Having just finished Jim Baker’s The Cunning Man’s Handbook (which I discussed earlier here, and mentioned in passing here: it’s a big book, so I’d been reading it for a while now) I can say that big chunks of history suddenly make a lot more sense to me.
For one thing, the constant fascination with hidden treasure. Basically, a lot of people seemed to think of the world as if it were some kind of Monty Haul D&D campaign: at least in the English speaking world, the idea that there were hidden caches of treasure everywhere was bizarrely common, to the point where treasure hunting was a significant part of the work cunning folk did. This survives only in a couple of unusual forms at present: the idea of hidden pirate treasure is one form, tomb-robbing being another (think of the pyramids), and finally, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, hidden by a leprechaun.
Sounds like a quaint Irish myth, retooled to hawk kids’ cereal and cheesy musicals like Darby O’Gill and the Little People, right?
Well… the English had all kinds of stories about avaricious faeries and gnomes and spirits who’d hidden caches of gold all over the place, and were guarding them aggressively. (Sometimes, demons were even scripted into these tales as guardians.)
Map that onto the vast insanity of imperialist colonialism, and suddenly the hunt for El Dorado looks a little less bizarre, doesn’t it? It’s kind of a same-same-but-different sort of thing, straddling the old world class divide when there were anyway only two real classes: people with access to the royal court, and everyone else. Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, was really just doing what thousands of Englishmen did all the time: hunting for magically-hidden golden treasure, except on a much bigger, more elevated scale, and of course with much worse results all around.
(Another example is how upper class men complained to doctors of being stricken by love-sickness; as Mary Frances Wack notes, in her wonderful book on the medicalization of lovesickness, when lower-class men made the same sort of complaint, they were likelier to simply accuse a woman of having literally bewitched them, or of having stolen their penis by magical means, and be done with it.)
I suppose, in the end, this isn’t so surprising: after all, the proliferation of get-rich quick schemes in more recent history is sort of analogous to all of this. Gold is out there to be gotten… hell, one could argue it’s all part of the incorporation of capitalism into a precapitalist culture. It’s just funny how well-represented this is in popular culture, from computer games and the tabletop RPGs that inspired them, to films, pulp fiction, and so on. This idea is, in some ways, still with us… like so much of what’s in Baker’s book. It’s just well-hidden beneath a post-Enlightenment veneer.
The other interesting thing to note is that this was how a lot of people in the English-speaking world thought even into modern times. Baker’s book deals with history up to 1900 (he goes a little beyond that, in fact), and one of the most prominent examples of a person involved in cunning folk magic is the well-known Joseph Smith… yes, the founder of the Mormon religion. Those golden tablets covered in oriental writing, hidden in a cave? Yeah: typical cunning folk treasure narrative. He just rebranded it all. Smith and his family were steeped in cunning folk magic. Smith just had the clever idea to rebrand it at as a form of alternative Christianity… which is interesting since, if you read Baker’s book all the way through, you’ll see isn’t all that far from cunning folk magic anyway: most of the rituals and spells involved invocations of God, angels, and so on.
Which is to say, if history were a great big AD&D game, all the magic user spells would actually be a certain sub-branch of Christian clerical spells, and the treasure would be ridiculously plentiful… at least in everyone’s minds. Besides all that, you might think that an AD&D game set in our world would be short of supernatural enemies to throw in, but if you assumed that all the ones in people’s imaginations were real? Not so hard, really: there are tons of faerie races, demons and devils, angels, spirits, and so on.
The book is, however, massive. If I were not planning to move in a few weeks (!) I would likely have gone about reading it at a more leisurely pace. Baker excerpts generously, which means that there’s significant chunks of representative texts throughout. Not all of it is in modern English, so sometimes there’s a bit of a slog here and there, which is good in a way, since after all grimoire-reading is supposed to be a slog at times… but that kind of thing is better read at a leisurely pace, with breaks and breathing room.
No matter: I’ll be coming back to it in the future, and even with this caveat–it’s not a complaint, because I think it’s a positive feature in the book, as long as you’re not trying to devour it: it’s basically what allows Baker’s text to be so thorough and so convincing in terms of his arguments against the historicity of modern occultist wicca, and for a more fascinating tradition of cunning folk magic–I’m very glad I read it. It’s a real, ahem… treasure:
Oh, one more thing: the section on dreams was fascinating in part because I mentioned some of the funnier dream interpretations to my wife and a friend of ours who was visiting from Korea. What I found fascinating was how often the Korean interpretation of a typical dream fit well withthe archaic English interpretations in Baker’s book. The most surprising was the dream when your teeth all fall out, which is supposed to signal a death in the family; in Korea, apparently, there’s a very similar interpretation attached to this type of dream, which is funny considering how different the cultures are. I wonder whether that particular interpretation predates the arrival of Westerners in Korea… I imagine it does, but who knows?