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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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 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

adolf_echtler_e28093_a_water_nymph

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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Käna’sta: The Lost Settlement of the Cherokees

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le:Chief Standing Deer – Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina (5756036106).jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina – Source: Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina – Author: Boston Public Library

James Mooney (1861-1921) was an American ethnographer who studied among the Southeastern Native American people as well as those on the Great Plains.  He spent several years living with the Cherokee people and compiling their myths, legends, and traditions into a book,  Myths of the Cherokee (1902),   Some of these legends and myths reveal that the Cherokees believed that there existed a kind of “otherworld”.  This was populated by a people who appeared similar to themselves but were invisible unless certain rituals and fasting was performed which allowed the Cherokees to make contact with them.  However, these people could make themselves known to the Cherokee at will and sometimes did. There were also various spirit beings large and small similar to giants, dwarves, and fairies.  Presented here is a legend collected by Mooney called  Käna’sta, The Lost Settlement that feature the belief in the otherworld and its spiritual inhabitants  and what follows is a rewrite base upon this.

Two Strangers Arrive

A legend says that one day two strangers visited Käna’sta and asked to be taken to see the chief as they had a message for him.  The strangers looked very much the same as the villagers and did not seem to be a threat so they were taken to see the chief.

After making the traditional greetings and welcoming them with full Cherokee hospitality the chief asked them what message they carried to him, thinking they were probably from a Cherokee village to the west of Käna’sta. To his surprise, they told him,

“Like you, we are also Cherokees and our town is very close but you have never seen it, but we are there.  In Käna’sta you have sickness and disease.  All around you are enemies who make war on you when they can. One day a stronger enemy will attack and drive you from your homes and take Käna’sta and make you homeless and miserable.  All who live in our town are happy and free of sickness and no enemy can find us.  We have been sent to Käna’sta to invite you to come and live with us in Tsuwa`tel’da which is the name of our town.”

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Welsh Folklore: The Shepherd and the Bride from the Otherworld

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Painting by Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803 – 1884) –  Public Domain

Pentrefoelas Myths, Legends and Folklore

Myths, folktales and legends abound in the village of Pentrefoelas, Conwy, in North Wales and one such tale known as the Pentrefoelas Legend tells how a shepherd came across a girl in distress upon a hillside while he was tending his flocks.  The girl was like no other he had ever seen in his life and in his earnest attempt to comfort her he fell in love with her and she with him.  Although the girl was not from earth they married and had children and lived a happy life.  Sadly their happiness was shattered by a freak accident that broke a  promise the shepherd had made to his wife’s father.  This meant she had to return to the Otherworld where she came from and they were parted forever.  The story describes one of the few examples of the interbreeding of mortals with the inhabitants of the Otherworld and the descendants of the couple are still said to live among humans today.  The following is a rewrite of that tale.

The Pentrefoelas Legend

One misty morning, shepherd from Hafod-y-garreg was out in the pastures looking after the flock of sheep owned by his father .  It was not a particularly demanding task and his mind wandered as he looked around for something to engage his interest for a while.  His eye fell upon a peat-stack and as he looked he saw a girl sat besides it who appeared to be crying her eyes out.  Disturbed by the apparent distress of the girl he approached quietly and gently trying not to alarm her to see if there was something he could do to help.

Words of Love

As he drew nearer he was smitten by the beauty of the girl.  Never in his life had he seen a damsel so beautiful as she and to see her sobbing tugged at the strings of his heart.  Gently and quietly he began speaking words of love to her and she seemed to respond favorably stopping her tears.  Suddenly, an old man who was her father  appeared out of nowhere beckoning authoritatively to her to follow him. The girl unquestionably obliged and went off with him leaving the shepherd alone on the hillside with the sheep. The shepherd could not get the girl out of his mind and remained on the hillside until evening hoping she would return but she did not and eventually he went home as darkness fell.

The Girl from the Otherworld

The shepherd returned to the hillside every evening in the hope of seeing the girl again but she did not appear and he grew despondent, fearing he would never see her again.  He did not realize that in the Otherworld the girl was thinking about him.  She had been quite taken by his kindness and the words of love he had spoken had found a place in her heart and she now planned to return to earth to see the young man.  When the time was right she slipped away from her home her father and returned to the hillside on earth hoping to meet with the young man.  When she arrived on Earth she found the shepherd waiting on the hillside and made herself known to him.  He was overjoyed and poured out his feelings to her and she to him and the two began a loving relationship.

Meanwhile in the Otherworld her father had missed his daughter and was seeking her out but could not find her anywhere.  Remembering the incident when he had found her with the shepherd on the hillside he made his way to earth and appeared on the hillside next to the two lovers.  Although he was pleased to find his wayward daughter he was not happy that the two had fell in love and began demanding she return home to the Otherworld with him

The Marriage Contract

The shepherd told the girl’s father that he loved his daughter and wanted to marry her. He begged and pleaded so much that eventually the old man turned to his daughter and asked, “Is it really your wish to marry this mortal man from earth?”

His daughter told him that she did with all her heart.  The old man then replied, “Very well, I give my consent.  You shall be married but should he ever strike with iron then the marriage shall immediately cease and you must return to live in the Otherworld forever!”

Now, the shepherd was not a violent or argumentative man and could not believe he would ever find reason to strike the girl he loved.  The girl was so taken by the young man and his words of love she also could not believe such a thing could happen and readily agreed.  The two were married and her father gave them a large bag of gold as a wedding gift.

A Happy Marriage

They had a very happy marriage for several years and were blessed with children one after the other.   One day the couple decide they wanted to catch several ponies which at the time were living wild on the nearby hills.   Although both ran after them and tried several ways to trap them all attempts failed and the man grew frustrated.  In his frustration he threw the bridle way but as it flew passed his wife the iron bit struck her striking her shoulder.

The Broken Contract

They both froze and stood dumbstruck looking at each other with tears in their eyes.  They knew instantly that their marriage contract had been broken and her father appeared with a troop of the Fair Folk and led his daughter away.  As they faded from sight the devastated shepherd sadly turned away and went home to his children.  He never saw his beloved wife again, but much of the gold her father had given him still remained and he had his children whom he adored.  They  all bore a striking resemblance to their mother and became his only comfort through the long lonely years without her.  To this day the descendants of this couple can sometimes be seen here and there, recognizable by the faraway look in their eyes.

© 11/04/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 11th, 2017 zteve t evans

Welsh Folklore: The Spirit of the Van

Wales is a place of where every lake, mountain, hill or valley seems to have some ancient tradition, legend or folktale attached.  Presented here is The Spirit of the Van which is set in the Vans Pool which lies in the mountains of Carmarthenshire and is a variation of the legend of The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach.

The Spirit of the Van

The story tells of a beautiful female spirit that appears on a lake called the Van Pool.  She appears in a golden boat in the first hours of New Year’s Day and is dressed all in white and around her waist she wears a golden girdle  Her hair is long and golden and in her hand is a golden oar which she uses to deftly maneuver the boat. Those who have seen her, although admiring her beauty, are struck by the melancholy demeanor and milk- white face of the lovely lady.

Living near to the lake was a young farmer who had heard about the beautiful, melancholy spirit of the lake and became intrigued by what was said about her.  The more he thought about her the more a fervent desire to see her for himself grew upon him.

When New Year’s Eve came he went to the lake and chose a secluded and well hidden spot by the water’s edge where he settled down to await the arrival of the spirit of the Van Pool in the hours after midnight.  The moon was full and mirrored in the calm waters of the lake and he awaited in eager anticipation for the midnight hour.  At the strike of midnight as the old year was passing and the new was being born there on the opposite bank materialized the spirit of the lake in a golden boat that floated gracefully over the water steered by the lady with a golden oar.

The Lady of the Golden Boat

And there on the pool under the moonlight the young farmer beheld his heart’s desire and he watched in awe as she glided around the pool, a vision of loveliness, like a goddess of old. Time passed all too soon and as the stars dimmed the first signs of dawn appeared and his vision of loveliness too began to gently fade.  As she was about to vanish completely, unable to quell his emotions, he called out to her begging her to stay and be his wife.  The Lady of the Golden Boat quickly glanced over her shoulder towards him as she vanished from his sight.

Sadly, the young farmer returned to his home but a change had come over him since those early hours of New Year’s Day when he had seen and called out to the lady in the golden boat. He stopped eating properly and he could not sleep properly and took to wandering around the Van Pool in the night hoping to get but a glimpse of the Lady in the Golden Boat.  In sadness and gloom he neglected his farm and soon everything in his life was going to rack and ruin.

An Offering

At last, he pulled himself together long enough to seek help and he went to see a wise woman who advised him to  make an offering of food to her.  Well, the young farmer was desperate and without having any better plan decided he would give it a try.  He could not bear to wait until the New Year so he thought he would try his luck on Midsummer’s Eve. When Midsummer’s Eve came he took a basket with a generous portion of the best cheese and the best loaf of bread he could afford along to Van Pool in the hope of enticing the Lady of the Golden Boat to marry him.

Although he waited by the poolside all night long she did not materialize.  Nevertheless, he thought that in the spot where he had previously seen her there was a faint shimmering of light and he fancied he heard the faint notes of the most beautiful music. These small signs gave him hope and night after night he would visit the pool carrying a basket of bread and cheese.  When midnight came he would gently drop his offering to the lady into the pool.  Still the lady did not appear but the young farmer continued making this offering to her right the way through the year until New Year’s Eve came around again.

The Lady Appears

Then, putting on his best clothes the young farmer took a basket of the finest cheese and the very best bread he could find along with him for his vigil on the banks of the Van Pool.  At the stroke of midnight he gently dropped his offering of  bread and cheese into the waters of the pool and then waited in quiet desperation as the full moon hid behind a cloud.  Then across the water from the other side he saw a faint shimmering and the Lady of the Golden Boat appeared  gliding sedately towards him.  The boat came alongside where he was standing and the lady stepped lightly on to the shore.

The young farmer was thrilled and by the light of the full moon went down on one knee and proposed marriage.  The Lady of the Golden Boat listened to him and then to his delighted accepted his marriage proposal but laid a strict condition on him.  That condition was that he should not strike her for a third time as if he did she would have to leave him forever. Naturally the young farmer not being a cruel or violent man could not imagine ever striking her so he eagerly agreed.

So the two were wed and she brought with her from the Other-world a dowry of a flock of fine sheep and a herd of cattle the like that had never been seen in Wales before. She also brought with her fine flocks of ducks and chickens and soon his farm prospered greatly and the two lived happily together and were very much in love.

The Christening

One day after they had been happily married for a few years one of their neighbors invited then to a christening.  To the surprise of all those present, halfway through the christening service the young farmer’s wife began crying.  The young farmer was embarrassed at his wife’s behavior and angry at her weeping at what should have been a happy event.  “What ever are you crying for?  This is a Christening and you are making yourself look foolish!”  he angrily said giving her a light pat on the shoulder.

“Alas, my eyes see a baby entering a world of sorrow, pain and sin.  I see nothing but misery and pain for the babe.  There is nothing to rejoice over,” replied his wife who still retained her fairy eyes, “and you have struck me for the first time!”

The anger passed and the young farmer regretted he had struck his wife.  Although it was only a light pat he really did feeling sorry and ashamed of himself because he really did love her dearly.  She let it be and things were soon good again between them because she really did love him as well.

The Funeral

Sadly, some time later they were invited to attend the funeral of the child whose christening they had attended.  Half way through the funeral service the farmer’s wife burst out laughing much to the shock of her husband and all those in attendance. Furiously he asked why she was laughing at such a sad occasion.  Telling her she was making a fool of herself he gave her a light pat to her shoulder and told her to stop weeping.

She answered saying,  “With my eyes I see the child and it is no longer suffering and has left the world of sin and sorrow.  The child is whole, healthy and happy for all time so tell me what is there to weep over?  You have struck me for a second time!”

The Wedding

They went home and the incident was forgotten and they were still very happy together and time passed by as it does. Then one day they received an invitation to attend the wedding of one of their neighbors daughters.   She was a bonny, pretty young girl but she was marrying an old, wizened man, who was rich but miserly.  So they attended the church and half way through the ceremony the farmer’s wife burst into tears.

“What is the matter with you,” her husband demanded, “Everyone is looking at you. Stop making a fool of yourself!” And he gave a gentle push to her shoulder.

“I weep because summer is now bound to winter. I weep because youth is sold for gold.  I weep because this wedding is a devil’s bargain and will bring the girl nothing but unhappiness!” she answered and then looked at him with her eyes full of love and sorrow and told him,  “Alas, now you must remember our bargain.  You have struck me a third time and there can be no other so with love and sadness, I say goodbye for we must part forever!”  

The Parting

With those words she simply turned her back and walked out of the church and back through their farm towards Van Pool.  As she walked she called out the names of  all the sheep, cattle, ducks, chickens and geese she had brought with her when she got married. They all stopped what they were doing and followed her towards the pool.   When she reached the water she did not stop at the edge but continued walking into the pool.  The last the farmer saw of his wife was her golden hair floating in the water before finally disappearing under the surface. Following on behind came all of the farm animals who followed her into the pool.

The farmer was heart broken and would go to the pool with bread and cheese each night making an offering in the hope of meeting his wife again but he never did and died a broken man.

© 13/09/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 13th, 2016 zteve t evans