The Folk practices of Magic and Healing
by Ana Hawthorn
Cunning and Wise Folk
by Ana Hawthorn
Cunning and Wise Folk
There were people who were known as cunning-folk and wise-folk (depending upon the region) who practiced folk magic. They are more closely aligned to what most witchcraft practitioners view themselves as today. Surprisingly, these people were often not touched by the witch trials, but were protected because of their role in their communities as healers. They used herbs and prayers, or incantations, to heal the sick. Those who were good at what they did, were generally protected. Those who were not or who angered someone in the community on the other hand were often the first to go.
I think this is an important concept to grasp - the use of herbs, prayers and incantations were, at that time, a normal part of healing illness. Everyone had prayers and charms that were said as a normal part of the healing process- it’s just what was done. The people who followed these practices used the Gods of the time. Thus, when the world was pagan, they used prayers to pagan gods, when the world was christianized the charms and prayers reflected these changes. There are wonderful evidences of these charms still in existence in the practices of PowWow doctors of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Power Doctors of the Appalachia’s.
A Short Historic Overview
The popular view of European Witchcraft, what is now affiliated with Wicca, is largely the result of the propaganda used during the Inquisition as well as such notable figures as King James. The old pagan gods became demonized in an effort to turn away the populace from their old practices to those of the new Christians. This occurred as a 'trickle down' effect. Kings and land holders became Christianized first- some for faith and some for business. This then spread to the aristocracy, then picked up by the townsfolk. The farmers were the last to catch on. This is where the terms Heathen (of the heath) and Pagan became derogatory terms to describe that which was primitive and uneducated. The rural folk were slow to change their ways- particularly when the gods are those who bring in the bountiful crops.
The old gods of the land and animals became the new devil- this is where the imagery of goats legs and horns comes in. The goddess, represented in many forms- youthful and independent woodland goddesses or warrioress, Earth mothers and goddesses of the hearth and the Ancient crone goddesses of wisdom and transformation, got relegated to only the crone- who was not beautiful or fertile, but filled with terrible knowledge, and power. Hags, old women, became demonized as a way of dispersing their power in the community- they held the wisdom and often the most knowledge of healing.
During the era of the Inquisition, it seems that the only real evidence of ‘devil worship’ appeared in the French aristocracy rather late in the game as a rebellion against King and Church. The idle rich attempted to actually do those things witches were accused of in the Malleus Mallificarum- which had been published in 1607, as a text on the nature of witches, their traits and how to gather confessions. I find it deeply interesting and disturbing that this treatise was one of the first 3 books published when the printing press was invented.
Eventually the Inquisition, turned Witchcraze, died down. The Salem Trials where on the end of this. In Europe the practice of persecuting accused witches had already died down, it was the end of an era and 'Enlightened Thought' was encroaching over the old superstitions. If you are curious about the details of Salem, the transcripts of the trials are actually available on line.
Unfortunately, people are still killed for witchcraft even today, around the world.
Over the past two hundred years things have changed somewhat. Early Wicca finds it’s most recent roots in the pastoral era of European thought, a natural rebellion against the new industrial age. Where famed poets began to focus on the lost 'Golden Era,' where nature was worshiped and mystery still alive. This movement began producing some interesting philosophical offspring. By the 19th century there arose the advent of Spiritualism and Fraternal Orders. As early as the 1600’s actually we see a revival of Druidism and by then the Masons were already well established. Mystical thought did indeed manage to survive and re-awaken. For brevity sake we’ll skip ahead a bit. Suffice it to say that pagan desires began to awaken before the fear of retribution was completely gone- albeit largely in the upper class circles.
Finally, by the last half of the 20th century, paganism, heathenism and wicca have all enjoyed a robust revival, just when the last dying gasps, the last of the cunningfolk in western Europe were dying off, the thread was again picked up. I’d like to note that in Eastern Europe, folk practices in isolated regions were managing to survived despite governmental efforts, and that with immigration to the US, folk practitioners had found some safe havens- particularly in Pennsylvania, The Appalachias and down into Louisiana.
Who Were The Cunningfolk?
Probably one of the longest standing factions for the survival of folk healing practices was that of cunning folk.
The advent of modern medicine and surgery had to compete with the local healers and midwives. In part, this uphill battle was sped along during the end of the Inquisition where focus could be turned upon such people- either because of their unusual success in healing or particularly bad luck. However, often times these same people would be protected by their communities as a necessary commodity. As a result these folk practitioners were able to survive into the last century (1930’s).
In Britain and Wales alone there is anecdotal evidence of almost 60 men and women renowned for their abilities during the 1800’s. Mind you, these are only the ones that fell into recorded evidence. Most all were in the lower middle to middle class, were literate to a degree and had another occupation as a primary source of income- predominantly tradesmen, artisans, herbalists and schoolmasters. For women it was one of the few trades where one could run a lucrative business. Of those recorded at the end of their popularity, the ratio of men to women appears to be about 2:1- however, whether or not that seems to be an accurate sampling remains to be seen.
A cunning person would have a reputation for treating a specific set of ailments of society with a certain level of success in order to gain a positive reputation. This remains true with the PowWow and Power doctors in the U.S.
Such skills would include: removing warts, stopping blood, curing burns, curing gout, finding lost items, removing fever, rashes and the like, astrology, fortune telling, creating amulets, herbalism, detection of thieves, recovery of stolen items, removing of spells and punishment of wrong doers.
Probably the one skill that would bring a wise person greatest notoriety was the breaking of hexes/evil spells/ curses and the evil eye (depending upon the residential region). This often went hand in hand with exposing the original spell casters as well as returning punishment for the perceived crime. Alas, this process, though it served a function in small communities (I receive regular claims of this in my own business today), was often the basis for a great deal of trouble. Especially if the afflicted “victim” could not be convinced to keep away from their newly located enemy. In fact, there was a rather famous murder that occurred here in the states, in Pennsylvania, not far from Harrisburg, in November of 1928, which was the result of one of these situations. This murder of a hexemeister, one Nelson Rehmeyer, caused such a fervor across the country- even Roy Rogers wrote a rather sympathetic editorial about the circumstances.
Commonly, the cunning person took residence in a centrally located area and would draw in clients from all across the surrounding area based upon their reputation. Existing records state that nearly all of them possessed a collection of occult writings of some degree.
Many of these cunningfolk took on unusual personality traits or choices in dress. I find this interesting as it matches
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