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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