A History of Cornish Fairies and the Little Folk of Cornwall
by Kelvin Jones
In Cornwall, where I presently live, there are fairies. But let us be clear about the Cornish fairies. They were far from the diaphanous creatures with gossamer wings, beloved by the late Victorians and immortalised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (whose book, The Coming of The Fairies so surprised his readers). These were not the Little People who flitted here and there among the flowers of the meadows. They were elementals: spirits of the land and fierce protectors of its terrain. Since the land was sacred to the indigenous population of pre-industrial Cornwall, the Small People were its nature spirits.
The Cornish ( a mixture of neolithic settlers, Irish and later Welsh immigrants) believed, like all Celtic peoples, that the boundary between the living and the dead was only a thin veil. The Irish called the fairies The Mothers or the Mothers' Blessing; and fairyland was the Land of Women. They believed that the fairies lived in the pagan sidh, the burial mounds or graves which scattered the countryside. At Samhain, the end of the old Celtic year (Halloween) the fairies came out of their hills since the hills were the tomb and womb of the Sacred Mother Earth. Such was the veneration of the Earth Mother among Cornish miners in the last century that they refused to make the sign of the cross when down a mine, for fear of offending the Small People by making a gesture that would remind them of their enemy, the Christian priest.
The land of fairy was a dream of long ago when the people of the fairy mound practised their skills and put up their monuments without war or strife. It was a golden age and the fairy queen was the Earth Mother. In her Crone phase she was the Bean sidhe or woman of the fairy mounds and is still remembered in Ireland today as the "banshee", the demoness whose shriek brought about instant death.
Fairy Beliefs and Religion
Throughout the Middle Ages the fairy religion was practised by women whose Goddess was under attack by the Christian church. Many of the confessions gathered from witches by the Inquisition (in Europe) and clergy (in Britain) refer guardedly to the Little People. The evidence against Joan of Arc, for example, included the fact that she danced around a fairy tree, garlanding it. In 1566 John Walsh of Dorset, who was accused of witchcraft, admitted being able to tell if a person was bewitched, a gift bestowed on him partly by faries. Bessie Dunlop, a wise woman and healer from Ayrshire, Scotland, possessed second sight. In her trial she said she had been taught this skill by a phantom fairy named Thorne or Thorne Reid. Another witch famous for her association with fairyland was Isobel Gowdie, who often went to fairyland, entering through caverns and mounds. She also said that fairies manufactured their own elf arrowheads in their caverns.
Homes of the Fairies and Where the Little Folk Lived
Many people believed that fairies lived deep in woods where they protected the sacred groves or "nemetons". And as late as the 17th Century it was said that there were shrines kept by "a thousand old women" who taught the rites of Venus to young maidens and instructed them in the arts of shape shifting (Harry Wedeck: A Treasury of Witchcraft). Christianity would have it that the fairies were fallen angels or demonic spirits. Hence, to associate with them was to side with the Devil. However, the word fairy comes from the Latin term, fata, or "fate".The Fates were supernatural women who visited newly born children. The old English term for fairy is fay, which means enchanted or bewitched. Hence we can see that fairies are essentially a belief rooted in the tradition of the goddess worshippers of old ( that is, pre-Christian) Europe.
Fairy Folklore and Christianity
Much of the folklore of fairies was coloured by Christian teaching which persisted over centuries. It was certainly believed by many people in Cornwall that fairies were the souls of the pagan dead. That is, being unbaptized, they were then confined to a limbo where they could neither ascend into heaven nor descend into hell. They were regarded as a race apart who lived side by side with men and women but who had greater powers than human beings.
The belief that fairies were a race of diminutive beings who inhabited the body of the earth was particularly strong in the western part of Britain and may have something to do with the spread of the Celts into what was once a country populated by neolithic farmers. In Ireland, for example, the Tuatha de Danaan lived in barrows and shelters. They were shy, hard working but retreated to their woodland areas and continued to worship their own gods and goddesses. Some were skilled metal smiths, some were herdsmen and some kept small stocks of cattle and horses.
Five Types of Fairies
Robert Hunt, in his Popular Romances of the West of England, divides the Cornish fairies into five classes: The Small People, The Spriggans, The Piskies (or Pigseys), The Buccas, Bockles, or Knockers and the Browneys. The first he believed to be the spirits of the dead ancestors; the Spriggans were offshoots of the trolls and were to be found in the vicinity of cromlechs and standings stones; the piskies were mischievous sprites who led men and women astray; the buccas were sprites of the mines and the browney was a spirit of the household.
Fairy Beliefs through the Ages
Hunt's classification may or may not be true, for unlike William Bottrell, the original recorder of Cornish folklore, he often relied on secondhand sources for his stories. At the beginning of this century, another folklorist, W. Y. Evans Wentz, travelled the length and breadth of the county, collecting first hand accounts of fairy beliefs from aging residents. According to almost all the people he then met, the belief in pixies or fairies lay in ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic beliefs. Most people he talked to mentioned the word "piskies" or "little folk". According to a Mrs Jane Tregurtha of Newlyn, "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 would go to the wells blessed by the saints. Whenever anything went wrong in the kitchen at night the pixies were blamed." And at the Men An Tol there was supposed to be a guardian fairy or pixy who could make miraculous cures. Mrs Tregurtha's mother knew of a case in which a changeling was put through the stone in order to get the real child back. According to another correspondent, Mr Richard Harry of Mousehole, "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 people.”
One of his contacts was John Gilbert Guy, a seventy-eight year old fisherman from Sennen Cove. He called the fairies "the small people" and claimed that they were seen at Sennen by the hundreds. "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. 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". Another correspondent, a man named Bottrell from St Teath (not William Bottrell !) said to Wentz that the "old people (said) that the piskies are the spirits of dead-born children".
One of Wentz's contacts at this time was Miss M A Courtney, whose volume Cornish Feasts and Folklore provides us with a rare glimpse into the folk beliefs of the late 19th Century. According to Miss Courtney, the piskey in West Cornwall was "a ragged merry little fellow, interesting himself in human affairs, threshing the farmer's corn at nights, or doing other work, and pinching the maidservants when they leave the house dirty at bedtime." Several other legends prevailed at that time. Some people believed that unbaptized children were said to turn into piskies when they died; that moths were believed also to be departed souls and were in some areas referred to as piskies. It was also once a common custom in East Cornwall, when houses were built, to leave holes in walls by which the piskies could enter. To stop them up would simply drive away good luck. In West Cornwall knobs of lead, known as pisky's paws or feet were placed at intervals on roofs of farm houses to prevent the piskies from dancing on them and turning the milk sour. Miss Courtney maintained that the spriggans or sprites were spiteful creatures who carried off babies from their mothers and substituted changelings. Knockers or mine fairies were thought to be the souls of Jews who crucified Christ and were sent by the Romans to work as slaves in the tin mines. Knockers, like spriggans, were ugly and vindictive creatures. The Bucca was a spirit who had to be propitiated. Originally the Bucca may well have been a localized form of Celtic deity.
All in all, even now, in the era of smartphones and high speed communications, if you venture onto the remote moors of Bodmin near to here, one should always be aware of the fairy presence.