Introduction To Cornish Fairy Folklore

Here you fill find 18th and 19th Century authentic stories of fairies: Stories of the noble and the dark sides of what were considered to be beings from The Otherworld. You will find creatures that are playful, mischievous, and roguish, sometimes helpful to mortals, mostly not. You will find, however, that the culprit is, more often than not, the mortal and his or her greed, not the fairy. You will not find the watered–down versions so popular today—for those, look elsewhere.

Where do Fairies make a Ring?—
On England’s green they dance and sing.

Where lived Jack the Killer bold?—
With Giants in Cornwall, so I’m told.

Where did Merlin hide his head?—
In the mists of Wales, ’tis said.

Where did Witches’ caldrons bubble?—
In Scotland fair, with toil and trouble.

Where hid Leprechaun red–capped?—
In Ireland, fairy shoes he tapped.

Live Fairies in the Isle of Man?—
They do! I’ve told you all I can!

Reference: Olcott, Wonder Tales from Fairy Isles, page vi.)

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I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.

(Shakespeare.)

The Fairies

“Elves, urchins, goblins all, and little fairies.”
Mad Prankes.

By the moon we sport and play;
With the night begins our day;
As we dance the dew doth fall–
Trip it little urchins all;
Lightly as the little bee,
Two by two, and three by three,
And about go we, and about go we.

—LYLIE, Maydes’ Metamorphoses

Reference: (Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, First Series, page 78.)
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Rushen Glen

The pale moon wanes,
The morn is cold,
Each Fairy, Elf and Fay
Snug in a flower
Enwraps herself
To wait the broad bright day.

From our flow’ry beds
We rise again
And bathe in the pearly dew’
Then take the air
With a butterfly pair
Linked to a petal blue.

The evening comes,
Adown the Streams,
We sail to the Rushen Glen
On a lily leaf—
And meet once more
In song and dance again.

Reference: Olcott, Wonder Tales from Fairy Isles, page 58.)

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The ‘Elfin Creed of Cornwall’

Robert Hunt introduces his chapter on ‘Romances of the Fairies” in the 1871 edition of Popular Romances of the West of England as follows:

To thee the fairy state
I with discretion dedicate;
Because thou prizest things that are
Curious and unfamiliar”

Oberon’s Feast.—ROBBERT HERRICK.

To the "Fairy Mythology" of Thomas Keightley, I must refer all those who are desirous of examining the metamorphoses which this family of spiritual beings undergo, in passing from one country to another. My business is with the Cornish branch of this extensive family, and I shall be in a position to show that, notwithstanding Mr Keightley has entirely excluded Cornwall from consideration, there exists, even to the present day, a remarkable fairy mythology in that county. Between thirty and forty years since, ere yet the influences of our practical education had disturbed the poetical education of the people, every hill and valley, every tree, shrub, and flower was peopled with spiritual creations, deriving their characteristics from the physical peculiarities amidst which they were born. Extending over the whole district which was formerly known as Danmonium,—embracing not only Cornwall, but Devonshire, to the eastern edge of Dartmoor,—we find a mythology, which varies but little in its main features. Beyond an imaginary line, drawn in a north–westerly direction from the mouth of the Teign to the rise of the Torridge, the curiously wild and distinguishing superstitions of the "Cornwallers" fade away, and we have those which are common to Somersetshire and the more fertile counties of mid–England.

The Piscy or Pixy of East Devon and Somersetshire is a different creature from his cousin of a similar name in Cornwall. The former is a mischievous, but in all respects a very harmless creation, who appears to live a rollicking life amidst, the luxuriant scenes of those beautiful counties. The latter, the piskies of Cornwall, appear to have their wits sharpened by their necessities, and may be likened to the keen and cunning "Arab" boy of the London streets, as seen in contrast with the clever child who has been reared in every comfort of a well–regulated home. A gentleman, well known in the literary world of London, very recently told me, that he once saw in Devonshire a troop of fairies. It was a breezy summer afternoon, and these beautiful little creatures were floating on the circling zephyrs up the side of a sunlit hill, and fantastically playing

"Where oxlips and the nodding violet grow." They are truly the fairies of "Midsummer Night’s Dream." They haunt the most rural and romantic spots, and they gather

“On hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain, or by rushy brook,
Or on the beached margent of the sea,
To dance their ringlets to the whistling wind.”

No such fairies are ever met with on Dartmoor. A few, judging from Mrs Bray’s tales, may have been tempted into the lovely valley of the Tavy, but certainly they never crossed the Tamar. The darker shades in the character of the Cornish fairy almost dispose me to conclude that they belong to an older family than those of Devonshire.

It should be understood that there are in Cornwall five varieties of the fairy family, clearly distinguishable—

1. The Small People,
2. The Spriggans,
3. Piskies, or Pigseys,
4. The Buccas, Bockles, or Knockers,
5. The Browneys.

Of the Small People I have heard two accounts. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the tradition of their origin does not apply to the whole five branches of this ancient family. The Small People are believed by some to be the spirits of the people who inhabited Cornwall many thousands of years ago—long, long before the birth of Christ. That they were not good enough to inherit the joys of heaven, but that they were too good to be condemned to eternal fires. They were said to be "poor innocents" (this phrase is now applied to silly children). When they first came into this land, they were much larger than they are now, but ever the birth of Christ they have been getting smaller and smaller. Eventually they will turn into muryans (ants), and at last be lost from the face of the earth. These Small People are exceeding playful amongst themselves, but they are usually demure they know that any human eye sees them. They commonly aid those people to whom they take a fancy, and, frequently, they been known to perform the most friendly acts towards men and women. The above notion corresponds with the popular belief in Ireland, which is, "that the fairies are a portion of the fallen angels, who, being less guilty than the rest, were not driven to hell, but were suffered to dwell on earth." In Cornwall, as in Wales, another popular creed is, that the fairies are Druids becoming—because they will not give up their idolatries—smaller and smaller. These Small People in many things closely resemble the Elves of Scandinavia.

The Spriggans are quite a different class of beings. In some respects they appear to be offshoots from the family of the Trolls of Sweden and Denmark. The Spriggans are found only about the cairns, coits, or cromlechs, burrows, or detached stones, with which it is unlucky for mortals to meddle. A correspondent writes: "This is known, that they were a remarkably mischievous and thievish tribe. If ever a house was robbed, a child stolen, cattle carried away, or a building demolished, it was the work of the Spriggans. Whatever commotion took place in earth, air, or water, it was all put down as the work of these spirits. Wherever the giants have been, there the Spriggans have been also. It is usually considered that they are the ghosts of the giants; certainly, from many of their feats, we must suppose them to possess a giant’s strength. The Spriggans have the charge of burried treasure."

The Piskie—This fairy is a most mischievous and very unsociable sprite. His favourite fun is to entice people into the bogs by appearing like the light from a cottage window, or as a man carrying a lantern. The Piskie partakes, in many respects, of the character of the Spriggan. So wide–spread were their depredations, and so annoying their tricks, that it at one time was necessary to select persons whose acuteness and ready tact were match for these quick–witted wanderers, and many a clever man has become famous for his power to give charms against Pigseys. It does not appear, however, that anything remarkable was required of the clever man. "No Pigsey could harm a man if his coat were inside–out, and it became a very common practice for persons who had to go from village to village by night, to wear their jacket or cloak so turned, ostensibly to prevent the dew from taking the shine off the cloth, but in reality to render them safe from the Pigseys."

They must have been a merry lot, since to “l"laugh like a Piskie" is a popular saying. These little fellows were great plagues to the farmers, riding their colts and chasing their cows.

The Buccas or Knockers.—These are the sprites of the mines, and correspond to the Kobals of the German mines, the Duergars, and the Trolls. They are said to be the souls of the Jews who formerly worked the tin–mines of Cornwall. They are not allowed to rest because of their wicked practices as tinners, and they share in the general curse which ignorant people believe still hangs on this race.

The Browney.—This spirit was purely of the household. Kindly and good, he devoted his every care to benefit the family with whom he had taken up his abode. The Browney has fled, owing to his being brought into very close contact with the school–master, and he is only summoned now upon the occasion of the swarming of the bees. When this occurs, mistress or maid seizes a bell–metal, or a tin pan, and, beating it, she calls "Browney, Browney!" as loud as she can until the good Browney compels the bees to settle.

Mr Thoms has noticed that in Cornwall "the moths which some regard as departed souls, others as fairies, are called Pisgies. This is somewhat too generally expressed; the belief respecting the moth, so far as I know, is confined to one or two varieties only. Mr Couch informs us that the local name, around Polperro, the weasel isFairy. So that we have evidence of some sort of: metempsychosis amongst the elf family. Moths, ants, and weasels, it would seem are the forms taken by those wandering spirits."

We read in Bishop Corbet, whose work was published in I648, and was reprinted many years after by Bishop Percy—

"The fairies
Were of the old profession;
Their songs were Ave Marias,
Their dances were procession.
But now, alas! they all are dead,
Or gone beyond the seas,
Or, further, for religion fled,
Or else they take their ease."

Other writers have supposed that at the time of the Reformation the fairies departed from the land. This hypothesis is not warranted by evidence. It is possible that they may have taken possession of some of the inferior creatures, but they are certainly to be found in those regions which lie beyond the reach of railway–giant, with his fiery mouth, or of that electric spirit, traveling on his mysterious wires, can beat the wildest elf that ever mounted "night–steeds."

Reference: (Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, First Series, pages 78–83.)
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From the Forward to Piskey Folk

The following is by Elizabeth Yates who found additional stories collected by Enis Tregarthen in the 1940 book Piskey Folk:

Where the westernmost corner of England dips off to the sea is a land so different that it is called "the land outside England." Only the width of the Tamar river separates Cornwall from other English counties, but more than the flowing of water lies between. Cornwall’s history goes far, far back, and, as it is held to in legends and stories, words and customs, the past lives on with almost as much reality as the present.

Cornwall is a land of rugged cliffs against which the Atlantic rolls, of sandy coves and little villages, of bare, windy moors, tin mines, white pyramidal heaps where the china clay is dug, and a race of people who share an enchanted quality with their land. From Tintagel in the north, where the old door opening onto the ruins of King Arthur’s castle opens onto a world of romance, to the salty fishing towns in the south, the land between lies under an age–old charm: go through the little door, turn the pages of your fairy–tale book and—almost anything may happen.

Here, in this sunset land, the Arthurian legends grew and flourished. Here one may look across the sea to where the lost land of Lyonesse lies sunk beneath the waves and on soft nights hear bells ringing under the water or see the twist of a mermaid’s tail. To this cragged coast the Celtic saints came to implant Christianity, sailing over from Ireland on a leaf or a millstone or in a bowl, building their churches and leading their lives of mingled fantasy and faith. Earlier still are tales of the Phoenicians coming here for tin, of merchants from Gaul; and earlier than that are the Druids and the little ancient men who first inhabited the land.

They have all left their marks: in the strange carns upon the hilltops, the hut circles, and old stones with their dark memories of pagan priests and mystic rites; in holy wells and Celtic crosses and churches worn gray with years but stalwart and beautiful; and they are all linked together in the tales one generation has left another.

Cornwall’s own particular fairy folk are the Piskeys, and legends about them are as plentiful as sea shells. Living in the cliffs or on the moors, they were known to lead a prankish, but often useful, existence, always exceedingly merry. Some believe that they were once related to a pygmy race of Neolithic times; others hold to an earlier notion that they were Druids who resisted Christianity, and the more they resisted the smaller they grew. It was always thought they had lived before and not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell remained on the earth. Yes, Cornwall is a land where almost anything may happen, where legends brood and the past is hugged closely like a cloak.

In one of Enys Tregarthen’s notebooks is a quaint explanation of the Piskeys.

"According to an old legend,” she writes,”the Almighty went to call on Adam and Eve one day after they had been driven out of the Garden of Eden. When He arrived, Mother Eve was washing her children. She had not washed them all, for she had so many, and so she brought to the Lord only those that she had washed.

"’Have you no other children?’ the Lord God asked.

"’No,’ answered Eve, for she was ashamed to present to Him her little unwashed children and had hidden them.

"The Lord God was angry and said, ‘What man hides from God, God will hide from man.’

"It came to pass as the Lord God had said, and all the unwashed children of the first mother became invisible. They went away into the hills, woods, forests, and lonely places of the earth and there took up their abode. They have remained invisible to the eye of man ever since, save to the few who have the faculty of seeing them or to those to whom they reveal themselves.

"These unwashed children of Eve are the fairies and are known throughout the world by different names.

"In Cornwall they are generally called Piskeys, but they have many other names too. Some call them the Small People; others the Dinky Men and Women or the Dinkies; some speak of them as the Little Invisibles. There are many kinds of Piskeys, such as the nightriders or the tiny people who ride horses and colts and even dogs by night; and the knockers or little miners who work and play down in the old mines. There are Spriggans, too, bad Piskeys with whom no one wants to have anything to do.

"These little invisible folk have their dwelling places on the wild downs and moors, by the side of streams, bogs, and marshes; on the great granite–piled hills; on the commons and cliffs and even down by the sea. They live in tribes or clans, each clan having peculiar qualities or characteristics, and though they show a common origin they differ considerably from one another." The old Cornish people still tell tales of Piskeys, and through the years the stories have sometimes changed a bit, giving rise to different versions, sometimes lost a bit here or there. They might have been lost altogether but for the efforts of a few writers eager to perpetuate them.

Enys Tregarthen collected and wrote down many of the legends. Some were published in little books that are loved by story tellers and valued by students of folklore, and, though these books have long been out of print, many a library still treasures them upon its shelves. Now a whole new group of her stories has come to light, equally worthy of preservation.

Many years ago, Enys Tregarthen lived in the shipping town of Padstow on the north coast of Cornwall. The "little cripple" the country folk call her still, since most of her life was spent as an invalid. She loved Cornwall, and she loved the Cornish legends, and she did not want them to be lost, so she began writing them down—those she had been told as a child, and those she had heard from the old people whose memories seemed to go back to the beginning of time.

Whenever she learned of someone who had seen the Piskeys, she would ask that person to come and tell her about them. Sometimes it was a family story she would be told, like those of Jan Pendogget and Josey Tregaskis, similar to many another tale told in all parts of the country; sometimes it was a legend, hanging to the past by a frail, thin thread of memory, like the story of Bucca Boo.

A few of the tales have been folklore for ages, told in many versions all over Cornwall; others are peculiar to some spot, like The Piskey Warriors which was related by one of the natives of the Goss Moor who said she had both seen and heard the Piskeys. An old woman of ninety–four, named Rebekah French, who had often heard the story when a little girl, told of Alsey Trenowth and her broken promise, and, though she was never able to locate the exact spot where it had happened, she described it as an outlandish place on the moor.

An ancient dame of Davidstow was the very woman who was too curious, for it was in her own cottage that she had looked through the keyhole and seen the Piskeys cleaning her room and keeping it like a new pin. On the moors of the St. Columb district the legend of The Boy Who Played with the Piskeys was current. It was told to Enys Tregarthen by an old woman who said she put it as it was told her many years ago by a very old woman.

One day last summer when my husband, William McGreal, and I were in Cornwall, we called upon a relative of Enys Tregarthen’s. We told her of our love for the old tales and of our wondering if there could be others. It was a gray day; a rain–laden mist was sweeping in from the sea, and the wind was howling down the chimney. We had tea by the fire, a great steaming pot of it, some saffron buns, and "thunder and lightning"—that very special dish which is bread and Cornish cream and treacle on it. Then we were taken up to Enys Tregarthen’s old room, one window of which looked out across the wide Camel river to the St. Minversand hills, the other to the rocky tors of Bodmin Moor.

A little trunk was pulled into the center of the room and opened before us. In it were scrapbooks, letters, and—more stories! They were bound in brown paper and neatly tied together, and all were written in Enys Tregarthen’s careful hand. The paper had yellowed, in places the ink had faded and was not easy to read. There was a thick old smell of dust and all the years between, but the stories were fresh and glowing, filled with Cornwall. And while the wind blew and the rain swept against the windows, we sat on the floor and read the stories.

Here they are—legends and tales of Cornish folk and Cornish fairies on hill and moor and seacoast; and with them photographs of those very hills and moors and coasts. We put them both in your hands now.

Elizabeth Yates.
Meadowlands
Hancock, N. H.
March, 1940

Reference: Tregarthen, Piskey Folk / A Book of Cornish Legends, pages 5–11.)
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Forward from Wonder Tales from Fairy Isles

The British Isles are preeminently above all other isles, the home of the Fairies. England, Wales, Scotland, with Man, Ireland, and the islands in the British seas are said, in Fairy Cult, to be inhabited by multitudes of soul–less little people that go invisible.

Airy faerie beings of fantasy are they, appearing, vanishing, and disappearing, in lovely, quaint, or grotesque forms. They are the People of Peace, Good Folk, Little People, Gentry, Kind Neighbors, Fair Family. They are, also, Leprechauns, Cluricauns, Brownies, Pucks, Hobgoblins, and other "Fairies and Elves! shadows of night," filmy and tiny, or of puckish shape, or expanding to human size. Of various colors are they, "Fairies black, gray, green, and white." And of a moonlit eve they dance and sway to ravishing elfin music in Fairy Rings; they frolic and gambol on green heights, or float in misty wreaths along hillsides. They hold goblin markets in the meadows. From harebells they quaff nectar of dew, dine off spreading mushroom–tops, feast on elfin food, cradle their babes in flowers, turn burgs, raths, or forts—the fairy mounds—into elfin palaces gleaming with treasures. They guard Fairy Gold. They steal pretty maids and brave youths, kidnap human infants and leave changeling brats instead. They pixy–lead the traveller, tease the foolish, hound the wicked, reward the kind, and spin and churn and reap and thresh for the good farm–folk all for a bannock and a bowl of cream.

Capricious and captious are the Fairies, generous and grateful, whimsical, mischievous, and tricksy as elfin fancy leads. And such fine wee things they are with their protective coloration of spring green and the hues of flowers, or starting up from earth arrayed in pointed red cap and green jacket. There are sociable Fairies, hosts of them, following King Oberon and Mab his Queen. There are odd little fellows who love solitude and tap fairy brogues, sitting lonely under quiet hedges.

Innocent imaginings are these, joys of the nursery, fair flowers from the garden of fancy, magic seed of poesy, bewitching alike the Morning Star of Song and the Swan of Avon —Fancy’s Child—and charming the stern moods of the titan Milton.

And the Fairies are rhythmic creatures. They may not be approached through prose alone. The pulse of fairy–life beats in swaying rhythmic verse. So in this book will be found tales of Elves and witchery strung like precious fairy jewels on a gossamer thread of pale moonbeam, alternating with tiny beads of clan song, madrigal, and charm. And this wonder necklace, this chain of fairy gems flashing with morning dew, may it delight our children by its freshness.

The nursery tales they know so well, like "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Jack and the Bean Stalk," they must look for in the Fairy Books of Mr. Lang, Mr. Rhys, Mr. Jacobs, and other folk–lorists who have collected and edited for children. And fairy doings from all the world over they will find in my own Book of Elves and Fairies. But when they pass through the magic portals of this Wonder Tales from Fairy Isles, may they wander delightedly in new elfin realms. Even the snatches of fairy song and verse, we hope will be new to them. In order to preserve the illusion of Fairy Land, the authors of the verses and rhymes are given only in the table of contents.

The irrational side of folk–lore with its death raps, death lights, banshees, howling ghosts, bloody beasts, and other gruesome wights, is not here. Such lore is of deep interest to the student of folk–custom and belief, but is not for our children.

The British Fairies are scientific data to the antiquarian who is busy drawing their history from mounds, dusty archives, and the lips of old folk who remember what their grandparents taught them. For the origin of the Fairy Cult of the United Kingdom is bound up with the history of early Britain.

The several theories advanced for the origin of British Fairies are discussed elsewhere by learned folk–lorists. One theory, widely accepted, is that they are survivals of the Druid Cult.

In my Foreword to Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards, I have tried to show how such favorites as "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" and other folk–tales of magicians and enchanters, have had their genesis in the soul enslaving Cult of Shamanism.

And it would seem that the witcheries of the Fairy Folk are but the miasmas from expiring heathen superstition. Under the spell of folk–fancy, these noxious exhalations have been transmuted into a Fairy Cult, one side of which is mirky and sinister. But the poetic childlike side is as beautiful as the pure white waterlily that arises from the breast of the stagnant pool.

It is claimed by many folk–lorists, that the Celtic gods and goddesses came under the transforming influence of Christianity. These heathen deities were worshipped and placated in ways largely evil, even with human sacrifice. The inhabitants of Britain, newly converted, were taught by their missionaries that followers of Christ Our Lord should abstain from worshipping these false gods. The partly Christianized people, loath to let their house hold gods go and still half believing in their eerie power to harm or help, in time dwarfed or etherealized them by the action of folk imagination. They believed them to be soulless diminutive people. And even today, largely in country districts, specially in Man and Ireland, there are people who speak fearfully or affectionately of the Fairies, though they dare not call them that fearing to offend, but say Good People or other placating names.

As the stories in this book show, the fairy lore of the racial divisions of the United Kingdom has distinctive characteristics. Ireland is a treasure house of Celtic fairy survivals, folk tales homely and humorous, fairy charms, beliefs and legends; and ancient literary Celtic romances and poems colorful and heroic with the deeds of the semi–mythological Daanan race that came to be thought fairy. In Wales, the Cambrian Tylwyth Teg, the Fairies, are not so omnipresent, but they sport and play; while at times appear the Fays, or Fairy Ladies as in the Mabinogion. In quiet secluded spots in Man, the Good People frisk and gambol in blue and green and red; they hunt, steal, tease, and reward; while that sad outcast Fairy, the Phynnodderree, serves the good housewife.

Giants cumber the land of Britain, but Cornwall has a special brand of Giants possibly borrowed from the Danish invaders; and Cornwall swarms with hosts of tiny Spriggans, Knockers in the tin mines, and tricksy Piskies. Over the border in Devonshire dwell multitudes of the little Pixies, for Devonshire is as rich in fairy lore as in cream. And saucy Pixy Folk hold their elfin fairs in Somerset.

The Anglo–Saxons "believed in the existence of a certain race of little devils, that were neither absolutely spirits nor men, called Duergar or Dwarfs," we read, so Dwarfs lend their quota of wonders to our book. In Scotland the Witches toil and boil, bubble and trouble; while Brownie helps the housewife and teases the dairymaids.

And when any Child reads this book and closes his eyes,
may Peas–Blossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustard–Seed
Hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes,
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;
The honey–bags steal from the humble–bees,
And for night tapers crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow–worm’s eyes,
To have my Love to bed, and to arise;
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,
To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes;
Nod to him, Elves, and do him courtesies!

Reference: Olcott, Wonder Tales from Fairy Isles, pages vii–xiv.)

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