Oh, she lived up on the mountain, eleven miles or so from town
With a one-eyed cat named Wink, a billy goat and a blue tick hound
Her graying hair was braided and wrapped around her head
And her dress was long and faded and her home a rusty shed
In a little pouch of burlap, tied with a piece of twine
There were bones all shapes and sizes gathered through the course of time
She'd throw them out before you; she swore that she could see
The present, past and future she could ready your destiny
Everybody knew about her, came to get their fortune read
Concerning health and wealth and power, who to love and when to wed
"Well, I just like helpin' people I'm just glad that I could help;
Why, I know everybody's secrets but I keep 'em to myself"
(from) These Old Bones Dolly Parton
A Cunning Man (or woman) - sometimes also known as a hedge wizard and frequently mistaken for a witch - is a practitioner of folk magic and traditional healer, usually of low status and coming from a rural community.
Magic is, actually, not that big a part of the cunning man's repetoire - he's mostly a bone-setter, herbalist and tooth-puller, probably with some of the barber-chirurgeon's skills, albiet without the guild-sanctioned training. He may also (especially if female) work as a midwife … and possibly also procure contraception and abortion if required. Like many rural practitioners he may also have at least as much skill in working with animals as with humans. Other common skills include fortune telling and basic psychology. Literacy is not an absolute requirement, but the cunning man is more likely to be literate than the run of his clients. In some cultures he may (also) be a religious practitioner of some kind (his skill set overlaps quite a bit with that of the shaman for primitive groups), in others he may be decidedly more shadowy. When he does use magical workings they are liable to be either related to his healing work, protective charms to bring good luck (or ward off bad luck) or divinations (fortune telling or finding lost persons and objects) - he is liable to be accutely aware of the limitations of his power and, like as not, an expert on folklore and so familiar with the risks of overreaching himself. The other common role for a Cunning Man was explicity defending against witches - especially in the construction of witch bottles and similar charms.
A cunning man might also work with spirits and/or negotiate with The Fair Folk - if there was a rule of thumb in English folklore, a witch dealt with The Devil and his minions, whilst a cunning man worked with Fairies and less malevolent spirits (when he wasn't invoking Angels for assistance).
The European cunning tradition tended to be explicity Christian (at least in gloss), attributing its work as much to theurgy as magic as do some of the related new-world traditions such as Rootwork and Hoodoo, but similar "white magic" traditions appear in pretty much all cultures worldwide.
Game and Story Use
- In a relatively modern campaign a Cunning Man might be your best available expert on occult matters - of course, the nearer to the present day you get, the harder they are to find.
- In some eras, this may also be the nearest thing available as a medical practitioner.
- Despite the typically Christian gloss, the accusation of witchcraft was never far away - local people might well recognise a cunning man as useful to have, but equally might well turn very quickly on one who started to let them down … or be all but powerless in the face of a powerful external influence.
- For added amusement, the "witch hunter" attempting to destroy the local cunning man may actually be a witch…
- They also make good suspicious liminal figures for rural murder investigations - as suspects, possible witnesses or generally background experts.
- The old staple of a hedge wizard biting off more than he can chew (or an apprentice trying to work "real magic") is also a good bet.
- Quite a good way to work this is to have local peasants turn up something powerful and dangerous and bring in the local cunning-man as their first call for investigation. Cunning folk may also be the custodians of some significant items of black-magic, perhaps confiscated from a defeated witch.
- Robert Westall's book Yaxley's Cat is an interesting study of the cultural role of a cunning man in very late period (roughly 1980s Norfolk) and might be useful plot material.
- Speaking of which, perhaps - into the modern era - the local cunning man has been the community's intermediary with the local Fae. When he dies or retires (or is driven out by sceptical incomers), the community must deal with the machinations of un-appeased (and perhaps even offended) fairies … is there even another cunning man left in the country who can deal with the problem?