Introduction by HENRY JENNER, Member of the Gorsedd of the Bards of Brittany; Fellow and Local Secretary for Cornwall of the Society of Antiquaries; author of A Handbook of the Cornish Language, &c.
In Cornwall the legends of giants, of saints, or of Arthur and his knights, the observances and superstitions connected with the prehistoric stone monuments, holy wells, mines, and the like, the stories of submerged or buried cities, and the fragments of what would seem to be pre-Christian faiths, have no doubt occasional points of contact with Cornish fairy legends, but they do not help to explain the fairies very much. Yet certain it is that not only in Cornwall and other Celtic lands, but throughout most of the world, a belief in fairies exists or has existed, and so widespread a belief must have a reason for it, though not necessarily a good one. That which with unconscious humour men generally call ‘education’ has in these days caused those lower classes, to whom the deposit of this faith was entrusted, to be ashamed of it, and to despise and endeavour to forget it. And so now in Cornwall, as elsewhere at that earlier outbreak of Philistinism, the Reformation,
From haunted spring and grassy ring
Troop goblin, elf and fairy,
And the kelpie must flit from the black bog-pit,
And the brownie must not tarry.
But, in spite of Protestantism, school-boards, and education committees, ‘pisky-pows’ are still placed on the ridge-tiles of West Cornish cottages, to propitiate the piskies and give them a dancing-place, lest they should turn the milk sour, and St. Just and Morvah folk are still ‘pisky-led’ on the Gump (an Ón Gumpas, the Level Down, between ChŸn Castle and Cam Kenidjack), and more rarely St. Columb and Roche folk on Goss Moor. It will not do to say that it is only another form of ‘ whisky-led’. That is an evidently modern explanation, invented since the substitution of strange Scottish and Irish drinks for the good’ Nantes’ and wholesome ‘Plymouth’ of old time, and it does not fit in with the phenomena. It was only last winter, in a cottage not a hundred yards from where I am writing, that milk was set at night for piskies, who had been knocking on walls and generally making nuisances of themselves. Apparently the piskies only drank the ‘astral ‘part of the milk (whatever that may be) and then the neighbouring cats drank what was left, and it disagreed with them. I cannot vouch for the truth of the part about the piskies and the ‘astral’ milk - I give it as it was told to me by the occupant of the cottage, who was not unacquainted with ‘occult’ terminology - but I do know that the milk was consumed, and that the cats, one of which was my own, were with one accord unwell all over the place. But for the present purpose it does not matter whether these things really happened or not. The point is that people thought they happened.
Robert Hunt, in his Popular Romances of the West of England, divided the fairies of Cornish folk-lore into five classes: (1) the Small People; (2) the Spriggans; (3) the Piskies; (4) the Buccas, Bockles, or Knockers; (5) the Brownies. This is an incorrect classification. The Pobel Vean or Small People, the Spriggans, and the Piskies are not really distinguishable from one another. Bucca, who properly is but one, is a deity not a fairy, and it is said that Newlyn, the great seat of his worship, offerings of fish still left on the beach for him. His name is the Welsh pwca, which is probably ‘Puck’ though Shakespeare’s Puck was just a pisky, and it may be connected with the general Slavonic word Bog, God; so that if, as some say, buccaboo is really meant for Bucca-du, Black Bucca, this may be an equivalent of Czernobog, the Black God, who was the Ahriman of Slavonic dualism, and Bucca-widn (White Bucca), which is rarer, though the expression does come into a St. Levan story, may be the corresponding Bielobog. Bockle, which personally I have never heard used, suggests the Scottish bogle, and both may be diminutives of bucca, bog, bogie, or bug, the last in the sense in which one English version translates the timor nocturnus of Psalm xc. 5, not in that of cimex lectularius. But bockle and brownie are probably both foreign importations borrowed from books, though a ‘brownie’ eo nomine has been reported from Sennen within the last twenty years.
The Knockers or Knackers are mine-spirits, quite unconnected with Bucca or bogies. The story, as I have always heard it, is that they are the spirits of Jews who were sent by the Romans to work in the tin mines, some say for being concerned in the Crucifixion of our Lord, which sounds improbable. They are benevolent spirits, and warn miners of danger.
But the only true Cornish fairy is the Pisky, of the race which is the Pobel Vean or Little People, and the Spriggan is only one of his aspects. The Pisky would seem to be the ‘Brownie’ of the Lowland Scot, the Duine Sith of the Highlander, and, if we may judge from an interesting note in Scott’s The Pirate, the ‘Peght’ of the Orkneys. If Daoine Sith really means ‘The Folk of the Mounds’ (barrows), not ‘The People of Peace’, it is possible that there is something in the theory that Brownie, Duine Sith, and ‘Peght’, which is Pict, are only in their origin ways of expressing the little dark-complexioned aboriginal folk who were supposed to inhabit the barrows, cromlechs, and allÉes couvertes, and whose cunning, their only effective weapon against the strength of the Aryan invader, earned them a reputation for magical powers. Now Pisky or Pisgy is really Pixy. Though as a patriotic Cornishman I ought not to admit it, I cannot deny, especially as it suits my argument better, that the Devon form is the correct one. But after all there has been always a strong Cornish element in Devon, even since the time when Athelstan drove the Britons out of Exeter and set the Tamar for their boundary, and I think the original word is really Cornish. The transposition of consonants, especially when s is one of them, is not uncommon in modern Cornish English. Hosged for hogshead, and haps for hasp are well-known instances. If we take the root of Pixy, Pix, and divide the double letter x into its component parts, we get Piks or Pics, and if we remember that a final s or z in Cornish almost always represents a t or d of Welsh and Breton (cf. tas for tad, nans for nant, bos for bod), we may not unreasonably, though without absolute certainty, conjecture that Pixy is Picty in a Cornish form. (1)
(1) The New English Dictionary, s.v. Pixy, gives rather vaguely a Swedish dialect word, pysg, a small fairy. It also mentions pix as a Devon Imprecation, ‘a pix take him.’ I suspect the last is only an umlaut form of a common Shakespearean imprecation. If not, it is interesting, and reminds one of the fate of Margery Dawe, ‘Piskies came and carr’d her away.’
Without begging any question concerning the origin, ethnology, or homogeneity of those who are called ‘Picts’ in history, from the times of Ammianus, Marcellinus and Claudian until Kenneth MacAlpine united the Pictish kingdom with the Scottish, we can nevertheless accept the fact that the name ‘Pict’ has been popularly applied to some pre-Celtic race or races, to whom certain ancient structures, such as ‘vitrified forts’ and ‘Picts’ houses’ have been attributed. In Cornwall there are instances of prehistoric structures being called ‘Piskies’ Halls’ (there is an allÉe couverte so called at Bosahan in Constantine), and’ Piskies’ Crows’ (Crow or Craw, Breton Krao, is a shed or hovel; ‘pegs’ craw’ is still used for ‘pig-sty ‘); and there are three genuine examples of what would in Scotland be called ‘Picts’ Houses’ just outside St. Ives in the direction of Zennor, though only modern antiquaries have applied that name to them. In the district in which they are, the fringe of coast from St. Ives round by Zennor, Morvah, Pendeen, and St. Just nearly to Sennen, are found to this day a strange and separate people of Mongol type, like the Bigaudens of Pont l’AbbÉ and Penmarc’h in the Breton Cornouailles, one of those ‘fragments of forgotten peoples’ of the ‘sunset bound of Lyonesse’ of whom Tennyson tells. They are a little ‘stuggy’ dark folk, and until comparatively modern times were recognized as different from their Celtic neighbours, and were commonly believed to be largely wizards and witches. One of Mr. Wentz’s informants seems to attribute to Zennor a particularly virulent brand of pisky, and Zennor is the most primitive part of that district. Possibly the more completely unmixed ancestors of this race were’ more so’ than the present representatives; but, be this as it may, if Pixy is really Picty, it would seem that, like the inhabitants of the extreme north of the British Isles, the south-western Britons eventually applied the fairly general popular name of the mysterious, half dreaded, half despised aboriginal to a race of preternatural beings in whose existence they believed, and, with the name, transferred some of the qualities, attributes, and legends, thus producing a mixed mental conception, now known as’ pisky’ or ‘pixy’.
There seems to have been always and everywhere (or nearly so) a belief in a race, neither divine nor human, but very like to human beings, who existed on a’ plane’ different from that of humans, though occupying the same space. This has been called the’ astral’ or the ‘ fourth-dimensional’ plane. Why ‘astral’? why ‘fourth-dimensional’? why ‘plane’? are questions the answers to which do not matter, and I do not attempt to defend the terms, but you must call it something. This is the belief to which Scott refers in the introduction to The Monastery, as the ‘ beautiful but almost forgotten theory of astral spirits or creatures of the elements, surpassing human beings in knowledge and power, but inferior to them as being subject, after a certain space of years, to a death which is to them annihilation’. The subdivisions and elaborations of the subject by Paracelsus, the Rosicrucian’s, and the modern theosophists are no doubt amplifications of that popular belief, which, though rather undefined, resembles the theory of these mystics in its main outlines, and was probably what suggested it to them.
These beings are held to be normally imperceptible to human senses, but conditions may arise in which the’ astral’ plane’ of the elementals and that part of the ‘physical plane’ in which, if one may so express it, some human being happens to be, may be in such a relation to one another that these and other spirits may be seen and heard. Some such condition is perhaps described in the story of Balaam the soothsayer, in that incident when ‘the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha’, and possibly also in the mysterious ‘sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees’ which David heard; but no doubt in these cases it was angels and not elementals. It may also be allowable to suggest, without irreverence, that the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration and Ascension are connected with the same idea, though the latter is expressed in the form of the geocentric theory of the universe.
The Cornish pisky stories are largely made up of instances of contact between the two ‘planes’, sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberately induced by incantations or magic eye-salve, yet with these stories are often mingled incidents that are not preternatural at all. How, when, and why this belief arose, I do not pretend even to conjecture; but there it is, and though of course the holders of it do not talk about ‘planes’, that is very much the notion which they appear to have.
I do not think that the piskies were ever definitely held to be the spirits of the dead, and while a certain confusion has arisen, as some of Mr. Wentz’s informants show, I think it belongs to the confused eschatology of modern Protestants. To a pre-Reformation Cornishman, or indeed to any other Catholic, the idea was unthinkable. ‘Justorum animae in manu Dei sunt, et non tanget illos tormentum malitiae: visi sunt oculis insipientium mori: illi autem sunt in pace,’ and the transmigration of the souls of the faithful departed into another order of beings, not disembodied because never embodied, was to them impossible. Such a notion is on a par with the quaint but very usual hope of the modern ‘Evangelical’ Christian, so beautifully expressed in one of Hans Andersen’s stories, that his departed friends are promoted to be ‘angels’. There may be, perhaps, an idea, as there certainly is in the Breton Death-Faith, that the spirits of the faithful dead are all round us, and are not rapt away into a distant Paradise or Purgatory. This may be of pre-Christian origin, but does not contradict any article of the Christian faith. The warnings, apparitions, and hauntings, the ‘calling of the dead’ at sea, and other details of Cornish Death-Legends, seem to point to a conception of a ‘plane’ of the dead, similar to but not necessarily identical with that of the elementals. Under some quite undefined conditions contact may occur with the ‘physical plane’, whence the alleged incidents; but this Cornish Death-Faith, though sometimes, as commonly in Brittany, presenting similar phenomena, has in itself nothing to do with piskies, and as for the unfaithful departed, their destination was also well understood, and it was not Fairyland. There are possible connecting links in the not very common idea that piskies are the souls of unbaptized children, and in the more common notion that the Pobel Vean are, not the disembodied spirits, but the living souls and bodies of the old Pagans, who, refusing Christianity, are miraculously preserved alive, but are condemned to decrease in size until they vanish altogether. Some authorities hold that it is the race and not the individual which dwindles from generation to generation.
This last idea, as well as the name ‘pixy’, gives some probability to the conclusion that, as applied to Cornwall, Mr. MacRitchie’s theory represents a part of the truth, and that on to an already existing belief in elementals have been grafted exaggerated traditions of a dark pre-Celtic people. These were not necessarily pygmies, but smaller than Celts, and may have survived for a long time in forests and hill countries, sometimes friendly to the taller race, whence come the stories of piskies working for farmers, sometimes hostile, which may account for the legends of changelings and other mischievous tricks. This is how it appears to one who knows his Cornwall in all its aspects fairly well, but does not profess to be an expert in folk-lore.
Bospowes, Hayle, Cornwall,
This next section is by W.Y. Evans Wentz.
Our investigation of the Fairy-Faith in Cornwall covers the region between Falmouth and the Land’s End, which is now the most Celtic; and the Tintagel country on the north coast. It is generally believed that ancient Cornish legends, like the Cornish language, are things of the past only, but I am now no longer of that opinion. Undoubtedly Cornwall is the most anglicized of all Celtic lands we are studying, and its folk-lore is therefore far from being as virile as the Irish folk-lore; nevertheless, through its people, racially mixed though they are, there still flows the blood and the inspiration of a prehistoric native ancestry, and among the oldest Cornish men and women of many an isolated village, or farm, there yet remains some belief in fairies and pixies. Moreover, throughout all of Old Cornwall there is a very living faith in the Legend of the Dead; and that this Cornish Legend of the Dead, with its peculiar Brythonic character, should be parallel as it is to the Breton Legend of the Dead, has heretofore, so far as I am aware, not been pointed out. I am giving, however, only a very few of the Cornish death-legends collected, because in essence most of them are alike.
A CORNISH HISTORIAN’S TESTIMONY
I was privileged to make my first call in rural Cornwall at the pretty country home of Miss Susan E. Gay, of Crill, about three miles from Falmouth; and Miss Gay, who has written a well-known history of Falmouth (Old Falmouth, London, 1903), very willingly accorded me an interview on the subject of my inquiry, and finally dictated for my use the following matter
Pixies as ‘Astral Plane’ Beings.- ‘
The pixies and fairies are little beings in the human form existing on the ‘astral plane’, who may be in the process of evolution; and, as such, I believe people have seen them. The ‘astral plane’ is not known to us now because our psychic faculty of perception has faded out by non-use, and this condition has been brought about by an almost exclusive development of the physical brain; but it is likely that the psychic faculty will develop again in its turn.’
Psychical Interpretation of Folk-Lore.- ‘
It is my point of view that there is a basis of truth in the folk-lore. With its remnants of occult learning, magic, charms, and the like, folk-lore seems to be the remains of forgotten psychical facts, rather than history, as it is often called.’
PEASANT EVIDENCE FROM THE CRILL COUNTRY
Miss Gay kindly gave me the names of certain peasants in the Crill region, and from one of them, Mrs. Harriett Christopher, I gleaned the following material :-
A Pisky Changeling.- ‘
A woman who lived near Breage Church had a fine girl baby, and she thought the piskies came and took it and put a withered child in its place. The withered child lived to be twenty years old, and was no larger when it died than when the piskies brought it. It was fretful and peevish and frightfully shrivelled. The parents believed that the piskies often used to come and look over a certain wall by the house to see the child. And I heard my grandmother say that the family once put the child out of doors at night to see if the piskies would take it back again.’
Nature of Piskies.- ‘
The piskies are said to be very small. You could never see them by day. I used to hear my grandmother, who has been dead fifty years, say that the piskies used to hold a fair in the fields near Breage, and that people saw them there dancing. I also remember her saying that it was customary to set out food for the piskies at night. My grandmother’s great belief was in piskies and in spirits; and she considered piskies spirits. She used to tell so many stories about spirits [of the dead] coming back and such things that I would be afraid to go to bed.’
EVIDENCE FROM CONSTANTINE
Our witnesses from the ancient and picturesque village of Constantine are John Wilmet, seventy-eight years old, and his good wife, two most excellent and well-preserved types of the passing generation of true Cornish stock. John began by telling me the following tale about an allÉe couverte - a tale which in one version or another is apt to be told of most Cornish megaliths :-
A Pisky-House.- ‘
William Murphy, who married my sister, once went to the pisky-house at Bosahan with a surveyor, and the two of them beard such unearthly noises in it that they came running home in great excitement, saying they had heard the piskies.’
The Pisky Thrasher.- ‘
On a farm near here, a pisky used to come at night to thrash the farmer’s corn. The farmer in payment once put down a new suit for him. When the pisky came and saw it, he put it on, and said :-
Pisky fine and pisky gay,
Pisky now will fly away.
And they say be never returned.’
Nature of Piskies.- ‘
I always understood the piskies to be little people. A great deal was said about ghosts in this place. Whether or not piskies are the same as ghosts I cannot tell, but I fancy the old folks thought they were.’
A farmer who lived two miles from here, near the Gweek River, called Parson Jago to his house to have him quiet the ghosts or spirits regularly haunting it, for Parson Jago could always put such things to rest. The clergyman went to the farmer’s house, and with his whip formed a circle on the floor and then commanded the spirit, which made its appearance on the table, to come down into the circle. While on the table the spirit had been visible to all the family, but as soon as it got into the ring it disappeared ; and the house was never haunted afterwards.’
AT ST. MICHAEL’S MOUNT, MARAZION
Our next place for an investigation of the surviving Cornish Fairy-Faith is Marazion, the very ancient British town opposite the isle called St. Michael’s Mount. (From Constantine I walked through the country to this point, talking with as many old people as possible, but none of them knew very much about ancient Cornish beliefs.) It is believed, though the matter is very doubtful, that Marazion was the chief mart for the tin trade of Celtic Britain, and that the Mount - sacred to the Sun and to the Pagan Mysteries long before Caesar crossed the Channel from Gaul - sheltered the brilliantly-coloured sailing-ships of the Phoenicians. (1) In such a romantic town, where Oriental merchants and Celtic pilgrims probably once mingled together, one might expect some survival of olden beliefs and customs.
(1) ‘Some say that the Phoenicians never came to Cornwall at all, and that their Ictis was Vectis (the Isle of Wight) or even Thanet.’-HENRY JENNER.
.- To Mr. Thomas G. Jago, of Marazion, with a memory extending backwards more than seventy years, he being eighty years old, I am indebted for this statement about the pisky creed in that locality :- ‘ I imagine that one hundred and fifty years ago the belief in piskies and spirits was general. In my boyhood days, piskies were often called “the mites” (little people): they were regarded as little spirits. The word piskies is the old Cornish brogue for pixies. In certain grass fields, mushrooms growing in a circle might be seen of a morning, and the old folks pointing to the mushrooms would say to the children, “Oh, the piskies have been dancing there last night.” ‘
Two more of the oldest natives of Marazion, among others with whom I talked, are William Rowe, eighty-two years old, and his married sister seventy-eight years old. About the piskies Mr. Rowe said this :- ‘ People would go out at night and lose their way and then declare that they had been pisky-led. I think they meant by this that they fell under some spiritual influence - that some spirit led them astray. The piskies were said to be small, and they were thought of as spirits.’ (1) Mr. Rowe’s sister added :- ‘ If we as children did anything wrong, the old folks would say to us, “The piskies will carry you away if you do that again.” ‘
heard the following witch-story from a lawyer, a native of the district, who lives in the country just beyond Marazion :- ‘ Jimmy Thomas, of Wendron parish, who died within the last twenty-five years, was the last witch-doctor I know about in West Cornwall. He was supposed to have great power over evil spirits. His immediate predecessor was a woman, called the “Witch of Wendron “, and she did a big business. My father once visited her in company with a friend whose father had lost some horses. This was about seventy to eighty years ago. The witch when consulted on this occasion turned her back to my father’s companion, and began talking to herself in Cornish. Then she gave him some herbs. His father used the herbs, and no more horses died: the herbs were supposed to have driven all evil spirits out of the stable.’
IN PENZANCE: AN ARCHITECT’S TESTIMONY
Penzance from earliest times has undoubtedly been, as it is now, the capital of the Land’s End district, the Sacred Land of Britain. And in Penzance I had the good fortune to meet those among its leading citizens who still cherish and keep alive the poetry and the mystic lore of Old Cornwall; and to no one of them am I more indebted than to Mr. Henry Maddern, F.I.A.S. Mr. Maddern tells me that he was initiated into the mysteries of the Cornish folk-lore of this region when a boy in Newlyn, where he was born, by his old nurse Betty Grancan, a native Zennor woman, of stock probably the most primitive and pure in the British Islands. At his home in Penzance, Mr. Maddern dictated to me the very valuable evidence which follows :-
Two Kinds of Pixies.- ‘
In this region there are two kinds of pixies, one purely a land-dwelling pixy and the other a pixy which dwells on the sea-strand between high and low water mark. (1) The land-dwelling pixy was usually thought to be full of mischievous fun, but it did no harm. There was a very prevalent belief, when I was a boy, that this sea-strand pixy, called Bucca, (2) had to be propitiated by a cast (three) of fish, to ensure the fishermen having a good shot (catch) of fish. The land pixy was supposed to be able to render its devotees invisible, if they only anointed their eyes with a certain green salve made of secret herbs gathered from Kerris-moor. (3) In the invisible condition thus induced, people were able to join the pixy revels, during which, according to the old tradition, time slipped away very, very rapidly, though people returned from the pixies no older than when they went with them.’
(1) ‘About Porth Curnow and the Logan Rock there are little spots of earth in the face of the granite cliffs where sea-daisies (thrift) and other wild flowers grow. These are referred to the sea pisky, and are known as “piss’kie’ gardens.” ‘ -HENRY JENNER.
(2) I was told by another Cornishman that, in a spirit of municipal rivalry and fun, the Penzance people like to taunt the people of Newlyn (now almost a suburb of Penzance) by calling them Buccas, and that the Newlyn townsmen very much resent being so designated. Thus what no doubt was originally an ancient cult to some local sea-divinity called Bucca, has survived as folk-humour. (See Mr. Jenner’s Introduction, p. 164.)
(3) ‘Another version, which is more usual, is that the pisky anointed the person’s eyes and so rendered itself visible. ‘ - HENRY JENNER.
The Nurse and the Ointment.- ‘
I used to hear about a Zennor girl who came to Newlyn as nurse to the child of a gentleman living at Zimmerman-Cot. The gentleman warned her never to touch a box of ointment which he guarded in a special room, nor even to enter that room; but one day in his absence she entered the room and took some of the ointment. Suspecting the qualities of the ointment, she put it on her eyes with the wish that she might see where her master was. She immediately found herself in the higher part of the orchard amongst the pixies, where they were having much junketing (festivity and dancing); and there saw the gentleman whose child she had nursed. For a time she managed to evade him, but before the junketing was at an end he discovered her and requested her to go home; and then, to her intense astonishment, she learned that she had been away twenty years, though she was unchanged. The gentleman scolded her for having touched the ointment, paid her wages in full, and sent her back to her people. She always had the one regret, that she had not gone into the forbidden room at first.’
The Tolcarne Troll.- ‘
The fairy of the Newlyn Tolcarne (1) was in some ways like the Puck of the English Midlands. But this fairy, or troll, was supposed to date back to the time of the Phoenicians. He was described as a little old pleasant-faced man dressed in a tight-fitting leathern jerkin, with a hood on his head, who lived invisible in the rock. Whenever he chose to do so he could make himself visible. When I was a boy it was said that he spent his time voyaging from here to Tyre on the galleys which carried the tin; and, also, that be assisted in the building of Solomon’s Temple. Sometimes be was called “the Wandering One “, or “Odin the Wanderer “. My old nurse, Betty Grancan, used to say that you could call up the troll at the Tolcarne if while there you held in your hand three dried leaves, one of the ash, one of the oak, and one of the thorn, and pronounced an incantation or charm. Betty would never tell me the words of the charm, because she said I was too much of a sceptic. The words of such a Cornish charm had to pass from one believer to another, through a woman to a man, and from a man to a woman, and thus alternately.’
(1) This is a natural outcropping of greenstone on a commanding bill just above the vicarage in Newlyn, and concerning it many weird legends survive. In pre-Christian times it was probably one of the Cornish sacred spots for the celebration of ancient rites - probably in honour of the Sun - and for divination.
Nature of Pixies.- ‘
Pixies were often supposed to be the souls of the prehistoric dwellers of this country. As such, pixies were supposed to be getting smaller and smaller, until finally they are to vanish entirely. The country pixies inhabiting the highlands from above Newlyn on to St. Just were considered a wicked sort. Their great ambition was to change their own offspring for human children; and the true child could only be got back by laying a four-leaf clover on the changeling. A winickey child - one which was weak, frail, and peevish - was of the nature of a changeling. Miner pixies, called “knockers “, would accept a portion of a miner’s croust (lunch) on good faith, and by knocking lead him to a rich mother-lode, or warn him by knocking if there was danger ahead or a cavern full of water; but if the miner begrudged them the croust, he would be left to his own resources to find the lode, and, moreover, the “knockers” would do all they could to lead him away from a good lode. These mine pixies, too, were supposed to be spirits, sometimes spirits of the miners of ancient times.’ (1)
Fairies and Pixies.-
‘ In general appearance the fairies were much the same as pixies. They were small men and women, much smaller than dwarfs. The men were swarthy in complexion and the women had a clear complexion of a peach-like bloom. None ever appeared to be more than five-and-twenty to thirty years old. I have heard my nurse say that she could see scores of them whenever she picked a four-leaf clover and put it in the wisp of straw which she carried on her head as a Cushion for the bucket of milk. Her theory was that the richness of the milk was what attracted them. Pixies, like fairies, very much enjoyed milk, and people of miserly nature used to put salt around a cow to keep the pixies away; and then the pixies would lead such mean people astray the very first opportunity that came. According to some country-people, the pixies have been seen in the day-time, but usually they are only seen at night.’
A CORNISH EDITOR’S OPINION
Mr. Herbert Thomas, editor of four Cornish papers, The Cornishman, The Cornish Telegraph, Post, and Evening
(1) Mr. John B. Cornish, solicitor, of Penzance, told me that when he once suggested to an old miner who fully believed in the ‘knockers’, that the noises they were supposed to make were due to material causes, the old miner became quite annoyed, and said, ‘Well, I guess I have ears to hear.’
and a true Celt himself, has been deeply interested in the folk-lore of Cornwall, and has made excellent use of it in his poetry and other literary productions; so that his personal opinions, which follow, as to the probable origin of the fairy-belief, are for our study a very important contribution : -
Animistic Origin of Belief in Pixies.- ‘
I should say that the modern belief in pixies, or in fairies, arose from a very ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic belief in spirits. Just as among some savage tribes there is belief in gods and totems, here there was belief in little spirits good and bad, who were able to help or to hinder man. Belief in the supernatural, in my opinion, is the root of it all.’
A CORNISH FOLK-LORIST’S TESTIMONY
In Penzance I had the privilege of also meeting Miss M. A. Courtney, the well-known folk-lorist, who quite agrees with me in believing that there is in Cornwall a widespread Legend of the Dead; and she cited a few special instances in illustration, as follows :-
Cornish Legend of the Dead.- ‘
Here amongst the fishermen and sailors there is a belief that the dead in the sea will be heard calling if a drowning is about to occur. I know of a woman who went to a clergyman to have him exorcize her of the spirit of her dead sister, which she said appeared in the form of a bee. And I have heard of miners believing that white moths are spirits.”
EVIDENCE FROM NEWLYN
In Newlyn, Mrs. Jane Tregurtha gave the following important testimony : -
The ‘Little Folk
‘. - ‘ The old people thoroughly believed in the little folk, and that they gambolled all over the moors on moonlight nights. Some pixies would rain down blessings and others curses; and to remove the curses people
(1) For the Cornish folk-lore already published by Miss M. A. Courtney, the reader is referred to her work, Cornish Feasts and Folk-Lore (Penzance, 1890).
would go to the wells blessed by the saints. Whenever anything went wrong in the kitchen at night the pixies were blamed. After the 31st of October [or after Halloween] the blackberries are not fit to eat, for the pixies have then been over them’ (cf. the parallel Irish belief, p. 38).
Fairy Guardian of the Men-an-Tol.
(1) - ‘ At the Men-an-Tol there is supposed to be a guardian fairy or pixy who can make miraculous cures. And my mother knew of an actual case in which a changeling was put through the stone in order to get the real child back. It seems that evil pixies changed children, and that the pixy at the Men-an-Tol being good, could, in opposition, undo their work.’
A spirit was put to rest on the Green here in Newlyn. The parson prayed and fasted, and then commanded the spirit to teeme (dip dry) the sea with a limpet shell containing no bottom; and the spirit is supposed to be still busy at this task.’
Piskies as Apparitions.-
When I talked with her in her neat cottage at Newlyn, Miss Mary Ann Chirgwin (who was born on St. Michael’s Mount in 1825) told me this :- ‘ The old people used to say the piskies were apparitions of the dead come back in the form of little people, but I can’t remember anything more than this about them.’
AN ARTIST’S TESTIMONY
One of the members of the Newlyn Art School was able to offer a few of his own impressions concerning the pixies of Devonshire, where he has frequently made sketches of pixies from descriptions given to him by peasants :-
Devonshire Pixies.- ‘
Throughout all the west of Devonshire, anywhere near the moorlands, the country people are
(1) A curious holed stone standing between two low menhirs on the moors beyond the Lanyon Dolmen, near Madron; but in Borlase’s time (Cf. his Antiquities of Cornwall, ed. 1769, p. 577) the three stones were not as now in a direct line. The Men-an-Tol has aroused much speculation among archaeologists as to its probable use or meaning. No doubt it was astronomical and religious in its significance; and it may have been a calendar stone with which ancient priests took sun observations (cf. Sir Norman Lockyer, Stonehenge and Other Stone Monuments); or it may have been otherwise related to a sun cult, or to some pagan initiatory rites.
much given to belief in pixies and ghosts. I think they expect to see them about the twilight hour; though I have not found anybody who has actually seen a pixy-the belief now is largely based on hearsay.’
TESTIMONY FROM THE HISTORIAN OF MOUSEHOLE
To Mr. Richard Harry, the historian of Mousehole, I am indebted for these remarks about the nature and present state of the belief in pixies as he observes it in that region :-
The Pixy Belief.- ‘
The piskies, thought of as little people who appear on moonlight nights, are still somewhat believed in here. If interfered with too much they are said to exhibit almost fiendish powers. In a certain sense they are considered spiritual, but in another sense they are much materialized in the conceptions of the people. Generally speaking, the belief in them has almost died out within the last fifty years.’
A SEAMAN’S TESTIMONY
‘Uncle Billy Pender,’ as our present witness is familiarly called, is one of the oldest natives of Mousehole, being eighty-five years old; and most of his life has been passed on the ocean, as a fisherman, seaman, and pilot. After having told me the usual things about piskies, fairies, spirits, ghosts, and the devil, Uncle Billy Pender was very soon talking about the dead :-
Cornish Legend of the Dead.- ‘
I was up in bed, and I suppose asleep, and I dreamt that the boy James came to my bedside and woke me up by saying, “How many lights does Death put up?” And in the dream there appeared such light as I never saw in my life; and when I woke up another light like it was in the room. Within three months afterwards we buried two grand-daughters out of this house. This was four years ago.’ When this strange tale was finished, Uncle Billy Pender’s daughter, who had been listening, added :- ‘ For three mornings, one after another, there was a robin at our cellar door before the deaths, and my husband said he didn’t like that.’
Then Uncle Billy told this weird Breton-like tale :- ‘ “Granny” told about a boat named BlŸcher, going from Newlyn to Bristol with six thousand mackerel, which put in at Arbor Cove, close to Padstow, on account of bad weather. The boat dragged her anchors and was lost. “Granny” afterwards declared that he saw the crew going up over the Newlyn Slip; and the whole of Newlyn and Mousehole believed him.’
TESTIMONY BY TWO LAND’S END FARMERS
In the Sennen country, within a mile of the end of Britain, I talked with two farmers who knew something about piskies. The first one, Charles Hutchen, of Trevescan, told me this legend :-
A St. Just Pisky.- ‘
Near St. Just, on Christmas Day, a pisky carried away in his cloak a boy, but the boy got home. Then the pisky took him a second time, and again the boy got home. Each time the boy was away for only an hour’ (probably in a dream or trance state).
Seeing the Pisky-Dance.- Frank
Ellis, seventy-eight years old, of the same village of Trevescan, then gave the following evidence :- ‘ Up on Sea-View Green there are two rings where the piskies used to dance and play music on a moonlight night. I’ve heard that they would come there from the moors. Little people they are called. If you keep quiet when they are dancing you’ll see them, but if you make any noise they’ll disappear.’ Frank Ellis’s wife, who is a very aged woman, was in the house listening to the conversation, and added at this point :- ‘ My grandmother, Nancy Maddern, was down on Sea-View Green by moonlight and saw the piskies dancing, and passed near them. She said they were like little children, and had red cloaks.’
TESTIMONY FROM A SENNEN COVE FISHERMAN
John Gilbert Guy, seventy-eight years old, a retired fisherman of Sennen Cove, offers very valuable testimony, as follows :- ‘Small People ‘.- ‘ Many say they have seen the small people here by the hundreds. In Ireland they call the small people the fairies. My mother believes there were such things, and so did the old folks in these parts. My grandmother used to put down a good furze fire for them on stormy nights, because, as she said, “They are a sort of people wandering about the world with no home or habitation, and ought to be given a little comfort.” The most fear of them was that they might come at night and change a baby for one that was no good. My mother said that Joan Nicholas believed the fairies had changed her baby, because it was very small and cross-tempered. Up on the hill you’ll see a round ring with grass greener than anywhere else, and that is where the small people used to dance.’
Danger of Seeing the ‘Little People
‘.- ‘ I heard that a woman set out water to wash her baby in, and that before she had used the water the small people came and washed their babies in it. She didn’t know about this, and so in washing her baby got some of the water in her eyes, and then all at once she could see crowds of little people about her. One of them came to her and asked if she was able to see their crowd, and when she said “Yes,” the little people wanted to take her eyes out, and she had to clear away from them as fast as she could.’
TESTIMONY FROM A CORNISH MINER
William Shepherd, a retired miner of Pendeen, near St. Just, where he has passed all his life, offers us from his own experiences under the earth the evidence which follows :-
Mine Piskies.- ‘
There are mine-piskies which are not the “knockers “. I’ve heard old men in the mines say that they have seen them, and they call them the small people. It appears that they don’t like company, for they are always seen singly. The “ knockers” are spirits, too, as one might say. They are said to bring bad luck, while the small people may bring good luck.’
TESTIMONY FROM KING ARTHUR’S COUNTRY
Leaving the Land’s End district and South Cornwall, we now pass northward to King Arthur’s country. Our chief researches there are to be made outside the beaten track of tourists as far as possible, in the country between Camelford and Tintagel. At Delabole, the centre of this district, we find our first witness, Henry Spragg, a retired slate-quarry-man, seventy years old. Mr. Spragg has had excellent opportunities of hearing any folk-lore that might have been living during his lifetime; and what he offers first is about King Arthur :-
We always thought of King Arthur as a great warrior. And many a time I’ve heard old people say that he used to appear in this country in the form of a nath.’ (1) This was all that could be told of King Arthur; and the conversation finally was directed toward piskies, with the following results :-
A man named Bottrell, who lived near St. Teath, was pisky-led at West Down, and when he turned his pockets inside out he heard the piskies going away laughing. (2) Often my grandmother used to say when I got home after dark, “You had better mind, or the piskies will carry you away.” And I can remember hearing the old people say that the piskies are the spirits of dead-born children.’ From pixies the conversation drifted to the spirit-hounds ‘often heard at night near certain haunted downs in St. Teath parish’, and then, finally, th ordinary Cornish legends about the dead.
Our next witnesses from Delabole are John Male, eighty-
(1) I asked what a nath is, and Mr. Spragg explained :- ‘ A nath is a bird wth a beak like that of a parrot, and with black and grey feathers. The naths live on sea-islands in holes like rabbits, and before they start to fly they first run.’ The nath, as Mr. Henry Jenner informs me, is the same as the puffin (Fratercula arctica), called also in Cornwall a ‘sea parrot’.
(2) Sometimes it is necessary to turn your coat inside out. A Zennor man said that to do the same thing with your socks or stockings is as good. In Ireland this strange psychological state of going astray comes from walking over a fairy domain, over a confusing-sod, or getting into a fairy pass.
two years old, one of the very oldest men in King Arthur’s country, and his wife; and all of Mr. Male’s ancestors as far back as he can trace them have lived in the same parish.
Piskies in General.-
Mr. Male remarked :- ‘ I have heard a good deal about the piskies, but I can’t remember any of the old women’s tales. I have heard, too, of people saying that they had seen the piskies. It was thought that when the piskies have misled you they show themselves jumping about in front of you; they are a race of little people who live out in the fields.’ Mrs. Male had now joined us at the open fire, and added :- ‘ Piskies always come at night, and in marshy ground there are round places called pisky beds where they play. When I was little, my mother and grandmother would be sitting round the fire of an evening telling fireside stories, and I can remember hearing about a pisky of this part who stole a new coat, and how the family beard him talking to himself about it, and then finally say :-
Pisky fine and pisky gay,
Pisky ‘s got a bright new coat,
Pisky now will run away.
And I can just remember one bit of another story: A pisky looked into a house and said :-
All alone, fair maid?
No, here am I with a dog and cat,
And apples to eat and nuts to crack.’
A retired rural policeman of the Tintagel country, where he was born and reared, and now keeper of the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery at Newlyn, offered this testimony from Tintagel :- ‘ In Tintagel I used to sit round the fire at night and hear old women tell so much about piskies and ghosts that I was then afraid to go out of doors after darkness had fallen. They religiously believed in such things, and when I expressed my doubts I was driven away as a rude boy. They thought if you went to a certain place at a certain hour of the night that you could there see the piskies as little spirits. It was held that the piskies could lead you astray and play tricks on you, but that they never did you any serious injury.’ Of the Arthurian folk-legend at Tintagel he said :- ‘ The spirit of King Arthur is supposed to be in the Cornish chough - a beautiful black bird with red legs and red beak.’
This is taken from The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.
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