Book Club: Ch. 2

Once again, this is meant to be a summary of the discussion, not an exact recounting. EBoard Members are referred to by first name, and all other attendees are referred to by first initial.

Librarian’s Note: We began with finishing our discussion of Chapter One, as we’d left off on p. 17 during the previous meeting. I accidentally forgot to start taking notes until partway through this. Cat asked me for my thoughts on the Fairy Folk section, because I practice a Pagan Fairy Faith, and I just started talking! So this first part is more from my notes than a faithful summary of what I said!

Aleja: I think we’ve already covered the fairy/dead human/nature spirit triple venn diagram fairly well, but I still want to point out a quotation on page 17: “Trying to make any hard and fast distinction between categories of spirits in early modern Britain is impossible because supernatural beings were labeled differently, depending on geography, education, and religious perspective and definitions overlapped considerably.” So yeah, it’s a bit hard to say, but also we still struggle with this today, because some of the spirits really are a number of different categories all at once, and modern pagans don’t agree across the board on what constitutes a deity, much less anything else. Endnote 29 continues in the same vein and has a quotation from a contemporary source.
The bit at the bottom of this page is a little difficult because it’s in Scots, but I looked up a bit more about Andro Man, and it seems that Christsonday is the name of his Fairy Queen’s consort, who seems to be a fallen angel and God’s godson or nephew, and the Latin word “Benedicte” was used at the time as a way to say “Bless you” when someone sneezed, particularly among the elites. You can read more in the Guide to Mysterious Aberdeen, by Geoff Holder, available in google books.
P.19: “Although fairies were often associated with the natural landscape, particularly hills and subterranean caverns,” Those are the mounds of the sidhe, known to Gaelic lore, “in principle the fairies could be found almost anywhere.” There are quite a few different kinds of fairies and they live in a huge variety of places, from those hills, to our homes, to abandoned mines, to forests on the edge of town, to islands that can’t be reached by human boats.

All: When we got to Katherine Briggs and her solitary vs trooping fairies on p19, we had a brief discussion of expanding the division into overlapping groups, perhaps of solitary vs small group vs courtly, and seelie (well disposed towards humans) vs unseelie (ill disposed towards humans), maybe vs a third category where they don’t notice or consider humans at all for the most part

Aleja: Lower on the same page (19), “it was commonly thought that the fairy possessed some kind of semi-material or ‘astral’ form, putting them somewhere on the spectrum between human flesh and bones and pure spirit.” Yeah, that seems accurate to me. And they seem to be able to change how material they are, more or less solid, as they wish. Which is why we have stories of them being transparent, and also stories of them having children with humans.
Is everybody familiar with early modern fairy belief vs Victorian fairy belief vs new age fairy belief vs modern recon pagan belief?

Others: kinda sorta

Aleja: okay, we’re reading about the early modern fairy faith here, but generally in this period people are describing human-sized fairies who look nearly human except for one feature that gives them away. By human-sized, I mean including the whole spectrum of human adult height, which is mostly 5-6 ft but also includes rare people as short as 2 ft or as tall as 8 ft. The usual method of “dealing” with the Fair Folk is avoiding them and appeasing them, and turning to cunning folk with fairy familiars for help with sickness or fortune. In the Victorian period, fairies begin to be depicted as tiny little children with butterfly wings, and are thought of as harmless nature spirits. New age belief builds off of that, and often claims that they’re “nature angels” and only exist to help guide us spiritually. Modern recon pagans go back to the early modern belief, but with a modern lens. We’re informed by the early modern lore, but we use our experiences and UPG as well, the same as in any other aspect of recon paganism. We’re trying to categorize things in a way that lines up with both the lore and our experiences, and we’re trying to tidy it a bit, and come up with definitions that don’t vary quite so much, so that we can build a shared vocabulary about these spirits.
Also on page 22 I just wanted to remind you that the Scottish Quarter Days are Imbolc (1 Feb), Beltaine (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 Aug), and Samhain (1 November).

Aleja: Okay, any other notes on these sections?

J: On page 21: “Oxford scholar Robert Burton accurately echoing popular belief when he claimed that fairies and other spirits ’cause and cure most diseases’.” This was believed all over the world, before we knew about pathogens. Diseases and conditions like epilepsy were even more likely to be considered to be caused by elves, and we’re still dealing with people thinking these are spiritual issues today. [Per endnote 39, the quotation comes from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,1896.]

Cat: “We can safely assume, therefore, that any direct references to fairy belieffound in witch confessions are likely to have originated from the accused.” On page 24. It stuck out to me.

J: Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) talks about invoking fairy queens within a Christian context, commanding them in the name of God.

Cat: J, you mentioned that the Malleus Maleficarum (1487) doesn’t have fairies in it, but it’s interesting that the witch trial interrogators seem not to believe in fairies.

Chapter Two: Cunning Folk and Witches

Cat: General feeling about this chapter?

Aleja: Most of this was more familiar to me

Cat: The list of magic worker names was cool. [pg 26, “wise man or woman, cunning man or woman, witch (white or black), wizard, sorcerer, conjurer, charmer, magician, wight, nigromancer, necromancer, seer, blesser, dreamer, cantel, soothsayer, fortune-teller, girdle-measurer, enchanter, incantatrix, and so on.”]

Cat: Also why is the third section called finding lost goods??? It’s mostly about other things.

Me: With the definition of “witch” as “maleficent magical practitioner” and “cunning folk” as “beneficent magical practioners” on pages 26-27, Wilby is splitting things pretty clearly into black/white and I’m not really a fan.

J: It serves a purpose

Aleja: Yes, but our lens for reading this is as modern practitioners using early modern history to inform our current practice, and this distinction is not useful for us.

Aleja: Endnote 1 is pretty important. It discusses why most of the accused were women, but that it shouldn’t be understood to mean that most practitioners were women, because of the vulnerable place of women in society.

Cat: Yeah, also quite a bit of misogyny and strict gender roles in the witch trial records

Aleja: Right – male practitioners sleeping with fairy queens is fine, but the women sleeping with the devil is BAD.

Cat: Wilby says [p 28] sorcery cases not examined/published, as contrasted w/ witchcraft. Not sure why.

Aleja: Was sorcery tried in the civil courts vs ecclesiastic? And I’m still not clear on the difference.

J: witchcraft was to serve the devil, sorcery was controlling the devils in the name of God. A matter of who had the power.

Cat: On page 30, Wilby says sorcery in ecclesiastic courts, witchcraft in civil courts

Aleja: So maybe the records are dispersed in individual parishes.

J: Back to the white/black distinction, that seems to be similar to witch/witch doctor in Africa, where the witch doctor’s main line of work is stopping witches

Cat: That’s Kate’s area of expertise. Too bad she’s not here.

Aleja: Page 28, Wilby says everybody lived close to a cunning person, which is cool. Also, life goals, to be that witch.

Aleja: Oh – on page 29, should I clarify “fairy taboos”?

J: Yes, please

Aleja: Cunning folk with fairy familiars aren’t usually allowed to talk about what gifts or knowledge they’d gotten from the Fair Folk, because “boasting” could make the Fair Folk revoke their gifts with interest.

Cat: On page 30, Wilby mentions Purkiss and Roper, and I want to know more!
[Purkiss, Diane (1996) The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations, London and New York: Routledge.
Roper, Lyndal (1994) Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe, London and New York: Routledge.

J: [read a few lines from the Discovery of Witches, which was basically:] “they have us so afraid of [huge list of spirits]”

Aleja: This section discusses how the poor went to cunningfolk for healing because they couldn’t afford the new professional physicians.  We are seeing some parallels with that in our society today, with the rising costs of healthcare.  But we’re also seeing people who are pretty well off turning to things like MLM supplements instead of “Big Pharma”.  A lot of the herbal and energy healing disciplines are just now being investigated by mainstream science, and the findings often include positive effects, though a lot of it doesn’t pan out.  Have you ever experienced alternative healing methodologies or used witchcraft for your own healing?

There was some general agreement and crosstalk, we all seem to have at least tried a more mainstream therapy, like accupuncture.

J: “looks like what it helps” is generally a bad idea

Aleja: Yeah in a medicinal sense that is pretty dangerous. But I do wonder sometimes if it wasn’t the other way around, figure out what it helps and then use “looks like” as a mnemonic device?

Somebody brought up the Airmed story of herbal healing. An annotated account from the Cath Maige Tuired can be found here.

Aleja: On Page 35, right after endnote 29, I’d term this “sympathetic magic”.

J: There was a class issue between physicians and cunningfolk.

Cat: I’m still amused by using communion wafers and art scrapings for magic.

Cat: Related, in a book called Olympus Bound, which I do not recommend reading, Athena co-opted the imagery of the Virgin Mary.

J: Acupuncture works, though modern medicine doesn’t know why. Doctors think the traditional theories are wrong, but don’t have any better theories.

Aleja: Reiki is the same way.

J: In Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon, he discusses 19th cent folklorists documenting folk belief more enthusiastically than accurately

Aleja: endnote 36 is important. Not just the source for that blockquote; also talks about the importance of repetition in folk charms.

Aleja: Page 39, remote viewing in crystal balls and the like: I do that, we call that scrying.

Cat: In a fingernail though?

Aleja: With some kind of oil or varnish on it, probably, to make it more reflective. They did the same thing in Ancient Egypt.

Cat: I love how the cunning folk are using psychological fear tactics to get people to return stolen goods.

J: That’s exactly what Terry Prachett’s Granny Weatherwax would call “headology”.

Cat: On pg 40, the phrasing here is odd: “the magical practitioner ‘s skill in matters of death was often matched by their skill in matters of love.

J: Probably just means all the common things

Cat: Still a kind of weird implication there,

Aleja: Probably accidental awkward phrasing?

Cat: Maybe death and love because they both have importance to the human spirit?

Aleja: Page 40, endnote 57, we come again to Kate’s subsistence farming soapbox. Life was hard.

Aleja: Endnote 69 gives an additional example of sympathetic baneful magic via poppet.

J: Fighting magic with magic seems to have been generally okay, not illegal.  But one of the things that was not okay, was curse transference to other people.

Aleja: Discussion question for the last section, on the causes of witchcraft accusations: what do you think of Wilby’s analysis here?  I like that this one is fairly even handed, compared to some others.

J: It’s astute, and shows a good understanding of human nature and how blame works. People like to find scapegoats.

Cat: Yeah, even now in our current politics.

J: if you ask people for specifics about why they hate the people they’re blaming for their problems, they can’t explain.  Not magic anymore, the hated group just “is” responsible

Aleja: Also, I can’t decide if this is meant sincerely as a variety of reasons, or if it’s a statement of disbelief in magic, which Wilby hasn’t really done yet: “Those individuals who, for whatever reason, believed themselves to possess magical powers were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft.” [pg 45]

J: She’s trying not to take a stance.  Whether or not they have powers is immaterial to her point.

Aleja: Maybe I’ll ask a British friend if that sounds sarcastic.

Cat: Could always try emailing Wilby for clarification, if you can find her academic email.

Aleja: I’ll probably just read more of the book first.

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