Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

The history of witchcraft is a popular subject these days. However, most historians tend to focus on the social conditions that made witch hunting a popular and profitable occupation in early modern times. When asked to think about the accused, historians tend to assume that these were marginalized people who were easy to make into scapegoats, and whose confessions were largely the result of suggestion by their captors/torturers.

Emma Wilby of the University of Exeter takes a very different tack. What if, she asks, the accused witches were actually telling the truth? What if they believed that they could commune with spirits and faerie people? What if they were practicing some sort of dimly remembered version of shamanic magic?

It is important at this stage to note that Wilby is NOT making the argument that witchcraft was evidence of the survival of a pre-Christian religion. Indeed, she is making the argument that the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain did not really have a religion at all. Because if you look at existing shamanic cultures in the world today—for example in Native American cultures, or in Siberia—they are nothing like what we regard as a religion. Rather they exhibit a general belief in a spirit world with which some gifted individuals can make contact, and from which they can gain magical powers.

Common characteristics of religions are that they have some sort of official priesthood, and they often have a relationship with the state. If there is no organised priesthood and no state, but merely autonomous individuals in tribal units, there can be no religion as we usually understand it.

Wilby’s argument falls roughly into three parts. Firstly she examines the testimony of accused witches from trial records to look for common features of witch belief and practice. Next she looks at the beliefs and practices of modern-day shamanic practitioners. Finally she argues that these two groups of beliefs and practices have significant degrees of similarity, and that therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the people being condemned as witches were engaged in a form of shamanic practice, and may well have believed in the existence of spirit guides, familiars and so on.

With any piece of history like this, the non-specialist reader is, to a certain extent, at the mercy of the evidence presented. I have no way of knowing whether the conclusions that Wilby presents are a fair and reasonable inference from the data at hand, or whether they are the result of cherry-picking examples to fit her thesis. What I can say is that her ideas seem far more plausible to me than theories of survival of pagan religions. What’s more, Ronald Hutton has blurbed the book. He uses words such as ‘interesting’, ‘novel’ and ‘courageous’, which sounds to me that he’s not won over by the argument but feels that it is worth considering further.

I’d like to see more work in this area too. In particular I’d like to see people apply theories of parasocial relationships to the testimony of the accused witches. If modern day people can genuinely believe that they have relationships with characters from soap operas, surely witches can believe in their familiars.

Wilby herself has published two further books on the subject. Both of them look in detail at specific examples of witch trials: one a single case in Scotland; the other a series of trials from the Basque region. I’ve not read these, but from reviews it seems like Wilby is doubling down on her thesis.

I should note that Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits is a very academic tome. There’s a colon in the title, after which we get: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. The academic style is essential to the argument that Wilby is making, and the type of audience she will have to convince, but it does make the book tough going for the casual reader. If, on the other hand, you are writing a book about witchcraft in early modern Britain, I would suggest that you take a look at this one because you may find it very useful.

My thanks are due to Kit Whitfield for pointing me at this book. I look forward to seeing what she does with the ideas presented in it.

book cover
Title: Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
By: Emma Wilby
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
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