Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns and the Door to the Otherworld in Welsh Folklore

This article was originally posted on the #FolkloreThursday.com as Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: Reflecting on Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns, and the Otherworld by zteve t evans September 28th, 2017.
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Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Welsh Lakes

There are may lakes scattered around Wales, each with their own unique characteristics and history. Many also have the most amazing legends and folklore associated with them, and the purpose of this work is to discuss some of them. This work does not attempt to be academic or scholarly. Instead, it attempts to explore thoughts that are more intuitive and reflective, and hopefully look towards stimulating ideas within the reader to construct their own interpretations of the folk tales and lakes mentioned should they wish to. 

A few things to note: Articles on the following lakes (Lake Bala also known as Llyn Tegid, Llyn Barfog, Kenfig Pool, Llyn Coch or the Red Lake, Llyn Cwm Llwch and Llyn y Fan Fach) all appear on the #FolkloreThursday website and links are placed in this article for easy access to them. The term ‘llyn’ is the Welsh word for ‘lake,’ and they are often used interchangeably. There are also a great many more lakes in Wales than can possibly be mentioned here, and many of them have other folk tales and folklore. Finally, there are many different versions of the same legends, and the ones mentioned here may be different to the ones you know. 

Origin of the Tales

Although only six lakes are discussed, it will be seen that these have a rich heritage in folklore and in some cases share similar stories. In other cases, the stories appear very different though there may be threads that link some together. The age of the tales and folklore is very much open to debate. Many scholars think they date from the Middle Ages but have far older elements built into them. These elements may be of Christian, Celtic, or possibly even older cultures. For example, are the legends of drowned towns and cities distant, faded memories of real towns (or at least settlements) that once existed either alongside or were built over a lake/replaced by a lake in some sudden flooding or disaster? It may that each succeeding human culture altered or added to the stories to reflect their own beliefs and situation, as will be discussed later. There is also a possibility that they were transported to the lakes from outside Wales, perhaps in the early movement of people across Europe from as far away as the Black Sea region.

The Doorway to the Otherworld

The Welsh lakes are often remote and situated on the edge of human society. In some tales they are presented as the doorway to the Otherworld in Welsh folklore, as is the case with the Red Lake, Llyn Cwm Llwch, and Llyn y Fan Fach. The lakes themselves are not the Otherworld, but the portal that is passed through to enter and exit it. The faerie brides, their fathers, and their sisters can pass through and visit earth, and sometimes they bring animals with them. In certain other Welsh fairy tales this occasionally happens to humans, as is the case with Llyn Cwm Llwch where an island of the Otherworld was made available to human visitors every May Day. This privilege was withdrawn after it was abused. For humans who visit the Otherworld or have dealings with it there is often a sad ending. They are often betrayed by their own frailties and, in many ways, it is the human frailties that are explored in the stories referenced here.

The Faerie Bride and the Mirror of Nature

The story of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach also looks at human frailties. In her first appearance at the lakeside, the lady is brushing her long, fair hair with a golden comb and using the lake as a mirror. It is a scene that is reminiscent of descriptions of mermaids on the seashore. Yet she is not half fish as a mermaid is, and is not really human either and this is not by the seashore. Neither is the female in the story of the Bride of the Red Lake. Both are unmistakably not human and appear to be more of a mere-maid, possibly of the Gwragedd Annwn, the female dwellers of the Otherworld of Annwn who according to Welsh folklore also appear from Llyn Barfog.

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A Tale of Three Rivers: The Ystwyth, the Severn and the Wye

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Richard Webb [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many legends and myths that explain how different British rivers originated. Many of these have been influenced by pagan beliefs and the worship of water goddesses, spirits or nymphs and have distinct Celtic connections.   This work looks at a legend that tells how the three British rivers known today as the Ystwyth, Severn and Wye  had their beginnings on the flanks of Mount Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales.   It gives an explanation of how they formed and found their way to the sea to become part of the great rain cycle that brings growth and nourishment to the land and its inhabitants. The work presented here draws from more than one source and owes much to Pollyanna Jones and Bill Gwilliam.

The Sleeping Giant

The story begins on Plynlimon which is a massif that is the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains and the highest point in Mid Wales.  Underneath the massif there was said to be a sleeping giant.  This giant had three daughters who were Niskai in Celtic mythology, sometimes known as water goddesses or nymphs.  There names were Ystwyth, Hafren and Gwy.

Although the giant slept he watched over his daughters in his slumber seeing them grow safely from the rain and the mountain mist that settled upon the mountain sides.  He watched the raindrops form puddles which formed pools which joined together to form little rivulets that trickled gently down the mountain.   In his dreams, he looked upon them and saw the energy that was brimming up inside of them ready to overflow and gush forth and he knew their time had come.

The Giant Awakes

Waking from his slumber he called them to him and told them,  “The time has come when you should fulfill your destiny and join with the sea.” And then he asked, “How will you fulfill your destiny?”

Being water nymphs they greatly desired to visit the ocean and to explore the great and mysterious region of the Celtic Sea and the wonders that lay beyond. It is very often the case with sisters that each will have different personalities and strong characteristics and express their individuality in different ways.  The choice each sister would make for themselves would be an expression of their unique personalities and individuality.

Ystwyth’s Choice

 

Ystwyth, was the smallest and was always in a hurry and made decisions and accomplished tasks in great haste.   As might be expected she quickly made up her mind that she would join the sea by the quickest and shortest route.  Stepping forward  she told her father, “I long to see the sea, to smell the salt air and see the sun rise and set over its wide waters.   I would go west by the shortest and the quickest route I can find to the sea to fulfill my destiny.”

“Then goodbye and go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”  her father said, kissing and her embracing her.   Saying her goodbyes to her sisters she skipped and danced down the mountainside, drawing strength and speed from the small brooks and streams from her father’s side and flowed westerly, sparkling and shimmering through the land of Wales reaching the sea much faster than her two sisters ever would.  The people who lived in the lands she flowed through called her the River Ystwyth and she arrived at the sea fulfilling her destiny at a place now called Aberystwyth that was named after her.

Hafren’s Choice

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River Severn in Shrewsbury – By The original uploader was Chrisbayley at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then Hafren stepped forward.  She said she was in no great hurry and wanted to take a good look at the countryside and to see the cities of humans and flow through their kingdoms.  She told her father, “I would choose to roam over the land taking the long way to the sea.  Then I could meet other waters of the land and learn the wisdom of the earth.   I would wander through the great cities, the beautiful towns and the villages of the fair people and learn what I could of their ways before I rendezvous with my sisters in the sea.  I have no need for haste and wish to learn and take my time. On my way, I will water and nourish the meadows of those fair folk but woe betide them should they abuse my good nature.  This is how I want to fulfill my destiny.”

Then her father kissed and embraced her and said, “Then go now and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

Saying goodbye to her remaining sister,  she did exactly as she said she would.  She took her time and wandered through the landscape visiting some of the wonderful cities, towns, and villages along the way before she eventually joined with the Celtic Sea.  Her flow became known as the River Severn that glides serenely through the land to join the sea in the Bristol Channel.  True to her word those who abused her by setting their buildings and homes too close to her banks, or by invading her water pastures caused her to rise up and inundate them but she fulfills her destiny as she should.

Gwy’s Choice

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Jonathan Billinger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The giant turned to his last daughter, Gwy as she watched her two sisters go their separate ways saying, “And now it’s your turn.  What direction do you choose for yourself?”

Gwy was not in such a hurry as Ystwyth and unlike Hafren who yearned for knowledge she was more inclined towards beauty.  She decided she would like to visit some of the beautiful countryside before she joined with the sea.  She stepped forward and kissed her father saying, “Ystywyth is in a hurry to join the sea.  Hafren seeks knowledge and experience. Beauty and harmony with nature are what I seek.  I will seek a way to the sea through the valleys and forests and all creatures shall find in my flow a place of peace and fulfillment and a sanctuary where their needs shall be met.  I will bring happiness and tranquility where ever I go.”

Her father smiled kissed and embraced his daughter and said, “Goodbye.  Go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

So Gwy flowed down the mountain and happily wandered through the valleys and the forests visiting the prettiest of the countryside before she eventually joined with the sea.  Gwy would become known by the people who lived along her flow as the River Wye and join up with her sister Hafren at a place now known as the Severn Estuary.  No doubt as the two sisters continued their journey through the Bristol Channel they found much to talk about together and to tell their hasty sister Ystwyth when they finally all met up again in the Celtic Sea.

The Giant Sleeps

The giant, although he knew he would miss his daughters, was happy because he knew they were fulfilling their destiny in the great scheme of things.  He had watched for time untold as they had been born from the Welsh mists and rain that often covered the mountainsides forming droplets on plants and rocks which collected together to form puddles. These would eventual gather moss and became pools ready to overflow into brooks and streams that would join together to flow over the land to the sea.

He was not sad because he knew that in the great cycle his daughters would return and visit him riding in the clouds that formed high above the ocean.  They would then be blown across the sea to the land to fall as rain on the mountainside.  They would stay for a time before once again making their way to the sea.  And so the great cycle would continue bringing nourishment and life to the land and all living things that dwell upon it.  Feeling satisfied that all was as it should be the giant went to sleep.

© 14/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 14th, 2018 zteve t evans

Welsh Folklore: The Legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com August 17th, 2017 as Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: The Legend and Legacy of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach by zteve t evans

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Llyn y Fan Fach by Rudi Winter [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In Wales, legends of encounters with the Otherworld are never far away. One such legend is associated with Llyn y Fan Fach, a lake located on the northern side of the Black Mountain in Carmarthenshire. This legend is also known as The Lady of the Lake, but it is not related to the Arthurian character of the Lady of the Lake. In this legend, the Lady is found living in the lake by a farmer, who falls in love with and marries her. They live in happiness for a time until she is forced to return to her own world, taking all that she brought with her, but leaving a remarkable legacy on earth to benefit humankind.

Gwyn the Farmer

The story begins with Gwyn, who lived with his mother on a nearby farm. One of his tasks was to lead the cattle to pasture, and one of his favourite places was Llyn y Fan Fach. His mother would pack him a basket of barley bread and cheese, which he gratefully ate while gazing dreamily at the reflections in the lake as he sat on its shore.

The Lady of the Lake

One day, as he arrived with his cattle, he was surprised to see the figure of a fair lady sat on a rock on the opposite shore. She appeared to be brushing her long hair with a golden comb, using the calm, unruffled surface of the lake as a mirror. He had never seen a woman so beautiful, and he found he was unconsciously holding out the barley bread and cheese his mother had packed for him to her. Seeing Gwyn, the lady stopped combing her hair and moved gracefully over the water towards him to see what he was offering. Seeing the barley bread and cheese, she laughed, shook her head and said:

“O thou of the crimped bread, it is not easy to catch me!”

Then she dived under the water and was gone.

Gwyn went home, but could not get the lovely lady out of his mind. He told his mother what he had seen and of the strange thing she had said before she dived below the water. As the lady had shown no interest in the hard-baked barley bread, his mother suggested he take an unbaked loaf to tempt her. Before sunrise next morning, Gwyn set out for the lake with an unbaked loaf of barley bread and some cheese. Finding a comfortable spot by the water’s edge, he settled down to watch the lake in the hope of seeing the mysterious Lady of the Lake again.

As the sun rose and the mists evaporated, he eagerly scanned the lake. However, by midday he had seen no sign of her. By late afternoon, he had still not seen her and began to despair. As he turned for home, sunlight rippling on a part of the lake caught his attention and the lady appeared in all her loveliness. Speechless in wonder, he offered her the unbaked bread he held in his trembling hand. She looked at the offering and laughed, her eyes sparkling, and said:

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Welsh Folklore: Llyn Cwm Llwch, the Invisible Island of the Tylwyth Teg and other Legends

This work was originally posted on the website of #FolkloreThursday 29th June 2017 titled:  Welsh Lake Legends and Folklore: Llyn Cwm Llwch and the Door of the Tylwyth Teg  by zteve t evans

Llyn Cwm Llwch is a small Welsh lake that is situated in the Brecon Beacons of Powys. It is associated with some rather strange legends and folklore, three of which I will discuss. The first of these legends involves a dangerous old woman. The second involves the Tylwyth Teg and an invisible island, and the third tells how an attempt to drain the lake was prevented by some kind of otherworldly guardian who appeared from the lake. He issued a warning, mysteriously invoking the token of the cat as evidence of his powers which told a rather peculiar story about the drowning of an unfortunate feline.

The Old Woman of Llyn Cwm Llwch

The old woman of the lake was said to prey upon those who were weak-minded, or who had a trusting nature and were easily led such as children. The legend tells that she used music to gain the attention of her victims and to lure them into the water where they were drowned. It may be that she was the Welsh equivalent of Jenny Greenteeth, who appears in English folklore as some kind of dangerous water hag. She may also have been and invention to deter children from playing around the edge of the lake. Whatever she was, her evil ways were motivated by her ambition to regain the beauty of her youth and to gain immortality. Apparently this could only be achieved by luring nine hundred victims into the lake to their deaths.

The Door of the Tylwyth Teg

According to local legend, the lake was the abode of the Tylwyth Teg, or the Fair Folk, who had a garden on an invisible island in the lake. On May Day every year, it was said that a doorway would appear in a rock by the lakeside. Those humans who were bold enough could pass through it into a passage, which would take them into an enchanted garden situated on the island in the lake. Although visitors to the island could clearly see the shores of the lake, the island and the garden were not visible from the lake’s shore.

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Welsh Folklore: Llyn Barfog and the Female Dwellers of Annwn and the Legend of King Arthur and the Afanc

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on July 20th titled Welsh Lake Legends and Folklore: Llyn Barfog, the Female Dwellers of Annwn and King Arthur and the Afanc by zteve t evans

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Lyn Barfog by andy [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In Wales, legends and folklore of King Arthur and the Otherworld are never far away, and lakes are often the settings for such stories. One such lake is Llyn Barfog, which is also known as the ‘Bearded Lake’ or the ‘Bearded One’s Lake,’ and is situated in a remote and lonely spot in Snowdonia. Some say it got its epitaph from the yellow water lilies that float upon its surface, or the reeds that fringe its banks. Another explanation says that it is named after a legendary being called the Bearded One. Who the Bearded One was remains a mystery, but there are two other legends associated with the lake that more are known about and are presented here. The first tells how a poor farmer came across one of the milk white cows owned by the dwellers from the Otherworld, and the second tells of how King Arthur rid the lake of a monster called the Afanc.

Doorways to  Annwn

In Welsh mythology and tradition, many of the Welsh lakes are regarded as doorways to and from Annwn, or the Otherworld. Many people believed the lakes to be connected to one another by underground rivers or subterranean ways that made them one vast underworld. There are examples of inhabitants of the Otherworld appearing from some of these lakes, such as the faerie brides of Llyn y Fan Fach and Llyn Coch, to spend time on Earth and then return to their own world. Llyn Barfog appears to be one of many such lakes in Welsh folklore, where the dwellers of Annwn have entry and exit to the earthly world.

The Gwragedd Annwn

This legend tells how Llyn Barfog is associated with mythical beings called the Gwragedd Annwn, also known as the Elphin Dames, who were female dwellers of Annwn. At times, these could be seen in the distance on the hills and mountain tops. They were often accompanied by pure white dogs, known as the Cwn Annwn, and were either driving or tending a herd of milk-white cattle known as the Gwartheg Y Llyn. Both the dogs and the cattle were said to have had reddish-coloured ears and white coats.

The local people all knew about them. They had often seen them from afar for fleeting moments before they would vanish, and few had ever seen them up close. They realised they were the Gwragedd Annwn, who lived under the hills and lakes of Wales, and steered clear of them. The males were the Plant Annwn, and were often associated with Gwynn ap Nudd who was their lord.

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Welsh Folklore: The Legend of the Drowned Town of Kenfig Pool

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on May 25th, 2017, titled Welsh Lake Legends and Folklore: The Drowned Town of Kenfig by zteve t evans.

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Kenfig Pool by Nigel Homer [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Many Welsh lakes have legends and myths connected to them, and Kenfig Pool is no exception having associations with a legendary drowned town under the lake and a real town buried under sand nearby.  Situated near Porthcawl, Bridgend in Glamorgan, Wales, it is also known as Pwll Cynffig. There has been a human settlement in this area at least since the Bronze Age, and perhaps because of this long history it is steeped in legend and folklore from many ages. One of the most mysterious is the legend of a drowned town under Kenfig Pool and, adding to the mystique and romance, there was also a real town of Kenfig. This town was abandoned after being completely covered by the shifting sands of a massive dune system which once ran along the Welsh shoreline.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the legendary town supposedly submerged under Kenfig Pool. First, a description of the abandoned town of Kenfig which was known to exist will be provided. This will be followed by a discussion of how Kenfig Pool was thought to have formed, and then the legend that tells the story of the drowned town will be presented and the conclusion will offer a few thoughts to ponder.

The Drowning of the Legendary Town of Kenfig

According to local tradition, the lord of Kenfig had a daughter who fell in love with a young local man of low birth and no money. Still, they say love is blind and the couple wanted to marry. Love may be blind, but the girl’s father was not impressed by the lowly social status and lack of money of his daughter’s suitor, so he ruled against the marriage. He told the couple in no uncertain terms that the young man was not a suitable partner.  Filled with despair, the young man decided that the only chance he had of marrying his true love was to leave Kenfig and strike out to another town in the hope of finding or making his fortune. After discussing his plan with his lover, it was reluctantly agreed and he set off alone to find his fortune.

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Welsh Folkore and Legend: The Church of the White Stag

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Llangar Church – Phot by Eirian Evans – CC BY-SA 2.0 – from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Church of All Saints Old Parish, Llangar

Along the banks where the River Dee flows through Denbighshire, not far from Corwen, the Church of All Saints Old Parish  sits in a pleasant position on the east bank near where the  Dee and the River Alwen join together.  The church was first mentioned in documents in 1291 and has a wealth of interesting ancient features with many ancient beams and box pews. The church is decorated with wall paintings dating from the 15th to 18th centuries of a deer, a figure of Death, to remind us of our mortality, the Apostles’ Creed and the Seven Deadly Sins and other depictions created at various points in time.  There is also a rather interesting legend attached to the church which may have a message for people to think about, though this depends on one’s own point of view.  First of all, we will briefly discuss the wall paintings of The Seven Deadly Sins and Death followed by a look at the legend.   We will then conclude by offering a few ideas for the reader to think about and make up their own minds over.

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