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Modern Survivals of Old Beliefs
LJ Dickinson Occult Review November 1917
People in towns write books on Folklore, and talk about witches and charms and spells always in the past tense, but those who live in Celtic districts know that these things exist in the present; in fact, that the old beliefs and customs are still going on.
My own experience is chiefly in Cornwall, but I am told that many practices, extant in Cornwall, are even commoner in Ireland and Wales.
It is not surprising that this county, one of the most ancient and remote parts of Great Britain, should still abound in curious beliefs and legends, for it was the home of several vanished races before even the Celt came on the scene.
One race has left solid evidence of its stay here in the great stone monuments that are scattered all over the county, whose erection shows that the builders must have possessed mechanical skill and, as Sir Norman Lockyer points out, considerable astronomical knowledge.
Another race is said by archaeologists to have been pygmies of a negroid type. Some writers have thought that the old stories of fairies originated in tales of these little folk, who no doubt fled into the wilds of moor and mountain before the advance of taller and fiercer tribes, such as the Iberians, a people for whom there is more tangible evidence.
Later still came the Celts, who in their turn conquered and colonized Great Britain. It is probable that they adopted and assimilated some of the beliefs and customs of earlier inhabitants, and that their priestly caste, the Druids, made use, for religious ceremonies, of the great stone monuments they found already in existence.
With such a variety of races there must have been strange beliefs and practices of many kinds, though in most parts of England the old ideas have now died out. Perhaps they have persisted longer in Cornwall and Wales because even the modem Celts have a stronger sense of the unseen than the ordinary Anglo Saxon, for, descended as they are from an older race, their forefathers were more developed in soul and spirit than the heathen hordes who drove them westward.
In any case, they have retained a knowledge of the influence of mind on matter, which, whether it works through spells, or charms, or Christian Science, is very much the same.
There is not really much difference between my friend the old roadmender and a Christian Science healer. The former has treated, from a distance, the child of my neighbour, for warts, by some mysterious spell, and the latter concentrates his mind on the health of a patient, and gives “absent treatment” to a person unknown to him.
In the old roadmender’s case, all he requires is the name of the patient; and he never takes payment; You may give him tobacco if you like, but it must be on some other occasion.
Another form of mental influence, which is very common in Cornwall, is "ill wishing.” To “ ill wish,” or to “over-look,” is to injure by some spell or charm, and perhaps the power to do so, which some persons undoubtedly possess, may be explained if we consider it from a psychological point of view.
No one now can deny the influence of the mind on the body, and almost every one grants the truth of telepathy, even if they themselves are too dense psychically, or too weak in concentrative power, to receive an impression, or to transmit one.
It will be noticed that a witch, i.e. any one who is credited with the power to "ill wish ” or ” over-look,” is always a person of determined character, with considerable will-power. If such a man or woman takes an object, a sheep’s or a bullock’s heart for choice, and sticks it full of pins, and bums it slowly, ”saying words,” a spell that is, while it is being consumed, he or she is, all that time, intently concentrating the mind on injuring the individual personified by the heart. If the person thought of is impressionable and sensitive the evil wish penetrates the astral body. It may develop merely as a depressing influence, or it may affect the victim so much as to cause actual bodily illness. It is said, if the intended victim is upright, and is also a strong character, that the “ill-wish ” cannot affect him, for the soul is then like an armour of light, and is proof against evil influences, in which case the unused force rebounds towards the witch and injures him or her. Evidently St. Paul knew about these occult influences, for he tells his disciples to put on the whole armour of light.
Spells for good purposes are in constant use in Cornwall. These are cast by a “white witch,” and their object is to relieve pain, to soothe the irritation caused by insect bites, and even to remove an evil spell. An old man, whom I knew well, worked his charms by twisting an ash or willow wand round the part affected, and "saying words.” He was very successful in curing both people and animals.
In most cases that have come within my personal knowledge, I think the result may be attributed to the influence of mind on matter, but undoubtedly there are other happenings not so easily accounted for.
Some years ago an old woman lived near me called Mrs. Tregay,* who was believed to have “ over-looked ” many of her neighbours. She was a person of strong character and great magnetic force. You either liked her, or shrank from her in fear ; she had also great power over animals, and her donkey obeyed her voice and followed her about like a dog. Most of her neighbours were so frightened of her that they avoided even passing her on the road.
She once met her match in witchcraft in Mr. Hale, the ” white , witch ” of a neighbouring town, who died recently. His ostensible profession was that of a herbalist, and he always used to "attend the local market, where his remedies could be bought, and his advice obtained on more occult matters. The story of how he released a man from old Philippa Tregay’s spell is well-known in the district, but unfortunately it is not suitable for publication; anyhow it was quite successful.
It must be remembered that a white witch uses his or her powers for good purposes, the black witch for evil ones. That is the only difference between them. This same white witch Mr. Hale was mixed up in another case that concerned a woman I know very well. Her husband had fallen ill with a strange wasting disease, which baffled the local doctor, and the friends of the patient said he was "over-looked,” so his wife, Mrs. Crowle, decided to consult Mr. Hale. She invited another woman for company, and they drove off to the village where he lived. Mr. Hale was at home, and after hearing their business, took them into an inner room, and told Mrs. Crowle to gaze steadily in a mirror that he showed her, saying that there she would see the face of the person who had bewitched her husband. Mrs. Crowle looked fixedly in the glass, expecting to see Mrs. Tregay, for it was she who was generally thought to have "over-looked" Mr. Crowle ; but to her horror and surprise, the face that appeared in the mirror was not that of Mrs. Tregay, but of old Mrs. Crowle, the husband’s mother! It gave the seer such a shock that she fled from the room, and hastily departed.
On the drive home, the two women thought over every unpleasant incident connected with the mother-in-law, but all they could remember as a reason for "ill-wishing,” was a quarrel about some butter!
The curious thing to us, of course, is that a face should appear in the mirror at all, and I can suggest no explanation except that the mirror may be used as the crystal is by clairvoyants, and that most of the gazers are rather psychic. It is not very long since this occurred, and I have come across other cases where a glass has been used to discover who was the person casting the spell.
Pigs and cattle can be “ill-wished ” as well as people, so that they waste away and die, and some envious neighbour is thought to be at the bottom of it. There is a farm which has always had the reputation of being under curious influences; in fact, it is still believed to be haunted. In the life-time of a man still living (and it was he who related the tale) it was “ bewitched ” on a very extensive scale. Day after day the animals were found dead, and everything went wrong. The crops were a failure, and even the butter "wouldn’t come." At last the owners, Mr. Rosewame and his wife, decided to journey to Exeter, to consult a famous white witch who lived there. The witch was a man of extraordinary gifts, and his fame had spread through all Devon and Cornwall. Mr. Rosewarne was so much impressed by him (for the witch showed an intimate knowledge of his, Rosewarne's, private life, before any information had been imparted), that he engaged him to come back with him to the Old Cromlech Farm to remove the spell. This was done at midnight with due ceremony. The Rosewarnes and the "witch," all the household and the labourers, each holding a lantern or a light of some kind in the hand, perambulated the farm, going through every field, and into every bam and stable, while the white witch repeated psalms as they marched along, and "said words" from time to time, with the result that the evil spell was removed, and the crops and the cattle flourished again.
What the "words" are, which are used in the spell, may only be revealed on the death-bed, and then only to a person of the opposite sex. The charm cannot be handed on even from mother to daughter, but the woman must choose a man to be the successor to her knowledge, and vice-versa.
In but one case have I been able to ascertain the words used in the spell. It is a charm for stopping bleeding; the girl who told me about it had cut her hand badly, so that the haemorrhage was profuse. She hastened to a man that she knew possessed the blood-charm, and she was alert enough to catch the words. The old man took her hand, and said—
Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem,
Baptized in the river of Jordan.
The water was wild and rude— .
Christ was mild and good—
He bade it stand, and it stood.
So may the blood of Mary Brown
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This has to be repeated three times, using the patient’s own name in the right place, and then the bleeding will stop, which, according to my informant, it always does.
One would not expect these words to affect the circulation of a person, still less that of an animal; yet the same charm was once used to injure a neighbour, by spoiling the carcase of a pig he had just killed. The pig, a very fine one it was said, was slaughtered in the usual way by cutting its throat. A man, standing by, who was filled with envy at its goodly proportions, muttered this charm, and at once the blood stopped flowing. It congealed within the carcase, rendering it unfit for food, and causing considerable loss to the owner. There is nothing I know of which can account for this. Perhaps some student of the occult can throw light upon it?
In many parts of the world, gipsies are credited with occult powers, and certainly in Cornwall people are afraid of offending them. Sometimes they trade on the fear they arouse to make the cottagers buy worthless brooms and brushes for twice their value. On other occasions they just look at a person, and give advice or warning, without asking for, or expecting, payment.
A few days ago a gipsy woman called at a little farm near here, and told the wife that there was money coming to her in a letter. This seemed most unlikely, but the next morning the woman, to her great surprise, received a letter with a considerable sum of money in it.
A disgusting form of ill-wishing by a gipsy, causing vermin, took place in Cornwall, and the victims were all known to me.
A woman, called Mrs. Price, kept a little shop, and a gipsy came to her, urging her to buy her wares, which Mrs. Price refused. The gipsy became angry and abusive and could not be got rid of. At last she departed, and it was noticed that she looked very carefully at the name John Price, written over the shop door.
The next day, the woman living opposite, whose name was also Price, came rushing in, in great excitement and distress, with her baby little John Price in her arms. She showed the people in the shop that the child was absolutely covered with vermin, which was incomprehensible, as they were very clean people, and there had not been a vestige of such a thing even the day before. The only way the visitation could be accounted for was the gipsy’s curse, for it is well known that an ill-wish, or a curse, if directed at a family, or indiscriminately at a name, always goes to the youngest, and the baby, little John Price, was the youngest of that name. No doubt the gipsy had intended to injure the husband whose name was over the shop.
Another gipsy had a quarrel with John Cardew, whom I used to know, and went out from his cottage in wrath. When outside, the Cardews noticed that she was making a “ring,” or circle in the road, and seemed to be "saying words."
From that day forth John Cardew’s youngest little girl ceased to grow. She was then about eight, so as she grew up she became a dwarf. This misfortune was always attributed to the family being " ill-wished ” by the gipsy, and the spell falling, as is the custom, on the youngest.
It is always believed that running water has great power. No witch, however malevolent, can cast a spell if running water be between her and her victim, so if you have reason to dread the enmity of a ”wise woman,” you should go and live the other side of a stream. I have been told of several persons who moved from one side of the parish to the other, in order to have running water between them and their enemy.
Perhaps ghosts in Cornwall are even more plentiful than witches. They are of many kinds, and to some of them the people get so accustomed that no sense of fear remains, others are annoying, and a few are regarded with terror.
There is a cottage in this parish which was formerly haunted by sounds of music, supposed to be the former occupant going on with his fiddling in the next world. The story is that some time in the eighties a Humphrey Digory had there lived alone and died. I was told he had had a crooked back, so made a living by shoe-making, but all his spare time was spent in playing the violin. He died suddenly and the cottage remained empty till a couple named Joshua and Rebecca Guy became the tenants, unaware that there was anything odd about it, yet every night they heard the unceasing sound of music. They did not enjoy it at all; it prevented their sleeping and upset their nerves. The husband was especially annoyed, and at last he got up one night in a real rage, went to the top of the stairs, and used, I was told, "very furious language to Mr. Digory,” with the result that the poor ghost went away, and the music was heard no more. This seems to show that the violent vibrations set up by the angry man were felt by the inhabitant of the astral world, who had had, probably, no idea that he was troubling anybody.
Animal ghosts, or what are known in other countries as werewolves, have been seen in Cornwall. They are generally associated with human beings who in life had been very wicked. It is not clear whether they are the persons themselves, or a familiar spirit.
In Germany and Russia there are many stories of werewolves, who actually were the debased souls of wicked men and women, which could slip out of the living human form while the body was asleep in bed, and could go out into the night to satisfy their craving for blood by killing sheep, sometimes even human beings. These, it is said, could materialize to a certain extent, and so were visible to ordinary people.
In France the werewolf is known as the loup-garou, and has the same characteristics, but in Great Britain it takes a less harmful form, and is associated, not with the living, but the dead.
In this part of Cornwall there are several were-animals: a white rat frequents the quay of Boscastle harbour, and is supposed to be the uneasy spirit of an old man who had lived there, and whose chief characteristic was miserliness. It is quite harmless; in that respect very unlike the white rabbit of Egloshayle, which haunts the comer of the churchyard, and whoever sees it dies, or meets with great trouble within a short time.
Nearer my home a spectral calf is sometimes encountered. It is said to be the ghost of a noted cattle dealer called Jobber Mail, who lived in an adjacent parish, and who made a fortune by unfair dealing, and was a very bad character in other ways. After his death the people who took his farm were disturbed every night by the appearance at the door of a huge calf, or yearling, making uncanny sounds, and they knew it was Jobber Mail. At last they could endure it no longer, and sent for the parson. What he did is not related, but anyhow he cleared the farm of the haunting, and Jobber Mail was removed to the seashore.
An old woman, who is now dead, used to relate how it was done. When she was a young girl, she was weeding corn on a hillside, and she was surprised to see on the opposite side of the valley, "seven black men on seven black horses" riding towards the shore, with long whips in their hands, and all whipping in one direction at something that was not visible to her, though she knew they were banishing Jobber Mail to the beach called Trebarwith Strand. His penalty was to make beams of sand, and there is a hole in the rocks, called Jobber Mail’s Hole, to this day. What the old woman had witnessed was evidently an exorcising ceremony, and it apparently required seven parsons in their clerical garb, mounted on black horses.
Jobber Mail is not now always tied to the shore; sometimes he wanders inland and several persons have seen him. Once he was met by the Treveague sexton, who, as he said, gave the phantom a “stripe” with his stick, and “it felt like striping a pack of wool,” yet the stick was splintered into matchwood, and the man was seized with such terror that he ran all the way home, more than three miles!
The other local story is of a ghostly dog with fiery eyes who goes by the name of Gobbo, and is associated with an old man who lived at a house that is now in ruins. It is said that he was "wicked beyond ordinary human wickedness, so that he cannot rest.” This apparition also has been seen by people who are known to me.
Not only do we hear of magic in the shape of spectral shapes and sounds, but the milder forms are practised to this day by quite harmless people. For instance, the custom of divining one’s fate on All Hallow E’en by means of eggs, melting lead, and tealeaves is very common.
To discover the occupation of her future husband, a maiden will take an egg at midnight, prick it, and let the white run into a wine-glass full of water. In the morning the albumen has taken all sorts of fantastic shapes that may be deciphered as quarry ladders, ploughs, rigging of ships and other forms. Last year they told me that the omens looked more like things to do with soldiers, resembling rifles and pits or trenches!
Another method of ascertaining your future husband is to weed a parsley bed at noon on Midsummer Day without turning your head. When you have finished, the first young man you see on leaving the garden is your destined husband. If no young man turns up you remain single.
A very prevalent idea in Celtic districts is that you must never rear kittens born in May, for they would bring shakes into the house. Nor must you ever do washing on New Year’s Day, or you would wash away all your luck. And no sensible person in Cornwall will consent to wash bedding in May— for "If you wash your blankets in May, you will wash your friends away.” This applies to the spring cleaning, not to the weekly wash. May is also unlucky for buying brooms and brushes, for if you do, one of the family dies within the year.
When cleaning the house on Candlemas Day (Feb. 2) you must be sure to reverse the order of your sweeping and sweep inwards, not out of the house, or you will sweep your luck away.
When I first knew Cornwall, much more was said about the piskies, or fairies, than we hear now. We were often told how the piskies were supposed to live in the tangled slopes of a valley near our house; and quite lately a woman, in talking to me of her childhood, mentioned that she had often heard the piskies in that valley. When she was young she had lived there, in a cottage now in ruin. She said the piskies would come round the place in the evening making “a great clatter with their curious voices.” Her mother was always very frightened when she heard the sound, and used to bolt the door, and even put a form across it as well, for fear the piskies should get in.
I tried to find out what the voices were like, but my old friend could not tell me, beyond saying they were shrill, and like nothing else she had ever heard.
It is not only Cornish people who get into touch with the unseen in this district. For instance the Bells of Forrabury have been heard even by stray visitors. The legend is well known, how bells were being brought from over the sea for the Church at Forrabury, and owing to the profanity of the captain, the vessel was wrecked off Tintagel Head, and the captain and crew and the bells went to the bottom; only the pious pilot survived. Yet sometimes those bells may be heard ringing a distinct peal, sometimes sadly tolling from the depths of the ocean. The legend may have arisen to account for the sound of bells, which is undoubtedly audible to many people.
It has been suggested that the sound comes from another plane, and that the hearing of it indicates that the astral sense is being awakened. Cornwall is full of hints of the kind, as if the barrier between this world and the next were thinner here than in most places.
The tales and legends all show that the Celt is more conscious than most of us of the workings of the subjective mind, and that, though he may be as material in some ways as the ordinary Anglo-Saxon, yet he still retains a sense of the unseen and of the antiquity and beauty of the ancient Celtic civilization.
This is borne out by the legend with which I will conclude. It is said in Tintagel, that when King Arthur was slain, the famous Round Table disappeared; no one knows what has become of it, but those who know most, say it was buried in Bossinney Mound. And once a year it becomes visible to “those who can see,” and that is at midnight, on Midsummer’s Eve, when it rises in a mysterious way from its long concealment in the ancient barrow, and may be seen hovering over it, shining with so great a light as to illumine the world for the brief moment that it remains visible.
Then it sinks again into the great Mound, and is lost in the unknown darkness for another whole year.
* I have changed the names for obvious reasons: otherwise the stories are related as they happened, or as they were told me.