A correspondent of Notes and Queries in 1853 drew attention to the apparent survival around Marazion of a very ancient belief. He notes that, in Don Quixote (1604–15), Cervantes mentions an English tradition that King Arthur did not die, but by magic art was turned into a raven, and would reign again, ‘for which reason it cannot be proved that, from that time to this, any Englishman has killed a raven’.
The contributor, Edgar MacCulloch, goes on to say that, about sixty years before, his father had been about to shoot a raven on Marazion Green when an old man rebuked him, ‘telling him that he ought on no account to have shot at a raven, for that King Arthur was still alive in the form of that bird’.
Robert Hunt in 1865 reported asking about this belief and being told ‘that bad luck would follow the man who killed a Chough, for Arthur was transformed into one of these birds’. Ravens and choughs are both corvids, as is the bird named in what was probably Cervantes’ source, Julian del Castillo, who in 1582 reported that, according to common talk, King Arthur had been enchanted into a crow.
Underlying this legend is belief in metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, which survived in Western Europe into the early twentieth century and perhaps is not quite dead. Sailors and fishermen in particular held that the souls of drowned comrades might be embodied in storm petrels and gulls, and English miners held a similar belief: the ‘Seven Whistlers’ are reported as giving warning by their eerie call of impending danger in the mines, and have been explained as the spirits of comrades returning in bird form to alert their fellows. Other traditions, however, place them in the context of the Wild Hunt (see PETERBOROUGH, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough).