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Modern Survivals of Old Beliefs

L J Dickinson  (Old Cornwall 1935ish)



Those who have lived in Cornwall for many years, and who are in touch with its country-folk, often come cross old practices of witchcraft that they formerly thought as exploded superstitions-for instance, about two years ago, a tale was related to me by a woman who worked in my house, about a curious happening in the Holsworthy district. She knew one of the persons herself, and she also averred that the truth of the tale was vouched for by a respectable tradesman in the district. It concerns a farmer and a postman near Holsworthy. The postman delivered letters at the farm, and to save time he made a short cut across some fields where there was no path, and no right-of-way. The farmer forbade his doing so, and they had a great quarrel. Shortly afterwards everything at the farm went wrong; the crops failed, the pigs died, and the butter wouldn't come. On considering the matter the farmer came to the conclusion that he had been "overlooked," and he went to a white witch to see if his suspicions were true. The witch gave him a glass of water, and told him to gaze into it intently. He did so, and he saw forming on the surface of the water, a face, which was the face of the postman! He felt so annoyed and angry that he thrust his finger into the eye of the face he saw in the water, and then he came away. Soon afterwards it was observed that the postman had become blind in one eye. It had gradually withered away, apparently for no reason at all, but every one knew it was because the farmer had poked out the eye he saw in the vision in the glass of water.

Besides "ill wishing" or "over-looking," there are charms for benevolent purposes, such as curing ailments, snake bites, rheumatism, removing warts, etc. Here is a remedy for curing a stye in the eye, or what is locally known as a "quillaway." You stroke the eyelid with a Tom-cat's tail three times, three mornings running; and it must be done very early, before the dew is off the ground. Another informant who knew of this practice said a single hair was equally efficacious, but it must be from a cat. In another cure for the same trouble, the charmer stands with a rolling-pin and points it at the sufferer, who must say 'what are you pointing at? The charmer replies Not you not you'. The patient then says, "What are you pointing at?' 'At your eye," answers the charmer; "I drive the stye away," and away it goes! Cats seem to be in favour for medical treatment, even for curing measles. It is recommended by one white witch in my neighbourhood that you should cut off the cat's left ear, and drop three drops of its blood into a wineglass full of spring water. You then administer the remedy to the child who has measles.

Other curious things are recommended in this district. For whooping-cough you fill a little muslin bag full of spiders, tie it round the neck of the patient, who wears it day and night, and the cough departs; for asthma, spiders are again made use of. In this case the webs of spiders must be collected, rolled up into a litttle ball in the palm of the hand, and then swallowed.

I wonder whether there is a vestige of ancient knowledge behind some of these ancient remedies? Is it possible that there may be an antidote or antiseptic in spiders which forgotten lore was acquainted with, and that practice has continued without the knowledge? We know that ants and bees secrete formic acid from which formaldehyde, and also that common remedy for sore throats, formamint, are made. And I wonder whether there is any electricity in a cats tail which may stimulate a stye to depart? We know that cats are very electric animals.

There was, till some years ago, an old man in Tintagel who was always considered to be a wise-man or white witch. Old Martin, as he was called, and whom I knew well, had many charms for various troubles, such as warts sprains, burns etc. He cured a girl I know of warts, by what resembles the "absent treatment" given by Christian Scientists. The mother of the child went to him for help and all he asked of her was the name of the afflicted one. Then he said, " Go home, her'll be all right" and in a week all the warts had gone. This old man would never take money for his charms all he would accept was a little tobacco on another day, and the recipients of his benefits were not even allowed to thank him. He had a curious spell for curing sprains. It does not seem quite complete so perhaps he witheld part of it. What was told to me was this: the charmer must take hold of the injured limb, and say, "As our Saviour went over God's bridge, he caught his toe in a stone and he got a sprain. Then comes Peter who stretched it out, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, skin to skin. I hope every drop of blood in thy body will run, in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost." This was written as Old Martin said it. Another charm of the old man's is for curing boils. He divulged, it when very ill, to the District Nurse, and she confided it to me. The spell has to be recited over the patient, using his or her own name in the right place:-"Susie Brown, three angels came from the west. One had fire, the others had water and frost. Out Fire! In, Water and Frost! In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

An old man, in a parish not far from Tintagel, confided to the Rector's wife a way of frustrating the evil intentions of the person who had ill-wished you. This lady is a friend of mine and she handed on the information to me. When you are ill-wished and you know who has done it, you must procure a photograph of that person, and then you write his or her name across the face in the picture, and throw the photograph in the fire. You can't be hurt after that, for it breaks the spell. The old man who told this charm to my friend had been ruined by a law-suit brought against him by an enemy. He longed to obtain a photograph of the ill-wisher, but so far had not been successful.

This tale seems to be a modern version of the ancient method of making a wax image of one's enemy, and then melting it before a fire. Psalm 68, verse 2, probably refers to the same practice: "As wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God." An adaptation of this psalm is used as a charm for curing snake-bite. A former vicar of Bolventor (that lonely parish on the Bodmin Moor), gave me an account of how a dog had been bitten by an adder, and its head had swollen to the size of a football. The charm was repeated over it by a "wise-man" in the locality, and immediately the swelling diminished and the dog recovered. The words used were:-Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered. Let them that hate Him flee before Him. Like as the smoke vanisheth so shalt thou drive them away, and like as wax melteth at the fire, so let this poison perish at the presence of God, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen." My informant said that in the case of a human being, belief in the efficacy of the charm was necessary, but it did not matter for an animal. He also added that the practice of charming was much resorted to by his parishioners on the moor, and that when their animals are bitten by adders, it is the wise-man who is sent for rather than the veterinary surgeon. Sometimes they sent twelve miles for a charmer of special ability. He justly said that if the wise-man had been successful, and the people had suffered loss through their creatures dying in spite of being charmed, the witch would soon have been forsaken for the vet.

It is the success of the wise-man that makes him still popular, and which is to us is such a curious problem.


cf Modern Survivals of Old Beliefs L J Dickinson 'The Occult Review' November 1917