Friday, September 20, 2013

The Obligatory Cunning Magic Post

The subject of Cunning Magic, whether it's been a realized aspect for readers of this blog or not, has come up in several of my entries over the last year. As such, I've been feeling the desire to put something down about the subject; first, to introduce readers who are unaware to “fairly historically accurate sources,” and second to deal with the issue of white-washing on the subject.

Many witches have probably heard about “white witches,” by now. They may very well see themselves as continuing a long-standing tradition of aiding and abetting one's community as a practitioner, complete with offering services that in fact stretch back in time. Others very well may never have heard of the subject aside from allusions and statements along the lines of: “a good witch will never [insert vague statement here, followed by]; we're all good people here!”

Unfortunately, the reality of history rarely stands the test of such ideals. And Cunning Magic – and Cunning Folk in particular – serve as an excellent example of this factor. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Okay, so what is Cunning Magic? And who were Cunning Folk?

In his introduction to Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, the historian Owen Davies writes of the folk:
“Cunning-folk was just one of several terms used in England to describe multi-faceted practitioners of magic who healed the sick and the bewitched, who told fortunes, identified thieves, induced love, and much else besides. It is employed in a general sense here not just because it was widely used, but also because it conveniently encompasses both sexes. Wizard and conjuror were also popular terms in some regions, but these were masculine titles, and to refer to wise-women and wise-men all the time becomes unwieldy. White witch, although now a part of common language, was actually little employed in popular speech prior to the twentieth century, except perhaps in Devon.” (P. VII – VIII.)
In certain respects, Cunning Magic or the Cunning Craft forms what I like to call “the other face of witchcraft.” It was widespread and included multiple aspects that are related to the subject of witchcraft as was practiced both in the past and some that even continue to be practiced today. Additionally, of the mythical and legendary elements that have seeped into the practice of witchcraft today derive in part from Cunning Magic, although they occasionally hearken back to earlier sources, or commingle with those sources.

But to really get a glimpse at how they came to become such a significant force – and they
are significant – we have to place them into a proper historical context. Cunning Folk were largely an occurance of a time period that scholars refer to as the “early modern period.” Specifically, Emma Wilby uses this term for the time period under discussion which ranged from around the arrival of the printing press (1450 CE or so) to the early 19th century.

In his excellent (from the stance of historical accuracy, at least) lecture in
Witchcraft and Magic, Professor Wrightson of Yale says:
But the world of magic also had its specialists; and they were those who known as the Cunning Folk, Cunning Men, or Wise-Women. These individuals were those who were known to have special knowledge, over and above the average knowledge of magical practices, and who were often believed to have a special inherent power... often inherited. It was thought to pass in the blood. The Cunning Folk – who were pretty numerous – one survey of known Cunning Folk in East Anglia suggests there was a cunning man within ten miles of any village.”

Later he says: “Again, they were appealed to for the diagnosis of witchcraft. If a person suspected they might have been bewitched, they might go to the cunning-folk for the provision of counter-magic...” […]
 And, most interesting to me:
“Well: this world of popular magic had long existed, and it was long to endure. You can find much of it still alive and well deep into the 19th century. And it endured because in various ways it helped.
But the problem of witchcraft is altogether more distinctive. That involved a specific kind of magic: the causing of injury or death by the malevolent and malicious use of supernatural powers against another or their property. And that was the practice which was known as maleficium.”
Finally, much later he states, referring to the work of Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane and suggestions made therein: 
“It [witchcraft fears] was partly because of the loss of the protective magic which had been supplied by the medieval Church. The Church of England allowed the belief in witchcraft to continue, but it wouldn't offer ecclesiastical means of counter-magic and it forbade people to resort to them.”
In many respects, the members of the Protestant Reformation were very much against aspects of the magical world that permeated popular culture – and in some cases, still do today. In this respect the explosion of Cunning-folk that occurred across Britain, but also extended in some ways into other areas of Europe, can be seen as balancing factor against witch-beliefs as they re-emerged and were reshaped by Elite authorities.

Nonetheless, Cunning-folk remain ambiguous figures. As much as they might be desired for the valuable counter-magic and healing services (along with other pragmatic services), they also were treading a dangerously thin line when it came to the outlook of those around them. It didn't take much for the conception of such a person as a valuable and capable agent against witches to shift into the figure of a witch itself. Both Ronald Hutton (in
Triumph of the Moon) and Owen Davies note cases in which particularly fearsome cunning-folk came to be seen as witches, and faced the terrors of “mob justice” (or injustice, as some cases may be).

Additionally, Owen Davies (in
Popular Magic and Murder, Magic, Madness) notes situations in which cunning-folk were accused of taking advantage of their would-be clients, or actually did so. This is a subject we will return to in a bit.

Okay, well, what were some of the characteristics of their practice?

Unfortunately these were too numerous and potentially different to generalize about. Despite that, we can still note several relevant practices that recur in work by Owen Davies and Emma Wilby:

- Divination
This ranged from astrology, to divination by analysis of urine (uroscopy; see Davies'
Murder, Magic, Madness p. 38), to asking a “familiar” spirit, or use of the divining rod (also occasionally called the “wishing wand,” although there are different types of Hazel wands that were in use) and probably quite a few other methods I'm forgetting.

- Healing the sick.
This could be done with the use of herbs; by the use of simple charms, or even archaic and newer incantations, or with the aid a familiar spirit (quite often in this case a fairy or the ghost of a dead man).

- Counter-magic
As noted several times, many specialists in cunning-folk circles appear to have actively promoted themselves as being capable of undoing harmful sorcery or witchcraft (
maleficium). This could be done through ritual or talismanic means, including calling upon angels and fairies and other tactics that practically borderline on “shamanic healing.”

- Magic to aid in the acquisition of pragmatic needs.
This has always been a selling point for magicians and magical types of many, many ages and requires little expansion. Health, wealth, and love, and “luck” are fairly consistent things that have been peddled by magicians to their clients across a huge swath of European history.

Okay, so what about the spirits dealt with?

It should be noted that between the 12
th century (if not significantly earlier, as the rituals in the PGM would suggest) and 14th century there were significant amounts of blending when it came to the subject of spirits. (This state of affairs lasted much longer, however, extending into even the Industrial Revolution in certain ways.) While occultists of late have favored neat and seemingly tidy ways of looking at the subject of the spirits, with elaborate taxonomies and hierarchies and distinctions between types, the popular outlook tended to blend them together.

A good example is the subject of fairies: while today there is a mass of individuals whose idea about the subject is inspired by Disney films and a rather quaint Victorian outlook, the information we can glean from sources reporting on fairy beliefs during the early modern period are far more flexible. In some cases, we are discussing spirits thought to be semi-Angelic or perhaps even Angelic in nature. During the Middle Ages, there occurred a belief that the Kingdom of the Fairies sat next to Hell, and was inhabited by “neutral Angels” who had not taken a side in the War in Heaven. Subsequently, they did not inhabit the Kingdom of Paradise with God, but rather their own territory. In some cases they were imagined to Guard the Grail – or the chalice which Christ drank at the last supper. Between the 14
th and 15th (and even extending into the 16th) centuries we begin to see tales wherein King Arthur is imagined to exist alongside Germanic elves and dwarves in the Hollow Hills of Fairy-land spread through German literature. Similarly, the tales of the Venusberg and Sibyllenberg are spreading across Europe during this time which intermix different cultural mythological and supernatural elements relating to the practitioners of magic, and classical Daimones and spirits. A very good way to referring to this state of affairs has been suggested by Jake Stratton-Kent: “mythic fluidity.”

During this time period, the elaborate systems and taxonomies favored by many occultists fail to hold much weight. Fairies perfectly represent this: sometimes they are Greek Daimons (like a Sibyl living in the Other-world, or Venus hidden beneath the earth), sometimes they are semi-Angelic or Angelic, and sometimes they are the dead or Gods from Germanic and Celtic tales. All of these different concepts co-mingle together in the over-arching world of popular culture and setting any hard and fast rule about them is bound to run into historical contradictions in practice, concept, and outlook.

Because of, or perhaps despite, this cunning-folk had numerous examples of individuals who claimed (at the very least) to work with fairies. The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, recently put out by David Rankine, shows precisely this blending of utility. It contains rituals involving Goetia (summoning demons and fairies), Angelic “sorcery” (requesting Angels, for example, to held one find lost and stolen goods by conjuring them into a glass of water), as well as charms of a sort, prayers and excerpts from Agrippa and different Grimoire and Grimoire related manuscripts. It is an example of a specialist's Grimoire from the 17th century; in this case the specialization is in regards to the practice of evocation.

Of particular note within this regard is the Oberion or Oberon evocation, which I excerpted, and “restored” (it was really kind've easy) the missing seals and images for that purpose* in
Well Met By Daylight to as the Grimoire itself does not cover it, and Rankine left them out for that reason. They occur in another book of magic. It directly follows a copy of the Fairy Sibylia or Experiment of the Dead ritual from Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft. There is also a rather hoary ritual to obtain a Fairy Familiar towards the end of Gauntlet's work that includes mention of the Seven Fairy Sisters which show up in the Sloane materials published by David Rankine in The Book of Treasure Spirits. Overall, it represents an individual who was somewhat exceptional with regards to the way material is dispersed and commingled throughout the Grimoire. On the other hand, it also perfectly falls in line with another aspect that both Davies and Hutton highlight.

What would that aspect be?

Magical books. It is easy to forget that following the moveable type Printing Press making its way across Europe, pirate printing and even mail-order access to materials that would once have belonged to the elite became
the norm. Pirate printing of occult materials was not only extremely common, it was a booming business. (See Davies' Grimoires: A History of Magical Books) And Cunning-folk seem to have taken advantage of it.
“In popular cultures where most information was transmitted orally, and only a minority were able to read and write, literacy meant power. It comes as no great surprise, then, to find that cunning-folk made a great show of the fact that they possessed and used books and manuscripts. Not just any books, however, but ones that would impress. Size mattered, as did the appearance of antiquity. It also looked good to display volumes in foreign languages so as to enhance the impression of erudition in the eyes of those who could read a little...” (P. 119)
 Both Davies and Hutton, for example, highlight a number of examples where Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy were owned. Similarly, astrological tracts by popular Astrologers of the 18th century seem to have been owned, such as those charts and discourses put out by “Raphael” and “Zadkiel”. But there were many other books – on herbalism, medicine, and magic – that were owned besides those two by different cunning-folk.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is that some of these books aroused suspicion and fear – which both Hutton and Davies seem to agree could be good for business:
“The popular mind did not merely associate cunning with the printed or written word, but the figures regarded as their natural enemies, and targets, the witches. One of the traits likely to draw upon a person a suspicion of being involved with bad magical dealings was an apparently unnecessary appetite for reading, especially if (rightly or wrongly) the texts were believed to be connected with the occult. In Sussex one informant of a folklore-collector, recalling a long-dead local suspect, stated that 'that kind of wicked old woman always had books – powerful books, which have a great deal of evil written in them'. […]

This fear of the physical volumes brings home a point that also affected the cunning folk: that books of magical lore were thought not merely contain information but to possess power of their own, which could affect those who opened them. In a still semi-literate society, the written word was credited as intrinsically potent.”
- Hutton, Triumph of the Moon (P. 90 – 91.)
In some cases, merely owning the information that they did could arouse suspicion, and when being accused of defrauding or even cursing others this reputation could become a rather perilous factor for the cunning-man. More importantly, there were plenty of authorities that disliked what the cunning folk offered to the populace. And when one mixes fear, paranoia, and the potential for wrong-action or defrauding others together one has a mixture that is intrinsically volatile.

Did that volatility ever reach a tipping point?

Perhaps the best example of this is found in Davies'
Murder, Magic, Madness which is a narrative about a man (William Dove) who – having consulted a cunning man and wishing to be rid of his wife – decided to poison her. It is worth noting that he was warned by the Cunning Man, Henry Harrison, that such an act was foolish and would be discovered. Dove, however, was not particularly intelligent – he was clever in a mean or brutish sort of way, but not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed.

Harrison – the “Wizard of Leeds” – on the other hand later found himself entrapped when the former Defense Lawyer of William Dove wound up as his prosecutor with an ax to grind in a rape trial. Given the evidence that Davies' presents, it is quite possible that Henry Harrison was a rapist. And in fact, some of the issues that arise from the book are quite telling when it comes to cunning-folk and those posing at them and how they might manipulate their clients and those around them:
“As we shall find later, Harrison was quite capable of committing rape, but in this instance magic becomes a complicating factor in interpreting what took place in his consulting room. The question is one of whether Harrison physically forced Eliza or whether he used psychological coercion, playing on her yearning for the affections of Stephenson and her fear of his magic powers to induce her to have intercourse. This act of what could be described as consenting rape was not unique to Harrison; there is evidence of other cunning-folk using the same ploy to force clients into complying with their sexual demands. A Cornish contemporary of Harrison's, the bisexual cunning-man James Thomas, generated considerable notoriety for suggesting that male clients would have to sleep with him in order for his magic to work.”
- Owen Davies, Murder, Magic, Madness (P. 190)
Overall, even if you begin to side with Harrison, details later emerge about him that will make you loathe him utterly. And furthermore, while Davies makes these distinctions, I consider them rather off-putting. Whether by psychological coercion, or physical force, I consider rape a problem. Period. There are a few other things to say on this matter, however:

This matter is not one unique to cunning-folk. Rather, it is an over-arching issue that still exists to this day in multiple circles. Sexual predators are not unique to any practice, but can probably be found within a great many of them.

The question might be begged as to why I should bring such a thing up, and it is rather a blunt matter: quite often, when neo-pagans and witches bring up “white witches” or reference cunning-folk, it is with an idealized and romanticized image behind them. It is also a false face, for these were real people. Some of them were criminals. Some of them were not actually cunning-folk at all. Some of them ended up facing trials, and even “witch-hunts”.

While we may regard certain work with a degree of respect, we should still always keep that in mind. Otherwise one runs the risk of creating the illusion of perfect “anti-witchcraft” forces who never themselves did anything wrong... All the while, some of them
actually did.

This is also a critique that can be extended to most every magical practice currently in use today. And a very good reason to keep from assuming that someone is what we imagine them to be. But, at the same time, we need not let it overwhelm us or make us paranoid. Because for as many examples as one can find of individuals who abuse their power, how others view them, or take advantage of others to an extreme degree, there are counter-examples of individuals who
did not do these things. As in all things, the only way to accurately look at something is to understand where the greatness lies, while also understanding the problematic aspects. When addressing either, it's easy to get carried away and perhaps even misrepresent something.

Overall, cunning-magic and cunning-folk come across as largely benign. It is only in the examples of precisely the opposite that we start to realize that we all face the same issues.

Suggested further reading:
The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland,” by Emma Wilby.
Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby.
Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History by Owen Davies.
Murder, Magic, Madness by Owen Davies.
The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet (edited) by David Rankine.
The Book of Treasure Spirits (edited) by David Rankine.
Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton

* Unfortunately, the ritual is still somewhat incomplete... of which there is really only one way to fix...


V.V.F. said...

Excellent post.

Wilby even makes later comments to the effect that even socially-sanctioned healers/spirit-workers in indigenous societies could be (rightly or wrongly) suspected of evil deeds at some point.

PhoenixAngel said...

Very informative and well researched. Thanks Jack. I really like this scholarly article