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Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits

Posted 29 4 15

Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits:
Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic 

by Emma Wilby


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.

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.


Table of contents


Part One: Demon and Fairy Familiars: The Historical Context -- A Harsh and Enchanted World; Cunning Folk and Witches; The Magical Uses of Spirit; Human and Spirit: The Meeting; The Relationship; Renunciation and Pact; Demon and Fairy: The Interface. Part Two: Anthropological Perspectives. The Shaman's Calling; SPirit Worls and High Gods; Part Three -- The Experimental Dimension: Phantasticks and Phantasms; Psychosis or Spirituality?; The Unrecognised Mystics; Greedigut and the Angel Gabriel; The Freedom of Magic; Index.


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