Welsh Folklore: The Mythical Beasts of Llyn Cowlyd

cat jackson / Llyn Cowlyd / CC BY-SA 2.0

Llyn Cowlyd

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 mentions the 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.

© 06/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

Mythical Beasts: The White Stag

The white stag, like many other mythical creatures, wanders through the tangled forests and wild moorlands of our distant past.   Elusive and rare, our forefathers may have caught a glimpse in some hidden glade in the woods,  or seen it moving ghost-like across the wild moors, or maybe stood high on a rocky outcrop crowned against the sky.  The white stag was always something to be desired yet always out of reach. Always leading the hunt onwards, ever onwards, to a destiny ordained by the gods.  From the dark, distant memories of the Wild Hunt have grown the very stuff of legends.

Encounters with the White Stag

For those humans who  encountered a white stag, there were often profound consequences, sometimes stimulating great spiritual changes within a person.   Sometimes these encounters have been the trigger of great events leading to the creation of nations and kingdoms.  Even to this day the consequences of legendary encounters of the remote past are still visible and can be seen in action.

The White Stag in Mythology and Folklore

Traditionally the white stag has often been interchangeable with the unicorn and appears in the folklore and mythology of many different cultures around the world.  In ancient times deer were hunted for food but they also supplied leather, bone and gut which had many uses and were an important resource in hunter gatherer and early agricultural societies.  So when a rare white stag was chanced upon, maybe it is no surprise that legends and myths grew up around the sightings of this unusual and mysterious beast.

Many of the legends can be traced back through European and Asian culture.   From Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Assyria and from Mongolia, and China and even in Japanese mythology, the white stag can be found depicted in art, in records and in legends.

Celtic Mythology

In Celtic mythology, the White Stag symbolises the existence of the Otherworld and that forces from the Otherworld are present and in action.   The Celtic god Cernunnos was depicted zoomorphically as a man with horns growing from his head.

In earlier times the Celts believed that the white stag was an agent from the ‘Other world’ and a bringer of great changes to those it encountered. The white stag often appeared when something sacred, or a law or code, was being broken.

The Legend of the Wondrous Stag in Hungarian Mytholgy

One of the oldest and most revered legends of the Hungarian people is the Legend of the Wondrous Stag (sometimes Hind, or Doe) and Fred Hámori provides one of the best renditions of the legend.

The story goes that Hunor and Magor the sons of Nimrod, the great hunter king, gave chase to a white stag that led them to a new country and the establishing of the Huns and Magar peoples in Scythia.  In some versions, the sex of the creature is ambiguous.  Sometimes it is it is a horned doe, or hind that is chased.

The cosmos was considered the mother of the sun and was represented by a horned female doe, or hind.  Being a symbol of the cosmos she also carried the stars and the moon as well as the sun between her horns. Just as the cosmos was her mother she was the mother of the stag who symbolised the sun.

White Stag Leadership Development

In a speech  at the end of the Fourth World Wide Jamboree of the Scouting movement, founder Sir Robert Bade-Powell said,  ‘You may look on that White Stag as the pure spirit of Scouting, springing forward and upward, ever leading you onward and upward to leap over difficulties.’  Later in 1958 the White Stag leadership and development program was born from this speech which today is known worldwide.

Scottish Folklore

In Scottish folklore around 1128, the King of Scotland was David I who was the son of Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret.  The legend goes that on the day of the Feast of the Holy Rood he went out hunting despite advice given to him by his priest who had warned him against it.

Ignoring this advice, King David I had ridden out and came across a white stag.  He immediately gave chase but became unsaddled from his horse who threw him.  The White Stag turned to attack.

Helpless, David fell on his knees and cried out to God to protect him.   The Stag charged full on at David with its antlers down.  Just as the antlers were about to strike he managed to grab them.  As he did so the antlers turned into a cross and the stag stopped dead in its tracks, lifted its head high and simply disappeared into thin air.

To give thanks to God for saving him, David built and dedicated a shrine to the Holy Rood which later became Holyrood Abbey leading to the development of Holyrood Palace.  Holy Rood means Holy Cross.

Arthurian Legend

In many of the legends of King Arthur, the white stag is elusive and hard to catch.  It is the pursuit of the beast that represents humanity’s spiritual quest, always searching for something just out of reach.   Its entrance or discovery is often the stimulus for his knights to begin a high and noble quest.

The White Hart – Author: Bernardfobe – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

The White Hart in Heraldry

Richard II of England chose the White Hart for his own heraldic symbol. In Heraldry in England as well as many parts of Europe it became an important symbol.

The magnificent work of art, the Wilton Diptych, depicts Richard wearing a gold and enamel jewel and an image of a white hart.  The Virgin Mary is present and the angels also are wearing white hart images.  The work of art is actually an alter piece and on the outside is also an emblem of a white hart.

As a Christian symbol

In Christian symbolism the white stag can sometimes be seen as a symbol of Jesus.  The Roman soldier St. Eustace converts to Christianity at the beckoning of a white stag with a cross between its horns that he encounters.

The stag talks to him revealing that he was Jesus and that he had been hunting him.  Eustace was told that though he did not yet know it, he had great faith in Christ that he and his family’s faith would be greatly tested and so it proved to be.

World Mythology

Versions of the legend appear in many different parts of the globe including Mayan Indian and Japanese versions.  In Japanese mythology a stag is hunted by twin brothers but the beast eludes them.   The twins argue about which way to take and finally split up in different direction.  One goes east and one goes west.  The twin that takes to the east eventually discovers Japan.

Purity, Divinity, and Awakening

In many traditions white is the colour of divinity and purity and white can also be the color of peace or of truce.  In Celtic tradition white is associated with the Other-world and After-life. The role of the white stag is often to lead the hunters to new beginnings, new places, and new insights and to new knowledge.  It was something that could never be captured. Always keeping just a little bit ahead of the hunters and drawing them ever onwards to new places as it did with the sons of Nimrod leading them to a new  land, or as with  David, King of Scots, to new spiritual awakening.

A Natural Phenomenon

There is plenty of evidence with sightings, videos and photographs that prove that the white stag is not just a supernatural beast but natural phenomenon.   White stags and deer are often wrongly thought of as being albino.  In fact they inherited a rare genetic condition called leucism.

In the USA when a small herd of White-tailed deer became isolated from the outside world in what was once the Seneca Army Depot, Seneca County, New York, the resulting inbreeding produced a high number of white deer making it the largest known herd of white deer in the world.   Also in the US, the Argonne National Laboratory  also has white deer in its grounds.

Recent Sightings of White Stags

A report by the BBC and updated on 11 February 2008 has a sighting of a white stag captured on video.  This shows a white stag moving among a group of does over open moorland somewhere on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands.  The exact location is being kept secret to protect the stag from hunters and trophy seekers.

The Daily Mail also reported in an update on the 7th December 2009 of the discovery of a white stag in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, England by photographer Ken Grindle who managed to photograph it.

Protection from Trophy Hunters

Most sightings are now kept secret or their locations are not revealed.  The head of a full grown white stag with a full set of antlers would fetch many thousands of pounds. One recent sighting in the Scottish Lowlands attracted such bids from hunters soon after its location was revealed but the landowner is refusing all offers.  Hopefully these wonderful animals will be far better protected than the one that was killed by trophy hunters around the county boundaries of Cornwall and Devon in October 2007.

The Stuff of Legends

These photographs and videos reveal a beast of mystery and majesty.  For those who are close to nature as our ancestors were and those of us today who have a deep affinity with the natural world to encounter one in hidden forest glades or moving ghost-like through the mists of the moors, must be an unusual and unforgettable experience. Indeed, the very stuff legends are made from.

© 02/11/2010 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

This is a version of an article first Published: November 2, 2010 on Helium.com as Origins of the mythical creature white stag by zteve t evans – © 02/11/2010 zteve t evans