Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

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Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits:
Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic
Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits.jpg
The book's jacket displays a detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1500), an oil painting by the Medieval Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450–1516).
Author Emma Wilby
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject British history
History of religion
Publisher Sussex Academic Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback and paperback)
Pages 317
ISBN 978-1-84519-079-8

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic is a study of the beliefs regarding witchcraft and magic in Early Modern Britain written by the British historian Emma Wilby. First published by Sussex Academic Press in 2005, the book presented Wilby's theory that the beliefs regarding familiar spirits found among magical practitioners – both benevolent cunning folk and malevolent witches – reflected evidence for a general folk belief in these beings, which stemmed from a pre-Christian visionary tradition.

Building on the work of earlier historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs and Gabór Klaniczay, all of whom argued that Early Modern beliefs about magic and witchcraft were influenced by a substratum of shamanistic beliefs found in pockets across Europe, in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, Wilby focuses in on Britain, using the recorded witch trial texts as evidence to back up this theory. The book is divided into three parts, each of which expand on a different area of Wilby's argument; the first details Wilby's argument that familiar spirits were a concept widely found among ordinary magical practitioners rather than being an invention of demonologists conducting witch trials. The second then proceeds to argue that these familiar spirits were not simply a part of popular folklore, but reflected the existence of a living visionary tradition, which was shamanistic and pre-Christian in origin. Finally, in the third part of the book, Wilby looks at the significance of this tradition for Britain's spiritual heritage.

The reviews published in specialist academic journals were mixed, with some scholars supporting and others rejecting Wilby's theory, although all noted the importance of such a work for witchcraft studies. Wilby meanwhile would go on to expand her theory by focusing it in on the case of the accused witch Isobel Gowdie for her second book, The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (2010), also published by Sussex Academic Press.


Historical research[edit]

Prior to Wilby's work, the English historian Owen Davies had researched the role of the cunning folk in Early Modern Britain, culminating in the publication of his 2003 book Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History.[1] Davies had rejected the idea that there had been any shamanistic traditions among the cunning folk of Britain, and furthermore argued that the Early Modern cunning tradition should not be seen as being a continuation of a pre-Christian practice, relating that "to emphasise their pagan roots is about as meaningful or meaningless as pointing out the pagan origins of early modern potting."[2]

"Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, Gabór Klaniczay and Éva Pócs have argued that descriptions of sabbath experiences and familiar-encounters found in early modern European witch trials were expressions of popular experiential traditions rooted in pre-Christian shamanistic beliefs and practices. As a result of this work, most scholars now acknowledge that there was a genuinely folkloric component to European witch beliefs in this period, although opinions still differ as to its extent."

Emma Wilby, 2005.[3]

From the 1960s onward, various historians studying the witch trials on continental Europe had begun arguing that in some areas, the image of the witch had been influenced by underlying local folklore about visionary journeys.

Poc's book on Hungarian witchcraft and magic appeared in her native language in 1997, before being published in an English translation in 1999 as Between the Living and the Dead.

Wilby and her research[edit]

At the time of writing, Wilby had done some part-time teaching at Exeter University, although was essentially performing the research in her capacity as an independent scholar.[4] Wilby's unpublished work came to the attention of the historian Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, a specialist in Early Modern Britain, who would later note that he "gave it all the help that I could, in making suggestions for improvement to the manuscript, encouraging a publisher, and writing an endorsement", believing that Wilby had "repaid my faith richly with the result."[4]


Wilby opened her book with a transcript from the trial of the cunning woman Bessie Dunlop, which took place in Edinburgh in 1576, in the midst of the Early Modern witch trials. Dunlop had been accused of "Sorcery, Witchcraft and Incantation, with Invocation of spirits of the devil", found guilty, and executed through strangulation.[5]

Part One[edit]

The first part of Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits is devoted to a historical examination of the professional cunning folk and accused witches of Early Modern Britain, with a particular focus on the beliefs in familiar spirits that they held to; according to Wilby, this serves the purpose of "illustrat[ing] in some detail, the event-pattern, emotional dynamics, and social context of the alleged familiar-encounter, and secondly to illustrate how encounter-narratives were not merely élite fictions, that is, the result of learned prosecutors superimposing their demonological preconceptions onto cunning folk and witches, but were rooted in folk belief and came, in significant part, from the magical practitioners themselves."[6] After laying out the basis of her argument in the book's introduction,[7] Wilby

Part Two[edit]

The second part of the book proceeds to lay out the case that the encounters with familiar spirits recorded by those investigating cunning folk and alleged witches did not simply reflect "accumulations of folk belief" but that instead they offer real "descriptions of visionary experiences - actual psychic events which occurred in historical time and geographical space" which "could be interpreted as evidence that popular shamanistic visionary traditions, of pre-Christian origin, survived in many parts of Britain during the early modern period."[8]

Part Three[edit]

The third and final part of Wilby's study deals with what she describes as "the possible spiritual significance of these traditions."[8]


Familiar-spirits as folk tradition[edit]

The first part of Wilby's argument in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits is that the accounts of encounters with familiar spirits and journeys to other worlds were not invented by those elite figures who oversaw the witch trials, but that they were actually provided by ordinary folk themselves.

Existence of a British visionary tradition[edit]

Visionary tradition as pre-Christian survival[edit]

As a further extension of her argument, Wilby puts forward her case that this Early Modern visionary tradition is actually a survival from before the arrival of Christianity.

Reviews and reception[edit]

Academic reviews[edit]

"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."

Folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, 2006.[9]

In her review of the book published in Folklore, the journal of the Folklore Society, the English folklorist Jacqueline Simpson described Wilby's theories as "bold stuff", but argued that while "I found her theory stimulating", she did not think that it was "wholly convincing". Simpson noted that there "are too many places where the inevitable shortage of evidence is circumvented by that familiar device, the argument that although we cannot prove X, neither can we prove not-X, so let us assume X." Continuing with her critique, Simpson also disagreed with Wilby's distinction between the "fairy familiars" of cunning folk and the "demon familiars" of witches, noting that the distinction broke down upon further scrutiny, and that as such the very inclusion of this distinction had been "unnecessarily laborious".[9]

"In its intellectual sophistication and ethical awareness it offers an excellent model of how the stories 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."

Historian Marion Gibson, 2008.[10]

Writing in the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, the historian Marion Gibson of the University of Exeter was more positive, calling Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits "bold, yet careful and intellectually rigorous", praising Wilby's inclusion of Bessie Dunlop's original trial records and ultimately relating that "This is by far the most persuasive account of such a [mystic] "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."[10]

Wider reception[edit]

In an article written for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, the historian Ronald Hutton, who had aided Wilby in editing her manuscript and finding a publisher, noted his belief that Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits was "so important" for witchcraft studies because it dealt "directly with the possible relations between the people concerned and a spirit world", something which recent British scholarship in the field had tended to avoid. Believing that "[n]obody had done anything like this before", Hutton did however admit to some criticisms, relating that "I think some of her suggestions more speculative than others, and (as she knows) I worry a bit about her selective use of widely scattered examples of what can be called shamanism taken from other parts of the world. This, however, does nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for her work."[4]

Wilby's work also proved an influence on the historian Joyce Froome in her study of the Pendle witches, Wicked Enchantments (2010).

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Davies 2003.
  2. ^ Davies 2003. pp. 177–186.
  3. ^ Wilby 2005. p. 5.
  4. ^ a b c Hutton 2010. p. 250.
  5. ^ Wilby 2005. pp. viii–xv.
  6. ^ Wilby 2005. pp. 6–7.
  7. ^ Wilby 2005. pp. 3–7.
  8. ^ a b Wilby 2005. p. 7.
  9. ^ a b Simpson 2006.
  10. ^ a b Gibson 2008.


Academic sources
  • Davies, Owen (2003). Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. London: Hambledon Continuum. ISBN 1-85285-297-6. 
  • Ginzburg, Carlo (1983). The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 
  • Ginzburg, Carlo (2004). Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Hutton, Ronald (2010). "Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View". The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. London: Equinox Publishing. 12 (2): 239–262. doi:10.1558/pome.v12i2.239. 
  • Froome, Joyce (2010), A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic: Wicked Enchantments, Palatine Books, ISBN 978-1-874181-62-0 
  • Pócs, Éva (1999). Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age. Budapest: Central European Academic Press. 
  • Purkiss, Diane (2000). At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins and Other Troublesome Things. New York: New York University Press. 
  • Wilby, Emma (2005). Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 1-84519-078-5. 
Academic book reviews