November 13, 2012

The Cunning Folk

A curandero works at his craft.

Recently I was reading a book about both the history and modern practice of magic or witchcraft in its many forms. While there was much information in the book that was of interest to me, especially considering I'm writing a book about some witches, there was one thing that really stood out: the cunning folk.

For those of you who don't know, cunning folk are people who practice magic but don't identify themselves as witches. You could call them healers, midwives, etc. Many of them work full-time as a type of holistic medical practitioner, helping improve people's health through the use of natural remedies. It's likely you have been helped by one of these people at some point in your life, even if it was just your grandmother or neighbor telling you what type of herbal tea would help you through your latest bout with a cold.

One of the big differences between witches and cunning folk is that the cunning folk practice what is termed "low magic." Their magical abilities are limited to folk remedies for the most part, although some cunning folk (such as the curanderos--which I touch on in my book Shadow House) may mix in some "high magic" into their work. The high magic is highly ceremonial and formalized, such as witches reading spells word-for-word out of a book or mixing up a potion with carefully measured quantities of various ingredients.

The folk magic of the cunning folk is more intuitive in nature. Often, practitioners learn the craft from an elder such as their grandmother, uncle or neighbor. Some cunning folk, like some witches, even claim their ability is hereditary or was passed down through their family line. Most of the cures used by the cunning folk are not written down, but instead are kept in the practitioner's memory. There have been cases (both that I have read and have witnessed for myself) of cunning folk who claim to be able to see inside a person's body and detect disease or other ailments.

The cunning folk might use a variety of tools to perform their trade. Some rely heavily on deep meditation to help their patients, while others turn to devices such as divining rods, tea leaves or signs in the natural environment that surround them. We typically think of women falling into the cunning folk category, but men have also been known to be part of the ranks.

Sadly, during the witch trials in Europe (and the Salem trials in the U.S.) the cunning folk were often the ones executed for practicing witchcraft. While people respected their ability to heal with seemingly mysterious methods, this extraordinary capability also made people fearful of the cunning folk. Many concluded that if the cunning folk could use magic to heal someone, then they could also use it to harm people. For this reason, the cunning folk were often blamed for unexplained deaths, poor crops and any number of other calamities faced by the people. Sadly, most people fear what they don't understand, and that fear leads them to lash out in sometimes horrific ways. 

I guess some thought that was a fitting way to say thanks for the services the cunning folk rendered to the community.


Shallee said...

I watched a documentary about witches the other day, and they talked a lot about the cunning folk (though they didn't use that name). So fascinating!

Steven said...

Shallee, it is a fascinating subject. I am loving the research I'm doing for my book. There are so many terms used for the cunning folk, and they use such a variety of methods.