Book Review: Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits



By Firefly Initiate and traditional witch Patrick Kyteler

cunning folkImagine a world where the majority of the populace is underfed and overworked to the point of complete exhaustion. Where a modern understanding of medicine and the human body is nonexistent. Where the major preoccupation is the growing of food crops and raising livestock, both dependent on the caprice of a little understood natural world. Where if you were a woman your body was subjected to the trauma of constant childbearing. Where famine, pestilence and war can and did wipe out entire families. Where life expectancy was 35 and you could expect to see half of your offspring die in infancy or childhood. A world where candles were a luxury. Where day and twilight was spent in grudging labor and nights were dark. No television, radio, music recordings, cinema. Where only a few had the luxury of books or theater. Entertainment came at night from your own imagination or that of the human next to you. And EVERYONE beyond doubt, from the peasants to the clergy and nobility, believed in spirits, magic and forces beyond the control of humanity. This is the world of the early modern period in England.

Enter Bessie Dunlop a peasant woman who was tried for, convicted and burnt at the stake as a witch in 1576. It all started while driving her cattle to pasture. Crying in anguish over her sick husband and newborn infant. Tired beyond measure and then he turns up. I kindly elderly man by the name of Tom, dressed to the nines, who offers comfort and a prediction: “your infant will sadly die but your man will be as hale and hearty as he ever was.” Thus begins a strange friendship. Tom makes promises that she will never want for food or anything else again. He offers guidance and information on how to brew up remedies, where lost items can be found and before long Bessie’s fortunes do increase, but not because her livestock miraculously double in number. No, instead the neighbors come calling for her services. “Services” whose true power comes from the friendship of a strange man with no cottage who can jump through key holes. Very soon he tries to get her to renounce her baptism, introduces her to the Queen of Faerie, and attempts to convince her to go with him under the mound into the realm of the dead.

This is the narrative of a cunning woman that Emma Wilby carries throughout her meticulously researched scholarly work on a phenomena common throughout humanity during the early modern period. While cunning folk had their faerie familiars, witches are served by demon familiars, Christian contemplatives are writhing in ecstasy with their angels, and later, New World shamans are attended to by their helper spirits. All occur only under a similar set of societal conditions and share striking parallels.

It is Wilby’s hypothesis the human mind shares a propensity for engaging in visionary experiences of this sort when the body is pushed to its limit, emotions are on a razors edge, imagination is sharpened, the world is perceived as a shadowy place, and belief in spirits is absolute. To be honest she is very convincing.

CUNNING FOLK AND FAMILIAR SPIRITS is a must read for anybody interested in the subject of familiar spirits. There is very little work available on the subject and none that can hold up to scholarly scrutiny like this book. The sheer amount of documented history contained therein is amazing and worth learning whether or not you agree with Emma Wilby’s hypothesis.

Unfortunately the book does have one fault. The writing style is extremely academic. The author likes to string together long words in complex sentences, which is compounded by the sections from the trial records in Old English. You may have to push yourself in some chapters to get through the text.

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