Folklore, Myths and Legends of Cornwall: Introduction part 1 – ‘Configuration’

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Tom Kennedy returns with the first of a 2 part introduction to his new series Folklore, Myths and Legends of Cornwall. The second part will be available next month. In the meantime, you can read previous submissions in the series here.


The forthcoming twelve part series entitled Folklore, Myths and Legends will unsurprisingly discuss topics relating to the heading. Thus a good place to start is to unpack each generic term. Specific categorisations of the individual elements described in this series are difficult given they overlap with one another. However some perimeters must be drawn regardless of the complexities involved. Whilst the premise of the series is centred on Cornish themesinitially elements of Folklore from multinational cultures will be measured in order to provide a relative critical evaluation as a comparison with the evolution of the Folklore, Myths and Legends relating to Cornwall. An article written by Ron James the Myths of Cornwall will follow in July, after a two part introduction to the series which are to be published in May and June. The article by Ron James will be followed with articles written by some of Cornwall’s leading academic historians. A chronological inventory of forthcoming articles and their authors will be provided in Junes copy.

Notes on Definitions of Generic Terms 

Folklore may simplistically be defined as the font from which recounted knowledge sprang, knowledge which was passed on through oral communication or by demonstration.1 Legends may be categorised as that relating to either the retelling of denotative narratives or animated demonstration through the mediums of mime, song, dance and theatre which depicted significant symbolism appertaining to the culture from which a sequence of events originated. A legend whilst encapsulating elements of truth and reality may also contain mythical connotations. A traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not wholly authenticated.2 Myths are derived from traditional stories, especially ones concerning the early history of a people or those explaining natural or social phenomena typically involving supernatural beings or events.3 

Preliminary Articles

A Legend in a universal sense either tells of heroic characters or of fantastic places in which the plot of a tale, yarn or story encompasses the spiritual beliefs of a specific culture. An example of this condition may be found and exemplified in the allegorical, eclectic mix of characters and Mythical creatures portrayed in Edmond Spencer’s (1552 – 1599) epic poem The Faerie Queene which was originally published in 1590. The poem, although the subject of conjecture is said to be an homage to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603).4

Book one of the six book epic poem introduces the reader to characters and mythical beasts such as Errour the dragon, the wizard Archimago and Orgolglio the giant. Elements of which will be discussed further in this article under the banner of Existence. The fact that Spencer was awarded a state pension of £50 a year by Elizabeth I (equivalent to circa £25,000 a year in today’s terms) testifies to the fact that his work was regarded as credible to an audience who were not at that time sceptical of tales relating to mythical creatures and beings. Such narratives also utilise mythical creatures of a supernatural nature which emulates the point that specific categorisations of the individual elements described in this series are difficult given they overlap with one other as previously pointed out in the prologue to this article.

Front cover of ‘The Faerie Queene’

In a recent presentation to members of the University of Exeter’s Institute of Cornish Studies, Bob Keys, a former head of History at the University of St Mark and St John interestingly discussed the manner by which legends were orally passed on to mainly illiterate audiences in the days of yore.5

Keys postulated that a bard in bygone days made subtle changes to a spoken or sung yarn. Thus, his tales projected a more emphatic appeal to an audience in much the same way a modern day stand-up act makes subtle, or not so subtle, changes to the original version of any given yarn and as a consequence ingratiates the audience who attend his performances. Correspondingly, a bard would make variations to his act, the changes he implemented being dependant on the bards intuitive perception of his audiences social, political and religious leanings. Keys added that a bard also played on the fact that the sensitivities of audiences of that time had been nurtured by a monastic feudal system. As a rule a story teller would focus on reaching the four elements of contemporary audience’s cognitive spiritual mind-sets which governed most of their thinking. Three of those four elements quintessentially promoted by the church, were Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.6

Bob Keys; former head of History at the University of St Mark and St John. Image courtesy of Bob Keys

However, a fourth element also played an important role in the lives of the populace, the element of Existence, a factor used by the Church to some great political and cultural effect. As is evident in Spencer’s Faerie Queene in which he depicts dragons, giants and such. In today terms the Existence element would probably equate to the realms of characters and fantastical beasts from a fourth dimension.7

Interestingly, Purgatory was and still has a place in Roman Catholic Dogma. Purgatory in this respect is deemed to be a state where dead spirits suffered for evil acts their possessor committed whilst they were alive. A Punishment to be endured, before admittance to heaven is granted. Such beliefs were widely held by the populace before the 16th century Protestant reformation when Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) dismissed the concept of Purgatory. The concept of Purgatory was also dismissed by Henry VIII (1491 -1547) when he broke away from Rome. Yet the concept of Existence mirroring a fourth dimension was allowed to persist by the clergy in Early Modern England and beyond.8

If further evidence is needed in respect of Existence, a look at the triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights9 by the Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch (1450- 1516) will provide evidence of the mindset in vogue during the pre-reformation days of the 13th and 14th centuries. Such surreal elements in paintings as depicted by Bosch were regarded as real and although never seen in reality, were reported as being detected or seen from time to time and subsequently reported and verbally recorded as being authentic. Thus through time did a myriad of similar fabled creatures, such as Mermaids, Mine Knockers10 and Little People become part of both Global and Cornish cultural inheritance.11

The Folklore of Cornwall front cover. Image courtesy of Ronald M. James, Iowa State University.

Vladimir Yakollevich Propp (17 April 1895 – 22 August 1970)12 was a Russian theorist who analysed over one hundred verbal folktales which like folklore, encompass the spectrum of Myths and Legends. Propp was in the main responsible for the deconstruction and analysis of fairy stories and other related elements by which he formed much of his subsequent conclusions relating to the origins of such stories based on his research into verbal folklore tales. Propp with good reason was not totally dismissive of the scenario that argued original tales were corrupted by bards and theatrical performances and as a result they consequently lost the essence of their original context and message. However Propp, so to question the idea of the total corruption of an original moral, cautionary or prophetic yarn postulated that in many cultures, by exactitude, historians would commit to memory verbatim oral anecdotal or contemporary tales based on reality as in either Legends or Myths drawn from fictional characters. In all cases such knowledge was passed on to historians by their preceding elders and the historians in turn by rote passed on such material to the next generation and so the cycle continued until the time when the common man became literate and they were thus able to read recorded written material.

Probably the most prolific recorders of verbal anecdotal folklore were arguably Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm (1785 -1863) and his brother Wilhelm Carl (1786-1859): both were philologists, cultural researchers and lexicographers. Their classic written collection, Children and Household Tales (Kinder-und Hausmarchchen) was published in two volumes (1812 -1815).13 Interestingly the final edition of their books (1857) had increased the number of retold stories from one hundred and fifty six to two hundred. Many of the didactic tales gathered and recorded by the Grimm brothers now delight children’s audiences at pantomime performances albeit the more drastic and brutal elements from the original tales have been modified to fit in with today’s sensibilities.

For example in Cinderella, today there are no references to a white hot metal boot fitted to the Ugly Sisters as a punishment for brutalising Cinderella. Notwithstanding, to return to Propp, the widespread oral chain advocated by Propp can be clearly seen for example in both the Celtic Cultures of Ireland where Irish story telling Shanachie elders14 were the vehicle for the verbal perpetuation of Myths and Legends and on the West Coast of Africa where West African folk tale telling Griots, Jali or Jeli15 served the same purpose as the Irish Shanachie by retelling historically related tales, learned by rote. In the case of the Griot it is said that a character named Anansi (Spider from the Akan language, Gullah dialect)16 bought ancient folk tales from the African Sky God, who saw and observed all below him. Anansi subsequently bestowed his purchases on the people through the mediums of the Griots. The Griots initially having committed yarns to memory passed them on to the next generation of historians. The accuracy of the methodology by which such tales were perpetuated is evident when comparisons are made between the tales told by the Griots in Africa and those tales passed on by the African slaves who found themselves in the Americas, they related the tales from Africa to the uninitiated. Such verbal stories, myths and tales which travel over the Atlantic Ocean over a period of over three hundred years currently live on in US literature as the Tales of Aunt Nancy.17

Having briefly interrogated a number of cultural aspects abroad which relate to myths and legends it is now time to look at comparable elements which relate to Cornish culture. The basic principles of the methodology by which oral records were passed on from generation to generation in global and Cornish cultures are analogous. To form an understanding of the ancestry of myths and legends within the context of Cornwall it is necessary to investigate the origins of the seeds of what has become in comparatively recent times a Cornish cultural tree which continues to spread its branches and as it grows thus attracts more attention from the indigenous population and their growing latent desire to discover more about their historic heritage regardless of it being based on fact or fiction. As pointed out by Ron James, the written documentation of the tales of yore in respect of Cornish mythology are somewhat ambiguous thus other sources of origin must be used in an attempt to find the ancestry of said tales.

By considering Cornish performance and song which are to some extent documented to a greater extent than other elements which come under the umbrella of Cornish Myths and legends a clearer picture may possibly be perceived of the topic. Cornish Theatre over the ages has proved to be a continuous conveyor of all things relating to Myths and Legends. In Alan M Kent’s capacious book The Theatre of Cornwall: Space, Place and Performance18 he identifies and interrogates the history of the genre and in subsequent numerous analogous publications Kent brings to life the stories of yesteryear over a wide ranging spectrum and in some contemporary  cases combines literature with performance for the enjoyment and edification of today’s young audiences.

The Theatre of Cornwall front cover. Image courtesy of Alan M. Kent PhD

Kent’s book and play The Beast of Bodmin Moor aimed at a younger audience19 has proved to be a veritable hit in Cornwall and beyond. A closer look at this work will be taken in part two of my overview of Myths and Legends. Other Cornish luminaries have written and recorded much in respect of Celtic Folklore Myths and Legends. Examples of which are; Folklorist Nellie Sloggett (1851 -1923) whom wrote under the pen names Eynes Tregarthen and Nellie Cornwall. Her works included Pixies Folklore & legends.20

After Sloggets’ death the American Elizabeth Yates (1905 – 2001) edited Eynes’ extensive unpublished material for publication. Margret Ann Courtney (1834 – 1920) also contributed to the genre with works including Cornish Feasts and Folklore21 as did Garry Tregidga in contemporary time with Mysticism Myth and Cornish Identity.22

My concluding article Contemporary Cornish Custom will expand on the works of the above selected writers then seamlessly go on to discuss more contemporary aspects of the subject matter, which will include modern takes on Cornish Mythology, the utilisation of Cornish Mythology in the modern market place, the Cornish Man Engine and other related topics.


  1. Folklore; English Oxford Living Dictionaries,, retrieved 2 May 2019.
  2. Legends, ibid.
  3. Myths, ibid.
  4. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Edited by Thomas P Roach and C Patrick O Donell, Penguin Classics 1979, ISBN 9780140422078.
  5. Ron James, Iowa State University, will further discuss the oral traditions of this topic in the fifth article in this series based on his book The Folklore of Cornwall, University of Exeter Press, ISBN 9780859894999.
  6. Purgatory is the condition, process, or place of purification or temporary punishment in which, according to medieval Christian and Roman Catholic belief, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven. Such beliefs were widely held by the populace before the 16th century protestant reformation when Martin Luthor 1483 – 1546 and John Calvin 1509-1564 dismissed the concept of Purgatory.
  7. Existence is the ability of an entity or mythological being to coexist with physical or mental reality.
  8. Early Modern England; Bitesize Early Modern Britain and the world 1500-1750 overview, retrieved 28 April 2019.
  9. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Plate Meseo del Pardo Madrid, Spain.
  10. Icy Sedgwick, Who are the Knockers of Cornish Folklore, retrieved 20 May 2019.
  11. Ron James will further discuss the topic in an article he will contribute to the series in June based on his book The Folklore of Cornwall, University of Exeter Press, ISBN 9780859894999.
  12. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, 1928 Translation (English) 1968, The American Folklore Society and Indiana University, ISBN 9780292792494.
  13. Jack Zipes, The original folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grim, the complete first addition, Princeton, New Jersey Press. Grim, Wilhealm, 1786-1859; Grim, Jacob, 1785-1863, ISBN 10: 0691117322.
  14. Marianne McShane, SeanchaiThe Storytellers, retrieved 3 May 2019.
  15. Thomas A. Hale, Griots and Griottes Masters of Words and Music, (1998) Bloomington Indiana, Indiana University Press, ISBN 10- 0253219612.
  16. Donald Haase, Encyclopaedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-313-33441-2.
  17. Origins of Anansi; retrieved 2 May 2019.
  18. Alan M. Kent, The Theatre of Cornwall, Redcliffe/Westcliffe Books 2010, ISBN 978-1- 904537-99-1.
  19. Alan M. Kent, The Beast of Bodmin Moor.
  20. Eynes Tregarthen, Pixies Folklore & legends, reprinted 1995, ISBN 0-517 14 90.
  21. Margret Ann Courtney, Cornish Feasts and Folklore, Create Space Independent Publishing Platforms, ISBN 1530235414.
  22. Garry Tregidga in Mysticism Myth and Cornish Identity, ISBN 0-90853-488.
Thomas J. Kennedy
Thomas John Kennedy is a Member of the Institute of Cornish Studies, University of Exeter. He is engaged in generating historically related articles in the capacity of contributor and as a sub editor for the Institute's global online magazine. Having gained a HE Diploma, Print Broadcast Journalism he was elected as a member to the Chartered Institute of Journalists. Whilst working for BBC Radio 4 South West he wrote articles relating to Cornish Cultural Artefacts, a number of his articles are housed in the British Museum Archive. In addition to other academic qualifications Thomas holds an English Literature Degree and a BA (Hon’s) CW English. He has had articles published in every newspaper in Cornwall and has also had articles published in the National Press.

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