Cunning Folk

Other Names: Cunning Man/Woman, Wise Woman/Man, Cunning Craft, Cunning Art, Pellar, Fairy Doctor, Spae Wife, Spaecraft, Mother Red Cap, Conjuror, Sorceror, Wizard, and others.

Definition & History

Who better than to define Cunning Folk than Dr. Owen Davies, a researcher of witchcraft and the role of the Cunning Folk in the British Isles:

Cunning-folk, who were also known as wise-women, wise-men, conjurors and wizards, were an integral part of English society right up until the early twentieth century. Over the centuries hundreds of thousands of people must have consulted them regarding a wide range of problems, but particularly those concerning affairs of the heart, theft, sickness and most important of all witchcraft. They were multi-skilled, or at least professed to be so. They practised herbalism, treasure-seeking and love magic. They revealed the identity of thieves and divined the whereabouts of lost and stolen property. The more learned cunning-folk also practised astrology, while the less learned pretended to be masters of the art. The most lucrative aspect of their business was the curing of those people and animals who were thought to be bewitched, and also the trade in charms to ward off witches and evil spirits. (Source)

A cunning person is essentially a traditional folk-magic practitioner from the United Kingdom. It is believed those who were literate drew upon the magical grimoires and chapbooks of the times to add to their repertoires with some cunning folk’s reputations based solely on the grimoire they owned. Practices and services varied from region to region.  The practices of a Cornish Pellar might be completely different when compared to that of their Scottish or Irish counterpart. In Scotland, and possibly other regions, the wise women and men were divided into two categories: those that could practice only harm (buidseach or “black magician”), and those that could practice only good (cailleach or “spae wife”). Depending on what service a person needed they would go to one or the other for a curse or a cure. However, having said that, both types of cunning crafters were known to perform curses, it depended on the individual’s ethics.

18th century Scottish cunning man's herbal grimoire

According to the 19th century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, the Orcadian wise-woman, or spae-wife, was said to possess:

…all the supernatural wisdom, some of the supernatural power, without any of the malevolent spirit of witches… The women of this class were skilled in medicinal and surgery, in dreams, in foresight and second-sight, and in forestalling the evil influence of witchcraft. Such women were looked upon with a kind of holy respect. (Source)

From the definition, many modern pagans may think of a cunning person as a witch, but in fact they were mainly called upon to protect from or undo spells of witchcraft. Before the witch trials when witchcraft was a constant threat to the peasant mind, a cunning person would have been hired to do workings against evil spirits, the evil eye, and any mischief or harm done by fairies.

The fact that cunning folk have been in existence for over 500 years does not prove the existence of any unbroken witchcraft traditions or lines of witches as cunning folk were essentially individual practitioners and as stated above did not consider themselves to be witches.  In regards to Liddell’s The Pickingill Papers: The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft, it is up to the reader to determine whether they believe Liddell and Eric Maple’s claims that Gardner’s Wicca originated from the practices of Pickingill’s infamous nine covens.

Some famous cunning folk, among many others, include Granny Boswell, Tamsin Blight (Tammy Blee), Biddy Early, James Murrell, and George Pickingill.

Today’s Cunning Folk

In modern publishing the terms “hedgewitchery” and “hedge witch” are often mistakingly used to refer to cunning folk and their practices (see article on Hedge Witchery). Cunning folk are no longer an intrinsic part of British Isles society, but their services are still needed and called upon today. People still fall in love and get heartbroken, need healing or divination services, and desire for things to go their way when attempting to get a new job or house. The people who call upon the services of a wise man or woman are usually non-magical folk seeking a little magical help. There is also a wonderful interest in and revival of the old practices being taken up by newer generations. An example of a modern cunning man is Cecil Williamson, West Country Witch and the original founder of the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum – and while he may not have called himself such when he was alive – he fit the bill perfectly. Some good examples of modern wise women include Gemma Gary, a charm-maker and cunning woman in Cornwall, and Cassandra Latham, a village wisewoman also in Cornwall.

Resources

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Comments

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  1. Aelwyn says:

    Fantastic post! :) And I love your reference links. :)

    Aelwyn

  2. oonagh says:

    Very interesting thank you , do you know about “the Book of English Magic ” as well ? I’m sure you are going to appreciate it if you did not all ready read it ! … Great space that you have and a lots of talent as well .
    Blessings of the Season , and Happy Equinox to you .
    oonagh

  3. Sarah says:

    I have heard about it and had it listed under new releases on Pagan Bookworm. It looks like a good read, and there is some coverage of Cunning Folk in it in a couple of chapters, but not of them in modern times with no references at all to traditional witchcraft. I still really want to read it as the rest of the contents look very tempting!

  4. Cory says:

    Hey Sarah!

    Great post, as usual. I love this series!

    I saw that some of the links you provided (such as the one for An Joan the Crone) are for Amazon-UK, which often lists those books as “out of print” or “out of stock” for some reason. You can go directly to the publisher and find lots of great Mercian Witchcraft books, though:

    http://www.oakmagicpublications.co.uk/

    Just thought that might be of some use! :-)

    Again, great series, can’t wait for the next one!

  5. Mal Corvus says:

    The Craft in its various ways is alive & well in Cornwall through the contemporary practises & word of Cassandra, Gemma, Jack Daw & others.

    My own contribution, a video featuring some of my own working tools & artifacts from my personal collection.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39NzdEVyfY8

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