Perhaps one of the most romanticized of all the Celtic homelands is Cornwall – birthplace of such legends as Arthur, Tristan & Isolde, and Jack the Giant Killer. A natural peninsula located at the southwestern tip of the United Kingdom, Cornwall is an ancient region that predates the Neolithic era. A distinct Celtic nation with its own language and unique history, the proud people of Cornwall still work to maintain their separate identity and culture, while acknowledging their sisterhood with Great Britain.
Cornwall also has a mythology that is all its own. Cornish folklore centers largely on giants and little people, which historians have theorized may have originated as a folk-memory of an ancient Bronze Age race that was conquered by the larger, taller Celts, who might well have been perceived and demonized as giants. But by far the most whimsical characters to evolve throughout the centuries are the small folk, known collectively in Cornwall as faeries:
THE PISKIES – Often known in Germanic cultures as ‘pixies’, these small sprites lived in secret, isolated places and were considered by and large to be benevolent spirits. Largely thought of as good-natured and fun-loving, they were also reputed to have a mischievous side. Though especially kind to the old or infirm, piskies were known to lead able-bodies travelers astray (known as being “piskie led”) for sport. They are described in folklore and old literature as having the appearance of old men, being very small (a few inches tall) and dressed in clothes made of the fabrics of the earth such as moss, grasses, and lichen.
THE BROWNEYS – Similar to piskies, Browneys were household sprites living closely alongside mortals but rarely seen or heard. They were known to be kindly and helpful, taking every opportunity to benefit their adopted family. Perhaps the closest thing to what is more widely thought of as a traditional fairy, Browneys are often described as gentle, harmless, and always beautiful. They would visit the homes of the poor or sick, tending their gardens or leaving wild flowers.
THE SPRIGGANS – The more ill-tempered cousin of the piskie or browney, Spriggans were especially spiteful to those who offended them. Reputed to be the security force of the faerie society, they stood ready to measure out justice to those who would harm their otherworldly brethren. Some of the punishments believed to have been doled out by the Spriggans were storms sent to blight crops, and the leaving of changelings in place of stolen mortal children. They were most often found in old castle ruins and barrows, guarding buried treasure. Spriggans are described in literature as grotesque, with wizened features and crooked skinny bodies. Though small, they were purported to have the defensive ability to expand themselves to gigantic proportions.
THE KNOCKERS – These little folk were the unseen underground inhabitants of the tin mines. Many were reputed to have been discovered by miners who heard their singing and the knocking of their magical pickaxes. Usually Knockers were considered helpful, working ahead of the miners and leading them to rich ore veins. But they could be mean when disrespected or treated unfairly. The wise miner would leave a share of his daily meal (usually a piece of his pasty), or else suffer a string of inexplicable misfortunes.
Knockers are described as dwarf-like, with large heads and the faces of old men. Their name comes from the knocking sound on mine walls that occurs just before a cave-in, believed to be a benevolent warning from the fey.
As is true of most Celtic cultures, history and legend were largely passed on through the bardic oral tradition. The earliest and most well-known written documentation of Cornish mythology can be found in several mid to late 19th century folklore compilations that can still found in print today. The following were resources for this article: Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) by the renowned scientist and folklorist Robert Hunt, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (3 vols. 1870, 1873, 1880) by William Bottrell, and Folklore and Legends of Cornwall by Margaret Anne Courtney.
In addition to its mystic places and magical history, Cornwall is a popular travel destination and home to such modern day attractions as the Eden Project (a global conservation and educational effort) and the Daphne Du Maurier arts festival. Learn more about Cornwall.
Roberta Trahan is a life-long writer and “fantasian” (lover of fantasy and history). She is also a Pacific Northwest native and former advertising & marketing maven. After too many years helping to cultivate other people’s ideas, Roberta decided to listen to the little voices in her own mind and began to build magical worlds populated with mystical beings. Roberta is a self-confessed coffeechocoholic and antique jewelry hoarder, and spends her more lucid moments with her family, friends, fellow fantasians, and the thriving writing community in the Seattle area. She is the author of The Well of Tears. Book Two of The Dream Stewards, The Keys to the Realm, is coming soon! Read more at her site, her Facebook, and her Twitter. Or read this summary of The Well of Tears:
More than five hundred years have passed since the legendary age of Camelot and the Stewardry, the magical order charged with protecting the old ways of power and magic, has fallen into decay, disorder, and distrust.
Now Hywel, a new king promised by prophecy, has come to claim his crown. But as he journeys toward his throne, those preparing the way are besieged by agents of destruction – from within and without. A great evil stirs at Hywel’s coming, unleashing a corrupting power intent on his destruction and opening the gates to a hellish army that will sweep across the land and plunge it into an era of terror and darkness.
As a sorceress born of an ancient bloodline sworn to defend the Stewardry at all costs, Alwen is determined to fulfill her oath.
Yet when black magic begins claiming those closest to her and traitors plot to steal the Stewardry’s source of power, she realizes that the king’s survival – and that of all the realms – may require that she sacrifice her own.