This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 28th November, 2019, as The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd and Oldest Animals in the World, by zteve t evans
The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd
In Welsh legend and myth the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd lived in the woods that once surrounded Llyn Cowlyd. Today the woods are gone but the legends live on in two tales that feature a search for the oldest and wisest animals in the world. In the first the owl is said to be among the oldest animals in the world, whereas in the second the owl is attributed as being the oldest.
Culhwch and Olwen
The first is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, an action packed hero tale from the Red Book of Hergest, written just after 1382. It was also contained in fragments in the White Book of Rhydderch, written about 1320. Both books were sources for the Mabinogion, a compilation of early Welsh oral stories by Lady Charlotte Guest from which the first of these tales draws.
Culhwch was the son of King Cilydd and his wife, Goleuddydd, who died soon after giving birth to him. Cilydd remarried, but Culhwch became estranged from his step-mother after she tried to persuade him to marry her daughter from another marriage. Culhwch refused and she took offence, casting a spell on him so that the only woman he could marry was Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the dangerous giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, in the belief that it would be impossible.
Despite never having met or even seen Olwen, Culhwch became obsessed and besotted by her. His father told him he would never be able to find her alone and must seek out the assistance of his cousin, King Arthur. Culhwch visited Arthur and was given a band of heroic companions to aid him in his quest. They eventually found Ysbaddaden and Olwen but the giant insisted that to marry his daughter, Culhwch must perform a series of tasks he believed to be impossible.
One of the tasks required him to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron, whose whereabouts was unknown, but was essential to the overall success of the quest. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar, the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth is the hunting dog named Drudwyn, and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place.
The Oldest Animals in the World
In the hope that one of the oldest and wisest animals in the world might know where he was, advice was sought from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led hem to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd. The owl told them …
Llyn Cowlyd is a long and narrow lake almost two miles long and about a third of a mile wide situated in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. It is the deepest lake in northern Wales and has given soundings of 229 feet. Today it is used as a reservoir and its depths have been raised twice from its natural depth and its natural depth was believed to be about 184 feet. Today, it has a bleak, treeless appearance though according to the Red Book of Hergest, written around 1382 from oral tradition it was once forested. According to legend and tradition there were three mythical beasts associated with it; the water horse, the water bull and the Owl of Cowlyd. This work will briefly discuss the myths associated with each of them.
The Legendary Ceffyl Dŵr, the Water Horse
Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain]
According to ancient tradition Llyn Cowlyd is the home of a legendary Ceffyl Dŵr or water horse, which are featured in many legends and folktales. They are said to have been shape-shifters that could also fly and despite their solid appearance could evaporate quickly into a fine mist. Although there were many alleged sightings of water horses during the 18th century no records were made until the 19th century.
According to tradition the water horse has fiery eyes and it is dangerous for humans to look into them. It is said that when a water horse is close a dark and forbidding feeling is experienced and those who work near its known haunts will quickly make themselves scarce. Sabine Baring-Gould in 1903 gave the following warning for anyone who should encounter a water horse,
“Should he see a horse, however quiet and staid, browsing near, let him not venture to mount it, although the beast seems to invite the weary traveller through the heather to take a seat on its back. No sooner is he in his seat than all its want of spirit is at an end. It flies away with its rider towards the lake, plunges in, and will never be seen again. It is the Ceffyl y Dwfr, the Water-horse, a spirit that lives in the depths, with a special taste for human flesh, which it will munch below when it has its victim at the bottom of the blue water.” (1)
The water horse of Llyn Cowlyd was believed to be an evil entity that only appeared at night assuming the shape of a horse and trying to entice unwary people to try and ride it. Once a rider was mounted it would fly into the clouds, perhaps over the mountains or over water and then suddenly dissipate into fine mist leaving the rider to fall to their death. It was said that members of the clergy alone could safely ride the water horse as long as they did not speak a word. Although Llyn Cowlyd had its own water horse another was said to haunt Llyn Crafnant.
Sometimes in Wales, the water horse is associated with the sea and is said to be the bringer of storms. They are believed to change their appearance before and after the storm. Before the storm they would be seen stamping around in the waves their coats a dapple grey or white. After the storm they changed their coats into a chestnut or piebald coloring and were seen trotting along the shore. During long stormy periods their coats became the colour of sea foam.
The Water Bull of Llyn Cowlyd
by George W. Hobbs [Public domain]
Llyn Cowlyd is also the home of another mythical beast called a water bull, which is also found in Scotland. Water bulls are usually seen as being nocturnal and make moorland lakes their homes and also have amphibious and have shape shifting abilities. Water bulls can be dangerous and alarming and are sometimes seen with fiery horns and hoofs with flame spouting from their nostrils. According to tradition, solitary walkers near the lakeside have been known to have been dragged into the water to their deaths.
The Owl of Cowlyd
artist – Miller [Public domain]
The Mabinogion the tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentionsthe Owl of Cowlyd as one of the oldest animals in the world that lived in the cwm, or valley of Cowlyd. Culhwch the protagonist of the story, has to find him in order to complete a series of near impossible tasks as ordained by Ysbaddaden the giant, before he will grant permission for him to marry his beautiful daughter, Olwen. Culhwch recruits the aid of King Arthur who is his cousin. Arthur provides Culhwch with companions to help him on his quest and the adventures begin.
One of the tasks he was set by Ysbaddaden was to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron whose whereabouts were unknown. Mabon was essential to the success of the quest of Culhwch. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar. the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth was the hunting dog named Drudwyn and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place and no one knew where.
It was believed only the oldest and wisest animals in the world may possess the knowledge of the whereabouts of Mabon therefore these were sought out. The questers came to the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led them to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cowlyd, living in the valley surrounding the lake. The owl told them,
“If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the one that has travelled most.” (2)
The Owl of Cowlyd led them to the Eagle of Gwern Abw, who led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who revealed that Modron was being held prisoner and showed them the whereabouts of his prison.
Lesson For The Future
Llyn Cowlyd is associated with some very strange mythical beasts although by its appearances today you would not think it possible but the lake and its valley have not always been as they are now. If we look closely at what the owl says we will see it has changed from a wooded vale into the bleak and treeless place we see today through human activity. Indeed, the lake itself has been altered by humans to serve the needs of humans and we see how humanity changes the landscape and environment for its own needs perhaps providing a lesson for the future, or a warning.