by Andy Norfolk
Outside the sun is roaring brassy waves of burning heat. The ground is dried out and cracked. The streams trickle quietly and modestly. The grass is brown and withered. The leaves of the trees and bushes are limp and dull with dust. This is Cornwall in high, and I have to admit unusually dry, summer. Down here it is totally dark, black as a dog's guts. There is not a spark of light and the air is humid and still. It is completely quiet, except for the sound of the occasional drip of water beading on the stones all around, and the sound of my breathing and the thrumming of my pulse. No, I'm not digging a tunnel to protest against a proposed road. I'm in a fogou, apparently with no-one else about, except the spiders and maybe a toad, but the spirits often crowd close.
The word ‘fogou’, pronounced foogoo, comes from the Cornish word for a cave. They have been known in dialect as vugs, vows, foggos, giants holts - and my favourite - fuggy holes.
A fogou is an archaeological hole in the ground dating from between about 500BCE to 500CE. This means that they really are Celtic, unlike the older standing stones and stone circles and so their construction could have some connection with the occasional druid.
Fogous are only found in the south western tip of Cornwall - they are not the same as the souterrains found in Ireland, Scotland and Brittany. They are always found in association with a settlement or defensive earthwork. There are only 11 definite fogous left, with a further 26 possible fogous. There are another 25 sites which now regarded as unlikely to be fogous. Very many of the historically recorded fogous were destroyed a very long time ago, often it seems because they were a convenient source of building stone.
The main feature of a fogou is a long roofed passage, which is usually slightly curved, and is partially or completely underground. The passage is usually about 1.8 to 2m high and 1.5 to 1.8m wide and 9 to 12m long. The sides are of coursed dry- stone walling with the largest stones at the tops and the roof is made of large stone slabs. Fogous also often have low and narrow side passages and there is evidence in some that they could be sealed off from the outside world. There was only one entrance, usually through a small "creep" passage, but always through a tiny stone-framed door-way. The original entrance to Halligye fogou is only 60cms high by 40cms wide. Similar tiny doorways are often found elsewhere within a fogou. For example giving access to a small cramped side chamber. There may also be low stones across the passages which can trip the unwary.
Most archaeologists used to claim, and some still do, that these sites were for refuge, when the village was under attack, or for storage. Ritual use was usually disregarded. There is evidence of the use of souterrains as refuges, but these had ventilation holes, multiple entrances, pitfall traps and various other defensive features. Fogous would probably always have been relatively obvious structures and thus easy to find. They had no concealed ventilation shafts, or alternative exits, no traps and would have been death traps not refuges. Their use for storage is equally implausible because they are damp inside. With only one entrance there would have been no through-draft and things quickly go mouldy in misty Cornwall. It would also have been difficult to get anything in and out of the fogou through the tiny entrances. It makes no sense to me to build a fairly large space for storage implying you intended to keep a lot goods there and then only provide an entrance through which it would be difficult to carry objects much larger than a small sack.
A most important feature is that the main passages of the remaining fogous, not the entrances, are astronomically aligned. The northern ends of most of these fogous are aligned to the rising of the midsummer sun although two are aligned to midsummer sunset. The southern ends of the main passages are mostly aligned to the setting of the midwinter sun. Some writers have got a bit carried away talking about the rays of the masculine sun thrusting into the womb-like space of the fogou in the body of the Earth Goddess. It has also been pointed out that the gentle curve of the main passage could be regarded as phallic. However, fertilisation of the earth by the sun may have been purely symbolic, there is no evidence that the sun could actually shine into the fogous when they were first constructed. Whilst it is possible that there could have been a slot, like the one at Newgrange, designed to let the light in, there is no archaeological evidence for this. These alignments also correspond to the direction of the thin lodes of tin and copper ore in the areas where the fogous are found.
It has been argued eloquently by Ian Cooke in ‘Mother and Son’, his splendid book on fogous, that they were built as ritual sites. He points out the symbolism of the sun's rays fertilising the Earth Mother and also suggests that they may have been connected with a metal cult. This could have been to propitiate the Earth for mining ores or to encourage the ‘growth’ of more tin and copper lodes, rather than the more usual idea of promoting the fertility of crops and livestock .
Ronald Hutton says in ‘Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles’ that fogous could not have been shrines because ‘they are too large to be used for individual worship or vigil and mostly too narrow for assemblies. They do not seem to resonate impressively, were not burial places and almost always have ceilings too low to permit human beings to stand up’. This is all incorrect. Boleigh Fogou and others are regularly used now for individual vigils and ritual assemblies. I am over six feet tall and have stood upright in several fogous with groups of up to 35 other people. They do resonate very well to chanting at various frequencies and I know from wonderful first hand experience how impressively the tiny chamber at the end of Halligye Fogou resonates to a didgeridoo. There are of course plenty of examples of ancient shrines which were never used for burials.
Fogous appear frequently in Cornish folklore. In some cases they were reputed to be the haunt of malevolent spirits guarding treasure. People ran from Treveneague Fogou, convinced they had heard the piskies. Others came out of Pendeen Fogou terrified, but ‘refused to tell the cause of their terror’. The passages were supposed to very long, often extending miles under land and sea, with many side tunnels. They were the site of secret gatherings. In one tale Boleigh Fogou is where a coven of witches were seen dancing with the devil by a squire who had chased a hare for miles underground! But the roof was supposed to fall and crush you if you stayed in there too long. At Pendeen fogou a woman dressed all in white appears at the entrance on Christmas morning with a red rose in her mouth.
There are regular contemporary reports of people having unusual experiences in fogous. These include, for example, hearing inner voices giving guidance, ‘seeing’ guardian spirits, female figures, fire, laying out of the dead with flowers, entombment in preparation for rebirth and a wedding in bright sunlight. One woman went to visit Boleigh Fogou having heard a lot about it and came away puzzled because she found it blocked by huge stones - which don't exist. Several people have developed extreme head- aches,as if a band was being tightened around the skull, with accompanying dizzyness and an awareness of a spiral energy. Others have felt as if they were in a huge space extending for miles rather than in a relatively enclosed space. Some visiting Amerindians told Jo May, who owns Boleigh Fogou, that it was very like a Pueblo Indian kiva, a ritual chamber. He spent the night there for the first time, at their suggestion, and reported having seen spirallic filaments of light, a sort of star soup. I have ‘seen’ Halligye Fogou slowly fill up with a milky white light which flowed in between the stones, (amongst other odd experiences at these sites). A woman sketching at Carn Euny became aware of a woman watching her - not so unusual? - except that the woman was one of the original occupants of the Iron-age village.
The case for these wonderful places having been ritual sites is greatly strengthened, in my opinion, by the sort of experiences I have just described. One other feature of fogous is that those that have been tested have radiation levels of approximately twice the natural background levels - and these can be quite high in Cornwall with all our radioactive granite. There is some evidence that when we experience variations in electromagnetic radiation we are directly affected in a way which promotes psychic experiences. Most of the evidence relates to local variations in the earth's magnetic field which directly affects the pineal gland. However, the radiation found at sites such as dolmens, holy wells and fogous is just another part of the electromagnetic spectrum and might produce similar effects. I don't know if the geomagnetic field at fogous is unusual, but it may also be a factor in triggering visionary experiences.
Like all other ancient sites they have been affected by past destruction and are still in danger from misuse and neglect. Some of the fogous appear to have been deliberately made unusable by the contemporary people at the end of their period of use. Much more recently English Heritage have provoked hostile reactions by recently filling-in Chysauster Fogou rather than repairing it. They also roofed over the 4.5m diameter circular chamber which is attached to Carn Euny Fogou which upset some people. In fact it has made this feature much more private and weather-proof which has encouraged its use for rituals. There is an open grating in the centre of the roof which enables fires to be lit here. Previous excavations beginning with William Copeland Borlase's efforts in 1863 have removed everything of interest from the floor of this feature so the fires probably do little damage.
The fashion for leaving offerings has lead to all sorts of things being left inside many fogous, although most of those that I have seen have been just flowers, feathers and pebbles. These sorts of offerings aren't likely to upset anyone I hope. Because they are dark places people inevitably use candles. This is perhaps more of a problem, not in this case because of possible damage to the stones, but because of potential damage to mosses and lichens which are a beautiful feature of those parts of the passages which get some light. Halligye Fogou is used as a roost by hibernating Greater Horseshoe Bats and because of this it is closed over winter. Some ignorant people tear down the hoardings to get in which probably doesn't help the bats, but has so far done no significant damage to the original structure.
Pendeen Fogou suffers from being beside a working farm, sometimes cattle slurry ends up inside. I'm sure this is almost inevitable given its location. Just a fragment remains of Lower Boscaswell Fogou, which has the distinction of probably having been used by people from the nudist colony which was nearby in the 1920s. When I saw it in summer '97 there was evidence that it was being used by someone sleeping rough with the possibility of it being further damaged by efforts to make it more weather-proof. The efforts that we are making in Cornwall to protect our local sacred sites will of course include the fogous.
• Ian McNeil Cooke, Mother and Son, the Cornish Fogou 1993
• Serena Roney-Dougal, Where Science and Magic Meet 1991
• Cheryl Straffon, Pagan Cornwall, Land of the Goddess 1993 and The Earth Mysteries Guide to West Penwith 1992
• Cheryl also edits Meyn Mamvro, the Cornish earth mysteries magazine which has featured many articles on fogous.