Back to top

The Importance of Local Cave Traditions

1 Hunt, Popular Romance of the West of England, quoted from Heath's Scilly Isles.

2 Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall.

3 Ibid.

4 Edmond's Land's End District.

5 Bottrell.

6 Bottrell. On the other hand, of course, this may be an actual memory of the kidnapping skill of opposing tribes in the old days.

7 "Who were the Fairies?" by G. A., in Cornhill Magazine, vol. xlxiii.

8 The Book of Exmoor, by F. J. Snell.

9 Professor Boyd Dawkins in Macmillan's Magazine.

10 "A Visit to Hinba," Cornhill Magazine, vol. xli. See also the legend of the Piper of Hamelin who entered the Koppelberg, playing pipes, and followed by children. In the Middle Agnes, Odin, who is a sleeper in Odenburg, was identified with him. (Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen.)

11 Bottrell.

12 Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, by W. Y. Evans Wentz, p. 45.

13 Morte d'Arthur, book xxi., chap. vii.

14 Niflheim.

15 See Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, p. 296.

16 Ibid, p. 340. See also Arthur in a cave and yet in Avalon, and Holger Dansk in Elsinore and yet in Avalon.

17 Ossian.

18 Herla's companions. Vingoe is forbidden to marry for three years after his release.

19 Ossian, and many modern apparitions.

20 Laeghaire, Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries.

21 Gervase of Tilbury.

22 See note above, Odin as the Piper of Hamelin.

23 See the cave stories of Cornwall.
Remarkably little attention, comparatively speaking, seems to have been paid to the simpler cave traditions, as distinct from the better-known ones of sleepers in caves. Yet their very persistency, the diversity of the localities in which they may be found, together with the element of mystery which underlies their apparent simplicity, and their evident notable kinship, would, one might think, have aroused a curiosity resulting in the disclosure, through inquiry, of countless other current examples; thus strikingly illustrating the hold certain ancient forms of belief still have on our unconscious minds.

Scattered at random through guide-books and books on topography, folklore, geology, travel, and divers other subjects, seldom seen side by side, and still more seldom with anything like their full importance attached to them, are the following examples extant in Great Britain:

In St. Mary's, in the Scillies, is the "Piper's Hole." This is said to communicate, underground, with another "Piper's Hole," four miles away, in Tresco. There were men who entered this cave, but never returned.

It is so narrow in parts that dogs, travelling down its whole length, emerge at last—hairless.1

The Giant's Holt, a fuggo or cave at Bodinnar in Cornwall, is haunted by the Cornish spriggans, guarding hidden treasure.2

The devil pipes to witches in the fuggo at the foot of Boleigh Hill. Witches in the shape of hares enter, but never come out the same way. There is said to be another cave near by, in Trove Hill, the entrance to which is forgotten.3 Both this fuggo and the Giant's Holt seem at one time to have been human habitations.4

Hunt says: "The Fugoe Hole, at the Land's End, has yet to be spoken of in the witch stories. Several who have attempted to penetrate this hole have escaped only by great luck." And again: "There is a tradition, firmly believed on the lower side of Burian, that the Fugoe Hole extends from the cliffs underground so far that the end of it is under the parlour of the Tremewen's house in Trove, which is the only remaining portion of the old mansion of the Lovels."

From Pendeen Vow (or Fuggo) a white-clad figure emerges with a rose in its mouth, to give warning of death.

"One end of it5 [the vow], we know, is within a few yards of the mansion, but no one knows where the other is to be found . . . it runs for a great distance, some say miles, yet most people believe that the eastern end was once open at the cove. Others will have it that old tinners, who lived before part of the roof had fallen in, travelled in it for ten times the distance from the house to the cove, and burned more than a pound of candles without finding the end. They always return frightened, and what they saw to scare them they could never be got to tell."

There is another cavern near Mousehole, opening on to the the beach. It is called "Dicky Danjey's Holt," and the Little People capture children and carry them into it.6

The Peak Cavern of Derbyshire was one of the entrances to fairyland.7

A dog once scrambled through the famous Wookey Hole, near Wells, emerging after many days—hairless.

Another, or perhaps the same dog, ran into a hole in the Cheddar Cliffs in pursuit of a rabbit, and came out of the Wookey Hole, six miles off.8

The pipes of a man who entered a cave near Llanamynech, on the English border of Montgomeryshire, were heard beneath that place, two miles from the entrance. He had food with him, but no one saw him again.9

Another piper,10 accompanied by his dog, set out to explore the Jura Cave in Scotland. Before long, listeners heard the cheerful tune of his pipes change to M'Crimmon's Lament, "I return, I return, I return not for ever," and then die away. He never returned. His dog came out alone, bruised and torn, from the mouth of a distant cavern.

There is a longer story11 connected with a cave, in which a cornishman, Richard Vingoe, is piskey-led in Treville Cliffs, and, after wandering by underground ways, comes to a pleasant land. Here he sees people engaged in "hurling," and is forbidden to join them, by a woman who is kept prisoner there for trespassing on fairy ground.

She leads him to the upper world, and, passing through a cave, he sees the village of Nanjizel before him. He slept for a week afterwards, and died from drinking.

In the neighbourhood12 of the famous Ben Bulbin in Ireland, "there are long caverns which no man has ever dared to penetrate to the end, and even dogs, it is said, have been put in them never to emerge, or else to come out miles away."

It is true that many of these stories might seem to have their origin in exaggeration, or in the awe and wonder inculcated by the strange contents of our great caves; but many are stamped for ever with mystery, and at the back of that mystery is the same belief that interprets for us the more advanced cave stories of the sleepers.

Chief among these are the stories of Herla, Arthur, and Holger Dansk, for our purpose.

Walter Map speaks of the mythical British king, Herla, and his friendship for the pigmy king, who, judging by his appearance, had much in common with a Cornish piskey. Herla went to the pigmy's home by way of a cave, and after a seemingly short time, emerged to find that he had been absent for more than 200 years, and was unknown.

Arthur sleeps beneath the ruins of a castle in Yorkshire, or else with Guenever beneath Sewingshields Castle, where he was seen. Again, he sleeps in the Eildon Hills, beneath Craig-y-Dinas, or in a cave of Snowdon, awaiting the day when he shall awake for ever, and come forth.

Holger Dansk is in the vaults of Elsinore, his great beard grown over and around a marble table. As Ogier he is in Avalon.

Woden sleeps in the Odenburg.

These cave stories are no nature myths of the winter-sleep of the Sun, and his arising. "In Ireland," said Mr. W. B. Yeats, "this world and the world we go to are not far apart." And that is true, not only in Ireland. Malory13 says, with double meaning, of Arthur's sleep in Avalon, that "here in this world he changed his life."

To the mind Hellenic and the mind Celtic, also in part14 to the Teutonic and the Norse mind, the cave was the great entrance to "the world we go to."

This world is an intermediate "state," as it were, between death and rebirth, practically identical with fairyland. In its Christian form it is that "hell" from which Christ was arisen when He was seen by Mary Magdalene, and might not be touched till He was ascended to the Father.15

There is always a returning from this other world, Avalon, the "Land of Apples," to which a silver branch of apples is the passport.16

Those also who become inhabitants of the Otherworld in life, and those who were not there till after death, both can appear at will on the earth, in their own bodies, as inhabitants of the Otherworld. But frequently they are not recognized; there is something peculiar about their appearance. This was the case with Herla: he "was unknown." Christ appeared four times (John xx. and xxi.), and out of those four times He was recognized twice. St. Mark mentions a fifth appearance (Mark xvi.): "He appeared in another form unto two of them."

Those who are "taken" to the Otherworld when alive remain forever young, but their visists to earth necessitate a certain "taboo" for the protection of this youthfulness, or they age17 or crumble to dust.18 They are tabooed to touch earth with their feet, or be touched by men. Perhaps the "touch" taboo of the Tylwyth Teg women who marry mortals has the same cause for its origin.

Many return from the Otherworld to visit their old haunts19 or to bid their friends "good-bye."20

Herla set out from the cave to seek some unknown destination that would be shown him by a fairy-dog leaping from the arms of his companion to the ground. Some say he is still seeking it. Arthur21 may be seen with men and hounds at midday or in moonlight. Arthur, Herla, and Woden, also appear as the Wild Hunt. Odin, the mythical king, is confused with the god and his valkyries; Arthur the king is confused with Arthur the god. Tregeagle, who also lived underground beneath Dozmare Pool, and is the hunted in the Cornish Wild Hunt, was, too, in all probability, once a god or godlike.

Many of the dead return to "take" the living,22 as Odin does, or give warning of death and danger, as does the spirit of Pendeen Vow.23 The fairies who "take" are themselves the dead. The bean-sidhe of Irish families is always a dead ancestress. To this day, some dead member of a family reappears in countless ghost stories to give death warning to a living member. The piskey-led, maybe, have chanced upon the borderland of this world in their wanderings.

And now the lesser cave stories of hairless dogs come into strange prominence. We may be sure, when we remember whence these caverns lead, and the nature of their inhabitants, that the people, who probably with purpose gently propelled dogs into the caves, would be the last to believe in the narrowness of the said caves as the cause of the hairless and mangled condition of the dogs when they emerged—if they emerged at all.

Fairies and the dead feel both anger and hunger.

The whole world knows it, and has propitiated them accordingly.

This, then, is the land to which those caves lead, that are invested to this day with awfulness for us.

Hence, also, the importance of those "simple" cave tales that are about our very doors.