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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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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Mexican Folklore: The Legends of Popocatepetl & Iztaccíhuatl

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Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl By AlejandroLinaresGarcia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl are two active volcanoes in Mexico that overlook Mexico City one of the great cities of the world.  They are associated with many myths and folktales and there is also a romantic legend from the Aztec period that attempts to explain their origin.

The Aztec empire began as Triple Alliance of city states in the Valley of Mexico.  These city states were Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan with Tenochtitlan eventually becoming the dominant military power.  The Valley of Mexico is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that are part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt.  Naturally, with such dominant and dramatic features in the landscape the volcanoes became the subject of many myths and legends and the following two folktales give accounts of how the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl originated and were named.

Princess Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl

The first tells how the Aztec Emperor had a daughter named Princess Iztaccihuatl who was a very attractive woman.  Her beauty and her social position as the emperor’s daughter encouraged many rich and powerful men to seek her hand in marriage.  Although she was spoilt for choice her favourite and the one she gave her heart to was an Aztec warrior named Popocatepetl and he in return gave his to her.

As is often the case the rulers of empires and nations need to impose taxes on their citizens and subjective people to pay for state functions, services and for many other reasons.  Unfortunately taxes are never popular with those who have to pay them and the Aztec taxes were particularly oppressive.  One of the victims of these taxes were the Tlaxcaltecas people who had no love for the Aztecs in the first place and they rebelled refusing to pay.

The Emperor decided that he would send his army to put down the Tlaxcaltecas rebellion and Popocatepetl was chosen to lead it.  Before he left for war Popocatepetl asked the emperor his permission to wed his daughter.  The Emperor agreed but only if Popocatepetl returned victorious and only then would there be a big wedding and celebration.

Popocatepetl readily agreed and prepared the army for war.  Before he left he promised Princess Iztaccihuatl that he would return victorious and there would be a great wedding and victory celebration. Princess Iztaccihuatl did not want him to go to war but she agreed to keep herself for him until the day of his return when they would consummate their love.  Popocatepetl kept this promise safe, deep within his heart looking forward to the day of his return.

Popocatepetl had many rivals who were jealous of his prowess as a warrior and for his place in the heart of Princess Iztaccihuatl and one of these was named Tlaxcala.  One day while the war was being fought Tlaxcala went to her and told her that Popocatepetl had been killed in battle.  Naturally, Princess Iztaccihuatl could not imagine that anyone would tell such a terrible lie and believed him.   Devastated with grief for the loss of her loved one she could not eat or drink thereafter and slowly wasted away and died.

Meanwhile, the war with the Tlaxcaltecas people was proving to be a long and bloody campaign. Although Popocatepetl led his warriors bravely and skilfully it took a long time to subdue the rebellion and no news came to him of the tragic death of his beloved.  Eventually, he gained victory and returned in triumph looking forward to his marriage to Princess Iztaccihuatl and to consummate his love with her.   When her father told him of her terrible death he was overcome with grief.   Darkness fell upon him and he went from the palace and wandered through the streets in black despair for several days.  At last he decided he would do something to honour her and make sure the memory of her would last forever and vowed to create an eternal monument to her.

He piled ten hills on top of each other to create one huge mountain that rested under the sun.  Then tenderly lifting the body of the princess he carried her up the mountain and gently laid her down.  He bent and kissed her lips then raised a torch and knelt before his love keeping an undying watch over her everlasting slumber.  There the two lovers became transformed through the ages into two magnificent volcanoes that look out over Mexico City today and this is how Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl will remain until world’s end and the final judgement is cast.

According to the legend there are times when Popocatepetl yearns to hold his beloved again.  They say his heart still carries the eternal passion he held for her and every now and then it bursts free with smoke and flame.  The legend also tells how the liar Tlaxcala repented of his evil deed and wandered off and died nearby.  Over time his body became the volcano called Pico de Orizaba who now watches from afar the dreaming of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, knowing they can never again be separated.

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Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl By AntoFran (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Náhuas Legend

Probably the best known version of the story of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl is the Nahuas legend.  This tells that many years before the arrival of Cortes and his Spanish conquistadores there was once an Aztec Emperor who was much loved by all of his people.  The Emperor and his wife had no children and they desperately wanted a baby and so did the people so that their line would continue.  One day with joy in her eyes the empress went to see her husband and told him that she was with child.  The Emperor was overjoyed and in due course his wife gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The happy couple named their daughter Iztaccíhuatl which in their language meant white lady.  The people were also delighted with her birth and loved her greatly.

As she grew up Iztaccíhuatl was taught all of the things that were appropriate, important and necessary for a daughter of the Aztec rulers to learn.  In this way her parents prepared her to rule when they had passed on.   Being young and beautiful and an Aztec princess she had many suitors but she fell in love with a young warrior chief of her people named Popocatepetl.

One day Popocatepetl was sent to fight a war by the Emperor who promised him that if he could bring back the head of his enemy he would give him permission to marry Iztaccihuatl.  Popocatepetl vowed he would do this and motivated by the thought of marriage to Iztaccihuatl went off to war.  The war turned out to be a long and bloody struggle that was waged for several months.  One of his rivals sent a message to the emperor saying that Popocatepetl had been killed in battle.   When the Emperor told Iztaccihuatl she became inconsolable with grief and sorrow and fell into a black depression.  She spent days on end crying and would not eat or drink and eventually died of broken heart.

However, Popocatepetl was still very much alive and eventually  triumphed and returned to the emperor with his enemy’s head in triumph expecting to marry Iztaccihuatl.  He was shocked to find that the funeral of Iztaccihuatl was underway and when the Emperor told him that she had died after being told by another warrior of his supposed death, he was devastated.

Popocatepetl took the body of Iztaccihuatl and carried it for many miles and then ordered his warriors to build a funeral table for her to rest upon.  This was done and the table was decorated with many beautiful flowers and Popocatepetl gently laid the body of his love upon the table.   Then he kneeled over the body to watch over her and he died in that position.  The Gods looked down and were moved by the dedication of Popocatepetl and turned the two bodies into huge volcanoes.   The largest of these is Popocatepetl whose name in Náhuatl means smoking mountain.  Sometimes even today smoke can be seen issuing from him which is said to prove that the fire he had for Iztaccíhuatl still survives.

© 10/01/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 10th, 2018 zteve t evans

 

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 Legends: The Bride From the Red Lake

From #FolkloreThursday.com

By zteve t evans 27/04/2017

Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: The Bride from the Red Lake

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By Adolf Echtler (1843–1914) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Llyn Coch, or the Red Lake, is a Welsh lake situated on Mount Snowdon an area steeped in legend and folklore. One legend tells how a mortal man made a contract that allowed him to take a bride from the Otherworld that he had met at the Red Lake and fallen in love with.  However, it was essential he abide by the terms of that contract.  In Welsh tradition and folklore, there are a number of similar examples where a mortal man takes a bride from the Otherworld and they live happily together, sometimes having children, but there is often a sad ending. One example is found in the tale of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach.  In many cases the man found his love living in a remote lake or pool of water and the two fell in love wishing never to part.  After making a promise to her father that must never be broken consent is given and they marry. However, there are those who say that it is risky to have relationships with those of the Otherworld. This point of view is indeed seen in many Welsh fairy or folk tales concerning humans who come into contact or even marry someone from the Otherworld.  Presented here is one such tale called The Bride of the Red Lake.

The Bride from the Red Lake

There was once a farmer who one day decided he would go fishing in the Red Lake. When he arrived he found the lake shrouded in mist.  Then a sudden gust of wind cleared a path through the mist across the lake and to the farmer’s surprise revealed a man perched upon a ladder busily at work thatching a haystack.  Stranger still, the ladder appeared to be standing on top of the surface of the water as did the haystack.   The farmer was astounded but the vision quickly faded and soon all that could be seen was a gentle rippling of the water where the haystack and the thatcher had been.

After this, the farmer often visited the lake hoping for another glimpse of this strange otherworld but saw nothing out of the ordinary and he thought no more of his extraordinary vision.   Then one autumn day he rode his horse up to the lake.  As it was a hot day he rode his horse into the water so that it could drink easily from the cool lake.   It was a lovely day and while the horse was drinking the farmer sat on its back and stared lazily at the ripples that moved gently across the surface of the Red Lake.

Then, what he saw next made him jump.   Under the surface of the water a little distance from him he saw the face of the loveliest maiden he had ever seen in his life looking at him through the gently rippling water.  He sat spellbound staring at her and she calmly gazed back at him.   As he stared, her head and shoulders slowly emerged from the water and she looked deep into his eyes.

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Petrification Myths: The Legend of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia

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By hirosi SBM (hirosi SBM) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Kinabalu is located upon the island of Borneo in its northern part of Sabah, East Malaysia and is the tallest mountain in Borneo and Malaysia.  Being such a dominant feature of the landscape it is the subject of many myths, legends and folklore.

The Legend of Mount Kinabalu

There is more than one theory as to how the mountain received its name and the one presented is a legend that tells that there was once a prince of China who was undertaking a sea voyage when his ship ran into a storm and was wrecked in the South China Sea.  He was cast adrift and rescued by fishermen of a nearby fishing village who took him back to their village.  He had received some severe injuries in his ordeal and as he slowly recovered from his injuries and trauma he became accepted into the village and he met and fell in love with a local girl.

The two married and were very happy for many years.  He lived his life in the same way as his neighbors and they saw him as one of their own.  Even though he had been born a prince of China he felt at home with them and they with him.  However, over the years a deep feeling of longing crept upon the prince.  He began to feel homesick and wanted to see his homeland but most of all wanted to see his parents who were none other than the Emperor and Empress of China.  Therefore after much thought and agonizing he asked the permission of his new family to go and visit his parents.   After promising that he would return to Borneo soon to take his wife and family back to China he was given permission reluctantly by his wife and her family.

The prince returned to China and was given a hero’s welcome by his family and the people.   The Emperor and Empress of China although happy to see their son were not happy that he had married a poor village girl from Borneo and forbade him not to bring his family over from Borneo to China.  They told him they had arranged for him to be married to a princess from a neighboring country to cement an alliance between the two nations.  This meant that the prince had no choice other than respect the wishes of his parents even though it broke his heart, but nevertheless he obeyed

Back  in the village in Borneo his young wife waited at first patiently trusting her husband to return.  As time passed by and he did not come she became more and more anxious and worried.    The family lived some way from the village which was situated on the coast and she could not travel there every day as she would have liked.  Instead she decided that to get a better view of the ships that sailed into the harbor she would climb to the top of a nearby mountain so that she could watch over the sea for the approach of any sailing ship. Every morning at sunrise she would climb to the top and gaze out over the sea seeking her husband’s returning ship.  As The sun went down and night came she would descend the mountain to tend to her children.

The mountain was high and the climb to the top was hard and eventually the continued effort began to tell on her and sap her strength.  One day after a hard climb she fell ill as she stood on the top looking out over the sea hoping to see a ship carrying her husband back from China.   Sadly,  as the sunset and the cold night closed in around her she passed away.

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By Bundusan [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mountain Spirit

The spirit of the mountain had grown to know her and respected her dedication, faith and loyalty to her husband and was touched by her death.    As a long lasting tribute to her he turned her into stone so that her face looked out forever over the South China Seas for the return of her husband.  When the people of her village discovered she was dead and saw her face looking out over the ocean they named the mountain “Kinabalu” in tribute to her example of faith, love and loyalty.

© 27/09/2017 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright September 27th, 2017 zteve t evans