Wilby, Emma. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
The amount of scholarship on early modern witchcraft is huge, but Wilby?s book represents an interesting trend. The cunning folk or what Wilby calls ?magical practitioners? are the individuals in British society who were seen as having special gifts of healing, divination, and counter-witchcraft charms. ?Although historians have produced a number of perceptive studies which bear testament to the sophistication and efficacy of popular magical traditions in this period, and which extol, in particular, the value of ?cunning? or ?wise? folk as policemen, detectives and doctors?something remains missing from the picture. An experiential or ?spiritual? dimension? (5).
To determine what this spiritual dimension is, Wilby takes a new look at British (particularly Scottish) witchcraft trials coupled with the complaints against the common people by British elites. Scholars had been dismissive of these kinds of sources as a means of uncovering folk beliefs, by Wilby represents a movement that now looks at these sources much more favorably. While prosecutors and clerical polemicists cannot be seen as ethnographers, Wilby sees some interesting trends in these sources.
The major theme that Wilby finds in these sources on the cunning folk is the familiar; that is, some type of spirit being that converses with and aids the practitioner. These familiars could go by all sorts of designations: fairies, elves, dwarves, animals, or the dead. Yet Wilby warns, ?Trying to make any hard and fast distinction between categories of spirits in early modern Britain is impossible because supernatural beings were labeled differently, depending on geography, education and religious perspective and definitions overlapped considerably. The term fairy, for example, is a misleadingly broad generic term which, in the period, covered wide range of supernatural entities. On a popular level there was often little difference between a fairy and an angel, saint, ghost, or devil? (17). Wilby gives a number of examples of how these designations could overlap in popular descriptions, but concludes ?The most consistent association to be found, however, is the link between fairies and the dead? (18). Of course the dead were often ambivalent, from terrifying, to helpful, to saints and angels.
Familiars, Wilby notes, gave guidance to the cunning folk in terms foreknowledge and supernatural abilities, and helped in traversing the fairy realm (called by the Scots ?elfhame?), which was generally also seen as the land of the dead. Wilby then notes the degree to which these themes show up in both Siberian and Native American beliefs, arguing for common ?shamanistic? practices. (Wilby notes that ?it has been argued that while this indiscriminate use of the term ?shaman? has rendered the word almost meaningless, in the absence of any viable alternative, it will still be used here? .)
Wilby thus suggests that the practices of the cunning folk represent pre-Christian animistic beliefs, but her last section muddies that conclusion. This is because Wilby argues for the degree to which medieval mystics also fit the trends she notes. In her chapter ?Greedigut and the Angel Gabriel,? Wilby asserts, ?From this perspective, a Christian contemplative at her prayers who hears the voice of Jesus (whether through her ?bodily ears? or, more profoundly, through the ?ears of her soul?) in response to her supplications, could be said to be communicating with her spiritual guide? (220). Thus Wilby is happy to equate the experiences of cunning folk and Christian mystics. The division between orthodox vision and the false/demonic is extremely important to religious boundary making and thus Wilby?s assertions can be hard to us moderns to swallow. Says Wilby, ?Both the modern western mind (however secular, and however uninterested in mysticism), and the early modern elite mind, inherit Christian preconceptions about the moral nature, visual appearance and behavior appropriate to a spiritual guide. Both find it difficult to imagine Greedigut drinking from the same cup as the Archangel Gabriel? (220). Ultimately, the practices of the cunning folk, says Wilby, ?could be interpreted as expressions of a popular mysticism? (217).
Contrary to Wilby, who ends her book by talking about neopaganism as revivals of these practices, current scholarship has attacked the notion of ?pagan survivalism,? because 1) we don?t really know what the Germans and Celts were doing and 2) Christianity needs to be defined by those who practice it and we can?t simply accept definitions of the clerical elite as absolute. That is, timeless and normative definitions of Christianity cannot work for historical analysis: Christianity has to be understood according to time, place, and social group. Thus practices become Christian when people who see themselves as Christian see the practices as Christian. Of course, definitions of practices are always contested among Christians, but scholars ought not to take sides. Judging what particular practices really are is an ontology historians ought not to engage in. Nevertheless, Wilby?s analysis and data are certainly thought provoking and with Joseph Smith as both visionary and folk practitioner, have a number of implication for studying early Mormonism.