#1 A most mischievous and unsociable Cornish sprite…

A sneak peek at some of the denizens of fairyland you’ll meet in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies…

#1 Pisky

(Also piskey, piskie.) The Cornish breed of pixy.

Illustration © Andy Paciorek

Cornish piskies are different from their English cousins the pixies – or pigseys, as they’re known in Devon and Somerset.

While the pigsey, or pixy, is on the whole harmless:

“a mischievous, but in all respects a very harmless creation, who appears to live a rollicking life amidst the luxuriant scenes of those beautiful counties.” (Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1862)

The Cornish pisky is an altogether tricksier customer:

“a most mischievous and very unsociable sprite. His favourite fun is to entice people into the bogs by appearing like the light from a cottage window, or as a man carrying a lantern.” (Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1862)

The little fellows were also known for causing a nuisance to farmers – riding their horses, and chasing their cows. Though tales such as the pisky threshers show that the piskies could be a helpful and hardworking bunch too, should they choose to be. Hunt conceded that the piskies must have been a merry lot, since “to laugh like a piskie” was a popular saying.

Joan the Wad and Jack O’Lantern are sometimes named as the queen and king of the Cornish piskies. Coleman Grey was a pisky foundling, brought up by a human family until his own kind came to claim him. In other stories, piskies play the familiar fairy trick of stealing away a human child and replacing it with a pisky changeling.

Who was Robert Hunt?

Robert Hunt (1807-87) was one of the first people to publish a collection of Cornish folk tales. He started collecting the myths and legends of old Cornwall in 1849. Some he collected from traveling droll-tellers (wandering storytellers) as they spun their stories by the fireside, some he garnered from fellow Cornish folklorist and collector William Bottrell. Hunt and Bottrell were like the Cornish equivalent of the Brothers Grimm. It’s thanks to them that many of the old tales have survived – and that the Cornish pisky lives on to indulge in his merry mischief-making.

Check back to meet a fairy a day in the run up to the release of The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies on 28 August, 2014.