Cornish Myths and Legends
Largely separate from the rest of the country, Cornwall had much in common with its nearest counterparts of Wales, Ireland and Brittany. Celtic and pagan traditions thrived in these areas, all with their own languages. Versions of Cornish stories can be found in Welsh, Irish and the Breton languages and there is a large library of shared common references. Unconstrained by the religious fervour in the rest of the country, Cornwall’s myths and legends thrived.
Piskies, giants, mermaids and ghostly tales
Cornwall is a Duchy with a rich heritage of tales and superstitions, often celebrated and kept alive today by the ‘droll tellers’ or storytellers seen at festivals and used in plays.
Reputedly Cornwall is the land which was inhabited by giants who shared it with the ‘little people’ – or pixies and fairies. This is where Cornish myths and legends such as King Arthur and his court and Jack the Giant Killer originated.
It is also unsurprising that being surrounded by sea and with many coves and hidden inlets, in an economy bolstered by piracy and reliant on fishing, that there are many tales of the sea including enchanting mermaids and ghostly galleons. Cornwall’s other livelihood, tin mining, also gave rise to its fair share of superstitions.
Storyteller at the Eden Project
Pobel Vean or ‘the little people’
Said to inhabit stone circles, barrows and ancient dolmans, these childlike and mischievous little creatures appear in many Cornish tales.
Known for dancing and playfulness, their leader was Joan the Wad.
Not to be confused with ‘spriggans,’ (or ‘isspriggan in West Penwith) who have a dangerously evil edge to their personality.
Bucca Gwidden/Widn are the good version and Bucca Dhu/Boo the bad. Reputed to live in tin mines and around the coast. Similar legends appear in Irish and Welsh culture.
Variously thought of as helpful or malevolent, they’re supposed to knock on the walls of tin mines to warn of or trap miners in an impending mine collapse.
Some believe they are spirits of miners lost in accidents, others that they are little creatures who play practical jokes on miners.
Possibly an amusing invention of oxygen starved miners, they would leave bits of pasty to keep them happy.
Cornish places associated with ‘little people’
- Trevose Head – where Omfra, a piskie, lost his laugh
- Bodmin Moor – Dozmary Pool – where Omfra the piskie regained his laugh with the help of King Arthur disguised as a chough
- Boscastle – Museum of Witchcraft
- Padstow – Nellie Sloggett, folklorist, published many stories under the name Enys Tregarthen
- Newlyn, Mousehole – it is tradition for fishermen to leave out a portion of their catch for the Bucka
- Penzance – where Bucca can apparently be heard calling from the sea
- Land’s End – legends of Bucca’s inhabiting the cliffs
Mentioned in King Lear as the founder of Cornwall. He lived at St Michael’s Mount and is said to have defeated Gogmagog, another giant.
Appearing in many Cornish and English stories, he supposedly caused havoc for travellers to St Ives, along with his brother Rebecks.
A giant purported to have lived in the forests now underwater at Mounts Bay. Boulders littering the landscape surrounding the area are said to have been thrown by him in fights with another giant. He made his wife, Cormelian, carry heavy stones in her apron pockets to build St Michael’s Mount. When he was sleeping she cheated and carried a lighter green stone instead and incurred his wrath when he awoke. The green stones seen in the area today are said to have been deposited when he kicked her and her apron strings broke.
This is the story of the giant who fell in love with the missionary St Agnes, but he was already married and wanting to be rid of him, she challenged him to fill a hole in the ground at Chapel Porth with his blood. He happily agreed as he was so large that he could stand with one foot in Carn Brea and the other at St Agnes Beacon. Not realising the hole she had chosen led out to sea, he opened a vein and bled to death. Today a red stain in the rock there is said to be his deathbed.
Ralph the Wrath
The giant who enjoyed throwing the boulders from the surrounding landscape and stealing loot from passing sailors and hiding it is his cave at Portreath.
The Kind Giant of Carn Galver
A rare, kind giant who protected the villagers from being attacked by other giants. He is said to have built the logan, or rocking stone, at Zennor to send himself to sleep.
Areas where the Cornish giants are said to have lived
- St Michael’s Mount – also credited with where Corineus defeated Gogmagog
- St Michael’s Mount – Cormoron’s home
- Trencrom Hill – where giants such as Cormoron threw rocks at each other
- Carn Galver – a kinder protective giant watched over the inhabitants of Zennor and Morvah
- St Agnes – Where the giant Bolster fell in love with St Agnes
- Penwith – Blunderbore lived at Ludgvan
- Portreath – Ralph the Wrath
Cornish mermaids and the tales of the sea
There are many stories of mermaids bringing bad omens to communities in Cornwall.
A whole village between Looe and Seaton was supposedly turned to sand by a mermaid’s curse.
Here are some of the most famous Cornish mermaid tales:
The Mermaid of Padstow
In one of several versions of the tale, the mermaid enjoyed sitting on a rock at Hawker’s Cove. Falling in love with a local man, she tried to lure him to her watery home and he shot her to escape. In another version, he fell in love with her and when rebuffed, he shot her. A third version explains how a local fisherman mistook her for a seal and shot her. The tale however, always ends up with the mermaid summoning a storm which wrecked local ships and caused a sand bank to appear, now called the Doom Bar.
The Mermaid of Zennor
The Churches at Zennor and Morvah were said to have had a beautiful lady visitor with the sweetest singing voice. Nobody knew of her origins or where she lived and she was seen infrequently over many years but never seemed to age. After a good many years she fell in love with a man who was the best singer in church, Mathey Trewells. After following her home one day, neither were ever seen again. Further to this, a ship was out to sea off Pendour Cove and wished to drop its anchor. In doing so a mermaid appeared and asked if the anchor could be moved as it was resting on the door to her home and she was unable to get to her children. Believing the children to be those of the mermaid and Mathey Trewells, the ship fled.
The Mermaid of Lamorna
Allegedly she sits on a rock and sings whilst combing her hair in an effort to lure local fishermen to a watery grave. To see her foretells a storm but if you hear her sing it supposedly spells certain peril for a shipwreck will occur in exactly seven days.
Whooper of Sennen Cove
This story arose when on a clear bright day it would suddenly mist over and out to sea a strange whooping sound could be heard. Said to be a warning of forthcoming storms the story became legend when one day two fishermen ignored the whooping warning and set off, never to be seen again.
A fisherman’s tale about the lost land between the Isles of Scilly and the Cornish western coast where a whole town is immersed underwater leaving only its church bells to be heard out to sea. One man from the town escaped the tragedy as he had been out hunting at Land’s End. His white horse lost a shoe on the way and today the symbol of the 3 horseshoes and a white horse can be seen in crests of local families who pertain to have descended from the survivor. It is said by some that the townsfolk must have committed a grievous deed to have been punished in such a way, but the story may have some fact and the town could have been submerged due to a tsunami type event or rising sea water levels.
Mysterious Ship of Porthcurno
A galleon ship was spotted off Penzance and looked sure to crash into the rocks. Instead it sailed over the land until fading out of sight at Porthcurno.
Mysterious lights were seen out to sea around the end of the First World War. Said to be the ghost of a Cornish fisherman drowned by a German Submarine, the lights supposedly lured German vessels to ruin.
Places associated with Mermaids and tales of the sea
- Padstow – Doom Bar – Hawkers Cove – The Mermaid of Padstow
- Sennen Cove – Whooper legend
- Penzance to Porthcurno- ghostly galleon ship
- Land’s End to the Scilly Isles – the lost town of Lyonesse
- Zennor – St Senara’s Church and Morvah – The Mermaid of Zennor, a carved bench with a mermaid motif is at St Senara’s Church, allegedly the bench where the mermaid entranced Mathey Trewells.
- Lamorna – Mermaids Rock
Cornish tales of King Arthur abound, with many related tales having a three way love affair as a central theme and plenty of magical elements.
The most famous of tales associated with Cornwall, was Arthur a true British Warrior and founder of Britain or a mythical and fairytale hero? Arthurian legends appear many times in different areas of Britain, but his conception is said to have taken place at Tintagel Castle on the north Cornish coast. His father, Uther Pendragon, is purported to have acquired the help of the wizard Merlin, in order to disguise himself as the Duke of Cornwall and entice the Duke’s wife, Ygerna, into becoming Arthur’s mother.
Further Arthurian legends such as that of ‘excalibur’ and ‘the lady of the lake’ allegedly took place at Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor.
Mark of Cornwall & the tale of Tristan and Iseult
Related to Arthurian legends, this the tale of the 6th century warrior and King of Cornwall, Mark, ‘the hound of the sea.’ Also named Conomor, the King ruled from Tintagel Castle. The tale pre-dates that of Uther Pendragon and Ygerna but has a similar echo.
King Mark, wanting a bride, sends his nephew (or son in some tales), Tristan, to fetch the beautiful Irish Iseult. The two ingest a love potion and fall in love with each other, leaving no reproach for the affair since it was out of their hands.
Jack the Giant Killer
Incorporating many defeats of fearsome Cornish giants, Jack is a clever farm boy chosen to accompany Arthur’s son on missions and later admitted to the round circle for his continued servitude. Ridding the land of many of its terrible giants, Jack gains various magical items to help his efforts.
The Legend of Tom Bawcock
A hero at Mousehole who risked his life to bring back fish to the starving townsfolk during a storm. On his return, a big pie called a Stargazy Pie was made to feed all the townsfolk.
Cornish places associated with legendary tales
- Tintagel – conception place of King Arthur
- Tintagel – King Mark of Cornwall/Conomor ruled from the castle
- Fowey – Castle Dore – Tristan Stone – where King Mark’s nephew/son buried
- Dozmary Pool – place of the Arthurian Excalibur legend
- Mousehole – Tom Bawcock and Stargazy Pie
Ghostly Cornish tales
The ghost of this 17th century magistrate and lawyer, who had a living reputation for his evil and ruthless acts, attribute Jan Tregeagle as being one of the most hair-raising hauntings in Cornwall. Legends have him committing many felons including that of murdering his wife. In cahoots with the devil, he appeared to testify at a court case held after his death. Fearing they were unable to send him back to hell, the court ordered him to complete pointless tasks until judgement day. Removing all the water from Dozmary Pool with a limpet shell, he escaped from his first task to Roche Rock. Then given the task of weaving rope from sand at Gwenor Cove, two versions of the story have him completing the task when the water froze on a cold night or his efforts being destroyed by a storm. Either way, St Petroc had to be summoned to bind him in chains and take him to Helston.
Ghostly Church Bells
A series of ghostly bells reputedly have been heard tolling at midnight from a graveyard at Land’s End. Said to be from the spirit of a sea captain who refuses to acknowledge his ship has sunk. It’s considered a bad omen to hear them if you are a sailor, as after one unlucky sailor reported hearing them, he too was lost at sea.
Areas associated with ghostly tales
- Bodmin Moor – the Beast of Bodmin’s territory
- Dozmary Pool – Where Jan Tregeagle had to remove water from the pool with a limpet shell
- Sennen – Gwenor Cove – Where Jan Tregeagle had to weave sand to rope
- St Austell – Roche Rock – Where Jan Tregeagle escaped to from the task at Dozmary Pool
- Wadebridge – St Breock Church – where Jan Tregeagle is allegedly buried
Other tales and superstitions
There are lots of other Cornish tales and superstitions, with many more centred around Cornish saints.
However here are a few that you might like to know whilst visiting the area:
St Ives fishermen would not forgive you if you whistled at night and Cornish fishermen will only count their catches using an old chant in the Cornish language.
Tin Miners Superstitions
A miner meeting a snail on his way to work would feed it some of his lunch to avoid a bad omen. The word cat or presence of one near a mine will also stop miners from their work until it has been caught and killed. It’s also unlucky to whistle down a tin mine – it might annoy the knockers!
The Merry Maidens
Stone circle of 19 stones Nineteen maidens were turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath. The two male pipers who were accompanying them realised the clock was about to turn midnight and scurried away up the hill only to be turned to stone there. There are 2 more standing stones further up the hill.
The Logan Stone
A naturally balancing stone which rocks in the wind is a logan stone. At Nancledra there was a logan stone which only rocked at midnight. Said to be the meeting place of witches, new converts would approach the stone in secret and touch it nine times at midnight. Also said to cure local children of rickets but only if they were legitimate!
The Devils’ Stone
Helston’s name has been attributed to when the devil was carrying a large stone through the sky to block the gates of hell. Confronted by St Michael, he dropped the stone on the area.
In Cornwall these are the spirits of girls who have died of a broken heart.
St Non – Altarnum Well
Reputedly the healing powers of the water cures lunacy.