Cornish Folklore, Myths and Legends

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Carn Kenidjack - Winter Sky
Carn Kenidjack

As recently as 1949, a Cornish woman was observed making a sacrifice as her husband was dying. She took a black cock to the window and wrung its neck. She explained that it was so the cock could accompany her husband’s soul to the gates of heaven. When St Peter saw the cock, it would remind him of his denial of Christ and move him to mercy so that he would allow her husband through the heavenly gates!

The waters of the well at Altarnun were believed to cure madness. The lunatic would be dipped into the well and then taken into the church for a mass to be sung over him. When he regained his sanity, prayers of thanks would be offered to St Non.

Towards the end of the First World War, strange lights were seen along the Cornish coast. These were said to be flashed by a Cornishman who had been drowned by German submarine action. Like the lamps of the old wreckers, they lured ships to destruction - but not all ships. The lights were only sighted by German ships and submarines.

A long time ago, two miners were passing Carn Kenidjack one night when they saw a horseman dressed in black who invited them to watch a wrestling match. The miners accepted but soon found they had joined a crowd of frightful demons, commanded by the horseman who was the Devil in disguise. When one of the wrestling demons was thrown against a rock and injured, the miners whispered a prayer to him. The earth shook and all the demons were sucked into a black crowd, shrieking and cursing.

The Devil had quite a lot of fun in Cornwall. One night he was flying across the sky, carrying a large stone with which to block the gate of hell. St Michael saw him and they had a great battle. The Devil dropped the stone and the spot where it fell became known as Hell’s Stone or Helston. The stone itself is said to have been built into the wall of the Angel Hotel. To celebrate St Michael’s victory, the local people danced through the streets and started the custom of the Furry Dance

Any breach of the local moral code called for Rough Music, a noisy, unruly demonstration which invariably drove the offender from the community. Such offences as adultery and incest were unofficially punished in this way. In 1880, six men of Stoke Climsland were prosecuted for causing an obstruction in this way. Their lawyer pleaded ancient custom and only small fines were imposed. I wonder whether such a plea would hold today, and I wonder how many of these beliefs still lurk in hidden corners of Cornwall.

Monday for danger,
Tuesday kiss a stranger,
Wednesday for a letter,
Thursday for something better,
Friday for sorrow,
Saturday see your lover tomorrow.
Sneeze on Sunday morning fasting,
Enjoy your true love for everlasting.

This was a Cornish version of a well-known verse about sneezing. It was also said to be lucky to sneeze once before breakfast, but unlucky to sneeze twice.

Among St Ives fishermen, it was an unpardonable sin to whistle by night. Whistling down a mine was also believed to be unlucky, as it annoyed the 'Knockers' (mischievous sprites who inhabited the dark regions below ground).

Some Cornish superstitions were quite gruesome. For example, the dead hand of a felon or suicide was believed to have healing properties, but only for those unrelated to the victim. Touching the dead was to gain the strength of the departed. At least this was preferable to eating the dead for the same purpose, as practised in some more remote cultures!

Bramble leaves were used to heal burns, scalds and inflammations. Nine leaves were floated in a basin of water from a holy well. The following verse was repeated three times as each leaf was passed over and away from the diseased part:

' There came three angels out of the East, One brought fire and two brought frost
Out fire and in frost, In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost’

Wart charmers still abound in Cornwall today, and even local doctors have been known to recommend them! But long ago there were many ways of charming away warts. One was to take a pod containing nine peas, rub it on the warts then throw it away saying, Wart, wart, dry away. Another cure was to catch the full moon’s rays in a dry metal basin then, washing the hands in it, to say: I wash my hands in this thy dish, O man in the moon, do grant my wish, And come and take away this.

A full moon on a Saturday was called the Sailor’s Curse. A Cornish child born in the dark of the moon was not expected to live long. If the birth took place when the moon was waxing, the next child born to the family would be of the same sex; if the moon was waning, the next child would be the opposite sex.

It is said that a ghostly bell was often heard to strike four and eight bells in a churchyard near Land’s End. The sound came from the grave of a sea captain who refused to leave his sinking ship when she was wrecked off the Cornish coast. The ship went down at exactly midnight whilst the captain was striking the hour on the bell. To hear the bell was considered to be bad luck. One sailor who heard this tale went to the graveyard to listen. He heard the bell and was lost at sea on his very next trip.

When a search was made for a person who had drowned, it was believed the boat would come to a sudden standstill over the spot where the body lay. This is only one of the many superstitions of Cornish fishermen. Another is that it is bad luck to go near the scene of a former wreck, as the dead crew sometimes call to the living. Anyone called by name knows that his fate is sealed.

It is generally believed to be unlucky to count the catch of fish, but an old counting chant was used in Cornwall as the nets were drawn aboard. The chant was spoken in Cornish long after the language ceased to be used elsewhere. Perhaps it was hoped the evil spirits would not understand the old language!

Did you know that people with red hair, in Cornwall at least, cannot make good butter? Or that the sun never shines on a perjurer? At least, if it does, he will be unable to feel its warmth or see its light. There is a Cornish cure for epilepsy. A black cock, which does not have a single white feather, should be buried at the spot where the sufferer falls into a fit. A cure for rheumatism and sprains can be effected by a footling or his mother. A footling is one who is born feet first and, in the past, he was often begged to trample on a sufferer or to rub his feet against an afflicted part.

The next time you see a white hare in Cornwall, beware, especially if your lover died of grief after you deserted her. It is in this form that such maltreated girls return to haunt their betrayers. But on the brighter sign, three candles burning together are the sign of a wedding.

It was believed at one time that plants pined away if not told of a death in the family. In the early nineteenth century, a child was accidentally burnt to death. In St Hilary, his grandmother attached a little black flag to her mignonette, which had begun to wilt after the death. The plant revived after she attached the piece of mourning. Similarly twenty two plants belonging to the woman’s daughter in Penzance began to droop but were saved by scraps of black material being tied to each of them.

Tin miners had their own superstitions. If they met a bullhorn or snail on the way to work, they avoided ill luck by giving it some of their dinner or a little tallow from their lanthorns. A miner would never say the word cat when down the mine. And should a cat be found in the mine, the men would not work on that level again until the offending creature had been killed.

Ants, known locally as meryons or muryons, were said to be fairies in the last stages of their earthly existence. Fairies were sometimes believed to be Druids who had refused to accept Christianity so were condemned to lose human status. Consequently, it was unlucky to destroy an ants’ nest. However, if a piece of tin was inserted into a nest at precisely the right moment when the moon was new, the tin would turn into silver. Playing with an ants’ nest seems less risky than attempting to catch a swarm of bees. But, if the finder quickly threw a handkerchief over such a swarm, he could claim not only the bees but the luck they carried with them.

There are many, many more Cornish legends. Each small hamlet had its own tales of long ago and its own local superstitions. To tell all the stories would fill a book, so these are just a few. Elsewhere you might read about the mermaid of Zennor, who seduced a squire’s son, or the activities of Jan Tregeagle, scourge of the Padstow area. But those are tales for another day…