Object of the Month:
Cornish Pisky Good Luck Charm (2029)
With the holiday season upon us, it is interesting to see how popular Cornish pisky charms still are with visitors. We now stock them in the museum shop, and they are one of our bestselling lines. We also have several very fine old examples in the museum’s collection.
Traditionally, these little piskies were often sold with a card claiming that they would not only bring good luck but also grant wishes – suggesting that they could be viewed as a kind of familiar spirit. And in fact they are a revealing survival of ancient beliefs about the relationship between humans and the fairy folk, and in particular the idea that magical powers were often the gift of the fairies.
In his book Daemonologie, King James I mentioned that many witches used magical stones which had been given to them by the Queen of Elfland. Although these stones were used for healing, owning one could help to send you to the gallows or the stake.
King James argued that fairies were a manifestation of the Devil, and one of the people who fell foul of this official prejudice against fairies was the young Cornish wise woman Anne Jefferies, who lived at St Teath, not far from the museum’s home in Boscastle. She was a famous healer, who helped clients from all over southern Britain. However, she openly admitted that her healing powers had been given to her by the fairies. Although she had never been accused of harming anyone, the local magistrate (the notoriously corrupt John Tregeagle) had her arrested for witchcraft, claiming that the fairies were evil spirits. Anne spent a grim three months in Bodmin jail awaiting trial, but fortunately the case against her was dismissed – though she was forced to adopt a more low-profile life in Padstow.
Cornish piskies are delightful and amusing souvenirs, but perhaps they owe at least some of their popularity to a sense of the ancient magic still attached to them.