Folklore & Legends

the coming of the Phoenicians
The Legend of Lyonesse
The Mermaid of Zennor
Mermaids of Cornish Churches
Cornish Wells



WHEN you cross the brook which divides St Leven from Sennen, you are on the estate of Treville. 

Tradition tells us that this estate was given to an old family who came with the Conqueror to this country. This ancestor is said to have been the Duke of Normandy's wine-taster, and that he belonged to the ancient counts of Treville, hence the name of the estate. Certain it is the property has ever been held without poll deeds. For many generations the family has been declining, and the race is now nearly, if not quite, extinct. 

Through all time a peculiar token has marked the coming death of a Vingoe. Above the deep caverns in the Treville cliff rises a carn. On this, chains of fire were seen ascending and descending, and often accompanied by loud and frightful noises. 

It is said that these tokens have not been seen since the last male of the family came to a violent end. 

Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt




THEY say that, a long time since, there lived an old witch down by Alsia Mill, called Joan. Everybody feared to offend the old woman, and gave her everything she looked for, except Madam Noy, who lived in Pendrea. 

Madam Noy had some beautiful hens of a new sort, with "cops" on their heads. 

One morning early, Joan comes up to Pendrea, so as to catch Madam Noy going out into the farmyard, with her basket of corn to feed her poultry, and to collect the eggs. 

Joan comes up nodding and curtsying every step. " Good morrow to your honour ; how well you are looking, Madam Noy ! and, oh, what beautiful hens ! I' ve got an old hen that I do want to set ; will you sell me a dozen of eggs ? Those with the ' cops ' I 'd like to have best." 

Madam turned round half offended, and said, " I have none to sell, neither with the cops nor yet without the cops, whilst I have so many old clucking hens about, and hardly an egg to be found." 

" You surely wouldn't send me home empty as I came, madam dear ? " 

" You may go home the same way you came, for you aren't wanted here." 
From that day forward, madam was always afflicted. The doctor from Penzance could do little for her. The fowls' eggs were always bad ; the hens died, and madam lost all her " coppies." 
This is the way it came about in the place of cops the brains came out and all by the spells of old Joan. 

This forms the subject of one of the old Cornish drolls, which ran in an irregular jingle, such as the above, and was half sung, half said by the droll-teller. 


Return to the tree of Joan Dennis




the coming of the Phoenicians

There are a number of legends about the Phoenicians trading with the Cornish for tin. One names the village of Treen near the Logan rock as being at one time an important market town where the tin-streamers who worked the streams from Penwith would bring their tin and other goods to trade with the Tyrian merchants. It was these Tinners who constructed Castle Trereen as a place to protect themselves and their goods against attack. 

The Legend.

One day a wise man named Picrous was walking on the sands when he decided to catch some fish, for a meal. Having set his line he gathered some drift wood and a few stones to make a fireplace. One of these stones was a large black one which he laid on the floor as the hearth. For some reason he had real problems cooking the fish he had caught and had to get the fire really hot. Suddenly a beautiful stream of white metal flowed out of the fire. The wise man thought that the gods had given him a  gift which his tribe could use. However, he decided to check with the wise man of an adjoining tribe who was known for his magical powers. The two men strolled along the beach together picking up all the black stones. Once they had a large pile the second druid set to work and discovered that by breaking the stones into small pieces and then grinding these into a sand the metal was easier to extract. Once this had been accomplished the two men then tried taking the sand from the beach and heating this but it was a long time before Chywidden, (for that was the name of the second Druid), discovered the secrets which are used to day to separate the tin bearing sand from the rest. 

At last, Chywidden found the answer and the men of the two tribes were called together and shown the metal and the method used to get it. Great was the joy and many days of feasting took place and the mead and other drinks flowed in abundance. 

The party at last came to an end, and the tribes set to work and soon accumulated a vast quantity of this precious metal which they used to make decorative items and jewelry. These they traded with other tribes and slowly the items found their way to far distant lands and at a city called Tyre there lived a people who traveled the seas trading and who knew of the metal from other places. These people were known as the Phoenicians and they decided to find this place in the Western sea where there was said to be plentiful supplies.

The tinners feared that people would come looking for the source of their treasure so they built a series of castles or earth works where they could defend themselves and stop any strangers from landing. One of these was at Treneer on the coast between the beaches of Penberth and Porthcurnow and it was to this place that the Phoenicians first came. At first the tinners were suspicious but after a time it was agreed that the strangers could come to the beach to trade but no further. The Phoenicians then founded trading bases on off shore islands and these became known as the Cassiterides. 

The Evidence      

Many learned people will tell you that  the Phoenician's never visited Cornwall. However if you visit the Egyptian Room in Truro Museum you will find in the bottom corner of a glass case a tiny bronze figure of a bull with a human face (shown above). The story of this find is interesting.

In his book entittled “Tin In Antiquity”. Mr R. D. Penhallurick 1.  tells us that 

" in January 1832, a workman by the name of John Lawry was demolishing a Cornish stone hedge whilst working in the Vicarage garden at St Just in Penwith, Cornwall. Having removed the hedge he started to dig a trench in order to do some planting. Suddenly he hit a series of large stones with his shovel and decided to take a closer look." 

What he had found was to lead to a controversy, which is still ongoing.

John Lawry had discovered the remains of an ancient building and as he worked to uncover more he found evidence that the building had burned down and amongst the ashes he found a small bronze statuette of a bull. He liked the look of the bull and decided to keep it giving it pride of place  in his home." 

The story interested me and I decided to pay a visit to the Truro Museum to take a look at the bull and  having looked at this tiny bronze figure tucked away at the bottom of a glass case I made my way to the Courtney Library which is in the same building to see what other information they had.

The assistant librarian was a great help and found me the history file 2. which contains all the correspondence about the bull. From this I learnt that when John Lawry died his wife decided to sell the little bull to a James White who was the collector of tithes for the parish and White told the vicar the Rev.John Buller of his purchase.

Now it seems that The Rev. Buller had a number of friends who were involved in Archaeology and he showed them the bull. Following inspection most decided it was of Phoenician origin based mainly on the fact that they were supposed to have worshipped the bull and some beads had recently been found near the Lands End  which were believed to be Phoenician. Buller was sceptical feeling that it was more likely to have been Greek. The argument raged backwards and forwards within the Royal Cornwall Institute until in the end it was decided to send the bull off to the British Museum where a Mr S Birch examined it and decided that this was such a good find  he would write a paper and present it to the Archaeological Institute. He also had it published in the twenty-fifth addition of that Institute's Journal.3.

In his paper, Birch stated that it was his belief that the bull was not of Phoenician origin as the Phoenicians had comparatively speaking left no ornamental remains behind them. 

“Almost all their art monuments are of a period later than the seventh century before Christ” 

and on the basis of this argument he declared that the bull was from the Roman period around the time of Hadrian.

Mr Birch had now made matters worse within the learned ranks in Cornwall. On receiving Birch’s full report, Dr C Barham of the Royal Cornwall Institute produced a paper which he presented to the Institute laying out the arguments put forward by Birch.4. 

 In it he pointed out 

“that the members of the Institution interest in this Cornish Antiquity must naturally be stronger than that of strangers to the county.” 

and proceeded to produce a series of counter arguments in favour of the Phoenician connection.

One of the arguments put forward by Dr. Barham was as follows:-

“The fact that no object that can be satisfactorily identified with the Phoneticians, having yet been found in Britain, and the legitimate doubts as to the direct maritime commerce between Tyre and the coast of Cassiterides, would create considerable caution in receiving a newly found monument as of Phoenician origin. At the same time, certain peculiarities of type distinguish Asiatic forms. arts and religions from the Greek, consisting in the union of human and animal forms, and in the decoration of  animal types, occur in the Phoenician cultus, which seems to have been more allied to the Egyptian and Assyrian idolatries than to the Hellenic." 5.

In the 1850’s little was known about the Phoenicians and the fact that both parties could be right was therefore not considered. Since ancient times there has been speculation as to the origins of the Phoenicians. The Greeks were particularly puzzled by them and gave them the name “Phoinikes” which loosely translated as “red people” some say from the colour of their land, whilst others argue it was the colour of their hair.6.

Does this give a different slant to the tale told by William Bottrell  in which he states:

"If old traditions may be relied on, the unseemly nickname Sennen B________s originated in a remarkable way. They say that it was given long ago, owing to the Danish blood inherited by a few families who lived on the shore of Whitesand Bay.7.

Many Lands End folk have still a strong antipathy to what they regard as marks of descent from northern pirates who ravaged the West more than a thousand years ago. Here in old times Scandinavians generally seemed to have been called Danes; and from prevalence in some families of this Parish, of the fiery-hued hair ascribed to those northern marauders the inference is obvious, and the vulgar nickname accounted for which was given in ages past and originated with kind and discriminating neighbours." 8.  

Maybe the red hair amongst the folks of Sennen comes from the Phoenicians instead of the Danes.

The Phoenicians called themselves Canaanites, and modern researchers tell us they were the descendents of two groups, the early Canaanites who inhabited the shores of Lebanon and the Sea People who invaded the Lebanon about 1200B.C. It is thought that the Sea People originated from an area on what we now call the Gulf. 9.

 Birch’s argument that little in the way of Phoenician artefacts had been found was challenged in the 1920’s When the Rev Taylor who was now the vicar of St Just in Penwith again wrote to the British Museum saying that he felt the Bull probably belonged to a worshipper of Mithras who had made a temporary home on the site of the vicarage whilst buying tin.10. The museum agreed to once again inspect the bull and after consulting with  Mr Hall of the Egyptian Department a Mr Smith wrote to the Truro Museum on the 21st of March 1929 stating that in his opinion the bull was Egyptian of the Roman period.11.

Because of discoveries of the remains of a number of Phoenician cities in the last hundred years this argument can be countered and that rather than being firmly planted as one nation, the Phoenicians started in Lebanon, but established colonies all along the coast of the Mediterranean. At the time of Solomon 1000B.C. they occupied a number of these city-states at Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Berytus (Beirut), Tripoli, Baalbeck and Caesarea.12.

"Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kinds of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded in thy fairs."13.

Tyre, was ruled over by King Huram whose people were not only skilled at moving things by sea but also had other skills. Solomon needed Cedar and other goods when he was constructing the Temple in Jerusalem and approached the Phoenician King about  supplying them. Solomon asked the  King 

 “Send me now therefore a man cunning to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in iron, and in purple, and crimson and blue, and that can skill to grave with the cunning men that are with me in Judah and Jerusalem.14.

By this reference we now know that in the two hundred years since their arrival in Lebanon, the Phoenicians had developed as  major traders and craftsmen at the centre of the ancient world. The Oxford Dictionary definition of Brass is a mixture of Copper and Tin or Zinc.

Copper was being produced in ancient Israel as early as 4200B.C.. Archeologist Tom Levy and his team discovered the village of Shipmim, in the 1970's. with remnants of copper smelting.15. 

"TIN was known as an alloy with Copper at least as early as 1600 B.C. in Egypt, and probably before 2000 B.C. in Europe. It was also prepared pure in Egypt at least by 1400 B.C. The source of it is much debated. Banca, Spain, and Britain have all been proposed. That it appears as an alloy earlier in Europe than in Egypt shows that it was European. - - - The word used by Homer  kassiterov, is the same as the Arabic kasdeer, probably derived from ancient Phoenician.16.

Certain it is that these mariners brought Tin from the Cassiterides, which embraced the Scilly Isles and the coast of Cornwall.17.  One of the most remarkable facts connected with the early races in Europe and Asia was the extensive use of weapons and implements of Bronze; and the noted British archeologist, Sir John Evans, shows that the use of Bronze preceded that of Iron in Egypt ."18.

As more and more remains of these Phoenician cities have been discovered, the finds show that Phoenician art clearly reflected the influences of Egypt, Syria, and Greece. Phoenician deities were represented in Egyptian and Syrian attire and were surrounded with foreign symbolism adopted by Phoenician artists and used to illustrate indigenous beliefs. The Phoenicians excelled at metal craft and carving and this is why King Solomon made the request for Phoenician Artists to work on the Temple.19.

The Phoenician ivories and metal relief's were copied in many neighbouring regions, especially in Palestine, Greece, and Etruria. Their artisans settled in Egypt and Greece and imported Syrian  work as well as their own, increasing the amalgamation of styles. The principal Phoenician excavations are at Byblos, but Phoenician works in jewellery, glass, clay, alabaster, ivory, many metals, faience, and wood are found in all Mediterranean countries and neighbouring areas of Asia Minor.20. 

The ancient world had much to thank Tyre for. The Greek attributed the introduction of the alphabet to their country to Cadmus, the son of a Tyrian king. The name of the continent is said to come  from Europa, the sister of Cadmus. But it was Tyre's purple-dyed textiles, worn throughout the ancient world as a  mark of royal rank, that brought fame and fortune to the city. One gram of pure purple dye was worth ten or twenty grams of gold, so it is not surprising that some of the beautiful sarcophagi of the necropolis belonged to wealthy purple dye manufactures of Tyre. The ancient Tyrians extracted the dye from the Murex, a marine snail that still lives along Tyre's shores deep among the rocks and sunken archeological remains. Dye extraction is no longer a viable commercial venture, but scientists have documented the process for historical purposes.21.

Later excavations were to uncover other city-states with royal tombs which had only been partially looted. Amongst the finds was a wall plaque of  Phoenician ships.

It comes from the palace of Sargon at Nineveh and shows a vessel loading timber, presumably cedar, and is dated around 700 BC.22. 

The timber cargo was partly stowed on deck and the rest was towed as a raft behind the ship. Evidence for this practice comes from King Hiram’s reply to Solomon about the supply for timber for his temple in Jerusalem: "My servants shall bring them down to Lebanon unto the sea; and I will convey them by sea in floats unto the place that thou shalt appoint me."23.

All this shows that the Phoenicians were artists and traders, but what of the St Just Bull?  Tin from mines in Cornwall [England] came to the peoples of the Mediterranean, during the Homeric epic, circa 950 to 900 B.C.24.

If you turn your attention again to the photo of the wall plaque above you will see on the left hand side that it shows a merman half human half fish, swimming between the  bows of the ships. The Phoenicians primary god was El, protector of the universe , but often called Baal he is usually represented by a bull. However, a figure of a lion with a human face was found in a temple at Byblos and this is believed to represent Baal, the son / sun god who was primarily a fertility god and appears not only in this form but also in the form of a man and a bull (like his father 'El). Archaeologists have unearthed objects in Phoenicia and Canaan from the period of the Late Bronze Age (1540-1200 BCE) showing kings and rulers seated on thrones whose side arms consist of winged four-legged beasts, possessing a lion's body and a human head.25. 

By stressing through these forms his potency and virility, Baal represents the masculine element, and serves as the fertilizing, life-giving, and life-renewing aspect through whom the Mother Goddess fulfills her functions,  She was called Astarte / Asherar-yam, our lady of the sea, and in Byblos she was Baalat, our dear lady.26. Coins found at one of the ancient Phoenician sites have a Mermaid on them and it is believed that this is a representation of Astarte.

She was also linked with mother goddesses of neighbouring cultures, in her role as combined heavenly mother and earth mother. Cult statues of Baal and Astarte in many  forms were left as votive offerings in shrines and sanctuaries as prayers for good harvest, for children, and for protection and tranquillity in the home and a number have been found showing the animal body and the human face.  The Phoenician triad was incorporated in varying degrees by their neighbors and Baal and Astarte eventually took on the look of Greek deities.27.

It is my believe that the Phoenicians did indeed visit Cornwall and that they left their gods and goddess behind when they left. A visit to Cornwalls ancient wells at Sancreed, Madron and Alsia, near St Buryan will show that people still leave offerings today in the hope that the ancient Gods will smile on them and  some of the legends have been passed down.


  1. “Tin in Antiquity” By R.D.Penhallurick, Institute of Metals, 1986.

  2. File of documentation on the Bronze Bull. Courtney Library, Truro.

  3. A Bronze Bull, found at St just in Penwith. Paper by S Birch Req. of the    British Museum. Pub. Journal of the Archeological Society No. 25.

  4. Abstract of Remarks by S Birch, Reg., of the British Museum, on a Bronze Bull found at St Just in Penwith, with some account of the intercourse of the Phoenicians with Cornwall, By Dr. C. Barharn, Sec. B.I.C. Pub. 7th November 1850 in the Journal of the Royal Cornwall Institute.

  5. ibid. 4

  6. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. (Oxford 1996). ISBN 0-19-866172-X.

  7. Stories & Folk-Lore of West Cornwall, 3rd Series. By William Bottrell. Pub 1880 by the Author. Facsimile reprint 1996 by Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, Wales. ISBN 1 86143 003 5.

  8. ibid.7.

  9. “In Quest of a Mermaid” Author J.H.Williams published by Rupert Hart Davies 1960.

  10.  Letter from the Rev. Taylor to Mr S Birch. On file at the R.C.I. Truro.

  11. Letter from Mr Smith of the British Museum dated 21st of March 1929. On file at the R.C.I. Truro.

  12. Site on the WWW http://cdl.monisys.ca/pheonician_cities.htm  

  13. "The Bible @ Ezekiel 27:12.

  14. “The Bible @ 2nd Chronicles chapter 2.”

  15. National Geographic April 1999.

  16. Homer's, Iliad xviii. 474 and 613

  17. Ancient Egyptians, Vol.3, Wilkinson, 

  18. Ancient Bronze ImplementsSir John Evans  pp.7,8

  19. ibid 14

  20. The African Background to Medical Science: Essays on African History, Science and Civilizations. Finch, Charles S. III Preface by Ivan Van Sertima. London: Karnak House, 1990.

  21. The History of Ships, Kemp, P., (London, 1978) pp: 20


  23. "The Bible" 1st Kings, chapter 5, verse 9.

  24. W. Dinan, M.A., mentions in his book: "Monumenta Historica Celtica" page 2

  25. Cherubim and Seraphim," under "Angel." Vol. 1, pp.131-132. T. H. Gaster. George A. Buttrick. Editor. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville. Abingdon Press. 1962. ISBN 0-687-19270-6. 4 Vols plus supplement.

  26. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford,London: Penguin, 1993.



For a full examination of the question, Did the Phoenicians trade with Britain for tin? the following works should be consulted :—“ History ot Maritime and Inland Discovery,” by W. D. Cooley; 

Historical Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients,” by Sir George Cornewall Lewis; 

Navigation of the Ancients,” by W. Vincent, D.D.; 

The Cassiterides: an Inquiry into the Commercial Operations of the Phoenicians  in Western Europe, with Particular Reference to the British Tin Trade,” by George Smith, LLD., F.A.S.  




The Legend of Lyonesse

Picture: Aerial view Isles

A Cornish Parish: Being an Account of St. Austell, Town, Church, District and People, published 1897, by Joseph Hammond, LL.B., Vicar, page 43, mentions that

"In one [of the stream works on St. Austell moor] were lately found, about 8 ft. under the surface, two slabs or small blocks of melted tin of about 28 lb. weight each, of a shape very different from that which for many years has obtained in Cornwall.  They have semicircular handles or loops to them, as if to sling and carry them more conveniently on horseback."  . . . it had a long land journey, on packhorses, before it was put into the boat for Gaul, and it had a still longer horseback journey afterwards, as noted in the account of Diodorus Siculus.  This fact appears to be handed down in the very definition of the word Tyn in Cornish, i.e. a Passage over a River or Arm of the Sea; also a Hill, as noted in A Cornish-English Vocabulary, the last section in the book: Antiquities, Historical and Monumental, of the County of Cornwall, published in London, 1769, by William Borlase, LL.D., F.R.S., Rector of Ludgvan, Cornwall.

The argument has raged for a long time about whether or not the Phoenicians ever visited Britain. I believe they did and that the evidence exists to prove it. In part one I put forward some of my reasons,  but I now want to look at the part of the legend that claims the Phoenicians traded from off shore Islands.

Robert Hunt in his book of  superstitions of Old Cornwall states:

"So resolved were the whole population of the districts to preserve the tin workings, that they prevented any foreigner from landing on the mainland, and they established tin markets on the islands off the coast." (Ref.1.)  

Whether or not the Scilly Isles were the legendary Cassiterides as some claim we do not know. Those who support the Phoenician—Cornish link usually quote Strabo (c. 54 BC to c. AD 24), a native of Amasia in Asia Minor. A much travelled man whose great work on geography  survives almost intact in 17 books . His is the earliest known written record and he refers several times to the Cassiterides, or Cattiterides (double S and double T being interchangeable in Greek), and the island of Bretannika, often spelled with an initial P. The two locations may be referred to in the same passages.  In book III he describes the islands in more detail in this famous passage:

"The Cassiterides are ten in number,  and lie near each other in the ocean toward the north from the haven of the Artabri (Corunna). One of them is desert, but the others are inhabited by men in black cloaks, clad in tunics reaching to the feet, girt about the breast, and walking with staves, thus resembling the furies we see in tragic representations. They subsist by their cattle, leading for the most part a wandering life. Of the metals, they have tin and lead, which, with skins, they barter with the merchants for earthenware, salt, and brasen vessels. Anciently the Phoenicians alone, from Gades (Cadiz), engrossed this market, hiding the navigation from all others. When the Romans followed a certain shipmaster, that they might discover the market, the jealous shipmaster willfully stranded his vessel on a shoal, misleading those who were tracking him, to the same destruction. Escaping from the shipwreck by means of a fragment of the ship, he was indemnified for his losses out of the public treasury. (Ref. 2)

When you read this quote today with a twenty first century view of what Cornwall and the Scilly Isles look like on a map, it may be easy to discount them as having been the legendary Isles of Tin. However, at the time that Stabo was writing his account some two thousand years ago, I and others believe the geography of the area was a lot different. It is now believed that in the year B.C.100 the sea levels were  lower than they are today and  the Scilly Islands would have been much larger. 

An archaeological model for the submergence of Scilly has been published by Professor Charles Thomas (Thomas 1985). In the absence of radio carbon dates for the inter-tidal zone to calculate sea level change since 3,000 B.C., he used the vertical positions of submerged archaeological sites, which could be broadly dated from artifactual evidence or by analogy with sites elsewhere. In his book he says:

"While the Islands have been separated from mainland Britain for many thousands of years, the depth of water between them is so shallow that Bryher, Tresco and Samson are still joined at low astronomical tides (LAT) and a fall of only 10 metres would unite them all, except St. Agnes and the Western Rocks. Scilly, therefore, represents a drowned landscape illustrated by the existence of causeways linking the Islands, submerged stone field boundaries and other archaeological sites within the inter-tidal zone of shallow interior sea." (Ref. 3)

According to Professor Thomas, his model represents "an average yearly rise in sea level of 2.1-2.6 millimetres, which means 21-26 centimetres every hundred years and 2.10-2.60 metres every thousand years." 

I had correspondence with Dr. Benjamin P. Horton Head of the Durham University Department that studies sea levels. He wrote that: "We don' really know much about late holocene (last 4000 yrs) sea-level changes. what we do know comes from models and interpolation of earlier records. generally RSL were lower 3000BP than 2000BP for cornwall but with sea-level about 3m below present at 3000BP and 2m at 2000BP." (Ref.4) So he put the figure at nearer 1 meter per thousand years. Which would make the sea levels around the Cornish Coast and Scilly some 2 meters lower at the time that Strabo was writing. 

Two meters would make a great difference to the size of the Islands and if Professor Thomas is right then 5 meters would make them even bigger.

It is known that the Phoenicians used off shore islands when trading with other people. they did this around the Mediterranean as a way of defending themselves. Having  set up their base the people would bring their goods and trading would take place. On the Scilly's there is a headland which is still known today as Merchants Point. The oldest smelted specimens of tin were found at St. Martin’s, Isles of Scilly, by the Rev. H. A. Lewis. They consisted of lumps of tin in crude concentrates and were found inside an Early Bronze Age hut which is now only visible for a few days in the year when there is an exceptionally low tide. The site where the actual alluvial tin was found is unknown, but it was probably in the bed of some unknown river now covered by the sea.

But this way of trading was to change once the Romans found out where the Tin Islands were. Let us return to our friend Strabo, we left at the time he was explaining how the sea captain had escaped from the Romans.

 The Romans, nevertheless, by frequent efforts discovered the passage; and as soon as Publius (Licinius) Crassus, passing over to them, (about B.C. 95) perceived that the metals were dug out at a little depth, and that the men were peaceably disposed, he declared it to those who already wished to traffic in this sea for profit, although the passage was longer than that to Britain.  Thus far concerning Iberia and the adjacent islands."  (Ref. 5)

It is beleived that Stabo was referring to the distance to Britain across the Dover Straights which were the only part of Britain known to the Romans at the time. Indeed Julius Caesar, writing in B.C. 40 about Britain, in his "Wars" (v.12) had this to say -

"The inland parts of Britain are inhabited by those, whose fame reports to be the natives of the soil. The sea-coast is peopled with the Belgians, drawn thither by the love of war and plunder. These last, passing over from different parts, and settling in the country, still retain the names of the several states whence they are descended. The island is well peopled, full of houses, built after the manner of the Gauls, and abounds in cattle. They use brass money, and iron rings of a certain weight. The provinces remote from the sea produce tin, and those upon the coast, iron, but the latter in no great quantity." Ref. 6

By the first century B.C., Diodorus Siculus the Greek historian was writing of a voyage to Britain and giving directions:

"Then all the rest of your voyage is eastward, thus making an obtuse angle to your former course, until you reach the headlands of the Pyrenees that abut on the ocean. The westerly parts of Britain lie opposite these headlands towards the north, and in like manner the islands called Cassiterides, situated in the open sea approximately in the latitude of Britain , lie opposite to, and north of, the Artabians." Ref. 7

So when Diodorus was writing book two of his series of  Histories the journey to Cornwall from the Mediterranean was being done by sea all the way. Following the route belived traveled by the Phoenicians through the Gates of Hades and across the Bay of Biscay.  Artabians is the modern La Coruna, [Corunna] the port in NW Spain from which the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588. By the time he came to write book five, the Roman were well established in Britain but not it is believed in Devon and Cornwall which they called Balerium. Strabo gives us an insight into The Cornish of the time and the method used for the mining of tin plus the way trade was being conducted. 

"Now we shall speak something concerning the tin that is dug and gotten there. They that inhabit the British promontory of Belerium, by reason of their converse with the merchants, are more civilised and courteous to strangers than the rest. These are the people that make the tin....."And not only do they go into the ground a great distance, but they also push their diggings many stades in depth and run galleries off at every angle, turning this way and that, in this manner bringing up from the depths the ore which gives them the profit they are seeking.".......which with a great deal of care and labour, they dig out of the ground, and that being rocky, the metal is mixed with some veins of earth, out of which they melt the metal and then refine it. Then they beat it into four-square pieces the size of dice, and cart it to a British island, near at hand, called Ictis. For at low tide, all being dry between them and the island, they convey over in carts an abundance of tin in the mean time. But there is one thing peculiar to those islands, which lie between Britain and Europe; for at full sea they appear to be islands, but at low water for a long way they look like so many peninsulas. .Ref.8.

Once again we return to the question of sea levels. It has often been said that Ictis was St Michael's Mount. However, with the sea level being two meters lower this would lead one to conclude that the Mount would  have been inland and  Ictis would have been an Island offshore i.e. one of the Scilly Isles or another island further up the coast where the trading took place. Stabo also tells us in book five, that the Romans had now developed an overland route for the tin trade:

Hence the merchants transport the tin they buy of the inhabitants to France, and for thirty days' journey they carry it in packs on horses' backs through France to the mouth of the river Rhone. Thus much concerning tin." . . . .  Ref.9.

Some time around 50 -60 A.D., the Cornish Tin industry must have been under threat because of over mining and cheaper supplies being found in Spain. Pliny, (23 - 79 A.D.) writing in his "Natural History" says:

"The nature of lead comes next to be considered. There are two kinds of it, the white (i.e., tin, called plumbum album) and the black (lead, called plumbum nigrum). The white is the most valuable; it was called by the Greeks cassiteros; and there is a fabulous story of their going in quest of it to the islands of the Atlantic, and of its being brought in barks made of osiers, and covered with hides. It is now known that it is the production of Lusitania and Gallaecia. It is a sand found on the surface of the earth, and of a black colour, and is only to be detected by its weight. It is mingled with small pebbles, particularly in the dried beds of rivers. The miners wash this sand, and calcine the deposit in the furnace. It is also found in the gold mines that are known as alutiae, the stream of water which is passed through them detaching certain black pebbles, mottled with small white spots, and of the same weight as gold. Hence it is that they remain with the gold in the baskets in which it is collected; and being separated in the furnace, are then melted, and become converted into white lead (tin.)" . . . . "White lead was held in esteem in the days even of the Trojan War - a fact attested by Homer, who called it 'cassiteros'." Ref.10.

Although this argument at first seems to back up the claim that the tin came from Spain and not Cornwall, Pliny then went on to say that: 

"It (tin) is extracted with great labour in Spain and throughout all the Gallic provinces, but in Britannia it is found in the upper stratum of the earth in such abundance , that a law has been spontaneously made prohibiting anyone from working more than a certain quantity of it." Ref. 11.

I believe that the above is a strong argument that the Scillies were indeed the Cassiterides referred to. As I stated above, it is known that the Phoenicians used off-shore islands as bases to trade with people from the mainland or larger Island and the Scillies would have been an ideal base for them to visit the tin mining area coming ashore to do the actual trading. Indeed some Phoenician glass faience beads, from around 1600BC which must have been amongst the first products of the great Phoenician civilisation to reach Cornwall were found buried in a Bronze Age barrow on the Lands End in the 1800’s and are displayed at the Truro Museum. (Ref. 12)

In the next section we look at how these visitors left their legends and gods behind.


  1.   Popular Romances of the West of England” Collected and Edited by Robert Hunt, F.R.S. Published  in 1865.

  2. Strabo Book 3.

  3. Exploration of a Drowned Landscape: Batsford, 1985 Professor Charles Thomas.

  4. Letter to the Author from Dr. Benjamin P. Horton of the Sea Level Research Unit, Department of Geography,University of Durham

  5. ibid 1.

  6. "Wars" v.12, Julius Caesar

  7.  Diodorus Siculus .Book II.v.15)

  8.  Diodorus Siculus. Book V:1-4, 35)

  9. ibid

  10. Pliny, Nat. Hist. book 34. Ch.47. 

  11. Ibid.

  12. http://www.touristnetuk.com/sw/roycormus/ 





The Mermaid of Zennor

“Zennor folks tell the following story, which, according to them, accounts for a singular carving on a bench-end in their Church.  


The Legend


Hundreds of years ago a very beautiful and richly attired lady attended service in Zennor Church occasionally—now and then she went to Morvah also;—her visits were by no means regular, —often long intervals would elapse between them.


Yet whenever she came the people were enchanted with her good looks and sweet singing. Although Zennor folks were remarkable for their fine pealmody, (singing) she excelled them all; and they wondered how, after the scores of years that they had seen her, she continued to look so young and fair. No one knew whence she came nor whither she went; yet many watched her as far as they could see from Tregarthen Hill.


She took some notice of a fine young man, called Mathey Trewella, who was the best singer in the parish. He once followed her, but he never returned; after that she was never more seen in Zennor Church, and it might not have been known to this day who or what she was but for the merest accident.


One Sunday morning a vessel cast anchor about a mile from Pendower Cove; soon after a mermaid came close alongside and hailed the ship. Rising out of the water as far as her waist, with her yellow hair floating around her, she told the captain that she was returning from church, and requested him to trip his anchor just for a minute, as the fluke of it rested on the door of her dwelling, and she was anxious to get in to her children.


Others say that while she was out on the ocean a-fishing of a Sunday morning, the anchor was dropped on the trap-door which gave access to her submarine abode. Finding, on her return, how she was hindered from opening her door, she begged the captain to have the anchor raised that she might enter her dwelling to dress her children and be ready in time for church.


However it may be, her polite request had a magical effect upon the sailors, for they immediately “worked with a will,” hove anchor and set sail, not wishing to remain a moment longer than they could help near her habitation. Sea-faring men, who understood most about mermaids, regarded their appearance as a token that bad luck was near at hand. It was believed they could take such shapes as suited their purpose, and that they had often allured men to live with them.


When Zennor folks learnt that a mermaid dwelt near Pen­dower, and what she had told the captain, they concluded it was this sea-lady who had visited their church, and enticed Trewella to her abode. To commemorate these somewhat unusual events they had the figure she bore—when in her ocean-home—carved in holy-oak, which may still be seen.”



Print taken from J Blight’s



The Evidence


In his Book on the Popular romances of the West of England (Ref. 1) Robert Hunt makes no mention of what is today the most famous story of a mermaid in Cornwall. He does however tell of mermaids in Padstow, Lamorna, Seaton and Cury. He also tells a story which he calls "The Mermaid's Vengeance" which he says:


 "was produced from three versions of evidently the same legend, which differed in many respects one from the other, yet agreeing in the main with each other. The first I heard at the Lizard, or rather Coverak; the second in Sennen Cove, near the Lands End; the third at Perranzabuloe. I have preferred the last locality, as being peculiarly fitted for the home of a mermaid."  So in 1864 when his stories were published there was no place for a mention of  the Zennor Mermaid.    


Another Cornish recorder of Folk-Lore was William Bottrell. In his first volume, he like Hunt tells the story of the "Mermaid of Cury" with again no mention of the Zennor story  (Ref.2)  It is only when his second volume is produced that we have site of the tale in the above form:- (Ref.3) Bottrells version of the story, is very simple  and told without comment. It seems strange that what is the most well known of Cornish folktales today is dealt with in this way by Cornwall foremost recorder of folk lore.


On turning to his third volume (Ref. 4) I found that Bottrell tells of a visit to Zennor when he and a friend stayed for a few days at the Tinners Arms.  Before reaching the Inn they stopped for some refreshments at the home of a miner that they had met on the road. On hearing that they were on their way to the village the miner told them that “the church was well worth seeing, if they have not destroyed the curious old carved work that used to be there.”


The carved work referred to must surely have been the Mermaid but Bottrel goes on to tell of spending the evening with a group of locals in the Tinners Arms listening to local stories. He states:-


“We reached Zennor churchtown about eight o’clock and found a very fair accommodation at the public house; as good indeed as one might expect in such a retired district. By the kitchen fire were seated four elderly men who appeared to be well pleased with their ale and each other’s company. The chief  talker of these four cronies was the captain or manager of Zennor tin-stamps. He said much about the witches and tin-streamers who lived in Trewey and Trewey Bottoms, long ago; and of Lerrow and other ancient hamlets, with the people who dwell there in days of yore. "


I went back to his second volume (Ref.5) in order to examine Bottrells version of the mermaid story in more detail.  In his first version of the story, Bottrell told how the lady had been coming to Church at Zennor, or sometimes to the next parish of Morvah over a number of years. It seems that she never looked a day older and delighted the congregation generation after generation with her beauty and her sweet singing. No one knew whence she came, nor were she went once the service was over, though some had gone as far as Tregarthen Hill to watch her out of sight.


 “ She took some notice of a fine young man called Mathey Trewella, who was the best singer in the parish. One day he followed her, but he never returned. After that she was never seen again in Zennor Church.”


Tregarthen Hill is on the road to St. Ives, and therefore going away from the sea. He says the congregation could never have guessed that going that way the strange lady was bound for the country beneath the sea. To show how this was first found out, Bottrell then tells how a mermaid, her yellow hair floating around her, hailed a vessel at anchor off Pendower Cove, just below Zennor.


She asked the captain to trip his anchor just for a minute. He says "the alarmed sailors at once weighed anchor and set sail. We must assume that they put in at St. Ives; for somehow Zennor folk got wind of their adventure, and naturally concluded that the lady of the sea was the same strange lady who had lured away Mathey Trewella."  So as Bottrell says, “to commemorate these somewhat unusual events they had the figure she bore—when in her ocean home—carved in holy oak which may still be seen.” Bottrell also pointed out that,  “Sea-faring men who understood most about mermaids, regarded their appearance as a token that bad luck was near at hand, believing that mermaids could take such shapes as suited their purpose, and that they had often lured men to live with them."


By using the ship’s-anchor story Bottrell explained how it could become known that Matthew and his mermaid had set up housekeeping under the waves so near his old home.


This version told by Bottrell is very similar to the following Breton story. (Ref.6)


“One Sunday morning as we lay at anchor off St. Kitt’s, a voice was heard alongside the ship, and looking over­board we saw a merman walking on the water. Hailing us, he told the captain that he would be much obliged if he would raise his anchor, as it lay right before the front door of his house, which prevented his wife from coming out to go to church.”


 In the Breton version it was not a question of putting on human shape and attending a church service on land, as suggested in the Zennor story. The under-sea folk were supposed to have churches of their own, and to live much like people on land, and this merman “walking on the water “ does not even seem to have had a fish’s tail. Once the bottom was reached, whether in fresh water or salt, there was fancied little difference between the country of the underwater folk and that of the underworld in which dwelt the fairy folks.”


In Bottrell’s third series, the tale changes saying nothing of long-separated previous appearances, of perpetual youth, or of the ship’s anchor incident. In this book he tells the story in the following way:


“ I suppose you know that Zennor people have always been famous singers, and it must be long ago when a mermaid left the sea, changed her shape, and came to Church dressed like a lady, all to hear the singers. She came Sunday after Sunday, & sang so sweet herself that she at last enticed away a young fellow called Mathey Trewella, son to the churchwarden, and neither of them have ever been seen since—that is, upon land, for I won’t tell you a word of a lie and know it. Her form, as seen in the sea, or of another like her, was carved on the bench-end on which she sat and singed so sweet right opposite Trewella up in the singing-loft.”


In the eighteen hundreds many of the Cornish churches were modernised with lots  of the carvings being destroyed. Blight’s quotes the Vicar of Morwenstowe and Cornish historian  R. S. Hawker as saying :


All the early symbolism of the church was of and from the sea. The curving of the early arches was taken from the sea and its creatures. Fish, dolphins, mermen and mermaids abound in the early types transferred to wood and stone." (Ref.7)

Today it is hard to find any of the old carvings but at the time of Bottrells visit the restoration of Zennor Church had still not happened. It eventually took place in 1890. There are photographs on the wall of the vestry of the church before its restoration  which show that  the mermaid bench-end stood on the north side near the tower, with the singing-loft spanning the church right overhead. To gaze on her adored one from that point the mermaid would have needed a very swan-like neck, but this addition is only one of those little discrepancies that we expect in the best of stories. The singing-gallery, as noted in the parish records was erected in 1772, (Ref. 8) a date which fits the dress design in local artist’s Joseph Blights woodcut illustration of the mermaid speaking to a ship’s captain in a gold-laced cocked hat very well.

I decided to check the parish records  to see if the Trewhela family had lived in either Zennor or Morvah at the time that the singing - gallery had been erected.


The Zennor records have been kept since 1599 with the Morvah ones starting later in 1650. Trawling through the records I could find no entries that proved that  a family by the name of  either Trewhela, or Trewella  had existed in either parish. There is also no tradition of a resident squire in either parish. The most important people tended to be yeoman farmers, so Bottrell was perhaps safer in making the young singer the son to the churchwarden.


I decided to spread my search further a field and paid a visit to the church in the neighboring parish of Towednack and whilst inspecting some carved bench-ends erected in 1633,* I found the portrait of a churchwarden called James Trewhela. An inspection of the records for this parish showed that a total of nine Mathew Trewheela’s had been christened between 1679 and 1803 (Ref. 10) though the family was not looked upon as being local as the  family took its name from a place in the parish of St. Hilary close to Mounts Bay and it was first recorded on the North coast at Lelant in the year 1530, only coming later to Towednack.


  I could only find one Mathew who had been christened and for whom I could not find a record of a marriage or a burial in either Towednack or in the surrounding parishes, This Mathew was born on the 3rd of  October 1679 which would nor have fitted into the timescale of 1772 when the Singing Loft was in place. I began to wonder if the story of the Mermaid of Zennor was put together by Bottrell for his book rather than being an existing one. I certainly can't find any reference to its existence before Bottrell published it. The bench-end carving was of course much older and the details of her comb and glass, are of the style in use all through the Middle Ages.


It is interesting to note that according to Robert Graves in his book "The White Goddess" Robin Hood and Maid Marian who feature as part of the May celebrations in Helston also have a mermaid connection 


"A familiar disguise of this same Marian (Robin Hood's maid Marian) is the merrymaid, as'mermaid' was once written. The conventional figure of the mermaid--a beautiful woman with a round mirror, a golden comb and a fish-tail-- expresses "The love-goddess rises from the sea.'...The round mirror, to match the comb, may be some bygone artist's mistaken substitute for the quince, which Marian always held in her hand as a love-gift; but the mirror did also form part of the sacred furniture of the Mysteries, and probably stood for 'know thyself'. The comb was originally a plectrum for plucking lyre-strings. The Greeks called her Aphrodite ('risen from sea-foam') and used the tunny, sturgeon, scallop and preiwinkle, all sacred to her, as aphrodisiacs. Her most famous temples were built by the sea-side, so it is easy to understand her symbolic fishtail. ... Botticelli's Birth of Venus is an exact icon of he cult. Tall, golden-haired, blue-eyed, pale-faced, the Love-goddess arrives in her scallop-shell at the myrtle-grove, and Earth, in a flowery robe, hastens to wrap her in a scarlet gold-fringed mantle..." 



  1.   Popular Romances of the West of England” Page 152 ( 189 DjVU) Collected and Edited by Robert Hunt, F.R.S. Published first published in 1865.

  2.   “Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, 1st Series”, page 288 book (296 DjVu).  Edited by William Bottrell,  First Published by the Author in 1870.

  3. “Traditions and Hearthside Stories 0f West Cornwall, 2nd Series”, Edited by William Bottrell,  First Published by the Author in 1873.

  4.   Stories & Folk-Lore of West Cornwall” by William Bottrell first published in 1880.

  5. Ibid 3.

  6. Translated from A reutures d’un Vieux Mann, by A. S. de Doncourt 

  7. “A Week at the Lands-End” Blight.

  8. Zennor Parish Records at the Cornwall Record Office (CRO)

  9. Ibid 6.

  10. Towednack Parish Records, 

  11. Robert Graves "The White Goddess" (p439)

* Note: This bench end was stolen in 1997. All that is left is a photograph of it in the church.




Mermaids of the Cornish church

As shown on the previous page on the Mermaid of Zennor, the Christian message was passed on in the fabric of the Cornish church's. In Blights book "Week in the Lands End" there is the following quote followed by the initials R.S.H. which is presumed, are those of the Rev. R.S. Hawker of Morwenstowe.

“The fishermen who were the ancestors of the Church, came from the Galilean waters to haul for men. We, born to God at the font, are children of the water. Therefore, all the early symbolism of the Church was of and from the sea. The carvure of the early arches was taken from the sea and its creatures. Fish, dolphins, mermen, and mermaids abound in the early types, transferred to wood and stone.” (Ref. 1)

Nearly all the churches on the coast of Cornwall were built for fishermen and farm workers, to whom the superstitions of the mermaid had a familiarity for a creed. Just as on ancient rood screens or bench-ends a grotesque three-faced crowned head was carved as a crude emblem of the Trinity, so the mermaid was carved as an emblem of Jesus as God and man.

St Buryan is a parish in the far west of Cornwall and like Zennor all the old benches with their ornate carved ends were removed during a modernization in 1814.  Just like Zennor two were saved and  made into a Litany desk which still survives today. On one of these can be seen the carving of  a mermaid and mermen. It is interesting to note in this sketch by Churchwarden John Beresford the mermen in this carving are wearing caps similar to the morverch (sea-maiden) in some Breton stories.


sketch of mermen of St Buryan.


I found this of particular interest and wondered if the craftsman who had carved it had been Breton. The intimate connection between the inhabitants of Brittany and Cornwall is well known. Around 1520 for instance King Henry viii ordered a subsidy to be taken and the resulting rolls shows those who were required to contribute, plus an assessment of their land and goods. The roll for Penwith hundred where St Buryan is situated shows that Bretons made up one sixth of the total tax paying population. They are described as tinners, fishermen, smiths, servants and cooks whilst the occupations of twenty nine of them was not given. (Ref. 2) 


A Leaflet in the church at St Buryan, points out that Mathew de Medunta who was appointed as the Dean in 1300AD was a Frenchman belonging to the household of Queen Margaret. He was followed by another Frenchman John De Maunte 1318AD. Strange as it may seem. these two were the only Deans who are known to have definitely visited and lived in the Deanery of St. Buryan between the years 1301 and 1850 the others choosing to take the tithes whilst leaving the church work to monks and curates. It could well be that the St Buryan carving was done in the period when one of these Frenchmen was the incumbent thus the similarity to the French style. (Ref.3) If it is not from that period, then it will most probably be from the late 15th or early 16th century when the church was totally rebuilt. Craftsmen from Brittany came over to Cornwall to work on the wood carvings in a number of churches around this time. 


The only other carved mermaid I have found to date in Cornwall is in the Church at Camborne. (see note). But Cornwall's medieval churches also had pictures painted on the walls and on the 14th of March 1740 workmen at Ludgvan  uncovered a painting whilst brushing the walls in order to wash them again with lime. The brushing brought down a thin scale of plaster. The then rector Dr William  Borlaise who was also a well known antiquarian  drew a sketch of the paintings  Having completed the drawing Dr. Borlaise ordered the workmen to cover the painting  with a lime wash and in the 19th century modernisation of the church all the paintings were lost when all the plaster was removed from the walls. (Ref. 4) Thankfully in 1872 the Rev. W Iago was going through some of Dr. Borlaise papers and came across the sketch and made a further copy which is shown below.   


 The Ludgvan painting was not the only one to suffer this fate. It was probably the norm to have similar paintings in all of Cornwall's churches but many where either destroyed of lime washed over at the time of the reformation. The Victorian passion for modernisation meant that almost all were then destroyed when the wall plaster was removed.   I have however found, to date, three Cornish churches with representations of the mermaid still surviving in medieval wall paintings of St Christopher. The churches are Breage between Helston and Penzance, Poughill in the north of the County  and St Kevern on the Lizard.  

Breage is renowned for its wall paintings. Soon after its completion in 1466, the church's limewashed walls and window splays were painted with a series of figures, including St Christopher and Christ of the Trades, which today loom vaguely at you out of the gloom in softly dappled colours The identity of the painter of the murals remains a matter of conjecture. The considerable number of frescoes in Cornish churches would seem to indicate the existence of local artists. In this context Dr. A. L. Rowse offers an interesting speculation in his book “Tudor Cornwall”. He relates how the first Sir William Godolphin wrote to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief adviser, reporting in 1537 that a painter friend had been approached by a St. Keverne man asking if he would paint a banner protesting against the recent decree reducing the number of religious holidays. Dr. Rowse speculates whether the painter might have been responsible for the Breage murals. To complete the story; as St. Keverne was a notorious centre of opposition to government policy Cromwell instructed Sir William to arrest the man for treason. Apparently after his arrest, his trial was delayed and Sir William wrote urging Cromwell to instruct the judge “that the traitor might be hanged in chains at Helston town end”. (Ref. 5)

Given this evidence of Sir William’s views his appointment later as one of three Cornish commissioners to ensure that Edward VI’s further religious changes were enforced meant that his parish church at Breage would feel the full force of the enactments. The three commissioners visited Breage, 23rd April 1549 and ordered the destruction of the windows because they contained figures of the saints and objects of idolatry Rood screens and lofts had to be destroyed and all walls whitewashed. This resulted in the murals being hidden for over 300 years, and so saved from later destruction during the Commonwealth. (Ref. 6)

The church authorities are to be congratulated in the way the paintings have been uncovered and once again put on view.



                                          Medieval Wall Painting Breage Church

In the Breage painting the mermaid is shown just to the left of St Christopher's left leg as you look at the painting. She is holding a mirror and combing her hair. The colors are fading  now but she is still visible although the many visitors to the church will probably not understand her significance.  

Poughill in the North of Cornwall is another church famous for its wall paintings and  its splendid carved oak bench-ends. The deeply carved ones date probably from the time of Henry VII (1485-1509). Many have emblems and scenes telling, in minute detail, the story of the passion. The other shallow and less expert carvings date from the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1(1558-1603). They are less numerous and are mainly armorial carvings or the sacred initials I.H.C. (Ref.7)

Like the Breage paintings,  the St  Christopher is one of a pair. The paintings technique is known as secco as opposed to fresco as the paint is applied directly onto wet plaster and had to be carried out at great speed. The Poughill St Christopher  was discovered in 1894 beneath the whitewash and carefully restored. It is believed to date from about 1470 The church accounts for Poughill actually record the covering up of the figures' with lime wash in 1550 at the time of the Reformation. (Ref. 8)

In this postcard view of the church from around the 1930's you can see both the ornate bench ends and the wall painting of St Christopher. There is another painting on the opposite wall and this to is of St Christopher. This one, however, does not include the mermaid.  

Just as you or I will choose a wall paper  that is to our liking so the monks chose symbols which would appeal to the congregation. St Christopher seems to have been popular in Cornwall and this was probably because according to the legend, he was a heathen giant who, on turning Christian, was instructed by a holy hermit to carry travelers over a dangerous ford, and who, one stormy night carried the child Jesus on his shoulder. Cornish folk-lore is full of stories of giants who lived on the hills and protected the people of their domain. Giants and mermaids were popular with the story-tellers and in the Poughill painting the mermaids can be seen in the water between the legs of the saint. 

Poughill  Church Wall Painting

The monks of Glasney were aware that the mermaid story was familiar to the local population before they wrote the “Ordinalia” so also did the builders and decorators of the church's. They therefore knew that the explanation of God and man in this way would be accepted.

(Note.) If you are aware of any mermaids in Cornish churches which I have not covered, please e-mail me the details so that I can visit and then add them to the site. 

Cornish wells


  1. "Week at the Lands End" Blight. "Celtic Christianity in Cornwall" by Thomas Taylor p43.

  2.   “The Wickedest Parish in Cornwall”. A St Buryan Parish Church booklet.

  3. ibid.

  4. Leaflet Ludgvan Parish Church

  5. "Tudor Cornwall" A. L. Rowse.

  6. "Breage & St. Breaca's Church" by Patrick Thorne, Published by Breaca Books, 1996

  7. Leaflet Poughill church. 

  8. The Poughill Church Accounts, 1550, Cornwall county record Office.




Cornish Wells

 Mermaid legends can be found in both Cornwall and other Celtic countries, but where do they come from and why have they lasted the test of time? 

When the Phoenicians first came to Cornwall they must have learnt to converse in order to barter.  When the trading day was finished, the traders and buyers probably sat round the fire enjoying the local hospitality and exchanging tales. The Cornish  had their stories of Giants, Knockers and other spirits, and the Phoenician’ s probably told of their great sea journeys and to add a little excitement probably claimed to have met the “tritons” as they called the mermen and other strange creatures. 

  They may even have traded a vase showing a typical floral pattern and the triton motif similar to the one on the left, found by archaeologists in Etruria one of the Phoenician city-states and which is believed to have been made around the year 540BC. 

 The Phoenicians would have set up makeshift alters in order to worship their gods El and Baal and the goddess Astarte / Asherar-yam, our lady of the sea. Little figurines such as the Bull would have been used and in the case of the goddess the symbol may have been as simple as a coin.  Coins found at one of the ancient Phoenician sites have a Mermaid on them and this is believed to have been a representation of Astarte who was also linked with mother goddesses of neighbouring cultures, in her role as combined heavenly mother and earth mother. Cult statues of Baal and Astarte in many  forms were left as votive offerings in shrines and sanctuaries as prayers for a good harvest and by the infertile wishing for help. It may be that the tossing of coins into fountains and Wells is a result of the goddess being put on a coin by the Phoenicians. 

Many of these shrines are still to be found at the sites of springs or wells around the Mediterranean and I have visited them in both Greece and Turkey and found offerings still being left. 

In Celtic tradition water was of great importance and archaeologist have found lakes and wells a great source for finds dating from the Celtic age. In  the lake on the Isle of Anglesey, objects from all parts of Briton were found that dated to the period when the Romans were driving the Celts westward. These included the usual coins, pins etc as well as Slave chains and a complete chariot. Whilst in Coventina's Well at Carrawborough, Northumberland the finds included replicas of human heads, as well as over 14,000 coins, a bronze dog and horse, glass, ceramics, bells and pins.

Strabo cites Posidonius as mentioning a "sacred precinct and pool" in a region near Toulouse in France. Treasure taken from it and later pillaged by the Roman consul Caepio in 102BC, comprised an estimated 45,000 kilograms of gold and nearly 50,000 kilogrammes of silver. 

Spirits have always been associated with springs and wells from the earliest times, and the Druids used sources of water as entrances to Other worlds. In ancient stories such as "Branwen Daughter of Llyr"  a giant emerges from the lake with a cauldron on his back whilst a more famous tale is of the lady of the lake giving the sword Excalibur to Arthur.  (Ref.1)

In ancient Gaul the custodian of the healing spring was a fertility goddess, always beautiful, sometimes dangerous, and these female deities have metamorphosed over time into the faeries of popular tradition.

“Ladywells” are often connected with sightings of a strange lady, a ghostly figure, perhaps of the displaced well spirit or priestess. Whilst the water spirits in Gaul were known as 'Niskas' * or 'Peisgi',  the word may derive from Old Celtic 'peiskos' or Latin 'piscos', both meaning fish. In Cornwall the strange lady turned into a 'mermaid'  who enticed men into her underwater world. 

In Cornwall there are a number of Wells which are still used by people seeking help, and on a recent visit to Alsia Well near St Buryan I found that votive offerings including coins had been left, the Phoenecian custom having been adopted by the Cornish as part of their own religion and the mermaid legends passed down through the ages.

Many of Cornwall's wells have legend associated with them. I have chosen to look at the one associated with  Madron close to Penzance.

Of this well we have the following notice by William Scawen, Esq., Vice-Warden of the Stannaries. The paper from which we extract it was first printed by Davies Gilbert, Esq., F.RS., as an appendix to his “Parochial History of Cornwall.” Its complete title is, “Observations on an Ancient Manuscript, entitled ‘Passio Christo,’ written in the Cornish Language, and now preserved in the Bodleian Library; with an Account of the Language, Manners, and Customs of the People of Cornwall, (from a Manuscript in the Library of Thomas Artle, Esq., 1777)”

“Of St Mardren’s Well (which is a parish west to the Mount), a fresh true story of two persons, both of them lame and decrepit, thus recovered from their Infirmity. These two persons, after they had applied them­selves to divers physicians and chirurgeons, for cure, and finding no success by them, they resorted to St Mardren’s Well, and according to the ancient custom which they had heard of, the same which was once in a year—to wit, on Corpus Christi evening—to lay some small offering on the altar there, and to lie on the ground all night, drink of the water there, and in the morning after to take a good draught more, and to take and carry away some of the water, each of them in a bottle, at their departure. This course these two men followed, and within three weeks they found the effect of it, and, by degrees their strength increasing, were able to move themselves on crutches. The year following they took the same course again, after which they were able to go with the help of a stick; and at length one of them, John Thomas, being a fisherman, was, and is at this day, able to follow his fishing craft. The other, whose name was William Cork, was a soldier under the command of my kinsman, Colonel William Godolphin (as be has often told me), was able to perform his duty, and died in the service of his majesty King Charles."

When one reads accounts like this one it is understandable that our ancestors believed in the power of the water spirits. Gildas describes pre-Christian Britain as a place of diabolical idolatry. He indicates that the ancient Britons worshipped more idols than the Egyptians in their heyday! He says that the people paid divine honour to mountains and rivers.

It is sometimes said that the religion of Britain in the early centuries was Druidism. Actually, it seems that the Druids were just the teachers of their day. They presided at religious ceremonies, but it is not clear that they had their own religion. They seem to have taken over whatever religion was traditional in any given place.

In The Gallic Wars Julius Caesar gives us a few snippets of information about the Druids. His observations relate to Gaul, but he does say that Druidism originated in Britain and crossed the Channel from here.

He also notes that those who wanted to improve their knowledge of Druidism generally went to Britain to study it.

The druids would also use water to foretell the future. Plutrarch the Greek historian writing about the Druids in his "Life of Ceaser" states:

 "From the several waves and eddies which the sea, river, or other water exhibited when put into agitation, after a ritual manner they pretended to fortell with great certainty the event of battles." (Ref. 2)

But the people would also seek advice from the Druids about more mundane things like their own health and welfare. The holy man would consult with the water spirit and would be shown a sign  for him to interpret.  The Water Spirit usually took the female form and in ancient Cornwall the custodian of the healing spring was a fertility goddess, always beautiful, sometimes dangerous who metamorphosed over time into the mermaids of popular tradition who could change their form. Many of these wells were known as “Ladywells” and are often connected with sightings of a strange lady, a ghostly figure, perhaps of the displaced well spirit or priestess. Whilst the water spirits in Gaul were known as 'Niskas' or 'Peisgi',  the word may derive from Old Celtic 'peiskos' or Latin 'piscos', both meaning fish. Sir F. Palgrave says:- "The Nixie... are in most respects like the Cornish Mermaid."  (Ref.3) 

Madron is one of these "Ladywells"  and in her paper Madron Well: 'the Mother Well' (Ref. 4) Chesca Potter states the following:- "The name Modron (Ref.5) is used in Celtic mythology in a specific sense. It does not mean Mother as most of us think of her. Modron is Mother of the 'virgin', or maiden. Modron is the earth mother, sometimes depicted as a Black Goddess/Madonna, black being the symbolic colour of earth, the underworld and death. The Mother represents the dark or waning moon, and her daughter, the bride or virgin is the new and waxing moon  This female polarity is a more ancient division of the aspects of the Goddess than the later maiden, mother, hag."

In his Stories and Folk – Lore of West Cornwall, William Bottrell describes a visit made by the Penzance Field Club to Madron Well around 1880. He asked the old lady who looked after the well and acted as their guide what the locals thought of St Madron’s Well. She replied that she had “never heard that a saint had anything to do with the water except from somebody who told her there was something in a book about it; nor had she or anybody else heard the waters called St Madron’s Well, except by the new gentry, who go about giving new names to the places, and think they know more than the people who have lived here since the world was created.

We enquired if the people ever went to the old chapel to perform any ceremony? Not that she ever heard of; Morvah folks and others of the Northern Parishes who mostly resort to the spring pay no regard to any saint or to anybody else, except some old woman who may come down with them to show how everything used to be done. We were also informed that there is a spring in some moor in Zennor, not far from Bosporthenes, which is said to be as good as Madron Well, and that children are often taken thither and treated in the same way.” (Ref. 6.) 

The old woman was probably referring to this piece written by a local gent as she called them Carne

" It has been contended that a virgin was the patroness of this church that she was buried at Minster and that many miracles were performed at her grave. A learned commentator, however, is satisfied that it was St Motran, who was one of the large company that came from Ireland with St Buriana, and he was slain at the mouth of the Hayle ; the body was begged, and afterwards buried here. Near by was the miraculous Well of St Maddern, over which a chapel was built, so sacred was it held. (This chapel was destroyed by the fanaticism of Major Ceely in 
the days of Cromwell.) It stood at no great distance on the moor, and the soil around it was black and boggy, mingled with a gray moorstone. .

However, we know from a document entitled ' Passio Christo,' written in the Cornish Language by Thomas Artie, Esq in the year 1777 that at that time the well was referred to as St Marden's Well:"

Of St Mardren's Well (which is a parish west to the Mount), a fresh true story of two persons, both of them lame and decrepit, thus recovered from their infirmity. These two persons, after they had applied themselves to divers physicians and chirurgeons, for cure, and rinding no success by them, they resorted to St Mardren's Well, and according to the ancient custom which they had heard of, the same which was once in a year to wit, on Corpus Christi evening to lay some small offering on the altar there, and to lie on the ground all night, drink of the water there, and in the morning after to take a good draught more, and to take and carry away some of the water, each of them in a bottle, at their departure. This course these two men followed, and within three weeks they found the effect of it, and, by degrees their strength increasing, were able to move themselves on crutches. The year following they took the same course again, after which they were able to go with the help of a stick ; and at length one of them, John Thomas, being a fisherman, was, and is at this day, able to follow his fishing craft. The other, whose name was William Cork, was a soldier under the command of my kinsman, Colonel William Godolphin (as he has often told me), was able to perform his duty, and died in the service of his majesty King Charles. 

The noted antiquarian and vicar of Ludgvan Dr William Borlaise, wrote the following on the subject of the Cornish visiting the local Wells*  in the latter half of the seventeenth century:  

"A way of divining  and still usual among the vulgar of Cornwall, who go to some noted well on particular times of year, and there observe the bubbles that rise, and the aptness of the water to be troubled or to remain pure, on their throwing in pins or pebbles and then conjecture what shall or shall not befall them."  (Ref.7)

Sancreed and Madron are both close to the Town of Penzance and on June 24th they celebrate Midsummer's Day. But at Penzance it falls in the middle of  the Galowan festival. The ten days of Golowan  brings the past and present together in Penzance's community celebration of the traditional Feast of St. John.  Many of those taking part will not realise that in effect they are celebrating a festival which goes back in time through the Roman Goddess Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis to the Phoenician Goddess Astarte / Asherar – yam all of whom were celebrated on June 24th by their different worshippers. St John’s Eve was always a major fire festival which included dancing in the street with lighted tar barrels on poles being swung around the heads of the dancers as they went down the street. In the late eighteen hundreds this part of the celebrations was brought to an end when the insurance companies refused to pay out on property which caught fire in Penzance. (Ref. 8)

Some who knew the true meaning of the day visited the Well at Madron. Young people dropped pins into the waters to see if they touched. Others visitors tied scraps of rag to a nearby bush just as their fore-bearers had done before, in the hope of a cure for some illness. The legend has been passed down through time and in Cornwall  people seeking help still visit the sight of the Madron Well. 

When Sandra was a young girl her father would often take her for walks to the well. Recently we made a return trip and she was astonished to find that people seemed to be leaving their  scraps of non bio-degradable material tied to the trees which meant that they could not rot and relieve the sufferer of their illness. The photo above shows the trees with their votive offerings at  Madron on the day we visited..

On visits to other wells We have found that votive offerings including coins have also been left, the Phoenician custom having been adopted by the British as part of their own religion and the legends passed down through the ages, just as it was by the Druids before Christianity came, and even with its arrival things did not change until the coming of the Saxons and with them the coming of the Roman Church almost a thousand years after Christianity had first been brought to Celtic Briton by, it is said, Joseph of Arimathea and the other followers of Jesus. 

With the arrival of the Roman Church around 940A.D. the old clergy were driven out of Cornwall to either Ireland or Brittany. With their departure new versions of the legends were written and placed in the churches. In these versions the Celtic saints seem always to have chosen the neighbourhood of a spring as a site for a settlement - sometimes no doubt - because the spring was an object of  what they referred to as heathen worship, which they desired to supersede by surrounding it with Christian associations, sometimes simply because pure water is a necessity of human life. At Madron the ancient chapels can be seen close to the site of the well. although it lacks a roof its alter is still in place. 


In the manuscripts detailing the lives of the Cornish saints many of their holy wells were regarded as possessing healing powers. In the old Cornish miracle play “The Life of St. Meriasek.” it is said that the saint even created the well by causing a miraculous fountain to spring up at Camborne, and prays

                           Likewise the water of the fountain
                          For a man insane certainly
                          I pray that it be a salve
                          To bring him again to his sense.

In endeavouring to Christianise the feelings of veneration with which, from time immemorial, these wells were regarded, the Saxons were acting not only wisely and prudently (consecrating, instead of destroying natural born instincts,) but entirely in the spirit of Holy Scripture  

The dual aspect of the Goddess also passed over very clearly into Christianity. St Anne is the Mother of the Virgin, who in turn is the Mother of the son or sun. You will find a well dedicated to St Anne at Looe in Cornwall, but the most famous one is in Brittany.

  1. "The Druids" Ward Rutherford

  2. Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by M & L Quiller Couch. ISNB 0 95128225 5. Pub 1994.

  3. article entitled the  "Popular Mythology of the Middle Ages" which was published in "Quarterly Review No 44 in 1820

  4. Madron Well: 'the Mother Well' by Chesca Potter

  5. The archetypal meanings of Modron have been well researched by Caitlin Matthews for her forthcoming Arkana publication on the Mabinogion.

  6. "Traditions & Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall", 2nd Series.p240 By William Bottrell.

  7. an appendix to "Parochial History of Cornwall." Its complete title is, "Observations on an Ancient Manuscript,   ; with an Account of the Language, Manners, and Customs of the People of Cornwall, (from a Manuscript in the Library of Thomas Artie, Esq., 1777)" and now preserved in the Bodleian Library

  8. "Borlaise Papers" Royal Cornish Institute Library, Truro.

  9. "A History of Penzance" P.A.S. Poole.





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