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Witches and Witchcraft

Cornish Legends and Myths





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15 July 2011

Cornish Legends


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Cornwall has long had a reputation for witchcraft.

Behind the witch stories collected by folklorists lay a widely held set of beliefs about the malevolent power of the witch and her ability to ill-wish people and cattle, to blast crops and cause sickness and misery to those that displeased her. The period from 1550 to 1736 was the great age of the witch-trials in England when many thousands found themselves before judges accused of witchcraft. The trial records and pamphlets describe the fear of witchcraft and point to the anxieties felt in local communities that led to witch accusations. Most fears about witchcraft centered on the hearth and home, of child-rearing and domesticated animals, and the written records show that most accusations of witchcraft were made by women against other women, usually by young women against their seniors. The older woman, past child-bearing years, could find herself at the centre of a younger person’s anxieties about motherhood and illness. A readiness to resort to folk magic to help in cases of sickness could easily be construed as something altogether darker. In all cases, the witch was known to her accusers.

At least 24 individuals are known to have found themselves before the Assize court at Launceston, some of whom were hanged. Perhaps most sensational was the 1686 case of John Tonkin, who claimed to be bewitched by a local women and who vomited pins and other sharp items that he said she placed by enchantment into his stomach. Although the witchcraft act of 1604 was repealed in 1736, after which suspected witches could not be put on trial for witchcraft, but rather for pretended witchcraft, the idea of the malevolent witch refused to go away, and there are accounts of witch-scratching and assault into the early twentieth century, after which time such beliefs declined.


Ranged against the witch and her curses were the magical practitioners known variously as cunning-folk, conjurors, Wise-man and women and, from the mid nineteenth century onwards, as Pellers. The term ‘white witch’ was also applied to them, although mainly by the clergy and by folklorists. Cunning-folk were the multi-faceted practitioners of the occult arts who were consulted by those who thought themselves bewitched, and the conjuror offered services of witch-detection, spell-breaking, theft detection, fortune telling and sometimes simple charming. As they operated a business, cunning-folk charged for their services. Cunning-folk were found across Cornwall, mostly in the South and West, and whereas the majority of those accused of witchcraft were women, the majority of cunning-folk were men.

Cunning-folk were sought out for their power to unmask a witch, which they did mostly by offering the bewitched person means to name the witch themselves, usually by using reflective surfaces. Other times the conjuror would describe the ill-wisher in sufficient detail for the client to feel sure that he or she knew who it was. The cunning-person would then offer some charm to break the power of witchcraft, or suggest some means whereby the client to break the curse him or herself.

Cunning-folk sold charms written on paper, which were to be hung around the neck of the afflicted, or in the case of cattle offered powers (usually salt) which had to be sprinkled around the farmer’s fields and over the backs of the animals while certain verses where chanted. The most popular charm was the word ‘Abracadabra’ written in the form of a pyramid, with the last letter missed off on each line. Charms and signs copied from various magical books also proved popular, such as Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which incorporated medieval traditions of angel magic.

In the days before a police force, cunning-folk performed a vital function in their communities for reinforcing neighbourly behaviour and their consulting rooms were nerve centres for local gossip and intrigues. Aside from witch-detection, theft detection was the most important service they offered. Burglaries were no less common in the past and people went to cunning-folk to discover who had robbed them, which they did by the oracle of the Sieve and Shears. Quite often it was the merest threat of a visit to a conjuror, spread abroad by the neighbourhood gossips, that induced thieves to return the stolen loot to the rightful owner.

As cunning-folk were supported by witch-beliefs, when these began to decline in the early twentieth century, so too did the practices of cunning-folk. When he began his folklore collecting in the 1920s, the Cornish folklorist William Paynter took an especially interest in cunning-folk, but it is noticeable that he last wrote about them in 1932, which coincides with their disappearance nationally, as the last practicing conjuror Owen Davies was able to find in his survey of English cunning-folk was in 1936.


Another group of magical practitioners met with in the folklore records are charmers, those people who could cure cuts and sprains and simple skin diseases. Charmers are still to be met with in the country districts of Cornwall and they offer quite different services to those of the cunning-folk, despite often being confused with them. Unlike conjurors, charmers do not diagnose and their charms are used solely for healing. Moreover, whereas conjurors learned their stock-in-trade from books or from what they could pick up from other cunning-folk, charmers practise a tradition of handing down their store of charms contra-sexually – that is from male to female to male to female and so on. The charms are never meant to be revealed but rather spoken over the patient in a whisper. Also unlike cunning-folk, charmers are never meant to take payment for their healing.

In our own day we have the modern pagan witch, practicing a nature-based religion. Even though the malevolent witch has largely disappeared, magic lives on.


Witches' Cures - anti-Witch charms


Whooping Cough - pass the child under the belly of a piebald horse.


Smallpox & Measles - Live fowl hung upside-down from a beam in patient's bedroom, with its feathers plucked. Within twenty-four hours spots/rash will transfer to the fowl, the bird will turn black and congested and die in final struggle, leaving the patient free of infection. (This was still used up to the 1960's.)


Hernia - the child should crawl through an ash sapling before breakfast, fasting.

Thrush - one born without father (i.e. posthumous) should blow into the infected mouth.

Warts - a) soak nine bramble leaves in spring water, or b) rub meat into wart, then bury the meat to decay it.


Ill-Wishing - to be avoided at all costs. Pass witch on right-hand side of the road, don't catch her eye. Otherwise this will lead to a) months of sickness, b) cattle fall sick, c) fish refuse to bite, d) plants wither. REMEDY - draw blood from witch, then her power will cease.


Death or Ox or other Animal - take out creature's heart, stick it with nails and pins, and roast it before fire until pins drop out. The witch will suffer in sympathy with the roasting heart and be forced to confess.


Lunacy - pushed in pond and forced up and down.


Pillows - stuff with feathers of wild birds to make dying painful/prolonged. Death also waited on the ebb of the tide.

Animal Lore


Owls were seen as birds of ill-omen. So were Ravens if they croaked over your house.

A Toad on the doorstep was also an ill omen. The cure was to give the toad a 'barbarous death'.

The Hare was hated more than anything. A person injured before death could never rest in peace, and so took the form of a white hare with burning eyes, from which dogs and beasts ran away howling. Another story says that white hares are the souls of lovers who died of grief after being deserted. It is in this form that such maltreated girls return to haunt their betrayers. Hares or rabbits must not be mentioned while at sea or no fish will be caught.


For more information please visit the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, with displays of witchcraft past and present. Visit their website Click Here.







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