A folk healer is an unlicensed person who practices the art of healing using traditional practices, herbal remedies and even the power of suggestion. A folk healer may be a highly trained person who pursues their specialties, learning by study, observation and imitation. In some cultures a healer might be considered to be a person who has inherited the “gift” of healing from his or her parent. The ability to set bones or the power to stop bleeding may be thought of as hereditary powers.
Granny women are purported to be healers and midwives in Southern Appalachia and the Ozarks, claimed by a few academics as practicing from the 1880s to the 1930s. They are theorized to be usually elder women in the community and may have been the only practitioners of health care in the poor rural areas of Southern Appalachia. They are often thought to not have expected or received payment, and were respected as authorities on herbal healing and childbirth. They are mentioned by John C. Campbell in The Southern Highlander and His Homeland:
There is something magnificent in many of the older women with their stern theology – part mysticism, part fatalism – and their deep understanding of life. …”Granny” – and one may be a grandmother young in the mountains – if she has survived the labor and tribulation of her younger days, has gained a freedom and a place of irresponsible authority in the home hardly rivaled by the men of the family. …Though superstitious she has a fund of common sense, and she is a shrewd judge of character. In sickness she is the first to be consulted, for she is generally something of an herb doctor, and her advice is sought by the young people of half the countryside in all things from a love affair to putting a new web in the loom.
White witch and good witch are qualifying terms in English used to distinguish practitioners of folk magic for benevolent purposes (i.e. white magic) from practitioners of malevolent witchcraft or black magic.Related terms are “cunning-folk”, “witch doctor”, and the French devins-guérisseurs, “seer-healers”.
During the witch trials of Early Modern Europe, many practitioners of folk magic who did not see themselves as witches, but as healers or seers, were convicted of witchcraft (Éva Pócs’ “sorcerer witches”): many English “witches” convicted of consorting with demons seem to have been cunning folk whose fairy familiars had been demonised, and over half the accused witches in Hungary seem to have been healers.
Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds, roughly equivalent to shamans. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits, or the dead, often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an “other-world”. Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were explicitly described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, often presided over by a female divinity who teaches magic and gives prophecies; and participation in battles against evil spirits, “vampires”, or “witches” to win fertility and prosperity for the community.
- John C. Campbell, The Southern Highlander and his Homeland, Russell Sage foundation, 1921, pg. 140. https://archive.org/details/southernhighland00camp
- “There were a number of interchangeable terms for these practitioners, ‘white’, ‘good’, or ‘unbinding’ witches, blessers, wizards, sorcerers, however ‘cunning-man’ and ‘wise-man’ were the most frequent.” Macfarlane 1970 p. 130; also Appendix 2.
- Emma Wilby 2005 p. 123; See also Alan Macfarlane 1970 p. 127 who notes how ‘white witches’ could later be accused as ‘black witches’.
- Monter () Witchcraft in France and Switzerland. Ch. 7: “White versus Black Witchcraft”
- Pócs 1999, p. 12
- As defined by Mircea Eliade in Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Bollingen Series LXXVI, Pantheon Books, NY NY 1964, pp.3-7.
- Ginzburg (1990) Part 2, Ch. 1.
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