The Ethical Role & Responsibility of the Rootworker (or Cunning Person) in Contemporary Society
The Rootworker, Cunning Person, Witch Doctor or Village Witch (I use these terms interchangeably here because, while they each represent distinct—though related—cultural traditions, they are all typologically very similar), is one who, it seems to me, in a very real sense belongs to the community that he or she serves. Cunning folk have always lived, to one degree or another, on the margins of society; but, somewhat paradoxically, they have simultaneously served a crucial and irreplaceable need—both spiritually and otherwise—within their respective social structures. The dynamic of this peculiar social arrangement and its possible historical origins has been one of the focal points of my academic work, and a fascinating thing to ponder.
But, as I have moved more squarely myself into the role of a Cunning Man (in a professional sense), I have been moved to think more on the dynamics of this social arrangement from an experiential perspective. What are its moral textures? Does the relationship between client and Rootworker contain an inherently implied ethic? And what are the implications of these questions for me as a Witch Doctor in the context of a contemporary society which, on the whole, is victim to a severe case of amnesia regarding the purpose and needfulness of such work?
It has occurred to me in thinking on all this that I cannot avoid the same sense of responsibility and service as my ancestral predecessors, even though the clients that I serve may not know to expect that dynamic. In fact, though anyone who actively seeks out a Cunning Man (or Woman) in this day and age almost certainly has more of an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of the Rootworker-client relationship than the average person, they still most likely have no in-depth understanding of what to expect from that relationship (and what not to expect). The reason for this, of course, is that they did not grow up in a socio-cultural context where these things were taught, either directly or via indirect conditioning.
Nonetheless, the contemporary Rootworker, I believe, has a spiritual and social responsibility—if nothing else, a kind of unspoken pact with those who have come before, whose shoes he or she has stepped into—to maintain the sense of compassion and true service to the community that is, ideally, at the heart of this ancient vocation. Thus, as a Cunning Man I cannot help but feel that I belong to the community that I serve, however widely dispersed the members of that community may be (the days of the village are obviously—and sadly—long gone), or how non-cohesive it may sometimes feel.
The work itself most certainly belongs to the people for whom it is performed; it couldn’t possibly be otherwise. And, after all, the entire origin and precedent for one’s practice in this line of work, I believe, is to be found in the stream of one’s particular ancestral wisdom and lineage. The work never belongs to one worker; rather, it belongs to his ancestors who have passed it on to him, if it belongs to anyone.
Therefore, I would say that a Rootworker’s three primary responsibilities are as follows: firstly, to Nature (without which the work could not exist, of course); secondly, to the ancestors (toward maintaining the integrity of the work and its folkloric context, which they have bequeathed); and thirdly, to the clients he or she serves.
This threefold ethic doesn’t seem to leave much room for the worker herself, and I think that fact is quite apropos. I certainly do not mean to say that the Cunning Folk have no right to look out for themselves—after all, if the worker belongs to the community, then she owes it to the community, in some sense, to keep herself honest, pure and protected—but I think it is safe to say that ultimately the Rootworker must be willing to be, to a certain degree, “selfless” within the context of the vocation. Furthermore, I think we can deduce from this same moral line of thinking that workers who put themselves at the top of the list—who are in a sense “rogues” or “hawks”, doing manipulative work that actually harms the community rather than helps it, at the request of whomever happens to be the highest bidder—are doing a disservice to their own vocation, to their ancestral traditions, to the community in which they work and reside, and, ultimately, to themselves.