Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions.  For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing.  As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet.  To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.

georges_jean_marie_haquette

Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain

Stormy Weather

Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall.  According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea.  This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.

Brave Tom Bawcock

According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done.  Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him.  He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish.  When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.

baked_stargazy_pieBy KristaBaked stargazy pieCC BY 2.0

Stargazy Pie

These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village.  They called the dish stargazy pie.   In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water.  Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.

Tom Bawcock’s Eve

Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten.  But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.

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The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain

There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.

The origin of Tom Bawcock

There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated.  One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock  was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.

Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man.  So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village.  It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.

The Devil in a Pie!

There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall.  According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies.  Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back  before they decided to place him in one!

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright zteve t evans

 

The ancient pagan origins of Christmas – The festival of Saturnalia

Christmas in the modern world is a time of revelry, eating and overindulgence of drink, the giving of presents, carol singing and much more.  The Roman festival of Saturnalia is believed to have been a forerunner of the Christmas we know and celebrate today giving us many customs and traditions that we use and enjoy.

Dice players – Author: WolfgangRieger – Public Domain Image

The Roman Festival of Saturnalia

An early forerunner to Christmas was the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.  This festival was held in honour Saturn an agricultural deity who reigned during the Golden Age. This was a time of peace, when all was prosperous and plentiful.  A time when people’s needs were met with out having to work and every one lived in a state of social equality with one another.  The festival commenced on the 17th December to the 23rd of December. Saturnalia could be celebrated anywhere in the Roman Empire not just Rome.

Saturnalia was time of great feasting, making merry and revelry with copious amounts of drinking and over indulging in food. People went out in the streets singing from door to door.  It was a time for the giving and receiving of presents. The revelry was supposed to reflect the conditions of the Golden Age.

During Saturnalia leaves and branches of evergreens were fashioned into wreathes and carried by priests in processions.  Gambling and throwing dice, which in ancient Rome was discouraged became permitted for both masters and slaves over the duration of the festival.

Public buildings and squares were adorned with flowers and lit with candles. Candles may have represented the search for truth and knowledge and also the return of the sun after the winter solstice.  In later times the 25th of December by the Julian calendar, Romans celebrated Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, or the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”

Role reversal during Saturnalia

During Saturnalia roles were reversed between master and slave, with slave becoming the master and the master, the slave.   Some reports from ancient sources say slaves and masters ate at the same table together.  Other reports say the slaves ate first and others say that the masters served the slaves their food.  No doubt it was the slaves who did the actual preparation and clearing up.

Slaves were also said to be allowed to show a certain amount of disrespect to their masters but in reality it was probably more of an act.  This is because the role reversal was temporary, only lasting through Saturnalia so slaves still needed to be wary of upsetting their master too much.

Dressing for Saturnalia

As can be expected during important festivals people like to dress up and wear their best clothes and Romans were no different.  During Saturnalia men set aside the toga, their usual garment, in favour of Greek styled clothing.  They also wore a conical cap of felt called the pilleus, which was a token of a freedman.  Even slaves were allowed to wear the pilleus during Saturnalia.

Giving presents during Saturnalia

December the 23rd was known as “The Sigillaria and on this day presents and gifts were given.  Against the spirit of the season the value of gifts given and received was a sign of social status.   These might be candles, items of pottery, wax figurines, writing tablets, combs, lamps and many other such articles. Sometimes bird or animals were given.  The rich sometimes gave a slave or an exotic animal of some kind.  Children were given toys.

The Lord of Misrule

The ruler of Saturnalia and the master of ceremonies was called Saturnalicius princeps and was chosen by lot.  A similar figure is seen in medieval times presiding over the Feast of Fools and was known as the Lord of Misrule.  He would issue absurd and whimsical commands which had to be obeyed, hence creating chaos and (mis)rule and an absurd world.

The influence of Saturnalia on Christmas today

Many historians and scholars see the festival of Saturnalia as being as one of the original sources of many of today’s Christmas practices.   The giving of presents, carol singing, the lighting of candles and the use of evergreen plants for decorations all continue to this day.   The practice of eating and drinking to excess and the carnival atmosphere that prevails over the season are reminiscent of the festival of Saturnalia.

References

BBC – Did the Romans invent Christmas? By Jayne Lutwyche  – BBC Religion and Ethics

Saturnalia – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Public Domain Image – Dice players. Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b) in Pompeii.Author – WolfgangRieger