantastic crimes and witchcrafts.

Today we can understand how someone who had been first raped as a child by her teenage brother, and abused for years afterwards might come to blame herself. Perhaps Thomas accused her of bewitching him. Perhaps now she had some kind of power. On the gallows, she cried “let my shame be total” and tried to rip off her clothes, the despairing act of a self blaming victim of sexual abuse, and not the defiant act of some sort of mystic as imagined by Wilby. Here is the danger in Wilby’s case, by arguing that the accused were a special sort of person, she comes close to blaming the victims.

What does the ferret, toad, dog cat familiar remind you of? They are household pets or the little wild creatures around the house. What do the consoling familiars sound like? Children’s imaginary friends. These images are of the imaginary friends and real and fantasy creatures to which children talk, share their hopes, fears and deepest secrets. These familiars then might be thought of as adult imaginary companions, to whom women in particular might reveal their innermost feelings. They provide fantasy consolations and imaginary advice. Even today there may be many adults who have such imaginary companions, though they will not be given supernatural attributes.

To understand the confessions, we have to realise that belief in witchcraft and witches was near universal. Just as today people dream of what it would be like to be a film star, a footballer, a model, or have the odd dream of robbing a bank or other antisocial activity, people must have fantasised about what it would be like to be a witch (”If only I was a witch I could be rich, I would show that stuck up Mrs Figgis a thing or two, Farmer Giles wouldn’t deny me alms again, sex with the devil might actually be fun, etc.) Then as now people could have dark and forbidden fantasies, and toy with the glamour of the dark side.
There was the same allure of the forbidden. There would have been the temptation to just try one of those forbidden spells which a friend had told you in a shocked whisper behind the pig pen. However, daydreamers then had a fear that by and large they don’t have today: that by entertaining such fantasies, Satan had already got his claws into you, that you really were a witch. When Mrs Figgis’s youngest sickened and Farmer Giles’ barn burnt down, could you be really, really sure that you hadn’t caused it? The accused may well come to believe that they deserved the accusation, that their daydreams meant they were indeed witches. Others could escape accusations by becoming accusers.

Equally in a world drenched in the supernatural, dreams, fantasies and visionary experiences derived from the petty supernaturals of popular culture might have been quite common. It’s clear that people had no fixed idea of what these petty supernaturals were; sometimes they were fairies, sometimes ghosts, sometimes angels and sometimes devils. Though Emma Wilby tends to see these as pagan survivals, it strikes me as implausible that a population whose knowledge of Christianity was still rather hazy after nearly a millennium, could have preserved any folk traditions over that period. More likely is that people constructed such creatures from a variety of sources both popular and theological. They tended to represent the inconstant and amoral forces of wild nature, on which people were wholly dependent.

I would have to summarise this book as having both important insights and important flaws. Like many theorists, Wilby aims at too neat a solution. Some, but by no means the majority, of the accused may have been cunning folk; however they may have still played an important role in that their visionary experiences may not have simply contributed to their own narratives, but by feeding into the popular culture have influenced the visions and beliefs of the wider community.

I am struck by Emma Wilby’s perception of how intimate animals were to our ancestors lives, how they interacted with them, and how their visions and beliefs and imaginary companions were shaped by them. Victorian spiritualists’ imaginary companions were inspired by the figures from the music hall and children’s tales of exotic cultures, those of the second half of the twentieth century from science fiction. Perhaps for many people today their most intimate companions are mobile phones, computers, and televisions. How will they feature as spirit guides and secret consolers? Will we see phantom emails, text messages from the dead, messages from imaginary satellite channels, fairy computers and daemonic i-pods, angelic internet sites, and online demonic pacts –

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