The Cunning Men and Wise Women of Old

A relevant article featuring George Pickingill a fascinating cunning man.

Today the popular image of witchcraft in the mass media and in books and magazines is largely defined by ‘Wicca’, a form of neo-pagan witchcraft created by a retired English civil servant called Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884–1964) in the 1940s. It is now established worldwide as a post-modern, ‘nature religion’ with a spiritual emphasis on Goddess worship. Modern witchcraft, however, did not begin with Gardner and it has a hidden history before Wicca. This history has connections with the famous occultist Aleister Crowley and also with Australia.
From the 1800s onwards there were several revivals of witchcraft in Britain based on historical precedents. These forms of pre-Wiccan witchcraft are variously known today as traditional witchcraft or ‘Traditional Craft’, the ‘Old Craft’ or ‘Elder Craft’, the ‘Sabbatic Craft’, ‘The Nameless Arte’, and ‘The Crooked Path’. There is also plenty of evidence from historical sources, folklore accounts, court cases and, later, newspaper reports in Britain, of the activities of ‘cunning folk’ and other practitioners of folk magic. In popular terminology and belief they were variously known as ‘white witches’, ‘wizards’, ‘sorcerers’, conjurors’, ‘pellars’, ‘planet readers’ (astrologers), and ‘hedge doctors’ (herbalists). These magical practitioners operated widely in both the rural and urban areas of the British Isles and they were consulted by all levels of society from farm labourers to the owners of large country estates.
These cunning folk or ‘white witches’ offered a wide range of services to their clients. They were popularly believed to possess the Sight (the ability to foresee the future and events at a distance, now called ‘remote viewing’ by parapsychologists), exorcise ghosts and banish spirits and poltergeists, cast spells to attract love and money, locate lost or stolen property and missing people using divination or by consulting spirits, and heal the sick using the ‘laying on of hands’ or herbal remedies. Most importantly, as far as their clients were concerned, they could counter the malefic spells cast by so-called ‘grey’ or ‘black’ witches. In some cases the cunning man or wise-woman acted for the general population and the authorities as unofficial witch-finders. However, all types of witches were believed to be able to cure and curse, hex and heal.
Although there are obvious similarities with some of the modern magical practices carried out by Wiccans, most of the methods and techniques used by the old-time witches bear little resemblance to those used by the neo-pagan witches who appear today in the press or on television. Often the cunning folk practiced dual faith observance and the charms, amulets, prayers and incantations they used invoked Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity and the company of saints. Psalms were used for magical purposes as spells and they still are in some modern traditional witchcraft circles. With the coming of the new religion of Christianity and the suppression of ancient paganism, objects such as the cross, saints’ medallions and even holy water were widely used by folk magicians because they were believed to possess ‘virtue’ or magical energy and had inherent healing power.
Read more here New Dawn Magazine
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Tenth Year as a Cunning/Folk Practitioner- 2019

The 26th of January 2019 marks 10 years since I apprehensively walked along the small gravel pathway leading to Cassandra Latham Jones’ cottage. I had an appointment for an interview concerning an apprenticeship to train as a Teazer for Penglaz the ‘Obby ‘Oss in Penzance. I did not realize at this time that Cassandra was also seeking someone to continue her community work as Wise Woman of St Buryan the subject arose during our conversation.
The past 10 years have been challenging in many ways and Cassandra warned me that this would be so. During the first part of my spiritual journey I was searching for something that resonated spiritually and this resulted in leaving previous magical groups when I discovered that they were not providing the connection I sought.
Image John Isaac
I needed to be robust emotionally in order to take on this work and there was no better person to test and teach me than Cassandra. She warned me that she was a hard ‘taskmaster’ and this indeed proved to be so.
I was raised within a strict religion (which shows all the signs of a ‘Cult Organization’) and was separated socially from my local community, therefore I had little knowledge of how it developed and worked together. Even after leaving this religion and moving to other areas, I had minimal interaction within the new communities.
It is vital for a Wise Woman to know her own community as one will be more approachable to residents who may need assistance when the need arises. The residents of St Buryan village have been welcoming and I have learnt a huge amount from living here in the last 9 years. Communities are a ‘tribe’ or large ‘family’ who may have disagreements however their deep connection and maturity enables them to resolve any disputes.
Image John Isaac – Graphics Chris White
Another form of community work is through festivals and performances. Cassandra has been pleased with the ideas and inspiration I had, particularly with the birth of the All Hallows Gathering that resulted from us meeting the wonderful Mari Lwyd community at the Chepstow Wassail in 2014.
The role of apprentice to someone renowned and respected within the Pagan community is something that many Pagans fantasize and dream of. There are those who would give anything to have this position, so it was no surprise that this path in life brought, jealousy, competitiveness and feelings of entitlement from others. It seemed our acquaintances were happy about the situation at first and maybe they assumed that as Cassandra and I were so different externally, it would not last long as they assumed I would not have the ability to withstand the training. A few years later when the working relationship showed signs of success the negative feelings surfaced from some around us, particularly those who contrived to gain the apprentice role by befriending Cassandra. Some stated that I was an ‘incomer’ and too new to the community to be chosen, while others thought they had more of an advantage because they were ‘Cornish’ and Pagan. (I have never tried to claim ‘Cornish descent’ in this lifetime, I am proud of my birthplace in a historical part of Kent and do not create a false image to replace it.) Whatever their reasons for objecting they did not show any faith in Cassandra’s choice as Wise Woman and projected their negativity with the intention of adding more obstacles to our path. I now understand why ‘wise women’ of old worked solitary and did not socialize. Fortunately I have found a few genuine and supportive friends during this journey and my focus is now upon them.
The quote by Rudyard Kipling comes to mind:
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too!
Cassandra has taught me many valuable lessons as well as providing a home for me when unfortunate circumstances could have left me ‘homeless’. In return for her kindness and tuition, I was able to help Cassandra by setting up our performance team Boekka when her role as Teazer in Penzance was no longer required. I created new costumes and an image for Penkevyll our ‘Oss as well as choreographing dances for our performance team. I set up a new websites for Village Wise Woman (when former friends took her previous site offline) and I set up another website for Boekka (when a former member removed our site from the internet). I set up my own website, a blog for Cassandra Grumpy Old Witchcraft, and accounts for Cassandra’s Book Village Witch. I maintain performance and business-promoting accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Witchvox and Instagram. I also arrange Wise Woman workshops and these have been successful.
In the past Cassandra would rely on others to help her with work on her cottage and I have been able to assist her with many tasks. This gave her a wonderful feeling of achievement that we had not needed outside help but managed to accomplish these tasks between us. I have also assisted her health-wise with a gentle fitness regime and suggestions on supplements and diet. I taught her Morris dancing too which she successfully performed for 7 years and enjoyed it, but now she has chosen to take life at an easier pace.
At first when dealing with clients, I often asked Cassandra’s advice on her way of communicating. After 10 years of dealing with a vast variety of people, I am confident to deal with these alone. My spells and charms have a high percentage of success and I have assisted many within the community which brings a deep sense of satisfaction that you have successfully helped others. This work is varied and unpredictable and each day brings a different challenge.
Being a Wise Woman is not an occupation one can ‘retire’ from as Cassandra has discovered. She still sees clients and provides readings and consultations for them, but the business aspect is my responsibility. It is difficult to make a business successful, it takes a huge amount of work, promotion and advertising for a number of years before one can profit from it. Fortunately I enjoy the promotion and advertising which has produced wonderful results.
Image John Isaac
The discipline concerning power of the mind was another important lesson as this skill is needed in everything one does, particularly in magical work. The land and sea are full of power and harnessing its energies for one’s needs or desires is not easy.
Creativity, curiosity and persistence can reap rewards from the Universe using the correct acquired knowledge. Awareness and desire is also needed along with the will, knowledge and wisdom. To connect with the four powers: to Know, to Will, to Dare and to keep Silent needs the ultimate discipline.
Working with the Cunning Way and Folk Magic over the last 10 years has certainly been an adventure.
It has been eighteen years since I was introduced to the book about George Pickingill – ‘The Pickingill Papers ‘ during my Alexandrian training, I felt a connection with the life of this intriguing ‘Cunning Man’ and eight years later the reason became apparent.
I enjoy ceremonial ritual and it has its uses, but the methods of Cunning/Folk magic (for myself) give a stronger direct connection to the spiritual essence of land and sea as the absence of ritualistic structure lessens distraction giving the focus more intensity. The strongest connection for me since working here has been with the spirits of the sea and all associated with it.
The following article explains the Cunning Craft and Folk Practitioners:
Cunning folk – Traditionally the cunning man or cunning woman was a person who healed, worked magic, created herbal remedies, provided charms, anti-witch measures, spells, and fortune-telling services, they were paid a fee for their work. Cunning (knowledgeable) or (wise), originated from an Old English term kenning, this referred to professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic. Some acquired their gifts through heredity, their magic was a mixed bag of folk medicine and occultism. Folk magic was passed along in oral tradition, and embellished along the way, they employed practical remedies for specific problems. It was believed they could work with supernatural powers in order to increase the effectiveness of their work. In most (Cassandra would say and has taught that it would be ‘some’ rather than ‘most) instances someone could set themselves up as cunning folk, with no particular background or training, although some did come from a background of magical practitioners. 
Up until the mid-nineteenth century there were several thousand cunning folk working in England, and although there was a higher ratio of men, the women were successful in their role. Many of the cunning folk working in Britain kept their ordinary line of work, while earning money as a professional cunning man or woman to boost their income. Most cunning men and woman were solitary practitioners and employed a variety of magical implements.
Some kept animal familiars and supernatural entities, known as familiar spirits, they were considered to be benevolent and helpful.  It was believed the familiar spirit took the cunning person on a visionary journey to a place called Elfhame, (elf- home). In this trip the cunning folk’s soul would go with the familiar on a journey into a hill, to a great subterranean fairy hall, while there they would encounter fairies led by the king and queen, and take part in a feast. (Cassandra has taught that nowadays this could be translated into communing with the ‘spirit world’ within the local environment)
As most local clients were poor, fees for magical services were small. Their fees were much higher when a member of the aristocracy sought them out, and this was often to do with matters associated with love, money and bewitchment. The cunning men and cunning women who worked for the aristocracy, were much better off financially than those who only treated villagers. Some cunning folk received annuities, and others took a percentage of all stolen goods found through divination. (Cassandra has taught that yes, there would be a percentage of goods, but she would not say they were ‘stolen’.)
They were particularly popular for their charms, which they recited during their spell casting and divination work. They also created specific and very expensive charms for the aristocrats,  writing down magical words in order to conjure, love, money, fertility and prosperity. The charms were sometimes written on parchment or paper, sewn into a bag, and either placed in the clients home, or carried about by them. By employing a variety of divination tools the cunning person was able to tell a person’s fortune and divine the name of their future love. They were often consulted to cast spells or charms to ensure a spouse’s fidelity and to find lost items. Some cunning folk claimed to have the ability to locate lost treasure, the cunning man or woman was called upon to overcome through magical means, the demon, spirit or fairy that was guarding it.
The cunning folk were especially adept in creating charms that would repel or break the spells of other witches blamed for bewitchment. They were the only healers to offer a package of anti-witch measures and were especially effective curing malevolent sorcery. They were also called upon to protect, heal and locate lost animals, and to care for crops. The cunning folk used a wide variety of methods to heal their clients, using various herbs, plants, the laying on of hands, and conducting elaborate ceremonies. They practiced folk magic, known as low magic, and ceremonial magic known as high magic, their role was to attend to the physical and spiritual needs of their client.
Cunning folk flourished up until the late 17th century, this was a time when belief in magic was high, they took the role of unofficial police and were believed to be a deterrent to crime, and when crimes were committed a cunning man or cunning woman was consulted to divine the guilty party. From the 18th century onwards their place in society continued, and carried on into modern times, especially in rural areas. Many cunning folk operated in a very competitive market, and would often travel great distances to visit their clients, their profile was very important to them. They used crystal balls and scrying bowls in their work, also astrology and numerology. A Grimoire was a most coveted item and those who owned one added to their profile. (Cassandra has discovered that there is no documentation of any Grimoire sent to a Cunning/Folk Practitioner within Cornwall). Although they were predominantly solitary practitioners, there were some families who approached it as a magical business.
British Cunning folk were referred to as wizards, wise men, wise women, conjurers, pellars,( see the historian Jason Semmens’ paper – On The Origin of Pellar) charmers and white witch, and in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods Britain was a place where folk magic was very popular. In France, the terms devins-guerisseurs and leveurs de sorts were used to describe cunning folk. In the Netherlands they were referred to as toverdokters or duivelbanners, in Germany Hexenmeisters, and in Denmark kloge folk. In Spain they were curanderos and in Portugal they were known as saludadores. Cunning folk and their use of white magic for healing and as a protection against black magic, was widespread in Germany. The primary role of the Italian cunning folk was healing,with the use of herbs and spiritual healing, their spiritual healing was believed to come from an inner power, known as la forza (power), la virtu (virtue) or il Segno (the sign), they were also consulted to remove curses.
Because of the usefulness of cunning folk, they were able to practice their magic as an open secret, and quietly conducted their business in such a way they avoided anti-magic and anti-witchcraft laws. They met with little interference from authorities, who chose to ignore them unless there was a specific complaint. The cunning folk were often denounced during religious gatherings, but because of their popularity and usefulness, were never pursued. During the time of the Inquisition, cunning folk became vulnerable targets, but in spite of this there was a huge amount of public support for them, because they were so important to those who required their services.
The disparity between witches and the cunning folk, was that witches were seen to do harm, and cunning folk were seen to be useful and provide a valid service. Cunning folk were active from the Medieval period through to the early twentieth century, when it is believed the declining belief in malevolent witchcraft, did away with the need for anti-witchcraft measures, which was a primary service offered by the cunning folk.
Witches Lore

 

I began a ‘countdown’ to the new year from the 1st December to 1st January on our All Hallows Dark Gathering Facebook group. Each day I posted a photograph of a performer with a little information about them conveying our appreciation for their contribution to the event. On the 2nd January, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Cassandra had written the following post :
“Before we get any further into the year I want to put a shout out about Laetitia Latham Jones. In case there is anyone who doesn’t realise this, she was the one who had the original idea of the Welsh Mari Lwyds meeting the Cornish Oss, Penkevyll at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. We now have this amazing annual Dark Gathering following that initial inspired idea. Tia has not only supported me in my role as Event Organiser over the years but has continued to create brilliant ideas which we have incorporated. We have her to thank for researching and discovering the wonderful Ancestor Chant, and now just recently she has applied her time and energies into the personal bios/reviews of a few recognizable characters from the Dark Gathering. Also let us not forget her wonderful performances as Penkevyll’s Teazer – the Art of which she is now teaching to her two apprentices. I would like to publicly thank her for her dedication and hard work behind the scenes to help maintain the Dark Gathering. May it go from strength to strength! 👏👏👏😃” 
Image John Isaac
The last ten years have been rather like a ‘roller-coaster’ and challenging with drastic life changes, but I had the tenacity to continue which has rewarded me with some wonderful experiences within my work and performance life as well as meeting some fabulous individuals. I am intrigued to know what the next ten years will bring….