Friday, 30 April 2010

Skrifenn Deg - Hwedhlow Gwerin 1 - Writing 10 - Folk Tales 1

In this series I will explore a little of the folklore of Cornwall. I am not an expert in folklore, so may miss many things, as I come to it from a modern perspective. Much Cornish folklore was collected from droll-tellers in the 19th century by such men as William Bottrell and Robert Hunt

I will talk a little about giants in the first of these episodes.

In Cornish folklore, it is thought that giants were the original inhabitants of the land. This element is also present in the Brutus myth, where the Trojans under Brutus became the founders of Britain, with each of Brutus' sons inheriting England, Scotland and Wales. However Cornwall fell by lot to another Trojan, Corineus who overcame the giant Gogmagog in personal combat to determine which of the two should be king of Cornwall. I would think that legend reveals something of the way the Cornish were thought as different or foreign to the English in medieval times, since they had a foundation separate to that of England.

The longest tale concerning giants in William Bottrells first volume of Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall is "The Giants of Towednack". It concerns a giant Denbras who lived in the hills of Towednack who was slain by a man called Tom who was himself 8 feet tall (Denbras was 15 feet in height) but said to be not a big man for those times. Tom subsequently goes to live in Denbras' old castle. It was thought that giants had persisted in the hills longest, although they had decreased in stature over the centuries.

One short story concerns a giant who lived in St Michael's Mount, who had a cousin who lived at a castle at Trencrom, some miles away. Nevertheless, they used to throw a hammer back and forth across this distance until the hammer hit and killed the wife of the giant of the Mount. Bottrell's tale interestingly doesn't say what the giant of the Mount thought of this, but that the giant of Trencrom was so overcome by grief that he died, but not before burying his treasure at Trencrom. Many have apparently tried to unearth the treasure, but been deterred by troops of spriggens who scare away the diggers.

Another tale has a giant "Wrath" living near Portreath at "Giant's Zawn". Apparently if any ship or boat from St. Ives came within a mile or so he would wade out to sea, tie the boats to his girdle and draw them into his den, where he would eat the better fed men. Also he would throw rocks in the event of a ship being in too deep water for him to wade out, which now form a dangerous reef extending from Godrevy Head.

What to make of these legends? It is the legend of an earlier age, a different time, populated by a different kind of people. The giants are not uniformly evil, although some were hostile to men, this was not universally true. They are located in the past, and in wild country such as hills. So perhaps they represent nature in some way personified. Where nature was as yet untamed, the giants were said to have persisted to relatively recent times.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Skrifenn Naw - Kernewek Jynn-Amontya 1 - Writing Nine - Computer Cornish 1

I've written a computer program to construct Cornish sentences. Before you ask, it is ethically aware: people cannot be bought, sold or eaten...

Here's a sample output showing a number of different sentence structures:

Piw a ladhas an tas? - Who killed the father?

Piw a welas an diwros na? - Who saw that bicycle?

Yw an chi drog? - Is the house bad?

Yw an pasti kottha? - Is the pasty oldest?

A nyns yw an chi yeyn? - Isn't the house cold?

Yw an lyver an kottha? - Is the book the oldest?

A garas ev onan myrgh drog? - Doesn't he like one bad horse?

A ny brensys jy chi an nowyttha. Didn't they buy the newest house?

Ny wrewgh hwi ladha deg broder kottha. - You didn't kill ten older brothers.

A ny vynnons i gweles diwros drog? - Didn't they see the a bad bicycle?

A vynnsys jy gul gwin an yeynna? - Did you make the coldest wine?

A welons i gwin gans an diwros nowydh? - Did they see wine with the new bicycle?

I a wra gwin. - They make wine.

I a bren pasti bras. - They buy a big pasty.

Ni a wre gweles etek hwoer. - We used to see eighteen sisters.

I a yll gwertha kath berr. - They can sell a short cat.

Ny gar hi seytek hwedhel. - She doesn't like seventeen stories.

Ty a brena pasti yn-dann an karr. - You used to buy a pasty under the car.

Ev a bren gwin war gwin an kottha. - He buys wine on the oldest wine.

Ni a wra ladha ki war ervin. - We kill a dog on turnip.

Hwi a vynna kara bugh war chi nowydh. You used to want to like a cow on the new house.

Ny werthydh jy kath yn-dann kyttrin. You don't sell a cat under a bus.

Ny yllons i prena gerlyver. - They can't buy a dictionary.

Ni a bren hy arghans. - We buy her money.

Hi a wela hy hath lent. - She used to see her slow cat.

Ty a wre gwertha agan jynn-tenna. - You used to sell our tractor.

Ni a vynn prena hy chi berr. - We want to buy her short house.

Ny wredh jy aga arghans. You don't make their money.

Ni a wre aga chi heb an ki. We used to make their house without the dog.

Hwi a brenas dha ji heb myrgh an berra. You bought your house without the shortest horse.

Hwi a allas dybri pasti yn-dann agas hogh. You can eat a pasty under your pig.

Ni a vynn kara kath gans y gi drog. We want to like a cat with his bad dog.

Ny garons i chi gans ow horev. - They don't like a house with my beer.

Ny vynnsons i prena ow fasti. They don't buy my pasty.

An kath a wela arghans. - The cat used to see money

An broder a vynnas kara karr nowyttha. - The brother wanted to love a newer car.

War diwros y pren ev an bugh. On a bicycle he buys a cow.

Yn-dann aval-dor y hwerthas ev arghans. Under potato he sold money.

Hy hogh a garas broder berr. - Her pig liked a short brother.

Hy bugh a ylla kara lyver an nowyttha. - Her cow use to be able to like the newest book.

Ny garas an margh karr byghan. The horse didn't like a small car.

An chi hag a welis vy. - The house that I saw.

An den na ladhens i. - The man they didn't kill.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Skrifenn Eth: Bora gans Golowder - Writing Eight: A Glorious Dawn

Listen to the song here:

I draw attention to the following lyrics:

"The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day venture to the stars

A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise but a galaxyrise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the Milky Way"

This "hymn to science" contains unproven and quite probably untrue statements of faith.

There are probably more, but the one I want to focus on here is the belief in the inevitability of human progress, measured in the range of humanity's expansion.

John Michael Greer in "The Long Descent" calls this the myth of progress, the idea that the present is an improvement on the past and the future will be even better until some Utopia is reached. In this case the utopia is the dawn of interstellar travel. JMG also mentions the myth of apocalypse, the idea that our current civilisation can only end in a sudden and total catastrophe greater than any fall of any civilisation before.

The myth of apocalypse is present in Sagan's world view as the possibility of global nuclear war, which threatens to entirely destroy humanity.

Are the only two possibilities open to humanity ascent to the stars, or total destruction in a nuclear holocaust or grand ecological catastrophe?

The Long Descent's chapter on "The Stories We Tell Ourselves" talks about this issue, as well as presenting us with a third alternative of a long decline, he also write about the fact that many of us in the industrial world have only one story, whereas people in traditional cultures have typically many stories. This one story is generally progress towards some Utopia, either directly or through some grand apocalyptic transition.

As a Christian, I am someone who embraces the grand story of God's relationship with humanity. The story of Christianity is one where peopel are brought into a relationship with God through God's dealings with humanity supremely through the person of Jesus, the ultimate goal of which is a perfect relationship between God and humanity, realised in the new creation. I believe this must be the overarching metanarrative behind my life and understanding of the world.

It is not the only thing that is important in my outlook on the world. I am a scientist (well, an apprentice scientist..) and I think it is one of the great ways God's image is worked out in humanity that we seek to understand the material world for its own sake as well as for practical benefit. It's really what at the end of the day separates us from the animals.

As a Cornishman, I would like to go some way towards understanding the worldview of my ancestors. One way is to read Cornish folk tales. There were a number of these recorded by a William Bottrell mostly in West Penwith in the latter part of the 19th century. They were recorded in English (although there is a single tale in Cornish extant "Jowan Chi an Hordh") but the world they were recorded in was one in which the Cornish language had been natively spoken within a century.

Bottrell's collection speaks of a legendary past where the land was inhabited by giants. Piskies, witches, conjorors and mermaids also feature. Volume one is available online here

One story speaks of a "piskey-led" traveler, who becomes lost in the lanes between St. Ives and Penzance, apparently through the action of piskies. The traveler is a pin-maker from Birmingham who visits St. Ives and gets lost on the way back to Penzance. This story shows the clash of cultures between the country folk and the new emerging industrialism. From the country people's perspective, the idea that one could make a good living from making pins is clearly ludicrous. The first reaction of the country people when hearing a knock on their window late at night is to think it is some sort of spirit.

However, most of the tales are not so concerned with this particular kind of clash of culture, but instead embody a pre-scientific worldview of an enchanted world, one where the existence of spirits of one form or another is taken for granted.

The question is, is the transition from the traditional to the scientific materialist view of the world "progress"? Certainly the scientific materialist worldview has provided much growth in the understanding of the material world and benefited humankind materially. Its downside is the disconnection from ecological realities. No longer inhabiting an enchanted world where non-human but sentient spirits existed, under scientific materialism humanity stood alone in the Universe, standing above and separate from creation, shielded from the realities of being part of natural ecosystems by the use of millions of yearsof stored sunlight.

The Christian worldview acknowledges one God, but the existence of non-human spirits is also affirmed when Jesus is able to heal those who have apparently been demon possessed. Conversely there are also angels. The main difference I can see between this and the Cornish folk-tales is that the Cornish piskies etc. are not necessarily explicitly angels of God nor agents of Satan. The scientific materialist would say that none of these spirits exist, including God himself and that we are no more than animals.

I watched a part of a DVD produced by the Faraday Institute called "Test of Faith" showing scientists who are Christians talking about how their faith interacts with belief. It largely concentrated on the doctrine of creation and how that can be understood in a scientific context. There is much else within Christianity that I think could conflict with the scientific worldview. The resurrection of Christ and of Christians to life in heaven. Revelation and predictive prophecy. Angels, demons and other non-human spirits. The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.

All of the above clearly conflict the strictly materialist brand of the scientific world view. Perhaps the answer to that is that scientific materialism has a series of unproven assumptions, that there are no miracles (exceptions to scientific laws), there is no divine intervention after the creation, there is nothing real other than the material.

The question is, can there be a truly Christian and truly scientific world view and what does that look like?

The view that the Universe is governed by fixed laws is actually one that derives from the Abrahamic faiths through belief in a supreme law-giving God. It can be argued that another set of beliefs, such as the belief in multiple, capricious deities would not lead to the scientific enterprise.

What I am uncomfortable with, is that it appears I must switch between different sets of assumptions when I have my Christian hat on, to when I have my scientist hat on. I study the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies on the assumption that they have evolved from their early state as fluctuations in the density of the early Universe without intervention from beings divine or otherwise. If I were to admit the possibility of exceptions to scientific laws in this context, as I do as a Christian to allow for resurrection and revelation etc. how could I be sure of my findings?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Skrifenn Seyth - Writing Seven

In response to something I mentioned in a comment to the last post, about names starting with Bos- (or it's alternative forms Bod-, Bot- and Boj-) here's a couple of plots showing the relative and absolute numbers of Bos placenames. For some reason Bos placenames seem overwhelmingly favoured in West Penwith, although there's a second concentration further East.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Skrifenn Hwegh - Writing Six

I have made a couple more plots of Cornish placenames, this time as contour plots showing the relative and absolute density of Tre- placenames, interpolated to a 100x100 grid covering Cornwall. The relative density is plotted on the upper plot, the absolute numbers in the lower one.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Skrifenn Pymp - Writing Five

I am settling back into the rhythms of life at uni. I have done a fair amount of work this week, despite the distraction of having relations visiting all week. I am coming closer to being able to reliably measure the metallicity of various populations of stars in M33, and from that hope to write up my research into a paper. Beyond this, a comparison to models of the galaxy concerned may prove fruitful.

I have a memorial service to go to today. This is for the recently deceased former vicar of the church I am a member of. He had been suffering from cancer for 18 months or so. Even with today's medical care, nothing can stop death. I have always assumed I will live into my 80s or 90s. My vicar was 62. There are no guarantees of long life in this world. And as an astronomer I know that even 100 years is the merest blink of an eye in cosmic terms. Some people take comfort from the fact that they will live on in the legacy of their achievements. Even this is a vain hope. We know nothing of most of the individual people who lived 1000 years ago. So what hope is there, humanly speaking if we are honest with ourselves in the fact of death. And is the heaven that Christians believe in mere wishful thinking?

As a Christian, I look to God for answers. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, Jesus' resurrection is the template for the resurrection of all those in Christ. My vicar lived this hope in his life, and held it out to others. To answer the question of whether heaven is wishful thinking, the truth is that the Bible contains warnings of judgement for those who reject Jesus as well as the promise of eternal life for those who trust in him. This if I am honest I find troubling, and I think any Christian who doesn't find this troubling probably hasn't thought about it much. Wishful thinking would be to believe the Bible selectively, keeping those aspects we find comforting and disbeliving or at least downplaying those that we find troubling.

Changing tack, I wonder about cultural death of nations and civilisations. In one sense it is arguable in what sense ancient cultures have died, or whether they have simply changed and evolved. The Roman Empire, although it fell, its legacy lived on in the later European civilisations that were shaped by it and languages descended from Latin continue to be spoken to this day.
Another culture the Cornish, shows great changes over the 2000 years it has been known to exist. From the Cornovii tribe that existed perhaps as a subgroup of the Dumnonii in Roman times, to modern times there is a degree of continuity. But there are great cultural shifts: the transition from paganism to Christianity, then later from Celtic Christianity to the Roman sort as Anglo-Saxon influence grew in the 9th-10th centuries, the slow retreat of the Cornish language from 1000AD onwards, the conflicts in Tudor times resulting in the destruction of Glasney College and the imposition of the English prayer book and the following more rapid decline of the Cornish language, the extinction of the language in the late 18th century, the rise of mining industry, the rise of Methodism, the coming of railways, decline of mining resulting in emigration, the effect of world wars, the dawn of the mass media age, the age of mass motoring, the decline of Christianity, counterurbanisation (Londoners moving down for lifestyle reasons or keeping second homes), the loss of jobs in farming and fishing and mining.

In terms of cultural death, in the sense that the Cornish ethnos is threatened with dissolution into a more homogeneous English or British culture, what promotes it and what may inhibit it? To what extent is a small culture inevitably lost once mass media and mass travel exist?
Cornwall sits uneasily between a regional culture such as Geordie or Yorkshire and a national one such as Welsh, Slovenian or Lithuanian.

The situation of the Cornish is not unique, for example just to pick an example from across Europe the Sorbian people, a small Slavic people whose homeland is in Eastern Germany. They do have an extant language but one that is not spoken by the majority of Sorbians. I don't know to what extent they think of themselves as Sorbian or German and how the identities are in conflict.

The Cornish culture could have disappeared by now, if we had not defended and promoted it. The English language had taken over from Celtic throughout England by 1000AD with the possible exception of Cumbria where a form of Celtic survived for a few more centuries. This had taken about 400 years from the initial Germanic settlement in what is now England. Yet it took another800 to drive the Cornish language from the Tamar to the sea. An accident of geography perhaps? Difficult communication by land versus contact with Brittany by sea. A deliberate movement to preserve Cornish folk culture has existed in various forms from antiquarians who recorded the old language, folklorists in the 19th century, the Old Cornwall Society founded in 1920 and the modern Cornish language revival.

I suspect that without all this, the process of culture death would be complete by now. Even so, there is no room for complacency since the "Cornish culture" is arguably really a subculture since the number of fluent Cornish speakers is under 1000 in a population of half a million and those involved with the revival of Cornish folk music and folk dance are a similarly small minority. The majority are still assimilated to mainstream British or even English culture, whatever that is since the folk cultures of England itself have been greatly eroded by industrialism and its effects.
If industrialism proves to be a temporary state of affairs prompted by easily accessible fossil fuels, many of the trends that threatened Cornish cultural survival in the 19th-early 21st centuries could begin to wane. The task ahead is to continue the Cornish culture that has survived, and pass it on to the post industrial world where it may well flourish.
The predicament of many moderate and large industrial nations, where local folk cultures have been more completely eroded than in Cornwall, may well be worse. Without viable local cultures, what will fill the cultural vacuum once the mass media age draws to a close? Where the indigenous local culture has been destroyed, the new local cultures that eventually emerge may well be derived in large part from the cultures of immigrant communities or subcultures.
Even where cultural death of some sort occurs, there is usually (with the exception of cultures destroyed through genocide) some continuity between one culture and the next. The degree of continuity is variable, and it is difficult to say when a culture is truly dead. For example, when did Cornish culture cease to be and an English regional culture replace it? Some would say that a culture is identical with language and that the Cornish culture died out with it in the 18th century. But that is an oversimplification, culture is about a set of practices, music, art, economic factors like the kinds of employment, a set of attitudes forming a distinct outlook on the world more than whether you speak a Germanic or Celtic language.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Skrifenn Peswar - Writing Four

I am now going to tell you about something I started doing a while ago, over a year ago now, I have done work on it occasionally in time I ought to have been working on my PhD...

This is a study of Cornish placenames, using a database that was published online at There is a list of placenames in that database, which shows the parish it is located in, as well as historical forms for certain names.

I thought it would be a great idea if I could visualise that in some way. For instance what about showing the proportion of placenames that start with Tre- and how that varies across different locations in Cornwall. Tre is a placename element derived from the Cornish language: tre = "homestead" in Cornish.

I found a computer readable map of parish boundaries online, and with a bit of difficulty getting the cornovia parishes to map up with the other databases parishes I came up with this map:
Beyond the fact that Tre- names are rare in the extreme NE and SE of Cornwall (early English settlement displaced the Cornish language at an early date so much so that Cornish language placenames are rare in those regions) I can't really explain the variations that do exist, but still I think this is an interesting map.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Skrifenn Tri

I have managed a little PhD work this afternoon, so I think I have overcome the mental block I had on it while I was at home. I graphed up trends in the "metallicity" of stars in the Triangulum galaxy, I have come to realise that one way of measuring this is practically useless, however another seems to yield useful trends. I really need to compare the results to models of the galaxy.

My Windows 7 installation no longer boots. I run a dual boot system on my desktop with Ubuntu 10.04 and Windows. It used to work fine for a while but when I tried booting into Windows recently it just didn't happen, if Windows 7 is selected it gives me a black screen and a flashing cursor and that's it. At least there is no actual data lost, the Windows partition is still accessible from Linux, the problem is just it doesn't boot. There are a very few programs that I need Windows to run, mostly Paint Shop Pro, AstroArt and MaximDL for image processing.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Skrifenn Dew

A short section in Cornish about the recent Cornish language weekend in Newquay. In Cornish:
An 10ves-11ves Mis Ebrel o an Bennseythun Gernewek. Yth esa moy ages kans den ena, diworth Kernow oll, ha diworth broyow erell. Nebes tus ny wrug dyski Kernewek kyns, nebes tus o Kernowegoryon freth. Yth esa pymp bagasow rag an dyskansow. Yth esov vy yn Bagas Kres. My a wrug tremena apposyans nessa gradh hav yw tremenys. My a esedh tressa gradh an hav ma po hav nessa. Y'n bennseythun, y hwren ni gwari bord-gwari yn Kernewek rag dyski ha gul lavarow ha hwedhlow yn Kernewek. Yth esa bagas donsoryon "Hevva" ena war nos Dy' Sadorn. Oll an dus a wrug kavoes termyn lowen.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Skrifenn Onan - Writing one

I did not know what to call this blog. I thought of "Cornishness and the Ecotechnic Dissensus", "Redbicycle's Ramblings", "The Cornish Astronomer" or "The New Cornwall Society - 'Joining together the fragments and making them live again' "

The title I have chosen is "Skrifennow" meaning "Writings" in Cornish.

There will from time to time be posts in the Cornish language, which is an ancient language centuries older than English spoken in the far south western peninsula of the island of Britain. The Cornish language did out as a native language in the 18th-19th centuries, but enough survived that it could be revived.

Introducing myself, I am a Christian, I am also a PhD student in astronomy at a well known University in Eastern England. I was born and spent all my childhood in Cornwall.

I hope to discuss aspects of what being Cornish means for me, what can be learnt from the history of the Cornish, and what we may have to offer the world as we move towards the future.

I hope to discuss a little of astronomy and how my faith and my studies relate to each other in how they make sense of our place in the Universe.

I am also interested in ecological issues, I have had something of a wake up call in reading the blog "The Archdruid Report" and reading its author John Michael Greer's two books "The Long Descent" and "The Ecotechnic Future".

His central thesis is that the availability of concentrated energy - specifically fossil fuels are what has made the current model of industrial society possible and if taken away would lead to the fall of our current civilisation, which he describes as a form of "human ecology" akin to "pioneer weeds".

He then applies the ecological principle of succession to argue that this primitive inefficient form of the "technic society" will in time - via a number of steps - lead to an "ecotechnic" society akin to an "old growth forest" that uses energy and resources far more efficiently than we do today.