Cornish myths, legends and folklore
Whether you are coming for a day of surfing, or spending more time at a Cornwall caravan park, the county’s history is full of tales of giants, pixies, fairies and is even believed to be the birthplace of King Arthur.
Cornwall is steeped in folklore, legend and myths, many of which are kept alive today through ‘droll tellers’, seen at festivals and events, who act as storytellers for some of Cornwall’s most famous tales.
Beast of bodmin moor
Since 1983, there have been more than 60 sightings of one of the most feared animals in the UK. Believed to be between three and five feet long, the beast is thought to be a Puma like creature roaming the moors.
In 1995, the government ordered an official investigation into the evidence of the creature. Though no evidence emerged to prove that it exists, they were very clear that nothing proved that there wasn’t.
A curator of Newquay zoo called a video of the cat in 1998 the “best evidence yet”, which shows a black cat, over a metre long, walk across train tracks near to the moor.
Most experts believe it to be simply a large domestic cat, many others think it escaped from a local zoo, or released into the wild following the Danger Wild Animals Act in the 1970s from a private collection.
Boscastle’s ghostly bells
The tower of Forrabury Church, Boscastle has no bells, but it is said that during a storm you can hear the ringing of bells sweeping across the bay.
William, Lord of Bottreaux Castle, ordered three bells to fend off the plague in the 14th century. But they never made it ashore, after the ship sunk following a storm. Lord William died of the plague soon after, and it is said that during a storm, you can hear the ringing of the bells when a storm sweeps across the bay.
South of Bolventor on Bodmin Moor, local folklore believe the pool to be bottomless and is the place of several local legend.
John Tregagle, an evil disciple of the devil, was doomed to bail out the endless waters of the pool with a leaking limpet shell for eternity.
Another, features one of England’s most iconic Kings. King Arthur was severely injured and carried to the lake after defeat in his final battle at Camlam and his sword, Excalibur, was cast into the pool by his loyal lieutenant Sit Bedivere.
It is said that when it was thrown, an arm rose from the waters and grabbed the sword, before pulling it down to the depths.
According to legend, the Devil was flying across Cornwall with a boulder to block the entrance to hell, when St Michael challenged it.
In the ensuing battle, the Devil dropped the rock and the place where it fell became known as Hell’s Stone, which changed to Helston.
It is said that a large stone built into the Angel Hotel on Coinagehall Street, is part of the bolder dropped by the Devil. To celebrate St Michael’s victory, the locals danced through the streets and originated the famous Furry dance, which still takes place today.
Lutey and the mermaid
Joyce Froome, who is assistant curator at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, was kind enough to tell us her favourite piece of Cornish folklore, Lutey and the Mermaid.
“My favourite Cornish legend is the story of Lutey and the mermaid. Mermaids are important figures in Cornish folklore, and the ‘mermaid’s purses’ that can often be found on Cornish beaches were used as charms for protection and good luck – we have an example in our museum. Lutey was a young man who was walking along the shore one day when he found a stranded mermaid, who offered to grant him three wishes if he carried her back to the sea.
“Lutey asked for magical powers – the power to undo curses, the power to invoke the help of familiar spirits to perform healing and protection magic, and for these powers to be inherited by his descendants. The mermaid granted the wishes, but when Lutey carried her into the sea she began to sing, and he was so charmed by her voice that he almost allowed her to pull him under the water.
“Fortunately his dog began to bark, saving him from the enchantment. Nine years later, however, when he was out in his fishing boat, the mermaid appeared to him again, and this time he leapt into the sea and swam away with her.”
Morgawr – Cornish for sea giant – is the name given to the monster of Falmouth Bay. A modern legend, Morgawr was first sighted in 1876, when fishermen caught something strange in their net.
In 1926 and 1975, near Pendennis Port, offshore fishermen described it as a hump-backed creature with horns and bristles down its back. In 1999, Morgawr was caught on video by John Holmes, who worked at London’s National History Museum.
The mermaid of Zennor
In a legend that highlights Cornwall’s connection with the sea, this legend is perhaps the most romantic of all Cornish legends.
A local chorister fell in love with a mermaid and decides to live beneath the waves, leaving the villagers to mourn his loss. The Zennor villagers carved a mermaid chair from wood, which can be seen in St Senara’s Church and is thought to be more than 600 years old.
Listen carefully when you visit Zennor, on a summer’s evening it is said you can hear the lovers singing.