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09/29/2010 Archived Entry: "Devils, Giants and folklore"

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle, Dorset

How is it that many of our very local folk tales are repeated throughout such a wide area of Britain and overseas?
One example concerns stories of the Devil. For example, someone reminded me of the story of the Devilís role in building Kilgram Bridge in Wensleydale and told me that a similar tale exists in Tuscany, Italy. Britain has several bridges known as Devilís Bridge, with varying tales of Satanís involvement in bridges, for instance Dibbleís Bridge in Wharfedale and Devilís Bridge over the River Mynach in Wales. Folk lore claims that the Devil was also responsible for several other sights in this region, including the Devilís Elbow otherwise known as Saltersgate Hill between Whitby and Pickering, the Devilís Arrows which are three standing stones near Boroughbridge and two boulders on the edge of Semerwater in Wensleydale which, it is said, the Devil threw at a local giant. It seems the pair had some kind of game or contest that involved throwing huge rocks at one another. The Devil seems to have enjoyed throwing massive stones around because there is a story that he built Stonehenge in much the same way as he had erected the Devilís Arrows at Boroughbridge.
In Hertfordshire, it is said he tossed huge shovelfuls of earth at the place we now called Stevenage, but they fell short and now form the nearby Six Hills which are, in fact, Bronze Age burial chambers. Frustrated by his lack of skill, he threw one last spadeful but it struck Graveley Church and knocked down the steeple. One another occasion, in a fit of pique whilst sitting on The Needles on the Isle of Wight, he threw his cap at Corfe Castle in Dorset but again he missed and lost his cap. Not far away at Agglestone there is a monument known as the Devilís Cap, a reminder of his failure.
This country is also rich with stories of giants. Apart from the fellow who tossed stones at Semerwater with the Devil, a giant is said to have built Giantís Causeway in Ireland, and on the North York Moors it was the giant, Wade, who is said to have built Wadeís Causeway which is, in fact, the remains of a Roman road. In the distant past it was believed that a race of giants roamed the entire British countryside and it is thought these stories came from our Celtic ancestors.
A good example is the story of the cruel Giant of Penhill in Wensleydale. He terrorised the local people until his own dog, Wolfhead, turned against him and caused him to fall to his death over a cliff. There was also a terrifying one-eyed giant at Dalton Mill near Thirsk who did not feast on bread made from the flour of that mill, but who killed children and women, grinding their bones to dust from which he made huge loaves. The giant of Sessay was equally wicked who turned to eating children whenever his supply of stolen cattle was exhausted.
County Durham also had giants. Three of them lived near the area now known as Muggleswick in the north-west of the county. One was known as Mug as in Muggleswick, the other Con as in Consett and the third as Ben as in Benfieldside. They amused themselves by tossing huge hammers to one another, and when they failed to catch them, they landed on the ground to produce massive dents in the local hillsides. It is said those marks are still visible.
Giants were not only found in Britain. Many legends from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt feature cruel and evil giants, even to the extent of identifying them in the heavens among our star constellations. There is a theory that the famous Giant of Cerne Abbas now featuring as a figure cut into a local hillside in Dorset, is from such a source.
Other stories that appear in the UK and overseas feature mythical dragons that are killed by saintly knights such as St George but here in north-east England we call them worms. Both North Yorkshire and County Durham are rich with such tales ranging from the Lambton Worm of Durham to the Nunnington Worm in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, and there was also the Meister Stoor Worm of Orkney which, when dying, spat out its teeth to form the Faroes.
And who can ignore the lovely stories of hobs (North York Moors), elves (general), brownies and dobies (Northumberland and Borders), the Cauld Lad of Hilton (Durham), barrow-folk (Denmark), redcaps (Holland), pixies or piskies (south-west England), trolls (Norway), nisse (Scandinavia in general), tomtars (Sweden), killmoulies (Scotland), peerie folk (Orkneys) with a range of fairies and other little folk who inhabited the north-east of England and Scotland. And perhaps we should also remember the leprechauns of Ireland and the kaboutermannekins of Holland. They were all little people who performed a variety of tasks, good deeds or mischief, depending whether they were goodies or baddies. And what about all the fairies who inhabited these lands?
So the question remains Ė how and where did all these mythical tales originate to survive and circulate for such a long time over such a wide area?

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