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1604 was repealed in 1736, after which suspected witches could not be put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
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
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
the child should crawl through an ash sapling before breakfast, fasting.
one born without father (i.e. posthumous) should blow into the infected
a) soak nine bramble leaves in spring water, or b) rub meat into wart,
then bury the meat to decay it.
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.
pushed in pond and forced up and down.
stuff with feathers of wild birds to make dying painful/prolonged. Death
also waited on the ebb of the tide.
seen as birds of ill-omen. So were Ravens if
they croaked over your house.
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