network news: those pesky piskies 1 2



"See saw, Margery Daw,
Sold her bed and lay upon straw;
Sold her bed and lay upon hay,
And pisky came and carried her away.
For wasn't she a dirty slut
To sell her bed and lie in the dirt?"

quoted in
Cornish Feasts and Folklore, M.A.Courtney, 1890.

It is important to emphasise that the narrative structure of characteristic traditional folk motifs and oral variations disqualify them as literal accounts of actual events. The very definition of the real is that of which it is possible to provide an equivalent reproduction. To some degree, fairy stories must be considered false, however the false (like the real) is not only the effect of representation but also its excess, what remains outside discourse as a potential trauma which can rupture or destabilise any representation. Collecting a story's variations and tracing its dissemination and change through time and space are only the beginning of a paradigm where clear, analytical text and easily-digested ideas become prominent at the expense of a more grand and intricate style. Our task here remains to show how historical agency is transformed through the signifying process; how the historical event is represented in a discourse that is something beyond control.

The stories told of Cornish piskies are almost all local variants of the stories told of the fairies of other European countries. The piskies differ hardly perceptibly, except in the smallest possible local colour, from little Welsh fairies, the Tylwyth Teg, the Daoine Sith of the Scottish Highlands, the leprechauns of Ireland, the phynnodderees and glashtyns of the Isle of Man, the corrigans, lutins, and follets of Brittany, and the brownies of Lowland Scotland. One may go further and find their near relations among the fees of rural France, the fairies and goblins of England, the kobolds, elves, and trolls of Germany and Scandinavia, and even the nymphs, dryads, fauns, and satyrs of Greek and Roman mythology. The Manx phynnodderee, a variant of the pisky, recites a Manx rhyme in which he enumerates the various parts of his body which the clothes will have to cover, with a lament for each. Curiously, the phynnodderee opposes other possible definition of value: the relation of every term to what it designates, of each signifier to its signified.

Robert Hunt, in his Popular Romances of the West of England, divides the Cornish fairies into five classes:
(1) the Small People
(2) the Spriggans
(3) the Piskies
(4) the Buccas, Bockles or Knockers
(5) the Brownies

If one insists on counting, this second immediate is, in the course of the method as a whole, the third term to the first immediate and the mediated. It is true that there is nothing exceptional or even characteristic in this; every system of power is presented with the same problem. The Pobel Vean or Small People, the Spriggans, and the Piskies are not really distinguishable from one another, but in their peculiarity they define another classification that fulfils three criteria.

As soon as these numbers (the five classes and the three criteria) are added, there will then be a requirement to localise that data, so that, for example, a user sees the pisky in the expected format. They wore wigs of grey lichen beneath their red caps. Eyes as bright and unwinking as a robin's stared out of each small, wrinkled face. Always lively, when they chattered they filled the air with a sound like the droning of bees. They were accustomed with riding about on snails.

The Cornish pisky stories are full of instances of contact between two "planes," brought about either accidentally or by incantations, magic eye-salve, or other means. Diverting the law-enforcing authority of the gaze, it might be said that these instances are techniques for assuring the ordering of human multiplicities - discursive linkages that are not amenable to domination by ideals of "rational meaning". Milk was left out at nights for piskies, who had been knocking on walls and generally making themselves a nuisance. It seems that the piskies drank the "astral" part (a moment parallel to designation in the sign) left of the milk, and the neighbouring cats drank what was (a moment parallel to the structural organisation of the sign) and it disagreed with them. The first qualifies the concrete operation of the commodity in consumption the second relates to the exchangeability of any commodity for any other under the law of equivalence. What does this mean for scalability, though? It stands to reason that a pisky who thrashes corn or sweeps out rooms can hardly be only a few inches high. Here the paradigmatic dimension is abolished along with the stigmatic dimension, since there is no longer a flexion of forms, nor even an internal reflection, only a contiguity of the same seriality of part-objects.

The story of a pisky-led farmer from Gwinear distinguishes between two types of execution, those caused by a user error and those caused by some other factor.
The farmer had gone one day to Gwithian with a cart for a load of sand, which is not so scarce a commodity in that parish that it requires much looking for. He soon filled his cart, but on the way back was pisky-led and eventually found himself at four o'clock in the morning at Loggans Mill, by Phillack. He thought that he passed his own farm several times in the course of the night. The informant, a retired policeman, was of opinion that he had paid some visits to public houses in the course of the afternoon, but that is the sort of official view that a policeman would take. Piskies are not recognised in police regulations. But it will not do to call it "whisky-led," even though it presents somewhat similar phenomena - so a real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious reality. Whereas to pixelate is to disguise identity using areas of uniform illumination upon a display screen, pixilated meaning bewildered, crazy or drunk is is variant of pixie-led (as PIXIE, LED) or piskie-led rather than whisky-( or whiskey-)led. We have instead defined a pisky-led digital space, a magnetic field of the code with its modelled polarisations, diffractions, and gravitations, with the insistent and perpetual flux of the smallest disjunctive units (the pisky-led farmer operates like the cybernetic atom of signification). As the pisky-led image is resolution-dependent, it can lose detail and appear jagged if viewed at a high magnification. This pisky-led-orientation presupposes the continuity of a flow; interrupted by other partial objects. Hence we suggest that the coupling that takes place within the partial object-flow connective synthesis has another resolution-dependent form: pisky/pisky-led.

In some cases, chiefly those of accidental seeing or of summoning by incantations, the astral creature, elemental or fairy, is removed into the physical plane, and so becomes visible to those who are in it. But to dwell "in the beyond" is also to be part of imaginary time, a return to the present to redescribe our cultural contemporaneity - to reinscribe our human, historic commonality; to touch the future on its hither side. In that sense, then, the intervening space "in the beyond", becomes a space of intervention in the here and now where eye-salve, four-leafed clover and other expedients are employed. The seer creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. He or she does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; but renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent "in-between". Space becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of being personally removed to the other plane, and so becomes invisible to those on the "physical" plane. This may be for only a short time - for instance; while the clover or fern-seed is held, or until the ointment is washed off. Or it may be for what appears to be a very short time to the percipient, but may be many years of the life of ordinary people.

Most mysterious of the elfin creatures of Cornwall, a salutary reminder of the persistant "neo-colonial" relations within the "new" world order and the multinational division of labour, are the knockers or knackers of the mines. It is said, that knockers were spirits of old Jewish miners who worked underground in Cornwall a long time past. They are described as ugly, thin-limbed creatures no higher than the smallest human dwarf, with large hooked noses - slit mouths from ear to ear, and a great liking for making dreadful faces.

The knockers were not above, for instance, crossing their eyes and thumbing their noses when they met you, or bending over to grimace at you between their spindly legs. There were also those who affirmed that the knockers were not the spirits of Jewish miners but of those who had crucified Christ. In support of this theory, they were said to be heard sweetly singing carols in the mines, not from choice but under compulsion, on Christmas Day, Easter Day, All Saint's Day and the Jewish Sabbath. These knockers or knackers are mine spirits and have nothing to do with Bucca or Bockle. Such a perspective enables the authentication of histories of exploitation and the evolution of strategies of resistance. Cultures of a postcolonial contra-modernity may be contingent to modernity, discontinuous or in contention to it, resistant to its oppressive, assimilationist technologies; but they also deploy the cultural hybridity of their borderline conditions to "translate", and therefore reinscribe, the social imaginary of both metropolis and modernity. This does not mean pure repetition, but minimal difference, the minimal inflexion between two terms, that is, the "smallest common paradigm" that can sustain the fiction of meaning. A combinatory of differentation internal to the elfin object as well as to the consumer object, this simulation contracts to the point of being nothing more than the difference that still separates knockers from knackers. The first aspect corresponds to the structural dimensions of language, the second to its functional dimension. The great connective narratives of capitalism and class drive the engines of social reproduction, but do not, in themselves, provide a foundational frame for those modes of cultural identification and political affect that form around issues of identity and gender.

In Arthur Quiller Couch's History of Polperro there is only one reference to the female pisky 'Joan The Wad' - who has become one of the most famous of the pisky folk and regarded as Queen of the lucky Cornish Piskies and consort to 'Jack o' Lantern' the only other of the pisky folk known by name, he quotes the following rhyme:

"Jack o' the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickeld the maid and made her mad;

Light me home, the weather's bad."

. So Couch's pisky became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life-form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Joan the Wad and Jack o' Lantern referred to a nature that was overlooked by the law, but not so neglectful of itself that it did not go on producing more species, even where there was no order to fit them into. And so piskies, boggarts , spriggans, zoophiles, zooerasts, auto-monosexualists, mixoscopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts and dyspareunist women marched under the slogan "GOOD FORTUNE WILL NOD IF YOU CARRY UPON YOU JOAN THE WAD!" The machinery of power focussed on this whole alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality: it was implanted in bodies, slipped in beneath modes of conduct, made into a principle of classification and intellibility, established as a raison d'etre and a natural disorder.

Perhaps therein lies a critical act that attempts to grasp the slight of hand with which folklore conjures with historical specificity, using the medium of psychic uncertainty, aesthetic distancing, or the obscure signs of the spirit-world, the sublime and the subliminal. Producing is always something "grafted onto" the product; and for that reason it is not the purpose of folklore study to debunk oral traditions.

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