Legend has it that in days of old, Piskies, Spriggans, Knockers and other such small people were thought to share the land of the Cornish people.
The Cornish Piskey is by far the most notorious of these mythical creatures. The Piskies always worked alone and were therefore referred to as Piskey. The Cornish Piskies were likened to little old men, all identical, no taller than your thumb with weathered faces and beady little eyes similar to those of a mouse. They were smartly dressed little fellows with red caps, breeches, white shirts, brown coats, stockings and black shoes which were proudly polished and finished off with glinting silver buckles.
Piskies were said to always be lively and chatty, with their chatter likened to the sound of a hive of bees, and their preferred mode of transport was on the backs of snails! It was believed by some that these jovial, heel clicking, impish Piskies had come over to Cornwall with the Saints from Ireland. Others believed that the creatures had once been Gods of Pre-Christian Cornwall, originally giant in stature, but with the beginning of the new religion they had shrunk when sprinkled with Holy Water.
They were mischievous little things; rumoured to sometimes wildly ride peoples ponies by the cover of darkness laughing all the way, but they were as kind as they were naughty. It was thought that they carried out good deeds such as tending to farmer’s fields and crops on moonlit nights, helping the elderly in their homes, and taking on chores for those suffering illness who were in need of help.Above all their good spirits outweighed their mischief.
Where Piskies were deemed to be good spirits of Ancient Cornwall, The Spriggans were not. These little creatures were known as being infamously bad to the core with not a single redeeming feature. There were many Spriggans that guarded every clifftop and granite cairn. Cornwall is home to giant tombs known as dolmans and these, along with the hundreds of ancient burial sites, were thought to contain treasures that had been buried alongside the remains of the Pagan people who populated the land thousands of years ago.
The Spriggans guarded these sites in order to protect the treasures concealed within. They were said to use evil grins, spitting, hissing and whatever threatening means they could to warn people off.
Their strange and creepy appearance also aided the Spriggens in their aim to be feared by those who saw them. Rumoured to be ugly, scary creatures with oversized heads balanced upon puny shoulders and the appearance of shrivelled old men their crimes included raising storms to terrify lonely travellers and summoning hail and rain to ruin crops. Worst of all they were said to steal babies from their cradles, leaving behind one of their own ugly, large headed brats.
Probably the most mysterious of the Cornish elfin creatures was the Knocker or Knacker which lived in the mines. Although sightings of these were few and far between, the descriptions of these creatures always tallied. They were described as very ugly beings no more than knee high to an average sized man, with large hooked noses, skinny limbs, mouths that stretched from ear to ear and a love of pulling hideous faces. Their activities with barrows, shovels and picks became familiar to every underground worker. Some people believed that they were the spirits of old miners and some said that the Knockers were lost souls allowed entry to neither Heaven or Hell.
Their name derived from the knocking on the mine walls that occurred just before a cave-in. Some miners claimed that The Knockers were nasty spirits and the knocking sounds were the sounds of them hammering at supports and walls to cause a cave-in. Others saw the creatures as well-meaning and believed the knocking was their way of warning miners that a life-threatening collapse was imminent. According to some the Knockers were the helpful spirits of Cornish miners that had died in the many mining accidents across the county.
Cornish miners worked within the depths of the rocks, surrounded by darkness with their only source of light coming from candles. In quieter moments the dripping of water, the faint tapping of another miner working in a far off level and noises such as the random clattering of falling stone all added to the mysterious surroundings of the mines. Cornish people, miners included, were often of a naturally superstitious nature and with the eerie conditions the miners worked in underground it is of no surprise that even the most sceptical of miners seemed to believe in these underground spirits. Even those who remained unconvinced of the creature’s existence kept their scepticism to themselves for fear of repercussions. Although friendly little fellows the majority of the time it was feared that the Knockers could be malicious when crossed, so it was wise to treat them with respect. It was believed that they should never be sworn or shouted at and any miner that did so was considered a fool.
The Knockers were rumoured to only worked profitable ground and would make themselves known only to those whom they favoured. Bad luck may even follow those who were particularly disrespectful towards them. One way to show The Knockers respect they desired was to leave them some food, traditionally the end of a Cornish pasty; a small offering in exchange for profitable mining and good luck.
Even today it is believed by some that although the mines are now closed or abandoned, The Knockers still reside within, keeping an ever faithful watch, waiting for the day when they can once again guide the Cornish miners towards the rich ore within.