Northumberland Folklore: Close Encounters With The Hedley Kow

The Hedley Kow – zteve t evans

The Hedley Kow was a troublesome, shape-shifting, trickster sprite or spirit that made mischief around the area of Hedley-on-the-Hill, Northumberland.  More mischievous than dangerous, it had the ability to turn itself into any animal or item. It delighted in using this talent to play tricks on unsuspecting local people before revealing its true self and vanishing with a resounding peal of mocking laughter (1). Several tales tell of its antics and pranks on local people which result in the victim becoming  bewildered or embarrassed.  Presented here are a few examples of such encounters followed by a tale of an irrepressible old lady whose attitude is a lesson to us all. 

The Dancing Kow

In one tale an old woman went out collecting firewood.  As she was searching she came across a long dry stick she considered perfect for kindling a good fire.  She picked it up and placed it into her basket and continued her search.  As she searched she noticed her basket was getting heavier and heavier and she dropped it spilling the sticks on the ground.  

To her surprise the stick she had considered perfect suddenly jumped in the air turning into a large gangly cow. She was even more shocked when it started jigging up and down and swaying from side to side as if it was performing an old-fashioned country dance.  It continued to caper up and down and then let out a loud braying laugh as it jigged down the road and out of sight leaving only the mocking echo of its laughter.

Tricked by the Kow

Another  tale tells how two young men dressed in their Sunday best clothes intending  to meet up with their girlfriends by the River Derwent.   The young men set off full of anticipation and excitement of what the liaison might bring.  On reaching the river bank they saw their girlfriends ahead walking arm in arm in the opposite direction.  They shouted several times trying to attract their attention but the girls did not seem to hear them and carried on walking.  

Therefore the young men set off after them and being young and fit expected to catch up with them easily.  However, the faster they walked and the harder they tried the more they failed.  The girls just continued strolling along unhurriedly but the distance between them did not diminish and they stayed ahead.

This state of affairs continued for sometime but suddenly the two lads found themselves in a bog and up to their knees in mud.  As they looked towards the girls they saw their forms slowly dissipate into a wispy mist as a deep mocking laugh echoed back at them.   Realizing that they had been tricked by the Kow they scrambled from the bog and ran home with the Kow in close pursuit taunting and mocking them all the way.   Once safe inside they told their families of the unnerving experience of their encounter with the Hedley Kow. 

Tricks of the Kow

Despite its mischievousness the Kow appeared to possess a degree of compassion.  It was never known to trouble people experiencing great sadness or mourning for loss of loved ones.  Nevertheless, for unknown reasons it would sometimes make trouble at births.  This might take the form of knocking on the door of the  residence where a birth was taking place and disappearing when someone opened the door only to be greeted by mocking laughter.   Other times it would  frighten the horse of servants of the attending midwife whom she might send on errands.

It was also known to mimic voices to sound like someone known to its victim.  Tales tell how it could impersonate the voices of the servant girl’s lovers or change into a replica of him to appear at their windows.   Sometimes it would mimic the voice of their employers, shouting down corridors for their attendance only for them to find they had been tricked (2).

The Hedley Kow

The following is a retelling of a story collected by Joseph Jacobs in “More English Fairy Tales.”  It tells of an encounter with the Kow by an irrepressible old lady who made a sparse living doing cleaning, cooking and washing chores around the village.  She was poor and was often paid by being given a good meal and a cup of tea or just a few pennies so she never had much money.  Nevertheless, she was always of good cheer and always looked on the bright side.  Her demeanor was of someone who had not a care in the world despite her poverty.

Walking home one summer evening after completing all her chores for the day she found a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road.   Surprised at the find she looked at it closely wondering who ever could have left it so carelessly in the middle of the road like that.  Despite looking all around she could see no one else and it just seemed to have been left there. She thought it was just the thing for her to put a few flowers in from her small garden in so she decided to take it home.   Bending her aching back she lifted the lid and looked inside and to her complete astonishment saw inside it was full to the top with gold coins.

“Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!”  she said to herself over and over again as she walked around it wondering what to do.  It was too heavy for her to lift and the only thing she could think of was to wrap her shawl around it and drag it along the road. She did this and made considerable progress homewards all the time saying to herself, “Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!” 

She noticed it was getting dark, but rather than let it disturb her she thought it would stop people seeing her treasure and lessen the risk of theft.  She kept thinking to herself how grand she felt and thought upon ways of spending the gold.  She fancied, a big house, new clothes and she would sit by the warm fire drinking tea all day, never again go hungry and live like a queen.  She thought perhaps she would give the gold to the local priest to look after and he could give her a little at a time to spend when she needed it.  Alternatively,  she thought she might bury some in the garden and hide some up the chimney and about the house.  

All this time she was dragging the heavy pot full of gold along  and she grew very tired and her back began to ache.   She stopped and rested but could not resist the temptation to lift the lid to look at the gold.  To her astonishment it had turned into a great lump of pure shining silver, although earlier, she swore it had been full of gold coins worth a fortune.  

Now, silver being worth less than gold you might think she would be upset, but not a bit of it.  She reckoned that when she started to buy things using gold coins word would get round and she would become a target for thieves.  “Never mind, I shall be better off and safer and still very rich so what does it matter?” she said happily.

Once again she started on her way dragging the pot behind all the time planning on how she would spend the money and live an easy life.   After a while her back began to ache and  she began to tire so she stopped to have a little rest.  Looking back at the pot she was astounded to see that it had turned into a large lump of iron and worth much less than the silver.  Now you expect her to be very disappointed but she simply shrugged and said,  “Never mind, at least it will be easier to sell and it will still be worth a fair piece and I won’t have to fret about robbers breaking in to steal my fortune! It is still worth more than enough to ease my old age so I am still very lucky!”

Once again she began dragging the lump of iron along the road home until once again her back began to ache and she grew tired.  She stopped and looked back but to her astonishment instead of the lump of iron she saw it had turned into a large stone.

She stood staring at and said, “Well I never and who would have thought such things possible!  It must have realized I have a great need for a good stone to prop open my door in the summer.  Well now isn’t that the most amazing luck!  I am so lucky to have such good luck!”

Happily  she continued on her way excitedly imagining how the stone would look with her front door propped open by it.   At last reaching her front gate and quickly lifted the latch and hauled the stone up to her front door.  

Turning around she bent to unwrap her shawl.  The stone sat on the path and there was still enough light for to see it plainly.  As she unfastened her shawl from around it she had a shock.  For a second or two the stone, free of the shawl, sat still and peacefully on the path as you would expect it to. Suddenly it sprang in the air and from it sprouted four long legs, a long neck beset by the head of a cow with horns, two long ears and behind grew a long tail. It was the most ungainly looking creature she had ever seen.  It pranced around her two or three times while laughing mockingly at her before dashing off back down the lane.

The old lady stared in disbelief as it ran off.  Now you might think after all the disappointments she had experienced she would be very upset. Not a bit of it!  She just shook her head and said, “Bless me but I am the lucky one!  I have just seen the Hedley Kow and all by myself.  Not many people in the whole wide world can say that.  Why, I feel special and grand and I think I need a cup of tea to think things over and celebrate!” (4)

Positivity

If that old lady was alive today she would probably be a world famous guru on the art of positivity with her own YouTube channel and a following of millions!

© 27/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 27th, 2021 zteve t evans

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

The Arthurian Realm: Morgan le Fay – Healer, Witch and the Woman Question.

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans

Introducing  Morgan

In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.

As Ruler of Avalon

Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.

It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.

Morgan’s Early Life

In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.

While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.

Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.

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