ORLANDO ESSAYS Episode No. 2: A Cornish Story with Weird Walk
“Cornwall is the nursery ground of the saints; the fabled land of Lyonesse; the home of the giants; the haunt of fairies, pixies, mermaids, demons, and spectres. To speak of its natural aspects, its wild seaboard, and frequent air of savagery, one is almost bound to use terms of fancy.”
John D. Sedding
A Ramble in West Cornwall (1887)
Cornwall is defined by the sea. This Celtic nation’s rich history, culture and language have all been informed by the waters that both lap and crash at its edges. In Kernewek, the Cornish language, there are specific words for the sea’s colours, and even its sound, so ubiquitous a presence it must have been in the lives of the tongue’s early speakers. The sea was inescapable here, and it remains so, from the beachbound tourists to the fishermen, surfers, birders and artists. All are drawn towards the drink.
Of course, the sea has not always been viewed as a place of abundance and leisure. Very real marine dangers have contributed to a tapestry of legend, lore and superstition that emphasises the mysterious qualities of Cornwall’s waters. And on land too, the uncanny and strange are never far away. In Cornish folklore, humans are only ever one step from the mirror world of the fairies and their compatriots mentioned by Sedding above. Living side by side with the supernatural can be both rewarding and risky, as we shall see.
Of all the spirits that twist in Cornwall’s currents, the mermaid may not seem particularly sinister. However, local legend is full of these ambiguous creatures who signify both love and death. A keeper of supernatural promises, the mermaid can bestow great gifts, but is also known to tempt, lure and destroy. This uneasy balance is notably struck in the story of the Mermaid of Zennor, where the gift of enchantment has a definite price.
Many years ago, a beautiful woman in shimmering robes began to visit services at St Senara’s Church in Zennor, seven miles north of Penzance, where a place of worship has stood close to the headland for over a millennium. She would sing in a wondrous, ethereal voice, charming the congregation, so that the whole village would eagerly await her infrequent visits. These visits continued through generations of churchgoers and, as the people of Zennor lived and died, she did not seem to age a day.
One bright summer Sunday, the woman attended church after an absence of some years. It was on this visit that she first noticed Mathey Trewella, a handsome young man whose voice was thought to be the finest in Cornwall. The two exchanged glances over the coming weeks, until Mathey eventually followed her to the cliffs after church. He was, as you may have guessed, never seen again.
One Sunday, years after Mathey’s disappearance, a mermaid appeared at Pendour Cove, near Zennor. She calmly informed the crew of a resting ship that, having returned from church, she had found an anchor blocking the entrance to her cave, preventing her from seeing her husband and children. The astonished sailors raised the anchor at once. The people of Zennor were soon convinced that this mermaid was the same otherworldly creature who had stolen away young Mathey Trewella.
A striking carving of a mermaid, complete with comb and mirror, can be found today in St Senara’s Church, adorning an oak chair. The tale of the Mermaid of Zennor often concludes by noting that the mermaid chair was carved in remembrance of Mathey and his strange lover. Thought to be of Tudor date, the chair probably inspired Zennor’s legend; a mermaid was perhaps chosen for the carving due to her appearance in medieval Cornish miracle plays. In these performances the mermaid’s duality signified Christ – fish and woman combined like God and man.
Certainly, the idea of a church carving with a powerful connection to a watery legend has been a gift to storytellers through the ages. We see it in E. F. Benson’s Cornish folk horror story, Negotium Perambulans, where a slug-like thing of darkness is linked to an ancient altar panel. On the other side of England, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent has a carving of the titular creature within an isolated church at its symbolic heart. Just off the coast path, a visit to St Senara’s and the mermaid chair allows for much pondering on the formation of such stories and legends.
Walking here, through ancient field systems above roaring waves, also allows you to visit the magnificent, albeit collapsed, portal dolmen of Zennor Quoit, one of many notable examples in Cornwall. One of our favourite dolmens, Mulfra Quoit, also lies close by, between Zennor and Penzance. If we were pushed to select the finest dolmen west of the Tamar, however, the imposing Trethevy Quoit, on Bodmin Moor’s southern edge, would doubtless be in contention. Trethevy has a distinctive hole cut into its capstone, leading to speculation about the observation of heavenly bodies at the dolmen. It’s certainly a magical site; one where sacred astronomical practice would make perfect sense.
Like Cornwall’s mermaids, the Bucca was a sea spirit capable of providing both good luck and misfortune. Sometimes likened to an imp or hobgoblin, the Bucca’s name is seemingly related to the shapeshifting Irish púca and Welsh pwca, as well as the English sprite immortalised by Shakespeare, Puck. We may also see the origin of ‘bogeyman’ and ‘bugaboo’ (Cornish ‘Bucca-boo’) in these shadowy and interrelated terms. In Cornwall, however, the Bucca has a distinct, yet unusually varied, identity.
In common with other supernatural entities, the Bucca required appeasement. For fishermen this often meant a portion of their catch, perhaps a fish from each boat, being left on the beach. Some apparently took the custom further, with R. Morton Nance reporting how “Newlyn men set up a wooden post, called it Bucca, and threw down a tithe of fish at the feet of this idol before they dared to carry their catch up from the shore.” Such beliefs were taken up by Victorian scholars eager for pagan survivals, with the Bucca being interpreted as the “storm god of the old Cornish”. There is certainly an echo of our ancestors in the practice of leaving offerings to ensure a good catch and a safe return. In dangerous maritime conditions throughout the ages, any assurance has been welcomed.
As well as keeping an eye on fishing crews, the Bucca found additional employment as a scarer of children. Cornish youngsters were told to stop crying or misbehaving less the Bucca carry them off to its watery underworld (the creature playing to its etymological strengths as the classic bogeyman of folklore). In some tales, the spirit was once a human prince before he was cursed to live among the waves by witchcraft. Although often happy to drive fish into nets and warn boats of danger, he could be stirred to a vengeful temper, and gifts would be left to avoid angering him. As with the mermaid, this dualism has found strong symbolic representation. According to some, there are two forms of Bucca, one kindly and the other destructive.
Unsurprisingly, the taxonomy of Cornish supernatural beings is not entirely clear cut. Therefore, as well as our distinctly seaborne Bucca, we also find creatures referred to as ‘bucca’ that behave much like piskies, spriggans, brownies and knockers. Sometimes referred to as bucca, knockers are the guardian spirits of Cornwall’s mines, so-called for the knocking sounds heard by miners underground and attributed to their actions. Like other spirits we have seen, they could be both generous and cruel, capable of reward and punishment. With the Cornish having mined tin, and later copper, for thousands of years, it is little surprise that a specialised group of entities were present underground, as they were at sea.
Stories of knockers usually involve the punishment of greed, for example in the tale of the Trenwith family, collected by Robert Hunt in the nineteenth century. Here, an old man and his son stumble across a group of knockers at midnight one Midsummer’s Eve. The knockers are bringing ore to the surface from part of a mine that nobody would enter for fear of the spirits within. Using an ability to communicate with the fairy people, the father and son negotiate to collect the ore for the knockers, saving them the trouble. The humans agree to give over one tenth of the “richest stuff” to the subterranean sprites, leaving it “properly dressed”. Hunt records the remainder of the short tale as follows:
The old man never failed to keep to his bargain, and leave the tenth of the ore for his friends. He died. The son was avaricious and selfish. He sought to cheat the Knockers, but he ruined himself by so doing. The "lode" failed; nothing answered with him; disappointed, he took to drink, squandered all the money his father had made, and died a beggar.
The Trenwith tale shows that knockers, like the Bucca, could be helpful, but only if suitably propitiated and treated faithfully. Miners could leave food (the crust of their pasty according to some) for the knockers to ensure safety and, possibly, a hint as to where the best ore was located. However, it was recorded in Penzance that “if the miner begrudged them the croust, he would be left to his own resources to find the lode, and, moreover, the “knockers” would do all they could to lead him away from a good lode.” There may also have been a practical side to belief in, or at least knowledge of, the knockers. Ronald M. James argues that the heightened awareness of sounds attributed to the knockers would have been useful in developing miners’ experience of the subtle auditory clues related to safety and danger. In the mines, it paid to acknowledge the fairy folk.
If mermaids and other spirits, such as the Bucca, are the guardians of the sea and its bounty, and the knockers have the subterranean world, who keeps the land above? Of late, the Green Man has been firmly positioned as the folkloric protector of the natural world beyond the waves and caves. It is he who entices us back to an ancient state of harmony with creation, as in the Cornish poet Charles Causley’s ‘Green Man in the Garden’:
Leave your house and leave your land
And throw away the key,
And never look behind, he creaked
And come and live with me.
As we know him today, however, the Green Man is a fascinatingly recent arrival. The character’s most famous representations are found within churches across Europe, where mysterious, disembodied foliate heads have looked down upon parishioners for centuries. These faces, carved in wood or stone, are surrounded by leaves, with some featuring foliage sprouting from their mouths. They can look pained or playful, stern or serene, and are often found as roof bosses on church ceilings. A prime location for such carvings is Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, some five hundred miles from the Cornish coast. Many ornate churches have been dubbed ‘the Bible in stone’, but Rosslyn holds a petrified natural world.
Rosslyn’s carved flora includes everything from roses to curly kale, and sinuous vines wind their way through the building. From these vines emerge over one hundred foliate heads, the chapel’s Green Men. At Rosslyn, this title is something of a misnomer, as we see women and even a child represented. However, the sheer number of foliate heads is remarkable and, on a recent visit, it was pointed out to us that these characters are involved in a symbolic seasonal procession around the inside of the church. The east and south walls are abundant in leaves and fruit, but this becomes more sparse in the west and, especially, the north. Similarly, the Green Men in the east and south are faces of spring and summer, full of life and moving from adolescence to maturity. The western Green Men are allied with autumnal grains and fruit ready for harvest, but on the northern wall we have more aged, gnarled faces and a collection of skulls. Rosslyn’s masons managed to capture both the cycle of life and the seasons in stone.
Rosslyn Chapel attests to the variety of foliate heads represented within British churches, but it took a particular folklorist’s leap to unite them in the public imagination. It is well documented that Lady Raglan was the first person to apply the Green Man term to church foliate heads in a 1939 edition of the periodical Folklore. Raglan combined these carvings with a range of leafy figures from folk tradition before landing on her theory that all of these elements were traces of the Green Man, a pagan fertility god who was linked to sacrificial springtime rites. The idea lacked historical evidence, but Raglan’s Green Man soon spread through popular culture, helping to evolve the nature spirit that we recognise from parades and pub signs across the country today. Indeed, criticism of Lady Raglan’s theory can sometimes miss a key point. Although a single, distinct Green Man figure doesn’t appear before 1939, there have been green folk in British tales and traditions for a long time, including those who represented a connection to nature’s fruitfulness.
Some see the Green Knight of Arthurian legend as an archetypal Green Man, and the tale that houses him, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, still resonates today. Whether on our screens in David Lowery’s lysergic 2021 masterpiece, or rendered as an arresting graphic novel by Mark Penman and John Reppion, the magical, elusive fourteenth-century poem connects on some fundamental level. Its themes of temptation, honour and glory have proven to be universal. There is also a reading of the poem where the Green Knight carries an environmental message for the materialistic, courtly likes of Sir Gawain, not unlike that of our contemporary Green Man: forget about the wild, natural world beyond the castle gates at your peril.
Years after the composition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the Tudor period, long-haired ‘greene men’ could be seen draped in moss and ivy at civic pageants. The May Day tradition of Jack in the Green would emerge in an urban setting in the eighteenth century, with performers covered from almost head to foot in a pyramid of foliage. These customs may not be survivals of pagan festivals, just as foliate heads aren’t evidence of a cult of nature-worshipping masons, but they do point to something genuinely ancient – an association of aspects of the natural world with abandon, festivity and fertility. Ronald Hutton states that it is “justifiable to regard this collection of characters, motifs and images as infused with a common spirit, the animating one of the vegetation of the world, and especially of that which dies or is harvested and then renews itself.” We don’t need to invent histories in order to feel the power that we now find within the Green Man.
So what of the Green Man in Cornwall? There are certainly plenty of church foliate heads to track down here. They can be found as roof bosses or carved in other areas, with notable examples in St Eval, Launcells and Bodmin. Altarnun’s church pew characters combine greenery with mermaid-like forms, while Blisland has a variety of foliate heads peering down at visitors. That most Arthurian of settings, Tintagel, houses an unusual ‘green bishop’ carved on an oak chair within St Materiana’s Church. A good excuse, if one is needed, to pay a visit to the windswept cliffs beyond Tintagel Castle. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic location for a parish church.
One echo of the Cornish Green Man can be discerned in another, more unlikely, religious source. Written in Middle Cornish in the fourteenth century, the Ordinalia are some of the oldest surviving plays in Britain, designed to be performed by local communities on rowdy feast days. Although likely interspersed with topical themes and a good number of jokes, the plays mainly recount sections of the Old Testament before turning their attention to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one section, the Ordinalia show us Adam’s son Seth returning to Eden to retrieve the Oil of Mercy in order to save his dying father. The garden is now protected by an angel, who takes a fruit from the Tree of Life, and hands three of its seeds to the traveller. The angel tells Seth to plant these seeds in Adam’s nostrils and mouth. A plant will then grow across Adam’s face, from which the Oil of Mercy can be produced. At this point in the play, the minds of Cornish men and women may well have turned from the fate of the Bible’s first man to the Green Man they so often found above their heads.
On land, as at sea, Cornwall is a place of stories. The peninsula has accrued a unique treasury of legend and lore. From its mermaids and knockers, to the Bucca, and the ancient impulses woven into the figure of the Green Man, a journey out west allows for immersion within not only the natural world, but a narrative landscape formed by countless years of storytelling. And it is to the storytellers that we owe so much.
The folklore of Cornwall thrived from time immemorial as an oral tradition. It was kept alive by expert storytellers, known as ‘droll tellers’. These raconteurs would entertain locals at houses, pubs and farms, and it is from them that many of Cornwall’s stories were eventually collected. Some droll tellers would happily wander from place to place, accompanying their tales with harp or fiddle, and accepting bed and board in return for old legends actively told. Unlike their famed Irish counterparts, the seanchaithe, who strived for the accurate transmission of ancient tales, the droll tellers’ stories were prized for their inventiveness and ability to involve their audience. Well-known local figures could be worked into folktales and legends much to a crowd’s amusement, whereas renowned troublemakers might find themselves popping up as nefarious demons.
Industrialisation hit traditional life hard in Cornwall, as in many other places, but thanks to the droll tellers, and those who collected their tales, its stories live on. Many folk customs, from the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss to the harvest tradition of Crying the Neck, have continued in the face of modernity, with such unique practices embedded in the concept of Cornish identity. As Ronald M. James explains in The Folklore of Cornwall, “Folklore is held in joint custody by everyone. Those who believe the veracity of a legend or ponder the existence of a supernatural being are participants in a culture’s folklore.” This part of our island allows us all, believers and non-believers alike, to find the tales hidden in the landscape and beneath the waves.
This essay appeared in the Chateau Orlando autumn/winter 2023 "Storm Prince of the Old Cornish" mini zine.
Weird Walk began as three friends walking an ancient trackway across southern England wearing incorrect footwear, and it is now, six issues in, leading and lighting the way. With their magazine, the founders ‘hope to fan the faint embers of magic that still smoulder in the grate and conjure that elusive temporal trackway of history and mystery, a weird walk that bypasses nostalgia and leads us back towards optimism and re-enchantment’.
 Larrington, The Land of the Green Man, 2015
 Nance, A Glossary of Cornish Sea-Words, 1963
 Lach-Szyrma, Notes from Cornwall, The Antiquary 10, 1884
 Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1903 (third edition)
 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911
 James, The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Traditions of a Celtic Nation, 2018
 Lady Raglan, The “Green Man” in Church Architecture, Folklore 50:1, 1939
 Hutton, Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: an Investigation, 2022
 Black, The Time of the Tree: Returning to Eden after the Fall in the Cornish Creation of the World, Medieval Feminist Forum, 2014
 James, The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Traditions of a Celtic Nation, 2018