The Cunning Men and Wise Women in History

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

20th Year of a Magical Journey

A fabulous Samhain weekend is over and the Celtic new year begins. This marks twenty years of embarking on my personal spiritual path which is entirely different to the religion I was raised within. The excitement of my first awakening to a new spirituality will remain a prominent memory where I put aside past indoctrination and summoned the courage to explore an alternative path.

I once received a warning from a renowned Pagan man in London to watch out for “space cadets” and take my time finding the right path. It was an exciting period of my life and I was eager to acquire as much knowledge as possible and experience everything!

During the early days I worked alone and the rituals I performed were very familiar to me. After a year of personal study I took the step of self initiation and this was and still is the most important step of my development, a private dedication between myself and the ‘powers that be’.

After experiencing the energy one person could raise within a sacred space, I contemplated working within a group. I replied to an advertisement in the Pagan Dawn magazine that wanted to recruit new members for an Egyptian group. It was a different way of working and the energies raised were powerful. Two members of this group became genuine and constant friends that I am still in contact with. Whilst learning ritual within various groups I also taught a group of friends to perform rituals. I met them through teaching Reiki courses and discovered they were also interested in magical arts.

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Venturing into the Morris dancing world when I became a member of a team in Kent also introduced me to members of Wiccan groups and I began working within a Gardnarian group where the rituals were happy, joyful occasions. They met regularly at my place of residence where I learnt to set up a larger altar and prepare a space to accommodate five people.

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After leaving this group I was initiated into an Alexandrian group that honoured Egyptian deities. The training and rituals were well structured and during my training, I discovered the Wiccan path originated from the 1950s. This was rather disappointing as I had been searching for the ancient ways rather than a modern belief system.

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After leaving the Alexandrian group, I replied to an advertisement asking for new members to join a “Cornish” Old Craft group. I suggested that maybe we could correspond and meet over a period of six years to see if I would be right for the group before moving to Cornwall. I moved during my thirteenth year of spiritual development and did not join the group after all when I met Cassandra Latham in 2009. I then found the Old Craft I had searched for. It is easier to connect with the energies of  land and sea here than in the busy outskirts of London. There are however some beautiful sites in Kent such as the Coldrum Stones that were situated a few miles away from my place of residence.

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Moving into a new community is not as easy as one thinks. Genuine people are few, but when you find them, they are of great value. Others can be territorial and if they decide to dislike you, nothing you can do or say will change this. I have learnt it is not always important to a community how talented one is unless they associate with the right ‘clique’ or are born in the ‘right place’.  There are those who allude to a ‘birth connection’ with Cornwall to feel more accepted, however I am proud to be a Kentish Maid.

When one is talented at their craft, they can meet interesting and genuine like-minded people who show support. Alternatively talent and success can also expose groups of jealous detractors. Their aim is to project their negative traits onto a mutually agreed ‘scapegoat’ to make life unpleasant for them and drive them away. If one finds themselves in this situation, it is vital to remember that only a person that has something special will attract detractors.

Cornwall has a variety of people. Some are genuine good- hearted souls who want to live a peaceful life and do all they can to help others without an ulterior motive. Some create a “fairy-tale image” and place more importance on ‘glamour’ but lack any real substance or power. Some can others under the guise of friendship for their own personal gain only to cast them aside when they are no longer useful. Some seek fame and fortune and attempt to discredit others whom they consider a threat. I believe ‘demonic forces’ religions speak of are actually within the personalities of some who use and abuse beliefs to feed their own egos and gain power over others. It is sad that these organizations scapegoat a spirit being to distract from taking responsibility for their own thoughts and actions.

When one focuses upon the positive aspects of life, the Cornish landscape and the ocean are wonderful. They are good for the soul and to see them daily is truly a blessing.

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I am now accustomed to the seasons and changes of the energies.  I walked to the village church one evening greeted by a beautiful crescent waxing moon and the star of Venus adjacent to it, bright and beautiful.

Nothing tastes of the sea more than a raw oyster and fresh seaweed from the shore. To awake in the morning and see a murder of crows feeding from the field behind the cottage is wonderful and to sit on beaches and cliffs listening to the music of the sea is divine.

Here in Cornwall, the beaches, coves, woodland, stone circles, holy wells, quoits and ancient buildings are all nearby. Focusing on these aspects of life reminds me of how blessed I am.

My 20 year spiritual path led me here and I have worked hard during this time. No matter where my journey in life takes me, I have fulfilled my childhood dream of living in Cornwall and learnt a lot during my time here.

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