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Witches, fairies and the sacred sites of Cornwall

Rupert White responds to questions raised by members of the MA writing programme at the Royal College of Art.



What is the relationship between Neo-paganism and witchcraft?

Beliefs in witchcraft transcend cultural and historical boundaries, and are found eg in Africa, South America and Asia as well as Europe. Generally they are used to help explain misfortune, bad luck or disease. In Britain well into the 20th century people would talk about being ill-wished, or having the evil eye cast on them, and it was believed that some people, usually women, had the power to use malefic magic in this way.

Before the days of the National Health Service, when medical care was costly and not very effective, most towns in Britain had someone who would advertise themselves variously as a healer, charmer, conjuror, astrologist, wise-woman, or cunning man. They would use herbs, charms or folk magic to reverse the effects of witchcraft, and thus cure illness, misfortune or everyday unhappiness. They might also attempt to predict the future, or help someone find love or money. 

Importantly these individuals, who were providing a service, would a) not have described themselves as witches (though they've been later referred to as 'white-witches') b) have likely been practising Christians.

Neo-paganism, as it is most widely practiced, is rather different. It is generally agreed to have developed out of 'Wicca' in the 1950's and 1960's, ie the writing and ideas of Gerald Gardner, who was partly inspired by Aleister Crowley's ceremonial magic. Though this is also called witchcraft, it doesn't really resemble traditional witchcraft of the kind described above and wasn't part of a 'service economy'. In particular it refers to a paired god and goddess, and it makes special use of ritual eg as part of an initiation ceremony, or in celebration of the turning of the year. 

The 'Museum of Witchcraft and Magic' was Gardner's home for several years, before it moved to Boscastle in North Cornwall. This unique place is now a repository for artefacts that represent both traditional and Wiccan strands of witchcraft.


What can we learn from folkloric representations of Cornish witches?

The folklore record of Cornwall largely draws from 3 or 4 writers who had books published in the second half of the 19th century. Hunt and Bottrell are the best known, and whilst it is imagined that they collected their stories from itinerant story tellers (or droll-tellers), some of their accounts were also derived from contemporaneous newspaper reports etc.

There are, altogether, hundreds of stories many of which refer to witches and witchcraft. Bottrell, for example, tells the story of 'Old Betty Trenoweth', the witch of 'Buryan Church-town', and quotes a curse used by her to ill-wish a rival. More common though, are stories that describe the relatively benign activities of conjurors. There is a story in Bottrell's collection, which seems historically accurate, in which West Country folk are described as seeing a male conjuror (or 'pellar' - the terms are used interchangeably) in order to 'have their protection renewed'. Bottrell also details incidents involving 'Tammy Blee', the famous white witch of Helston who, from newspapers etc, we know did exist.

Some witch-tales are more fanciful. One of the most romantic and well-loved is that of 'Luty', a cunning man who is given magical powers by a mermaid who he rescues after she becomes stranded on the beach.


What other 'characters' feature in Cornish folklore?

Fairy stories make up around half of the tales, though in Cornwall there are different types of fairy-folk, or small people, including pyskies, spriggans and knockers. There are accounts of people being pyskey-led, and of changelings for example. There are also a few evocative descriptions of fairy ointment ie a cream that when applied to the eyes allows a person to see fairies.

Giant stories are also important, especially as they seem to have been used to explain the creation of the landscape: ie particular rock formations and other geological features. This relates to the Matter of Britain, and the early histories by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which also describe giants like 'Gog and Magog'.

As well as mermaids, there are also more mysterious characters, which seem specific to Cornwall, like the 'buccas' and 'hoopers'.


What is the relationship of these folk tales to sacred sites like Boscawen Un?

Nearly all the folk tales are linked to very specific places, and eg Cheryl Straffon (see interviews) has written about this in her book 'Between the Realms'.

Whilst some sites (eg logan stones (rocking stones) and the fogous (or fuggos) at Boleigh and Pendeen) are associated with witches or fairies, there is only a brief mention of standing stones or stone circles in the folklore record (ie Hunt and Bottrell).  Bottrell describes these Neolithic and Bronze Age sites as 'Celtic Monuments', and acknowledges that they may have been used as calendars to mark the solstices. He describes holed stones, like the 'Men-an-Tol', as 'crick stones', which were believed to have healing properties, and notes that holy wells, like that at Madron, were also used for healing, as well as divination.

In short, though, the sacred sites of West Cornwall were n't of that much interest to the conjurors, charmers and cunning folk of the 18th and 19th centuries. But more recently they have been rediscovered and reclaimed by Wiccans, Druids, Goddess-celebrants and other Neo-pagans. So, for example, Boscawen-Un was used by pagans as a very public ceremonial site during the total solar eclipse of 1999, and in fact one of the leaders of the ceremony was Cassandra Latham-Jones (pictured above) who, despite the odds being stacked against her, still practices as a village wise-woman in St Buryan today.



Based on the 'A Cornish Review' workshop in St Buryan 19/5/18 http://acornishreview.rca.ac.uk/ . Rupert White is author of 'The Re-enchanted Landscape'.

See also http://artcornwall.org/features/witchcraft_in_cornwall.htm for an excellent account of traditional witchcraft practices, and their gradual decline, by Jason Semmens.