ĎThar be piskies up to Dartymoor
And Ďtidnít no good you say thar baint
Iíve felt um grauping at my heart
Iíve heard their voices calling faintí
(Full verse - HERE)
There are numerous legends and stories about the Dartmoor Piskies and although they could have been included in the main legend section it is easier to give them a section of their own - after all that is what they wanted!
Why is a grown man writing about piskies? A question I have asked myself and to be honest I was not going to include them but having read William Crossing's book - 'Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies' I have changed my mind. On the first page he remarks:
"Among the superstitions of bygone times which still linger in Devonshire, the ideas regarding the pixies are undoubtedly the most interesting and romantic. Although the faith of the peasantry in the ability of these 'little people' to exercise control over their domestic arrangements is less firm than yore, yet a notion still prevails that ill-luck will certainly overtake the hapless wight who is so unfortunate as to offend any of these diminutive elves"
Those words were written only 115 years ago by one of the most eminent Dartmoor writers so although a very 'tongue in cheek' subject clearly it is one that down through the centuries was held very strongly in the hearts of the moorfolk. Perhaps the elusive piskie does not only dwell in the minds of the old moor people, drive past Pixies Holt on a summer's day and see all the visitors clutching their purchases of 'lucky Dartmoor pixie' ware and maybe it is possible that the 'little people's influence stretches further than thought. As I write this at my desk I am surrounded by old brass 'Dartmoor pixie ware', there are candlesticks, letter knife, bottle opener, door knocker, shoe horn, ash tray, pin tray, horse brasses and ink wells all of various ages that date from the 1920's onwards. Clearly not only are the piskies part of the Dartmoor tradition they are part of the Dartmoor economy. Visit the e-bay site and search for 'Dartmoor Pixie', today there are two toasting forks, two bottle openers, a key rack and two pixie jugs all with Dartmoor piskies on them. Again, proof that the Dartmoor piskie is alive and well in 2007.
But where does the belief in the 'little people' originate from? Clearly the stories and superstitions have been handed down through the centuries but how did they start? What evidence is to be found today? In the search for the elusive piskie it would prudent to classify exactly what a piskie is. Firstly, piskies are not only found on Dartmoor there are stories from around the world relating to the 'little people'. In Cornwall they are known as pisgies, in Somerset they are pixies and in Dorset they are called pexies. It has been suggested that in early times they were all fairies but in the West Country they separated off to become piskies, pisgies, pixies or pexies.
The lineage of the piskies may possibly lead back to the trickster known as Puck. The original form in old English was Puca which changed to Pouke in Medieval English, but in Wales he was known as Pwca and in Ireland as Pooka. Globally he can be found as Puki in old Norse or Puke in Swedish. The Danes refer to him as Puge and so the list goes on. In literature Puck appears in the poem - 'Piers the Ploughman' written during the 1300's by William Langland and more famously as Puck in Shakespeare's 'Mid Summer's Nights Dream'. Commonly he has been associated with the Devil and has been known as an evil entity. Langland refers to Pouke Hall as being hell. Originally he was always referred to as being a single figure and never as a collective. He has also been given diminutive names such as Little Puck and has been regarded with some affection. In the West Country the name Puck changed from the singular to the plural Pucksey and then on to the regional variations, always representing a collective.
There are many ideas as to how piskies came about. It may be that the piskies are pagan spirits who because of their beliefs are unable to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or more likely they are early Christian inventions used to discourage people from worshiping their banished pagan gods.
One early Christian story relates how after being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, Eve was bathing her many children when God came to see her. Because she had so many the task was a long one and so upon his visit she had not bathed all of them. So she took only the clean ones over to where God was waiting. He asked her if this was all of her kin and being ashamed that the rest were filthy said "yes". God then replied "let those unseen remain unseen" and from that moment onwards all her children that had not been bathed became invisible to the human eye and became the fairy folk.
An alternative suggestion is that the piskies are the souls of dead babies who died before being baptised, again this is a Christian belief told by the early clergymen.
Another theory was that in Britain, when the various Roman and Saxon invasions took place the invaders came across the Celts. Supposedly in comparison these people were a much smaller race and so they when confronted with the 'bigger' invaders they fled to the hills and lived in woods and caves which led to the belief that the little people who lived in these secluded areas were the latter day piskies.
There are several occurrences of the word Puck and its variants in Dartmoor Place names. It is interesting to note that the majority of the place names are near to settlements and there are very few on the open moor as can be seen from the map below:
Probably the oldest name is the Puggie or Puckie Stone, this clearly is a direct derivative of the Old English Puca. On Dartmoor the bog cotton plant (eriophorum) was once known as Piskie Grass. This plant grows on the margins of bogs and mires and has a fluffy white head which looks like a large cotton bud. It was to these bogs and mires that the piskies would lure unsuspecting travellers by engulfing them in a thick mist, on the moor this was known as being 'piskie led'. To break the spell it was suggested that the victim must turn their coat or cloak inside out and then the mist would disappear thus enabling them to safely navigate off the moor.
Traditionally the Dartmoor piskies in general are friendly and helpful provided they are left alone and rewarded for any favours they do. Anybody who tries to cheat them, steal from them or spy on them can expect immediate retribution. On the plus side there are many stories relating how the piskies have helped people in times of trouble and on the minus side they have an evil reputation for stealing babies, causing mischief, chaos and mayhem. Either way do not make the mistake of thinking they are a figment of myth and legend, to this day they are moorfolk who still believe in their powers, they will not admit it but occasionally you will hear a un-guarded remark that eludes to the existence of the 'little folk'...
An early Dartmoor postcard.
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