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What is a Cunningwoman? What is a Shaman? And How to Become One
Folk Magicians and Healers Through Time
For as long as human beings have been in existence, there has been people who were considered healers and magicians. When human beings were organized only in what we call "tribes" instead of civilizations, there was always a shaman (a medicine man or woman who bridged the gap between the physical and spiritual realms). Later in more recent centuries, there were folk magicians or what people in Britain referred to as "cunningfolk". They have also been called white magicians or white witches. What did all of these people have in common? They were all believed to have an ability, whether natural or supernatural, to heal people from disease. They also were thought to be able to communicate with the spiritual side with ease.
Fast forward to modern times and we can see there are modern-day cunningfolk, shamans and healers in almost every community. In fact, there are those who want to learn how to become these types of ancient healers. In this article we will learn a little about:
- What is a cunningwoman or man and how to become one
- What is a shaman and how to become one
- How to tell if you are a natural-born healer
Who were the cunningfolk?
In England beginning before the Early Modern Period, there were people known as cunningfolk. To put it simply, these people might be called "white witches" or "folk healers" by today's standards. If we are to define term cunningfolk, we would see that cunning means skill applied in a subtle manner or craftiness. And so cunningfolk would be crafty or subtly skilled people, respectively.
There was usually one cunningwoman or man for each town or village, and they usually lived and worked alone. The townsfolk were typically fans and customers of their local cunningfolk as the cunningfolk were often quite helpful in various matters such as: finding lost objects, curing illness, easing the transition from life to death, warding off evil, giving financial and love advice based on fortune telling.
If a person was to come to a cunningwoman on the edge of town and ask for a cure for an illness that was plaguing her, the cunningwoman would typically use dried herbs or plant parts to concoct a potion or unguent of some kind. This was then given to the afflicted person and the cunningwoman would give instructions as to how to take the herbal medicine. Sometimes the cunningwoman would say something as simple as a prayer or chant over the diseased person in order to ease or cure their illness. The cunningwoman was also known to use a deck of playing cards to read fortunes, similar to how tarot cards are used in more modern times. Spells and charms were also employed by the cunningfolk in order to block the curses of "evil witches". Something known as poppet-magic was used often (see more on this below in How To...)
Even though these cunningfolk might have been viewed as "white witches" of sorts, coincidentally many of these people referred to themselves as Christians. Christianity was, after all, the main religion of England from the Early Modern Period onward. Whatever their religion, cunningfolk used all methods of magic and medicine in their practice of aiding their local townsfolk and therefore were mostly considered benevolent. Keeping in mind that some were indeed accused of witchcraft during the time of the Witch Trials, and some were even executed for their practices despite being a benefit to their communities.
How to Become a Cunningwoman or Man
In modern times there are people who refer to themselves as pagans and witches often with ridicule and judgment from outside religions and people. Perhaps you have no desire to call yourself a pagan or a witch; however, you are interested in learning how to become one of the cunningfolk. This essentially would mean that you would learn how to use folk magic and herbal medicine to help and heal others. So where and how do you start?
First of all, many say that being a cunningwoman or man is in your blood. You are born with an inherent knowledge passed down in your spirit's memory from your ancestors and from your past lives. Whether you subscribe to this belief or not, something is calling you to do this work isn't it? But in order to actually help others as a cunningfolk, you have to cull that knowledge and skill.
Here are some ways to start becoming a cunningwoman or man:
- read everything you can get your hands on concerning folk magic and folklore tied into your ancestry (were your ancestors English, Italian, African etc)
- read and study the nature and use of herbs (preferably herbs native to your area)
- begin to work with local herbs and learn how to use them to make simple medicines
- begin to explore the use of simple charms working your way up to creating your own charms
- work with the fae (fairies/wee folk/sidhe, etc) as they give cunningfolk much of their herbal knowledge (to learn more about working with the fae click here)
- learn how to read tarot cards/playing cards or fortune telling of various kinds (crystal ball, mirror scrying, etc)
- learn how to use dowsing rods or a pendulum to find lost objects
Can you be a cunningwoman or man in modern times and in any other country besides England? Yes, you can! We can bring these terms into the modern age, just as many other labels from older times are being used again (i.e. pagan/witch/mystic).
What is a Shaman?
Shamans are most likely one of the oldest roles in history, dating back to the time of cavemen and beyond. Shamans were people who could bridge the gap between the spiritual and physical worlds with ease. They had one foot in this world and one in the next and were able to travel into the next world simply by going into a trance-like state or by dreaming. But a shaman didn't use these practices for selfish means. A shaman would use these abilities in order to heal or help someone in his or her tribe or community. Shamans aren't just centralized to one location, they are all over the world. Shamanism is a universal term in this aspect, because they can be found in almost every ancient culture and in almost every culture today.
What do shamans do? As previously mentioned shamans travel into the "otherworlds", many believing there is both an upperworld and a lowerworld. Each world has various spiritual beings in it, some of which are of a malevolent nature and "steal" peoples' souls. One practice of the shaman is to find and return that person's soul to him/her. This aids in some form of physical or spiritual healing. In addition, and similar to the cunningman or woman, the shaman uses herbs and other rituals in order to heal illness and disease. This is called soul retrieval.
Shamans have what are known as spirit guides that aid them in healing and divination. These spirit guides go with them while the shamans are in an altered state of consciousness in order to protect and guide them on the other side. Shamans learn from these spirit guides how to be a psychopomp - a guide for the deceased souls. This is another function of the shaman in many cultures. If a soul is lost, the shaman will travel to the other side and lead that soul to the proper place. Shamans are also said to be given information from the spirits on certain issues. In ancient times, they were given information on the hunt or on war, things that were a means of survival for certain tribes. Today they might be given information as far as a person's past or future and what issues might need to be solved for that individual.
A shaman's role was and is many-fold and is not to be taken lightly. The shaman has a spiritual wisdom beyond the layperson and knows how to use it to get things done spiritually-speaking. They believe that everything in this world has a spirit and therefore are considered animists. This is what much of their practice is based upon.
How to Become a Shaman
Depending on the tribe or culture, there are varying ways of initiation into shamanism. Some believe that shamans are merely born, predestined by the universe/god to be a shaman or healer for their people. In this case, the naturally-born shaman will go through some form of initiation in the early years of his or her life that involves the shaman battling a serious illness and possibly having a near-death experience. This is said to open them up to the spiritual world in order to become a shaman (one who has their foot in this world and the next). In some cultures, these shamans have visions or dreams of being torn apart limb by limb or mutilated in some way or another. This is seen as the spirits' initiation for the shaman. They are "tearing up" the old person to make way for the new.
How do you know you are supposed to be a shaman? Shamans are said to be called by the spiritual world, by the Divine or by God. Usually there are signs given to the individual through means of recurring symbolism in everyday life or through dreaming. You will know if you are supposed to be a shaman because you will have the ability to leave your body at night in what is called astral projection by modern terms. Some shamans are able to do this involuntarily and in waking.
If you feel like you are called to be a shaman, here are some tips to get you started on your path:
- learn all you can by researching and studying shamanism from various cultures
- learn your herbs and how they heal
- master the art of astral projection/lucid dreaming (traveling into the other realms)
- meditate on a daily basis and learn how to do trance-work through drumming, etc.
- meet and form a strong bond with your spirit guides
- get out in nature and form a relationship with the spirits of the land
- ask for signs and messages from God/Divine/Spirit in order to take your practice to the next level
- learn from an experienced shaman (be careful who you are allowing to teach you, there are people out there who claim to be things they are not)
- have humility and never use your knowledge for ego/self gain
Not everyone can be a shaman or a healer. These are very special people who are called to do these jobs for their communities and for the world. As I said before, you will know in your heart and soul if you are being called to do this kind of spiritual work. It is not something to just dabble in, it is a serious practice and should be revered with all of your being.
Wrapping It Up
Calling oneself a cunningwoman or man or a shaman is not to be taken lightly. Just as you wouldn't go around calling yourself a lawyer or a police officer without the appropriate training and licensing, don't go around calling yourself a cunningperson or shaman just for the heck of it. These labels take years of study and experience in order to own them. Have some humility and remember that these labels don't make you any better than anyone else. In fact, most of the cunningfolk and shamans in the past never referred to themselves with these labels, they were given them by the people they aided and by the people who knew them well.
That being said, if you are feeling a strong pull to fulfill one of these roles...go for it. Our truest lives are when we are in dreams awake...to quote Henry David Thoreau.
© 2015 Nicole Canfield