Wilby, Emma

Wilby, Emma – Much of the data on early medieval witches is unreliable, extracted under conditions of torture and permeated by witchhunt propaganda discourse—originating not with witches but with “learned” or “elite” medieval theologians. In this light, the suggestion by Montague Summers (1880–1948) that Medieval sources on witches are accurate factual accounts must be viewed as eccentric, and Margaret Murray’s thesis that these sources reveal an “old religion” of fertility worship which endured for thousands of years has been deconstructed by scholars such as Ronald Hutton. Nonetheless, Wilby, following in the vein of Carlo Ginzburg, argues in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (2005) that the consistency of encounter narratives between witches, or “cunning folk,” and their spirit familiars or devils in these early Medieval sources indicates that this feature must be considered seriously as evidence for actual belief and practice. Wilby’s revisiting of the sources is detailed and meticulous, although she gives the misleading impression that the disparate sources across Great Britain and through two centuries are coherent and related. Wilby concludes that a veneer—albeit an allpervading, official one—of Christianity overlay enduring traditions of pre-Christian shamanic practice among the populace of Great Britain and that “coherent and vigorous ‘shamanistic visionary traditions’ existed in many parts” of the country. While her approach to shamanism perhaps overemphasizes visionary experience and the induction of altered states of consciousness, there is compelling discussion of the overlap between what shamans and witches do in their engagements with communities of human and other-than-human persons. The replacing of the “fertility cult” hypothesis with “shamanistic visionary traditions,” however, may be too much of an interpretative leap for some scholars of witchcraft and of shamanism.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007