Folklore and Superstition: An Introduction To Cornish Folklore

Dydh da, dear folk.
Firstly allow me to introduce myself. For those of you that do not know me, my name is Romeo Kennedy and I hail from the mystical land of Kernow (Cornwall.)
Home of the legend of King Arthur, and a place that, for me, will always be full of magic and mystery.
I was born in a small fishing village not far from Lands End and from a very young age Cornish Fairytales and Legends have very much been a part of my life.

Like most fairytales, the stories that are prevalent in Cornwall have a strong dose of superstition and most come with a moral warning of such. However, superstitions also have their own place in Cornish culture and some of these then begin as the vessels to wonderful stories i.e One superstition involves telling the bees of a death, and one story that involves this superstition tells the tale of a young man who did not tell the bees about the death of his father and was then himself stung to death.
Some Cornish stories have the ‘happily ever after’ ending, and others are quite sad tales of Mermaids lamenting for the heart of their long lost lover or in the case of the Doombar Mermaid supposedly murdered by her lover.
Other tales come with a warning, for example The Many Trials of Jan Tregeagle who was said to have been handed the harshest punishment for his wickedness and was given many impossible tasks, like draining Dozmary Pool with a limpet shell that had a hole in the bottom. Dozmary Pool of course is said to be the home of the Lady of the Lake and where Arthur’s sword ‘Excalibur’ rests. It is also said to be bottomless. Tregeagle escaped this task by running away and being chased by demons he was then given another task to weave a truss of sand and spin a sand rope with which to bind it. Legend says that Tregeagle is still carrying out his final task as we speak. As a side note this is one of my favorite stories and would make an absolutely delightful film/tv series.

Cornish folklore/fairytales feature many creatures that are somewhat exclusive to Cornwall, although Irish, Scots, Welsh etc have something fairly similar if not featuring the same characteristics of those particular creatures i.e Sprites, Sidhe Brownies, Sidhichean, Piskies are usually depicted in very similar ways if not sometimes precisely

Now of the creatures that are prevalent in Cornish folktales are your usual fairytale trinity of Mermaids, Giants and Dragons. Although the stories of Dragons are not as common but the there ares some brilliant ones, but I like to think of that as they ate everyone who came close so no one could recount their tale of their encounter with the furious lizards. In a Christian Cornwall it is said that Saint Petroc confronted a marauding dragon and whispered a prayer into its ear and the dragon flew away. A story that I once heard of a pre-Christian era Cornwall recounts the tale of a dragon that rescued a village from a flood by … Um, setting fire to the village …
“Yay! We’re saved! … Oh.”
Its said that the heat from the dragons breath evaporated the water saving the inhabitants of the village whilst leaving them a little scorched. But alive nonetheless.

Giants are depicted as the usual “Fee, fi, fo fum!” lot, especially the Giant who is said to live in the cliffs of Portreath and when bored throws boulders at passing ships.
The main story of Giants is the very well known story of Jack the Giant Killer who slew the cattle devouring Giant Cormoran. Jack was then taken by another Giant named Blunderbore who vowed vengeance for the death of Cormoran. Jack was taken to an enchanted castle and eventually hung and stabbed Blunderbore and his brother Rebecks, as well as freeing three ladies from the castle. Jack also tricks another Giant into cutting its own belly open.
Of course it is also said that Giants are fantastic builders, for example, Carreg Luz en Cuz or as it is now known, St. Michael’s Mount, was built by Cormoran and his wife Cormelian. The stone was carried long distances to build the castle and sadly ended up with Cormelian’s death after another Giant threw a hammer to Cormoran, missed and accidentally hit Cormelian.
Interestingly enough, it also said that the inventor of the Steam locomotive was part giant, it was said that he could throw a boulder over the top of Camborne town clock, and he had hands the size of shovels, as well as being quite tall.

Mermaids, as I have already mentioned, are the usually the subject of sad stories. The very famous tale of An Vorvoren a Senar (The Mermaid of Zennor) tells the story of young lady who frequented the church service in Zennor. Everyone noticed how this woman never aged for all the years she had visited this church. It was said that she had the sweetest singing voice and with that voice lured the church steward Mathey Trewella away to her domain beneath the waves. Mathey Trewella was never seen on land again. The chair that the Mermaid apparently sat on is still there and is known as the ‘Mermaid Chair.’

The other creatures that are prevalent in Cornish tales are the Piskies, Spriggans, and Knockers.
Now there are plenty of stories that revolve around these creatures.
There is much dispute as to what Knockers are as in some areas they are known as the Bucca but to my experience and that of folklorist William bottrell, there are types of Bucca (good and bad) and stories depict it as a deity of the wind/storms. For example there is a place in the fishing village of Newlyn that has a bridge nicknamed Buccas pass and fishermen have been known (and still known) to make an offering of fish to the Bucca as so to get a good wind behind the sails for the morrow.

Spriggans are said to be the spirits of Giants although a lot smaller and quite ugly. Almost resembling very old men and women and dressed in a whole manner of things ranging from furs to greenery.
They are the guardians of treasure and are said to be very quick to anger and very swift with their retribution. I recently shared a story of a vengeful Spriggan with the lovely folks at The Cult Den on their Twitter page. Spriggans are also said to be ones that kidnap children and leave the parents a changeling.

Knockers on the other hand are at the root of many Miners superstitions and fears.
Knockers live within the mines and are said to be about knee height. They were rejoiced on a good mining day and cursed on a bad although very much out of earshot as an upset Knocker was likely to cause a cave-in. Miners would appease the Knockers by throwing the bit of their crowst (lunch. A pasty) to them.
There are stories that tell of the Knockers making precious gems as well as releasing, or encasing spirits within them. The name came from the sound the that Miners heard whilst working and just before a cave-in. A story by the well known folklorist William Bottrell (who studied and collected many Cornish tales) tells the tale of Tom
Trevorrow who made the Knockers rather cross by not giving them any food and so they tormented him for the rest of his life, “Tommy Trevorrow, Tommy Trevorrow, We’ll send thee bad luck tomorrow.” They stole his tin and tools and money and left him poor.

Piskies, are lucky little people but like Knockers like to play tricks on people, these tricks are usually deadly but that all depends on the Pisky. They are also said to be very kind natured, for example the tale of two Piskies that witnessed a Spriggan kidnapping a child and leaving a Changeling in its place. The Piskies were so outraged that they took the Changeling to the fabled Mên-an-Tol near Madron. The Mên-an-Tol is a large stone with a hole in the middle and the Piskies passed the baby through the hole in the middle to change it back. The stone is said to still have a Pisky guardian to this day.
If a farmer would wake to see their horses worn out, lathered with sweat and with their manes tied in an unusual braid, they were said to Pisky-ridden. As it was well known that Piskies came out to play with the stars. There are stories that involve the cows being drained of milk and sightings of Piskies riding bats in the air.
As I have already mentioned Piskies are said to be incredibly lucky and having one in your house would be the epitome of good luck and fortune as well as being the envy of your neighbors. Although there is the tale of Jowen Polglade who captured a sleeping Pisky in a butterfly net and took it home. He was quite cruel to the creature, making it dance to the point of exhaustion. Until one day the Pisky had had enough of is cruel captor and told him that his house would be forever lucky if he was to find a jeweled feather. So off Jowen went, and the unbeknownst to him the Pisky made sure that he lead Jowen Into getting very, very lost. Jowen eventually found the feather when he was a hundred years old, and the Pisky had lead him to the end of his journey. So much so that when Jowen lifted the feather in triumph through old creaking bones, the old man lost his footing, slipped and fell off a cliff.
A good tip to remember, if you find yourself lost and feel you are being Pisky-lead, always remember to turn your coat inside out.
Why this works, no one can say but it is well known that this method is one hundred per cent Pisky proof.

So there we have it. A small introduction into the wonderful world of Cornish fairytales and folklore. There are truly many, many wonderful stories out there, some that are waiting to be found and some that will always remain undiscovered.

I haven’t even mentioned Pirates, Witches, Ghosts, Smugglers, and the Cornish Gods, and so much more.
No matter where the stories are from and how they are told and whether there is a sliver of truth to them. These tales are our magic and its so important to keep the magic alive.

Many of reading this you are probably feeling like you have Déjà Vu, or suffering from a weird sort of Fae Groundhog Day. Basically this was originally a guest post that I did for The Cult Den, who this week sadly announced their closure. So I thought I would put it here for everyone to (hopefully) enjoy.