This is the second in series of posts designed to flesh out Cornwall as a setting for Ars Magica troupes. . It uses as its core text Popular romances of the west of England; or, The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall by Robert Hunt. Hunt divides Cornish faeries into five types: small people, spriggans, piskies, buccas and browneys. From a game perspective there are obviously at least two more tribes, giants and merfolk, but since I’m following Hunt’s text closely, they have separate episodes. The episode about giants has already been released.
Small people are the courtly faeries which Hunt compares to the creatures in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream”. These sorts of creatures arguably don’t exist in folklore from 1220. They rise to become what people think of as the generic for faeries during the Victorian period. In 1220, faeries don’t even have wings. He begins with origin myths and, as he notes, they may refer to all types of faeries.
“Of the Small People I have heard two accounts. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the tradition of their origin does not apply to the whole five branches of this ancient family. The Small People are believed by some to be the spirits of the people who inhabited Cornwall many thousands of years ago long, long before the birth of Christ. That they were not good enough to inherit the joys of heaven, but that they were too good to be condemned to eternal fires…When they first came into this land, they were much larger than they are now, but ever since the birth of Christ they have been getting smaller and smaller. Eventually they will turn into muryans (ants), and at last be lost from the face of the earth…In Cornwall, as in Wales, another popular creed is, that the fairies are Druids becoming because they will not give up their idolatries smaller and smaller. These Small People in many things closely resemble the Elves of Scandinavia.(really?)…These Small People are exceedingly playful amongst themselves, but they are usually demure when they know that any human eye sees them. They commonly aid those people to whom they take a fancy, and, frequently, they have been known to perform the most friendly acts towards men and women.”
Linguistically, in parts of Cornwall, there are odd synonyms for faeries: moths, ants and ferrets seem to be related to faeries. In parts of Cornwall they are said to be of the “Old Faith”. This, because the book is from the 19th Century, refers to Catholicism:
Were of the old profession ;
Their songs were Ave Maries,
Their dances were procession.
But now, alas ! they all are dead,
Or gone beyond the seas,
Or, further, for religion fled,
Or else they take their ease.” – Bishop Corbet 1648.”
Hunt then tells the same stories many times about these little people. Honestly if you’ve bought Ars Magica supplements you’ve seen these already, so I’ll give brief versions.
Hunt says he’s seen children who have been claimed as a changelings. He says they had mesenteric illness, and gave a physical description:
“the countenance much altered their eyes glassy and sunk in their sockets the nose sharpened the cheeks of a marble whiteness, unless when they were flushed with hectic fever the lips sometimes swollen and of a deep, red colour, and small ulcers not unfrequently at the angles of the mouth. The wasted frame, with sometimes strumous swellings, and the unnatural abdominal enlargement which accompanies disease of mesenteric glands, gives a very sad, and often a most unnatural appearance to the sufferer.” There are many ways of getting your baby back: these are basically child abuse, so let’s skate past them rapidly, stopping only to mention a demon might convince step-parents to treat their wards as changelings. I mention step parents because there’s an argument that there’s a Divine protection on the bond between parents and their children (like the True Love virtue).
There are a few stories of foundlings who are faeries, and are raised by humans, then are called away by their parents. Such creatures could be Faerie Allies for player characters: foster brothers and sisters.
I’d also like to flag a lovely version of the story, which Hunt gives. Cornish faeries are known to kidnap, wash and groom children whose parents are neglectful. They return the child unharmed, asleep, scented with rare oils, and and surrounded in flowers. This is apparently deliberately slightly sinister: it’s how children are buried in Cornwall at the time he’s writing. The parents tend to sober up quickly, and treat their children well afterwards. A redcap with a spare evening and the right magic items could do a world of good for some poor child in Cornwall, by pretending to be a faerie.
Hunt then gives three versions of the Faerie Widower, which you’ll almost certainly know, so I’ll condense it too. A farm girl goes to the Fair seeking a place (a job) or, a woman has recently lost a baby and is offered a job as a wetnurse. She is led away by her new employer, who sometimes blindfolds her (to which she acquiesces on the assumption that he’s a lord and the baby is his bastard). The arrive in a splendid room with a banquet laid out, or a great garden, and meet a tiny, angelic boy. The woman is told this is her charge, and one of her duties is to wash his face each day with water from a particular ewer, or put a certain ointment in his eyes, but make sure she does not use the magical material herself. Eventually she gets some of it in one eye, and sometimes this leads to her being thrown out, or she just finishes her contract and goes home. Later she sees the widower in the market, but remarks she can only see him with one eye. The faerie curses her to blindness in that eye, and vanishes. She becomes poor, and pines for the luxuries of the faerie court.
There seems to be an awful lot of this going on. Well, at least on a “thrice is enemy action” level. Is the suffering of the woman what is really needed to suckle the baby? Is this an ordeal for a secret society? What happens to the women who don’t misuse the ointment? The ointment is said to be made of four-leafed clover at gathered at certain phases of the moon and to “render the invisible visible, and men invisible”. I’m not sure that’s as useful as it sound, because it doesn’t seem to mean it turns you invisible, just that you can no longer see people. If it were open to the broader interpretation, though, we have a sort of hedge witchery here. Seeing faeries, invisibility…certainly enough power for a companion.
The Small People’s Gardens
Hunt gives a lovely quote about a regio here, so I’ll go verbose:
“If the adventurous traveller who visits the Land’s End district will go down as far as he can on the south-west side of the Logan Rock Cairn, and look over, he will see, in little sheltered places between the cairns, close down to the water’s edge, beautifully green spots, with here and there some ferns and cliff-pinks. These are the gardens of the Small…Folk. They are beautiful little creatures, who appear to pass a life of constant enjoyment amongst their own favourite flowers. They are harmless ; and if man does not meddle with them when they are holding their fairs which are indeed high festivals the Small Folk never interfere with man or anything belonging to him.
They are known to do much good, especially when they discover a case of oppressed poverty; but they do it in their own way. They love to do good for its own sake, and the publication of it in any way draws down their censure, and sometimes severe anger, on the object whom it was their purpose to serve.
To prove that those lovely little creatures are no dream, I may quote the words of a native of St Levan : ” As I was saying, when I have been to sea close under the cliffs, of a fine summer’s night, I have heard the sweetest of music, and seen hundreds of little lights moving about amongst what looked like flowers. Ay ! and they are flowers too, for you may smell the sweet scent far out at sea. Indeed, I have heard many of the old men say, that they have smelt the sweet perfume, and heard the music from the fairy gardens of the Castle, when more than a mile from the shore.” Strangely enough, you can find no flowers but the sea-pinks in these lovely green places by day, yet they have been described by those who have seen them in the midsummer moonlight as being covered with flowers of every colour, all of them far more brilliant than any blossoms seen in any mortal garden.”
I’d make two comments, if I let the player characters into the gardens, I’m not sure if I’d prefer them as full size surrounded by tiny creatures, or if I’d shrink them down and have them surrounded by massive bugs and beetles. The other is that the faeries here don’t want credit: they are not the story. They can’t be the main character and derive maximum vitality.
Hunt then gives several faerie fairs. The place names for them are a bit difficult, because they are named after people who are yet to be born in 1220, but I’ll quote Hunt to give a taste of what player characters might find:
“Bal Lane in Germoe was a notorious place for piskies. One night Daniel Champion and his comrade came to Godolphin Bridge, they were a little bit ” overtook” with liquor. They said that when they came to ” Bal Lane,” they found it covered all over from end to end, and the Small People holding a fair there with all sorts of merchandise the prettiest sight they ever met with. Champion was sure he saw his child there ; for a few nights before, his child in the evening was as beautiful a one as could be seen anywhere, but in the morning was changed for one as ugly and wizened as could be ; and he was sure the Small People had done it. Next day, telling the story at Croft Gothal, his comrade was knocked backward, thrown into the bobpit, and just killed. Obliged to be carried to his home, Champion followed, and was telling of their adventure with the Small People, when one said, ” Don’t speak about them ; they’re wicked, spiteful devils.” No sooner were the words uttered than the speaker was thrown clean over stairs and bruised dreadfully, a convincing proof to all present of the reality of the existence of the Small Folks”
Note the taboo on insulting the fae…the Fair Folk, the Good Neighbours. This isn’t just politeness: this is propitiation.
The Gump of St Just
Many of the good old people were permitted to witness their revels, and for years they have delighted their grandchildren with tales of the songs they have heard, and of the sights they have seen. To many of their friends those fairies have given small but valuable presents ; but woe to the man or woman who would dare to intrude upon the ground occupied by them at the time of their high festivals.
There was a covetous old hunks in St Just never mind his name, he was severely punished, let that suffice well, this old fellow had heard so much of the riches displayed by the little people, when holding holiday on the Gump, that he resolved to get some of the treasures. He learned all he could learn from his neighbours, but kept his intention to himself. It was during the harvest-moon the night was a softened day and everything abroad on such a night should have been in harmony with its quiet brilliancy. But here was a dark soul passing along, making a small eclipse with his black shadow.
The old man stole towards the rendezvous of the ” good people/’ as some were fond of calling them, anxiously looking out for the treasures which he coveted. At length, when he had not advanced far on the Gump, he heard music of the most ravishing kind. Its influence was of a singularly mysterious character. As the notes were solemn and slow, or quick and gay, the old man was moved from tears to laughter ; and on more than one occasion he was compelled to dance in obedience to the time.
Notwithstanding that he was almost bewildered by the whirling motion to which he was compelled, the old man “kept his wits awake,” and waited his opportunity to seize some fairy treasure ; but as yet nothing remarkable had presented itself. The music appeared to surround him, and, as he thought, to come closer to him than it was at first ; and although its sound led him to believe that the musicians were on the surface, he was impressed with an idea that they were really beneath the earth
Eventually there was a crash of sound, startling beyond description, and the hill before him opened. All was now ablaze with variously-coloured lights. Every blade of grass was hung with lamps, and every furze bush was illuminated with stars Out from the opening in the hill marched a host of spriggans, as if to clear the road. Then came an immense number of musicians playing on every kind of instrument. These were followed by troop after troop of soldiers, each troop bearing aloft their banner, which appeared to spread itself, to display its blazonry, without the assistance of any breeze. All these arranged themselves in order over the ground, some here and some there. One thing was not at all to our friend’s liking ; several hundreds of the most grotesque of the spriggans placed themselves so as to enclose the spot on which he was standing. Yet, as they were none of them higher than his shoe-tic, he thought he could squash them easily with his foot if they were up to any mischief, and so he consoled himself.
This vast array having disposed of themselves, first came a crowd of servants bearing vessels of silver and vessels of gold, goblets cut out of diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones. There were others laden, almost to overflowing, with the richest meats, pastry, preserves, and fruits. Presently the ground was covered with tables and everything was arranged in the most systematic order, each party falling back as they disposed of their burdens.
The brilliancy of the scene nearly overpowered the old man ; but, when he was least prepared for it, the illumination became a thousand times more intense. Out of the hill were crowding thousands upon thousands of lovely ladies and gentlemen, arrayed in the most costly attire. He thought there would be no end to the coming crowd. By and by, however, the music suddenly changed, and the harmonious sounds which fell upon his ears appeared to give new life to every sense. His eyes were clearer, his ears quicker, and his sense of smell more exquisite. The odours of flowers, more delicious than any he had ever smelt, filled the air. He saw, without any disturbing medium, the brilliant beauty of the thousands of ladies who were now upon the Gump ; and their voices were united in one gush of song, which was clear as silver bells a hymeneal symphony of the utmost delicacy. The words were in a language unknown to him, but he saw they were directed towards a new group now emerging from the hill.
First came a great number of female children clothed in the whitest gauze, strewing flowers on the Gump. These were not dead or cut flowers, for the moment they touched the ground they took root and grew. These were followed by an equally large number of boys, holding in their hands shells which appeared to be strung like harps, and from which they brought forth murmurs of melody, such as angels only could hope to hear and live. Then came and there was no end to their coming line upon line of little men clothed in green and gold, and by and by a forest of banners, which, at a signal, were all furled. Then, seated on thrones, carried upon a platform above the heads of the men, came a young prince and princess who blazed with beauty and jewels, as if they were suns amidst a skyey host of stars.
There was much ceremonial marching to and fro, but eventually the platform was placed upon a mound on the Gump, which was now transformed into a hillock of roses and lilies ; and around this all the ladies and gentlemen walked, bowing, and each one saying something to the princess and the prince, passing onward and taking their seats at the tables. Although no man could count the number of this fairy host, there was no confusion ; all the ladies and gentlemen found, as if by instinct, their places. When all were seated, a signal was given by the prince ; servants in splendid liveries placed tables crowded with gold-plate and good things on the platform, and every one, the prince and princess included, began to feast with a will.
Well, thought the old man, now is my time ; if I could only crawl up to the prince’s table, I should have a catch sure enough, and become a rich man for life. With his greedy mind fixed on this one object, and unobservant of everything else, he crouched down, as though by so doing he could escape observation, and very slowly and stealthily advanced amongst the revellers. He never saw that thousands of spriggans had thrown little strings about him, and that they still held the ends of the threads. The presence of this selfish old mortal did not in any way discompose the assembly ; they ate and drank and were as merry as though no human eye was looking on them. The old man was wondrous cautious lest he should disturb the feasters, consequently a long time was spent in getting, as he desired, to the back of the mound. At length he reached the desired spot, and, to his surprise, all was dark and gloomy behind him, but in front of the mound all was a blaze of light.
Crawling like a serpent on his belly, trembling with anxiety, the old man advanced close to the prince and princess. He was somewhat startled to find, as he looked out over the mound, that every one of the thousands of eyes in that multitude was fixed on his. He gazed a while, all the time screwing his courage up ; then, as a boy who would catch a butterfly, he took off his hat and carefully raised it, so as to cover the prince, the princess, and their costly table, and, when about to close it upon them, a shrill whistle was heard, the old man’s hand was fixed powerless in the air, and everything became dark around him. Whir ! whir ! whir ! as if a flight of bees were passing him, buzzed in his ears.
Every limb, from head to foot, was as if stuck full of pins and pinched with tweezers. He could not move, he was chained to the ground. By some means he had rolled down the mound, and lay on his back with his arms outstretched, arms and legs being secured by magic chains to the earth ; therefore, although he suffered great agony, he could not stir, and, strange enough, his tongue appeared tied by cords, so that he could not call. He had lain, no one can tell how long, in this sad plight, when he felt as if a number of insects were running over him, and by the light of the moon he saw standing on his nose one of the spriggans, who looked exceedingly like a small dragon-fly. This little monster stamped and jumped with great delight ; and having had his own fun upon the elevated piece of humanity, he laughed most outrageously, and shouted, ” Away, away, I smell the day ! ”
Upon this the army of small people, who had taken possession of the old man’s body, moved quickly away, and left our discomfited hero alone on the Gump. Bewildered, or, as he said, bedevilled, he lay still to gather up his thoughts. At length the sun arose, and then he found that he had been tied to the ground by myriads of gossamer webs, which were now covered with dew, and glistened like diamonds in the sunshine. He shook himself, and was free. He rose wet, cold, and ashamed. Sulkily he made his way to his home. It was a long time before his friends could learn from the old man where he had passed the night, but, by slow degrees, they gathered the story I have related to you.
What the man hoped to achieve by this is best understood by another story, Hunt gives of a faerie revel in Towen. A man tries a similar thing, but fails because he makes an exclamation of surprise at one of the marvels he sees, and he is called foolish by his wife because “, had he but touched the end of a table with his finger, it would have been impossible for the fairy host to have removed an article, as that which has been
touched by mortal fingers becomes to them accursed.” This is a new taboo I’ve not seen before, and makes faeries with it difficult to include in the game, but if you’d like to go to the effort of designing contact protocols with that sort of culture, there’s a hook for you. Maybe send an away team of familiars?
There are a couple of other brief revels mentioned:
In St Levan, the gate at the end of Trezidder Lane often leads to a faerie revel. A man who disturbed it saved himself by turning a glove inside out and throwing it among the faeries, which scared them off. He collected a tiny set of silver knee-buckles from where the faerie folk were dancing, to prove his claims.
I’ll briefly mention an elderly lady from Raftra Down in Penberth, bedridden for years, who was constantly entertained by faeries while no other humans were around. Her family dropped by food once a day, and looked after her, but her house was apparently a constant faerie fair. Why she was so honoured is entirely unclear.
Another from Hunt
“The parish church of Lelant…was long the scene of the midnight gambols of the Small People….Upon a nearer approach, he saw lights in the church ; and most distinctly did the bell toll not with its usual clear sound, but dull and heavy, as if it had been muffled, scarcely awakening any echo…At length he saw, moving along the centre aisle, a funeral procession. The little people who crowded the aisle, although they all looked very sorrowful, were not dressed in any mourning garments…they wore wreaths of little roses, and carried branches of the blossoming myrtle. [He] beheld the bier borne between six whether men or women he could not tell but he saw that the face of the corpse was that of a beautiful female, smaller than the smallest child’s doll…The body was covered with white flowers, and its hair, like gold threads, was tangled amongst the blossoms. The body was placed within the altar ; and then a large party of men, with picks and spades, began to dig a little hole close by the sacramental table. Their task being completed, others, with great care, removed the body and placed it in the hole…As it was lowered into the ground, they began to tear off their flowers and break their branches of myrtle, crying, ” Our queen is dead ! our queen is dead ! ” At length one of the men who had dug the grave threw a shovelful of earth upon the body ; and the shriek of the fairy host so alarmed Richard, that he involuntarily joined in it. In a moment, all the lights were extinguished, and the fairies were heard flying in great consternation in every direction. Many of them brushed past the terrified man, and, shrieking, pierced him with sharp instruments. He was compelled to save his life by the most rapid flight.”
There are some faries aligned to each of the moral realms, so presumably these are Dominion faeries?
Ants as vis source
“The ant is called by the peasantry a Muryan. Believing that they are the Small People in their state of decay from off the earth, it is deemed most unlucky to destroy a colony of ants. If you place a piece of tin in a bank of Muryans at a certain age of the moon, it will be turned into silver. ”