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: Legends of Llyn Cwm Llwch

Llyn Cwm Llwch

Llyn Cwm Llwch is a small lake that lies below the highest peak in South Wales called Pen y Fan, which is situated in the Brecon Beacons of Powys and is the setting for some rather strange legends which are briefly presented here.

The Old Woman of the Lake

The first tells how an old woman who lived in the lake used music to lure those of a weak or impressionable mind into the water to be drowned. Tradition says that when she has claimed nine hundred victims she will regain her youth and beauty and gain immortality.

The Door to the Invisible Island

Another legend tells that there is an invisible island in the lake that could only be reached by a door that was set in a rock.   Every May Day the door would open and some of the bolder local people would enter and pass down a passage that opened up in a garden that was set upon the island.  Although the shores of the lake could clearly be seen from the island, the island remained invisible to those on the shore.

The Enchanted Garden of the Tylwyth Teg

Those who entered the door and visited the invisible island found themselves in an enchanted garden.  This garden was filled with the most beautiful flowers of the most wonderful colours and trees hanging with luscious fruit ripe for eating grew all around.  Beautiful birds sang happy songs in the trees and butterflies flitted between the flowers. It really was a most enchanted place.

The Warning of the Tylwyth Teg

The Tylwyth Teg always received their visitors with the utmost courtesy and hospitality. They would entertain their guests by playing beautiful music, telling wondrous stories and offering the finest food and drink the like of which could not be found anywhere else on earth.  It really was a rare and magical experience they freely provided for their visitors.  However, when it was time for their guests to leave they would always issue them with a stern warning. They would warn that none of the produce, the flowers, stones, leaves, or anything else from the island must be taken back down the passage and through the door to earth because of the sacred nature of their island.

One Foolish Visitor

The Tylwyth Teg had opened their island to visitors since time immemorial and there had never once been anyone who had not complied with this simple and reasonable request. Unfortunately one foolish visitor took it in his mind to take back one of the wonderful flowers from the garden as proof of his visit and the existence of the enchanted island.  As he left the garden he picked the most exquisite bloom he could find and hid it in the fastness of his jacket pocket.  He then walked nonchalantly down the passage and through the door thinking no one would notice as no checks were ever seen to be carried out.

However, as soon as he set foot on the earth outside the door his mind became confused and he lost his senses. For the rest of his life he remained nothing but a gibbering wreck devoid of sense and reason until the day he died.  At the time the Tylwyth Teg appeared to pay no heed to this unique indiscretion saying their goodbyes to their guests with their accustomed courtesy, but they had indeed taken note.  Ever since this incident the door has never again been found to this day.

One Hundred Years On

About one hundred years later the local people got together to form a plan.  With the door to the invisible island not appearing they thought the Tylwyth Teg had left and thought that perhaps they had left their treasure in the bottom of the pool.  They decided they would drain it and a great body of local men arrived at the pool armed with pickaxes, spades and shovels and set about digging a channel to let the water out.  The men set about their task with great enthusiasm digging a channel some thirty yards long in no time.  As they reached the water’s edge they needed one last blow to break through but as the pick-axe and the shovels were poised for action a massive flash of lightning lit the rapidly blackening sky.  Thunder rumbled around the mountains causing the workmen to freeze in fear and awe at the sheer power of nature and the final blow was never struck.  Quickly, the men realized the storm was not caused by the power of nature and as they looked at each other in fear strange things began happening with the pool as its spirit began to awaken.

The Warning

The workers sprang out of the trench and ran to the edge of the water.  As the thunder died they saw emerging from the center of the pool saw small ripples which steadily grew in size and intensity.  The water began to churn and boil and from the center of the turbulence there arose the spirit of the water, a massive a figure of a man.  His beard must have been three feet in length and his hair draped down to his waist and he rose high above the water and glowered down upon the men and in a voice like thunder said,

“If you disturb my peace,

Be warned that I will drown

The valley of the Usk,

Beginning with Brecon town!”

(1)

And with that there was a terrific bolt of lightning and thunder crashed around the mountains and as the men threw themselves to the ground in fear a terrific storm broke upon them.  After the storm subsided the men got up and began to heatedly discuss the events.  The warning they had been given was clear.  Not wanting to risk the wrath of the lake spirit any further the local men went home leaving their work incomplete.

 © 06/12/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2016 zteve t evans