I’m currently taking an interesting class on British folklore taught by Mark Norman. One of our many topics was witches. In Britain, old women witches are called either wisewomen or cunning folk. They are called "wise" because they have skill in herbs or divination. Cunning folks might be able to cure you of a malady, help you find a lost object, or protect you from a curse. From medieval time onward, these women (and men) supplemented their income by using their “craft” for others.
We’ve been exploring the archetype of the wise old woman for some time here. But even so, perhaps a reminder of the core elements of this archetype might be needed. The “Wise Old Woman” archetype has two primary roles within folktales. The first is as a helper, tester of worth and guide. The second is the role of the unlikely hero. The “Old Woman Helper” and the “unlikely hero” motifs are both found within two models for analyzing the structure of folktales. In addition, we are looking at wisdom rather than knowledge or skill. The cunning woman of Britain may or may not embody the “wise old woman” or “wise crone” archetype.
Let’s look at a real-life example. Tammy Blee (1793-1856) was a 19th Cornish wise woman. She was known as the white witch and is said to have cured people with spells and magic powders. The film “Tammy Blee – The Notorious Witch of the West” tells her life story. As the film states, “Widely celebrated for her skills throughout the Duchy, Tammy Blee's reputation as one of the most gifted of 'wise woman' ensured a steady stream of visitors, to her home in Helston.” As you watch the film, pay special attention to the ending. It will help you determine if Tammy Blee was the wise crone or simply a cunning woman after all.
“Tammy Blee - The Notorious Witch of the West”
“You must know it is a dreadful thing to undertake [to summon a spirit]!” Tammy said. And so it was! Even though the event was staged and her fraud uncovered (for the spirit was her husband), Tammy’s suggestion as to how to share this story left the client with treasure. And so, was Tammy a witch, a cunning woman, or the wise crone (as defined here)? I think there is evidence enough to identify her as all three. She certainly knew how to keep her clients happy and how to turn a very bad situation into a good one. Tammy had knowledge of the "old ways." She was a helper and a guide too. But wise? Well, I’ll let the reader make that determination.
Previously, I’ve discussed the wise woman as depicted in Irish folklore. In Ireland, she is known as the bean feasa. In my podcast covering the folktale “The Brewery of Eggs,” the wise old woman saves the day in a changeling tale. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll discover how folktales can be coded to mean much more than what’s on the surface.