THE ELFIN CREED OF CORNWALL.
Elves, urchins, goblins all, and little fairyes."--Mad Franke,.
"I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green."
"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.
"To thee the fairy state
I with discretion dedicate;
Because thou prizest things that are
Curious and unfamiliar."
Oberon's Feast .-- Robert Herrick.
ln 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, [a] -- 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" [b] 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, [c]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 hat 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 since 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 exceedingly playful amongst themselves, but they are usually demure when they know that any human eye sees them. They commonly aid those people to whom they take a fancy, and, frequently, they have 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." [d] 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 arid 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 giant's strength. The Spriggans have the charge of buried 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 a 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." [e]
They must have been a merry lot, since to "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 schoolmaster, 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 Thorns 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, of the weasel is Fairy. 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 1648, and was reprinted many years after by Bishop Percy--
Were of the old profession;
Their songs were Ave Ma vies,
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 pos.. session of some of the inferior creatures, but they are certainly still to be found in those regions which lie beyond the reach of the railway-giant, with his fiery mouth, or of that electric spirit who, travelling on his mysterious wires, can beat the wildest elf that ever mounted "night-steeds."
[a] "If Alfred, as is probable, fixed the limits of Devon where the ancient eastern boundary was, between the Belgae and Durotriges on the east, and Danmonii on the west, ancient Cornwall will have included all Devon, as well as what is west of the Tamar."--Camden's, Britannia. Gough, vol. i.. p. 1.
[b] "The 'Cornwallers' overpowered by the Saxons."--Camden's: Brtannia, vol i, p. cxxxix.
[c] Traditions, Legends, Superstitions, and Sketches of Devonshire, on the Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, by Mrs Bray.
[d] See Keightley's "Fairy Mythology."
[e] The Cornish had formerly a great belief in piskays or fairies. If a traveller happened to lose his way, he immediately concluded he was "piskay led." To dispel the charm with which the "piskay-led" traveller was entangled, nothing was deemed sufficient but that of his turning one of his garments inside-out. This generally fell upon one of his stockings; and if this precaution bad been taken before the commencement of the journey, it was fully believed that no such delusion would have happened--Drew and Hitchins' History of Cornwall, p. 97