Myths & Legends of Cornwall
Everywhere has its legends and myths - some are more believable than others. Here is a selection of some of my favourite Cornish Myths and Legends.
GIANTS: The Story of Cormoran and Jack the Giant Killer
At St. Michael's Mount there is an ancient map showing Cornwall in relief. Giants sit atop the highest hills. The Mount was supposed to have been built by the giant Cormoran as his home. To feed his monstrous appetite, he raided the local farms making off with sheep and cattle. The locals were powerless to resist him despite many valiant attempts. The legend states however, that a local farmer's boy called Jack succeeded where everyone else had failed. Jack spent the whole of one night digging a huge hole while Cormoran slept. He covered it with sticks and waited until the next morning. Jack blew his horn to rouse Cormoran, standing on the far side of the pit. The Giant raged after him, tumbling into the deep pit where Jack killed him with a single blow. Quickly, Jack filled the pit with earth and returned to his village. Local people were so relieved that they rewarded him with a fine sword. A rhyme to his feat goes as follows: 'Here's the valiant Cornishman, who slew the giant Cormoran'. The remains of the pit where Cormoran fell can still be seen halfway up the Mount and is shown to visiting schoolchildren.
GIANTS : The Story of Giant Bolster
The huge Giant known as Bolster lived near St. Agnes. He was so tall, that he would stand with one foot on St. Agnes Beacon, with the other foot on Carn Brea. He fell in love with the beautiful and deeply religious St. Agnes and kept pestering her. The lady said, that if he wished to prove that he loved her, that he should fill up a hole at nearby Chapel Porth with his blood. The foolish Giant thought the task was simple as he would surely fill the hole and win her affection. Unknown to him, the hole led down through the cliffs into the sea. It was in fact bottomless. Bolster made a cut in his arm and waited for the hole to fill. By the time he realised what was happening, he had lost too much blood and died. The Giant's blood can still be seen today staining the local cliffs around here.
GIANTS: Giant Wrath (Ralph)
On the North Coast near present day Portreath, lies the collapsed sea cave known as Ralph's Cupboard . The legend states that many years ago the cave was home to the fearsome Giant Wrath. He would lie in wait for passing ships and attack them for their treasure and crew. Wrath would then return to his 'cupboard' to store his bounty and devour the sailors for his meal. Seafarers began to avoid this area, but Wrath still attacked and destroyed the ships by hurling huge boulders at them. The remnants of these boulders can still be seen today at low tide all along the 'North Cliffs' especially between Reskajeage and Portreath.
The Legendary Land of Lyonesse
The legendary land of Lyonesse extends from Land's End to the Isles of Scilly. Late in the 11th Century a huge storm battered the cliffs to such an extent that the land became inundated with sea. The land was lost forever, submerged below the waves. The main city of Lyonesse, known to local sailors as 'The Town' is said to be marked by the Seven Stones Reef. It is also said that on certain stormy nights it is still possible to hear the ringing of the church bells from the cliffs at Land's End.
The Mermaid of Zennor
Lying midway between St. Ives and Pendeen on the north coast of the Penwith Peninsula lies the small moorland village of Zennor. A short way north of the village lies the spectacular Pendour Cove. A local legend tells us of the story of one Mathew Trewella and his love for a mermaid. Mathew was a fine young man with a voice to match his good looks. Every evening Mathew would sing the closing hymn at Zennor church alone - this was to be his undoing. A mermaid, half-woman half fish, was entranced by the wonderful music from the village above her home at Pendour Cove. She listened to Mathew's voice with increasing interest until one day should could stand it no longer. She had to see who was making this beautiful music. The mermaid dressed herself in a long dress, taking care to conceal her long tail and walked awkwardly up to the church. At first she just marvelled at the singing before slipping away to return beneath the waves before the ebb-tide. After a few more visits, she became bolder and waited longer. It was on this visit that her gaze met with Mathew's and the pair fell madly in love. The call of the sea was too strong however and the mermaid knew that she must return to her home or face certain death. She turned to leave but Mathew called after her 'Please do not leave, who are you, where are you from?'. The mermaid explained that she was a creature from the sea and that she must return now. Already deeply in love with her, Mathew told her that wherever she went he would follow. Carrying her, Mathew ran down to the cove and followed her beneath the waves. Neither were seen again. It is said however that if you sit above the cove at twilight on a fine summer's evening you might just catch Mathew singing faintly on the breeze. Why not visit the church of St. Senara to see the carved bench end (over 500 years old) depicting the mermaid.
The Lady of the Lake
Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor was thought by local people to be bottomless. It is said to be the lake, in Arthurian legend, that the mortally wounded King Arthur threw Excalibur after the fateful battle of Camlann against the scheming Mordred. A lady's hand rose from beneath the waves to catch the magical sword, before returning to the depths.
An early seventeenth century magistrate, known widely for his cruel ways. He is said to have made his fortune by robbing an orphan of his estate. His ghostly wails have been identified with the cries of the wild hunt over Bodmin moor, and there are many versions of how he came to haunt the area, in penance for his earthly crimes.
Some time after his death there was a dispute over some land, said to have been obtained illegally by Jan Tregeagle by forging some papers. The case was all but over, and the Judge was about to sum up, when one of the parties asked for a further witness to be called. Permission was granted and Jan Treageagle was summoned to the bench by the orderlies. There was raucous laughter among the court members, stilled when a shadowy figure began to manifest in the witness stand. The shade of Jan Tregeagle stood before the court, a translucent representation of his living form. Some people fled from the court in terror, but in a calm steady voice the judge began to question Tregeagle, who explained that in life he had deceived the defendant of his rightful possession.
The verdict went in the defendant's favour, but the ghost of Jan Tregeagle would not be dismissed so easily, not wishing to return to his earned place in some corner of hell. After some discussion it was decided that he should be set impossible tasks so as to keep him occupied for all eternity, and to keep him safe from the hell hounds, who would drag him down to their infernal region.
With ceremony and ritual Jan Tregeagle was bound to the task of emptying Dozmary pool (at that time believed to be bottomless) on windswept Bodmin Moor, with a leaking limpet shell. The hell hounds and a host of demons would always be waiting to drag him to back hell if he ceased in his task.
One night, many years after the court case, a terrible storm blew over Bodmin moor, whipping the still waters of Dozmary pool into huge waves. Jan Treageagle, either terrified or seizing an opportunity to escape, fled from the scene of his torment across the moor to Roche Rock. As soon as Jan Treageagle ceased in his toil, the demons were on his trail mingling, their ghastly cries with the rending roar of the storm.
Upon Roche Rock, thrusting skyward like part of the living rock, a fourteenth century chapel dedicated to St Michael stands. Jan Tregeagle saw this place of Christian refuge, and crashed into the East window in a bid to gain access to this place of sanctuary. His head became stuck in the stained glass, and his spirit shoulders would not pass through the arched window, in this way he hung, his head inside the church, and his body at the mercy of the clawing demons and the raging storm.
His howls of torment brought forth the local priest, who called on the aid of two saints to transport the wretched spirit of Tregeagle to Gwenvor Cove (or in some versions of the tale to Padstow). Here he was set the task of weaving a rope from the beach sand. When completed this rope had to be taken to Carn Olva. Of course the task set was meant to be impossible and to keep him occupied for eternity but one very cold night Jan completed his task by pouring icy water over the rope, so that it froze solid. His success was short lived, as a group of local exorcists and holy men gathered and bound him to the task of weaving the sand rope at Gwenvor, under the condition that this time he was not allowed to approach water. It is said that on dark nights, when the cold Northern winds scatter the sand far across Whitesand Bay, his howls of frustration can be heard mingling with the wind.
The Logan Rock, Treen near Porthcurno
Not so much a legend but a forgotten fact. The story of the Logan Rock of Treen is unusual to say the least. The Logan Rock is a massive granite rock weighing about 80 tons. It lies perched on the cliffs about a mile from the small hamlet of Treen near Porthcurno on the south coast of Penwith, Cornwall. Due to the action of erosion over the countless centuries since the formation of the cliffs the rock now lies finely balanced. In its original state the rock could be rocked by applying only a little pressure at the correct point. 'Logan' or 'rocking stones' are not uncommon, being found mainly in areas of granite moorland and limestone. However the claim to fame of this one is that it has been replaced after being pulled down by one infamous Lieutenant Goldsmith in April 1824. For many, many years the Logan Rock had been a tourist attraction. With the advent of trains and more particularly the Great Western Railway, tourist trade grew and so did the mystery of the Logan Rock. Lt. Goldsmith was a Royal Navy sailor in charge of the cutter HMS Nimble. He was sent to attach a warning buoy at the nearby Runnelstone Reef off Gwennap Head. After several other failed attempts Lt. Goldsmith and his crew were successful. Why they now turned their attention inland is unknown. Did they wish to 'make a name for themselves' who knows?
Lt. Goldsmith and some of his crew set off to view the cliffs around Treen ostensibly to look for smugglers hideouts and caves. Why they took with them a number of bars and levers is unknown but their intention soon became very clear. Arriving at the Logan Rock they set about rocking the huge boulder, making it sway until finally it fell from its pivot and crashed down the cliffs. The people of Cornwall horrified by such an act, asked the Admiralty to strip Lt. Goldsmith of his commision unless he promised to reinstate the rock to its former position 'at his own expense'. The Royal Naval base at Plymouth offered to help the lieutenant with his task so as to quell the considerable local unrest about this act of 'vandalism'. It took several months and scores of local riggers and labourers to build the structure to replace the rock. It is known that the rock was finally replaced at 4.20pm on Tuesday 2nd November 1824. The rock may have taken a few minutes to dislodge but the whole enterprise of replacing the rock took at least 60 men almost SEVEN months to do. The cost in 1824 was over £130 - what would it cost these days?