home features exhibitions | interviewsprofileswebprojects | gazetteer archive


The Fairy-faith in Celtic Countries: Taking of evidence in Cornwall

Part of Evan-Wentz's book published in 1911, this short essay was described as an 'Introduction by Henry Jenner, Member of the Gorsedd of the Bards of Brittany; Fellow and Local Secretary for Cornwall of the Society of Antiquaries; author of A Handbook of the Cornish Language, &c'.



In Cornwall the legends of giants, of saints, or of Arthur and his knights, the observances and superstitions connected with the prehistoric stone monuments, holy wells, mines, and the like, the stories of submerged or buried cities, and the fragments of what would seem to be pre-Christian faiths, have no doubt occasional points of contact with Cornish fairy legends, but they do not help to explain the fairies very much. Yet certain it is that not only in Cornwall and other Celtic lands, but throughout most of the world, a belief in fairies exists or has existed, and so widespread a belief must have a reason for it, though not necessarily a good one. That which with unconscious humour men generally call 'education' has in these days caused those lower classes, to whom the deposit of this faith was entrusted, to be ashamed of it, and to despise and endeavour to forget it. And so now in Cornwall, as elsewhere at that earlier outbreak of Philistinism, the Reformation,

From haunted spring and grassy ring
Troop goblin, elf and fairy,
And the kelpie must flit from the black bog-pit,
And the brownie must not tarry.

But, in spite of Protestantism, school-boards, and education committees, 'pisky-pows' are still placed on the ridge-tiles of West Cornish cottages, to propitiate the piskies and give them a dancing-place, lest they should turn the milk sour, and St. Just and Morvah folk are still 'pisky-led' on the Gump (an Ûn Gumpas, the Level Down, between Chûn Castle and Cam Kenidjack), and more rarely St. Columb and Roche folk on Goss Moor. It will not do to say that it is only another form of 'whisky-led'. That is an evidently modern explanation, invented since the substitution of strange Scottish and Irish drinks for the good 'Nantes' and wholesome 'Plymouth' of old time, and it does not fit in with the phenomena. It was only last winter, in a cottage not a hundred yards from where I am writing, that milk was set at night for piskies, who had been knocking on walls and generally making nuisances of themselves. Apparently the piskies only drank the 'astral 'part of the milk (whatever that may be) and then the neighbouring cats drank what was left, and it disagreed with them. I cannot vouch for the truth of the part about the piskies and the 'astral' milk--I give it as it was told to me by the occupant of the cottage, who was not unacquainted with 'occult' terminology--but I do know that the milk was consumed, and that the cats, one of which was my own, were with one accord unwell all over the place. But for the present purpose it does not matter whether these things really happened or not. The point is that people thought they happened.

Robert Hunt, in his Popular Romances of the West of England, divided the fairies of Cornish folk-lore into five classes: (1) the Small People; (2) the Spriggans; (3) the Piskies; (4) the Buccas, Bockles, or Knockers; (5) the Brownies. This is an incorrect classification. The Pobel Vean or Small People, the Spriggans, and the Piskies are not really distinguishable from one another. Bucca, who properly is but one, is a deity not a fairy, and it is said that Newlyn, the great seat of his worship, offerings of fish still left on the beach for him. His name is the Welsh pwca, which is probably 'Puck' though Shakespeare's Puck was just a pisky, and it may be connected with the general Slavonic word Bog, God; so that if, as some say, buccaboo is really meant for Bucca-du, Black Bucca, this may be an equivalent of Czernobog, the Black God, who was the Ahriman of Slavonic dualism, and Bucca-widn (White Bucca), which is rarer, though the expression does come into a St. Levan story, may be the corresponding Bielobog. Bockle, which personally I have never heard used, suggests the Scottish bogle, and both may be diminutives of bucca, bog, bogie, or bug, the last in the sense in which one English version translates the timor nocturnus of Psalm xc. 5, not in that of cimex lectularius. But bockle and brownie are probably both foreign importations borrowed from books, though a 'brownie' eo nomine has been reported from Sennen within the last twenty years.

The Knockers or Knackers are mine-spirits, quite unconnected with Bucca or bogies. The story, as I have always heard it, is that they are the spirits of Jews who were sent by the Romans to work in the tin mines, some say for being concerned in the Crucifixion of our Lord, which sounds improbable. They are benevolent spirits, and warn miners of danger.

But the only true Cornish fairy is the Pisky, of the race which is the Pobel Vean or Little People, and the Spriggan is only one of his aspects. The Pisky would seem to be the 'Brownie' of the Lowland Scot, the Duine Sith of the Highlander, and, if we may judge from an interesting note in Scott's The Pirate, the 'Peght' of the Orkneys. If Daoine Sith really means 'The Folk of the Mounds' (barrows), not 'The People of Peace', it is possible that there is something in the theory that Brownie, Duine Sith, and 'Peght', which is Pict, are only in their origin ways of expressing the little dark-complexioned aboriginal folk who were supposed to inhabit the barrows, cromlechs, and allées couvertes, and whose cunning, their only effective weapon against the strength of the Aryan invader, earned them a reputation for magical powers. Now Pisky or Pisgy is really Pixy. Though as a patriotic Cornishman I ought not to admit it, I cannot deny, especially as it suits my argument better, that the Devon form is the correct one. But after all there has been always a strong Cornish element in Devon, even since the time when Athelstan drove the Britons out of Exeter and set the Tamar for their boundary, and I think the original word is really Cornish. The transposition of consonants, especially when s is one of them, is not uncommon in modern Cornish English. Hosged for hogshead, and haps for hasp are well-known instances. If we take the root of Pixy, Pix, and divide the double letter x into its component parts, we get Piks or Pics, and if we remember that a final s or z in Cornish almost always represents a t or d of Welsh and Breton (cf. tas for tad, nans for nant, bos for bod), we may not unreasonably, though without absolute certainty, conjecture that Pixy is Picty in a Cornish form. 1

Without begging any question concerning the origin, ethnology, or homogeneity of those who are called 'Picts' in history, from the times of Ammianus, Marcellinus and Claudian until Kenneth MacAlpine united the Pictish kingdom with the Scottish, we can nevertheless accept the fact that the name 'Pict' has been popularly applied to some pre-Celtic race or races, to whom certain ancient structures, such as 'vitrified forts' and 'Picts' houses' have been attributed. In Cornwall there are instances of prehistoric structures being called 'Piskies' Halls' (there is an allée couverte so called at Bosahan in Constantine), and' Piskies' Crows' (Crow or Craw, Breton Krao, is a shed or hovel; 'pegs' craw' is still used for 'pig-sty'); and there are three genuine examples of what would in Scotland be called 'Picts' Houses' just outside St. Ives in the direction of Zennor, though only modern antiquaries have applied that name to them. In the district in which they are, the fringe of coast from St. Ives round by Zennor, Morvah, Pendeen, and St. Just nearly to Sennen, are found to this day a strange and separate people of Mongol type, like the Bigaudens of Pont l'Abbé and Penmarc'h in the Breton Cornouailles, one of those 'fragments of forgotten peoples' of the 'sunset bound of Lyonesse' of whom Tennyson tells. They are a little 'stuggy' dark folk, and until comparatively modern times were recognized as different from their Celtic neighbours, and were commonly believed to be largely wizards and witches. One of Mr. Wentz's informants seems to attribute to Zennor a particularly virulent brand of pisky, and Zennor is the most primitive part of that district. Possibly the more completely unmixed ancestors of this race were' more so' than the present representatives; but, be this as it may, if Pixy is really Picty, it would seem that, like the inhabitants of the extreme north of the British Isles, the south-western Britons eventually applied the fairly general popular name of the mysterious, half dreaded, half despised aboriginal to a race of preternatural beings in whose existence they believed, and, with the name, transferred some of the qualities, attributes, and legends, thus producing a mixed mental conception, now known as' pisky' or 'pixy'.

There seems to have been always and everywhere (or nearly so) a belief in a race, neither divine nor human, but very like to human beings, who existed on a 'plane' different from that of humans, though occupying the same space. This has been called the 'astral' or the 'fourth-dimensional' plane. Why 'astral'? why 'fourth-dimensional'? why 'plane'? are questions the answers to which do not matter, and I do not attempt to defend the terms, but you must call it something. This is the belief to which Scott refers in the introduction to The Monastery, as the 'beautiful but almost forgotten theory of astral spirits or creatures of the elements, surpassing human beings in knowledge and power, but inferior to them as being subject, after a certain space of years, to a death which is to them annihilation'. The subdivisions and elaborations of the subject by Paracelsus, the Rosicrucians, and the modern theosophists are no doubt amplifications of that popular belief, which, though rather undefined, resembles the theory of these mystics in its main outlines, and was probably what suggested it to them.

These beings are held to be normally imperceptible to human senses, but conditions may arise in which the' astral' plane' of the elementals and that part of the 'physical plane' in which, if one may so express it, some human being happens to be, may be in such a relation to one another that these and other spirits may be seen and heard. Some such condition is perhaps described in the story of Balaam the soothsayer, in that incident when 'the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha', and possibly also in the mysterious 'sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees' which David heard; but no doubt in these cases it was angels and not elementals. It may also be allowable to suggest, without irreverence, that the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration and Ascension are connected with the same idea, though the latter is expressed in the form of the geocentric theory of the universe.

The Cornish pisky stories are largely made up of instances of contact between the two 'planes', sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberately induced by incantations or magic eye-salve, yet with these stories are often mingled incidents that are not preternatural at all. How, when, and why this belief arose, I do not pretend even to conjecture; but there it is, and though of course the holders of it do not talk about 'planes', that is very much the notion which they appear to have.

I do not think that the piskies were ever definitely held to be the spirits of the dead, and while a certain confusion has arisen, as some of Mr. Wentz's informants show, I think it belongs to the confused eschatology of modern Protestants. To a pre-Reformation Cornishman, or indeed to any other Catholic, the idea was unthinkable. 'Justorum animae in manu Dei sunt, et non tanget illos tormentum malitiae: visi sunt oculis insipientium mori: illi autem sunt in pace,' and the transmigration of the souls of the faithful departed into another order of beings, not disembodied because never embodied, was to them impossible. Such a notion is on a par with the quaint but very usual hope of the modern 'Evangelical' Christian, so beautifully expressed in one of Hans Andersen's stories, that his departed friends are promoted to be 'angels'. There may be, perhaps, an idea, as there certainly is in the Breton Death-Faith, that the spirits of the faithful dead are all round us, and are not rapt away into a distant Paradise or Purgatory. This may be of pre-Christian origin, but does not contradict any article of the Christian faith. The warnings, apparitions, and hauntings, the 'calling of the dead' at sea, and other details of Cornish Death-Legends, seem to point to a conception of a 'plane' of the dead, similar to but not necessarily identical with that of the elementals. Under some quite undefined conditions contact may occur with the 'physical plane', whence the alleged incidents; but this Cornish Death-Faith, though sometimes, as commonly in Brittany, presenting similar phenomena, has in itself nothing to do with piskies, and as for the unfaithful departed, their destination was also well understood, and it was not Fairyland. There are possible connecting links in the not very common idea that piskies are the souls of unbaptized children, and in the more common notion that the Pobel Vean are, not the disembodied spirits, but the living souls and bodies of the old Pagans, who, refusing Christianity, are miraculously preserved alive, but are condemned to decrease in size until they vanish altogether. Some authorities hold that it is the race and not the individual which dwindles from generation to generation.

This last idea, as well as the name 'pixy', gives some probability to the conclusion that, as applied to Cornwall, Mr. MacRitchie's theory represents a part of the truth, and that on to an already existing belief in elementals have been grafted exaggerated traditions of a dark pre-Celtic people. These were not necessarily pygmies, but smaller than Celts, and may have survived for a long time in forests and hill countries, sometimes friendly to the taller race, whence come the stories of piskies working for farmers, sometimes hostile, which may account for the legends of changelings and other mischievous tricks. This is how it appears to one who knows his Cornwall in all its aspects fairly well, but does not profess to be an expert in folk-lore.


July 1910.

the photo of Carnac was taken in 1909 by Evans-Wentz