Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Druid's Cup of Rillaton, Cornwall

The past is a living thing in Cornwall. Each village hands on its stories about the past and about local characters. Some of these tales can be traced through the written record to real people and real events. But a few rely entirely on local hearsay handed down from generation to generation - what ethnologists call “folk memory”. Inevitably the facts can sometimes get jumbled up, different stories get merged together and bits forgotten. But for a good deal of this mysterious history there does seem to have been some element of fact that started the stories off in the first place.

Take, for instance, the legend of the Druid’s Cup of Rillaton. According to this tale a druid used to live by the Cheesewring, a megalithic standing stone high on Bodmin Moor. He was in the habit of sitting in a stone formation dubbed the Druid’s Chair in order to pass judgement on those who came to him to consult his learning and wisdom. He also had a fabulous golden cup, which had the magical property that it could never be drunk dry. Into this the druid would put a magical potion that restored and revived anyone who drank it. Travellers and hunters alike made a point of stopping at the Druid’s Chair to take refreshment.

One fateful day a party of hunters from Trewortha were having a terrible day up on Bodmin Moor, not having caught a thing by the time dusk began to close in. Tired and dispirited they decided to head for the Cheesewring to sup from the Druid’s cup. One of the hunters declared that he was so thirsty that he would drain the cup dry. His companions, who knew better, jeered at him.

When the hunting party approached the druid, he offered them his cup and each man drank his fill before passing it on. When the man who had boasted he would drain it got hold of the cup, he tipped it back and gulped down the potion in vast quantities. No matter how much he drank, the cup was always about half full when he took it from his lips. Finally bloated beyond comfort, the man lost his temper. He hurled the contents of the golden cup into the face of the druid, then rode of brandishing the cup over his head and shouting back insults.

The rider did not get far. His horse bolted, then threw him as it stumbled over rocks. The man fell awkwardly, breaking his neck and being killed instantly. The hunting party found him dead and cold next morning. They retrieved the cup and carried it back to the Cheesewring, but the druid had gone and was never seen again. Nobody wanted to keep the cup, so it was buried with the thief beneath a pile of stones where the horse had thrown him. That mound of rocks was covered with turf and so became Rillaton Barrow.

In 1818 a group of antiquarians, as the amateur archaeologists of the time were called, decided to open Rillaton Barrow to see what it contained. They found that it was a typical chambered burial mound of the Bronze Age. Inside was the body of a man who had been buried with spear, shield and with a gold cup. This beautiful little beaker was presented to the Prince Regent and remained in the possession of the Royal Family until the 1920s when King George V presented it to the British Museum, where it remains to this day.

The story of the huntsman buried with a golden cup would seem to have been borne out by the discovery of the gold cup inside the barrow. Presumably the dead man was a local lord or warrior who had been buried with his possessions some 3,000 years ago. Although his existence would seem to have been remembered across all these generations, the rest of the story with its magical potions and druids cannot be part of the original account.

Not only is the fully developed story more akin to a tale about fairies than real life, but the elements don’t fit together. The druids did not appear in Britain until some 750 years after the dead man and his cup were buried in the Rillaton Barrow. There is no evidence, apart from this tale, that any druid ever sat on the Druid’s Chair nor that one had anything to do with the Cheesewring. In fact the story has some marked similarities to tales about the theft of magical items from their owners that are told elsewhere, except that those stories usually feature fairies, not druids. It seems likely that the original story featured a fairy, but that this was transformed into a druid when the story was linked to the Cheesewring.

It is unfortunate that the earliest written record of this legend dates back to a few years after the barrow was excavated. There must therefore be the suspicion that the legend was invented to explain the cup. This, however, cannot be proved. Certainly the man who collected the story, the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, was convinced that the story had been current before the excavation. He was there and we are not, so there seems no real reason to disbelieve him.

This is an extract from Mysterious Cornwall by Rupert Matthews. To learn more and order your copy of the book at a discounted price CLICK HERE.

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