Cornwall is full of tales of old, from sea shanties and mermaid tales to smuggler legends and mining myths – there is a wonderful array of stories and superstitions still told today. Here are some wonderful little superstitions and tales of old from the Cornwall Guide website:
King Arthur Raven
A man who shot a raven on Marazion Green was reproved by an old man who told him that King Arthur was still alive in the form of that bird. The same belief was also accorded to the chough, and it was considered very unlucky to kill either bird.
In 1925, a certain field near Mullion had never been ploughed because it was believed to be an ancient burial site. The local people believed that whoever disturbed the land would suffer the loss of his eldest son or endure some equally severe misfortune.
Towards the end of the First World War, strange lights were seen along the Cornish coast. These were said to be flashed by a Cornishman who had been drowned by German submarine action. Like the lamps of the old wreckers, they lured ships to destruction – but not all ships. The lights were only sighted by German ships and submarines.
Don’t Whistle Down a Mine!
Among St Ives fishermen, it was an unpardonable sin to whistle by night. Whistling down a mine was also believed to be unlucky, as it annoyed the ‘Knockers’ (mischievous sprites who inhabited the dark regions below ground).
It is said that a ghostly bell was often heard to strike four and eight bells in a churchyard near Land’s End. The sound came from the grave of a sea captain who refused to leave his sinking ship when she was wrecked off the Cornish coast. The ship went down at exactly midnight whilst the captain was striking the hour on the bell. To hear the bell was considered to be bad luck. One sailor who heard this tale went to the graveyard to listen. He heard the bell and was lost at sea on his very next trip.
Snails and Cats!
Tin miners had their own superstitions. If they met a bullhorn or snail on the way to work, they avoided ill luck by giving it some of their dinner or a little tallow from their lanthorns. A miner would never say the word cat when down the mine. And should a cat be found in the mine, the men would not work on that level again until the offending creature had been killed.
Ants, known locally as meryons or muryons, were said to be fairies in the last stages of their earthly existence. Fairies were sometimes believed to be Druids who had refused to accept Christianity so were condemned to lose human status. Consequently, it was unlucky to destroy an ants’ nest. However, if a piece of tin was inserted into a nest at precisely the right moment when the moon was new, the tin would turn into silver.
These wonderfully tales quirky tales are celebrated all over Cornwall, some are turned into books like The Mousehole Cat, on the legend of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock and the stargazy pie. Or plays that are performed each year – like The Legend of Bolster the Giant which is performed on the cliff tops near St Agnes very year on 1st May. Using large puppets the story is re-enacted of Bolster, Sir Constantine and his love Agnes. Legend has it Bolster lived on the cliff tops and gobbled up children and adults at will. The defiant knights including Sir Constantine tried in vain to kill Bolster until Agnes asked him to fill a hole with his blood to prove Bolster’s love for her. But alas the hole went out to the sea and Bolster dies (It is a child friendly re-enactment honestly!)
Or the the legend of The Mermaid of Zennor – how lured poor local man Mathew Trewella to the cliffs of Zennor after seeing her beauty during a church service. It was then said that a little while later whilst at sea a beautiful mermaid appeared, she asked the vessel’s captain to raise his anchor as it was resting upon the doorway of her house. She explained was anxious to get back to her husband, Mathew, and her children. For it turns out that the beautiful stranger from the church was in fact one of the daughters of Llyr, king of the ocean, a mermaid by the name of Morveren.
The sea captain returned to the village to tell the tale of the merrymaid and poor Mathew and to warn the other young men of the dangers of merrymaids