Petrification Myths: The Stone Women of Moelfre Hill

There are many petrification myths and legends in settings scattered around the British Isles that tell how people have become turned to stone.  It is often the case that some religious code or rule has been transgressed by one or more people for some reason and they have been punished by being turned to stone.

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Moelfre in Gwynedd – Image by Oosoom – CC BY-SA 3.0 – From Wikimedia Commons

The Stone Women of Moelfre Hill

The legend of the Stone Women of Moelfre tells the story of how three women were turned to stone for working on the Sabbath.  Its setting is on Moelfre, which  is a Welsh hill in Gwynedd, Wales sitting on the western edge of the Snowdonia National Park, situated about three miles from the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy and about five miles from the village of Llanbedr.

The legend was said to have originated about the time Christianity was taking over from the old pagan beliefs and tells how three women had a problem winnowing their corn because there was no wind.  Winnowing was an important task that their families and community depended upon to make bread.  According to the legend, one woman wore a red kirtle.  Another wore a white kirtle and the third wore a kirtle of the darkest blue.

After the corn was harvested the people would thresh the corn, sometimes by making oxen walk in circles over the harvested ears of corn, or by pounding it on the ground with flails.  This would crush the ears leaving the chaff and grain that needed separating, or winnowing which was hard work and done by the women of the community.  They would spend many hours  throwing the mixed chaff and grain into the air so that the wind would take the light chaff away but leave the heavier grain to fall to the ground.  The remaining grain would then be placed in sacks and ground into flour.

The problem the women had was that for many days there had been no wind or even the slightest breeze, making it impossible for them to winnow.  The women worried that unless they could get their task done soon it would rain and ruin the corn.  The grain and chaff would get wet making them stick together and hard to separate and they would not be able to bake bread to feed their families and began to despair that they would not be able to complete their task.

Then the woman wearing the red kirtle had an idea and said to the others, “I say there is bound to be wind on the top of Moelfre.  Let us carry sacks of grain up there and do the winnowing there.”

“But we would be working on the Sabbath if we did that!”  said the woman in the white kirtle. It was a Sunday and on Sundays in Wales no one at all was allowed to work because it was the Sabbath.

“But if the wind is blowing on Moelfre, shall we let it go to waste and have no flour to bake bread?”  said the woman in blue, “And what would we tell our children when they have no bread?  I will fetch three sacks and we can fill them up and carry them up to Moelfre.”

They all agreed that they should this so they filled up a sack each and hoisting them across their backs began the arduous journey along the path to the top of Moelfre.   On the way they passed a cottage where an old man looked out of his door and was shocked to see them hauling the sacks up the path.   He gave them a stern warning about the consequences of working on the Sabbath but the women continued on their way ignoring him.  They passed a farm and the farmer shouted out a warning that it was the Sabbath and told them to stop or they would be punished.  The women laughed at him and carried on.

Their path took them through the valley where the men of Neolithic times made axes out of the sharp Graig Lwyd stone.  Passing though, they climbed the path to the high hill where the Meini Hirion, also called the Druid’s Stone Circle stood and passed this and continued on their way.  They knew that the summit of Moelfre was not far off and that there would be wind there and redoubled their efforts.

Finally the reached the summit of the hill.  Just as they had anticipated the wind was just right for their task so they spread out a sheet on the ground to catch the grain when it fell out of  the air.  They emptied the contents of their sacks into a heap and began the arduous task of winnowing the corn throwing up into air so that the wind took the husks and the grain fell onto the sheet on the ground.  Then as they were busily working away a terrible thing happened.   The  legend says that  God saw them working on the Sabbath and punished them for disobeying his law and turned them into three standing stones.  One red, one white and one dark blue and there they stood on top of Moelfre for years untold, but not forever.

Triple Goddess

There is a school of thought that says the three women represent a triple goddess.  Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, says,  “The three standing stones thrown down from Moelfre Hill near Dwygyfylchi in Wales in the iconoclastic seventeenth century may well have represented the Io trinity. One was white, one dark red, one dark blue and they were known as three women. The local monkish legend was that three women dressed in those colors were petrified for winnowing on a Sunday.”

Others also see the three stones places in a triangle as representing a triple goddess and the colours representing a different aspect of the goddess.  Their supposed petrification may not have been just a warning about working on the Sabbath but possibly a warning of possible punishment inflicted for keeping the old ways.

Vandalism

Today there are no standing stones on the summit of Moelfre.  Some people say  those who search they may find three stones below the turf that appear to have sunk into the ground and these are said to be the Stone Women of Moelfre.   Another explanation offered by Wirt Sikes in British Goblins – Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions was that they were subject to vandalism by a gang of youths who dug them up and rolled them down the hill.

© 28/03/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

 

Copyright March 3rd, 2017 zteve t evans

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The Legend of Saint Winefride and her Holy Well

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St. Winefride – Copy94 – CC BY-SA 3.0

Saint Winefride’s Well is situated in Holywell, Flintshire in Wales and is named after a 7th-century local Welsh woman named Gwenffrewi in Welsh or Winefred, or Winefride in English.   Today it is classed as a grade l listed building and is a major place of pilgrimage for Catholics though all faiths are welcome as are people who have no religion.  The market town of Holywell is named after Saint Winefride’s Well which is an ancient place of pilgrimage and there is a remarkable legend that tells the story of how this came to be

Who was Saint Winefride?

Welsh legend tells that Winefride was the daughter of Tyfid ap Eiludd who was the lord of Tegeingl, a cantref, or division of land, in north-east Wales which later became part of the county of Flintshire.  Her mother’s name was Wenlo and was the sister of Saint Beuno who had associations with the Welsh kings of South Wales.  Winefride was thought to have a brother named Owain.  According to legend, her family were  distant descendants of Vortigern, a warlord of 5th century Britain.

Winefride

The legend of St Winefride is pieced together from information from historical documents and local legend and tradition.  A picture emerges of Winefride at about 15 years old as being a gifted intellectual with a studious nature who was dedicated entirely to the Christian Church and way of life.  Her uncle was St. Beuno, an abbot,  and her mentor.  By all accounts, she appeared to a highly attractive and charming girl with a strong personality who was preparing to dedicate herself to a life of austerity and devotion to the church at an early age with her parent’s consent.  She stayed with Beuno at his church and flourished in her chosen vocation under his mentorship and teaching.

The legend of St. Winefride

As an attractive girl, she naturally had her share of suitors.  When one of the neighboring princes by the name of Caradoc heard about her he decided he would ask her for her hand in marriage.  When Caradoc arrived with his proposition Winefride was alone as her parents had left early to attend the church where Beuno was celebrating Mass.  Although she told him that she was dedicating her life to the church, he begged and pleaded for her hand in marriage and became angry at her polite but firm rebuttals and he began threatening her.  Winefride became frightened and ran to the church where the Mass was being held hoping she would be safe with her parents and uncle there.

It was not to be.  The rejected and angry Caradoc followed and quickly caught up with her on sloping ground and drawing his sword cut her head off.  Her head rolled down the slope and eventually came to rest.  As soon as it stopped rolling a spring of water bubbled up out of the ground.

On hearing of the terrible murder as he was giving Mass,  Beuno left the church and went to the newly formed spring where her head still lay beside it.  Gently and carefully picking her head up he took it back to her body and kneeling, placed it upon her shoulders and covered the dead Winefride with his cloak.  He then returned to  the church where he prayed to God for her and calmly finished the Mass.  After Mass, he returned to her body and once again kneeling beside her prayed to God and then uncovered her body.   Legend says that Winefride sat up as if she had been in deep sleep, her head firmly on her shoulders with only a thin white scar circling around her throat and neck that showed the signs of her decapitation.

Beuno then turned to Caradoc, who had remained nearby, and called upon God to punish him and according to one legend he was struck dead and swallowed by the ground. However, some historians think that he was killed by Winefride’s brother Owain out of vengeance but whatever happened to Caradoc, Winefride was alive again.  After her resurrection Winefride dedicated herself to God and his church, living in poverty and virginity.  She eventually became the abbess of a convent  and chapel was eventually constructed over the spring.

Saint Winefride’s Well

 

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St Winefride’s Well and Chapel, Holywell – By Tom Pennington – CC BY-SA 2.0

There is a tradition that Beuno left Holywell to live in Caernarvon and then went to Ireland.  Before he did so he seated himself upon a stone that now rests in the outer pool declaring that,

“whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winefride would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.” (1)

Winefride was said to have promised her uncle that as long as she lived at Holywell every year she would send him a token of her love.  Every year she would make him a sleeveless outer garment called a chasuble that Catholic priests wore when celebrating mass, or some other similar gift made from her own hand. This would be placed in the spring and the stream was said to carry the present to him wherever he was in the world.

When Beuno died about eight years later, Winefride, perhaps fearing the encroaching Saxons, sought a new refuge and with her companions moved to Gwytherin not far from the source of the River Elwy and joined a community of nuns established there.   She lived there as a nun  and an acknowledged saint on earth.  She  eventually became abbess and passed away on 3rd of November between 650 to 660.  Her grave became a place of pilgrimage and between 1136 to 1138 her remains were taken to Shrewsbury Abbey and translated.

Winefride became widely revered and Saint Winefride’s Well, at Holywell, became a popular place of pilgrimage.  It was said to have healing powers and called the Welsh Lourdes and is the only place in Britain that has an unbroken record of pilgrimage for over 1300 years.   Today the well is still open most days of the year and people still go there to bathe and there are daily and pilgrims services and Mass on Sundays. Further information can be found on the website of St. Winfride’s Well.

© 17/08/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright August the 17th, 2016 zteve t evans

Welsh legends: The drowned town under Kenfig Pool

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David Lewis [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Kenfig Pool

Not far from Porthcawl, Bridgend in Glamorgan in South Wales lies Kenfig Pool that according to legend has a drowned town beneath its waters.  Kenfig Pool is now part of a Kenfig National Nature Reserve which is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and also a part of an important active sand dune system along the Glamorgan coast.  The original borough of Kenfig was a place of some significance centred around or near Kenfig Castle.  Both castle and town became buried by shifting sands during the late medieval period and the residents resettled further inland.

The drowning of Kenfig

According to local tradition the Kenfig Pool is said to be fed by seven springs and is bottomless. It is actually known to be about 12 feet deep.  There is also supposed to be a whirlpool that drags boaters and swimmers to their doom called Black Gutter.   Another  legend  tells that where the lake now stands there was once a thriving town that sank and became covered by water.

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Welsh folklore: Twm Siôn Cati the trickster

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Twm Sion Cati’s cave – By Hywel Williams – CC BY-SA 2.0

Twm Siôn Cati

Twm Siôn Cati was a real person who entered Welsh folklore for his exploits as an outlaw, thief and a confidence trickster.  There are many stories about him but it is generally agreed he was born around 1530 in the Tregaron area of Wales. His mother was Cati Jones of Tregaron and his father was said to be  Siôn ap Dafydd ap Madog ap Hywel Moetheu.  His mother named him Thomas Jones and he became became popularly known as Twm Siôn Cati.

Twm had hideout known as Sion Cati’s Cave on Dinas Hill above Tregaron. The cave is quite difficult to access requiring a steep climb and is hidden by rocks and trees and overlooks where the River Pysgotwr joins the River Towy.  Many tall stories grew up around him and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction as there are many versions of the same tale.  The following are examples of these tales.

Twm and the highwayman

In one such story Twm is carry a large wad of money gained from his illegal activities and needs to stay overnight in an inn.  It may be that thieves have a way of recognising another thief,  but Twm gets wind of a plot by a highwayman to steal his ill gotten gains.   The next morning Twm prepares his horse making a show of fastening his saddle pack as if it contains something valuable and then rides off.  He has not gone far when he notices the highwayman is shadowing him.  While not letting on he knows the highwayman is there he throws the saddle pack into a nearby pond and then rides off.

The highwayman waits till Twm has disappeared into the distance and then dismounts and wades into the water to find the saddle pack which has sunk to the bottom.  Meanwhile Twm has doubled back and while his adversary is searching the pond Twm steals his horse and rides off with it.  Now the highwayman has trained his horse well and he shouts at it to stop.  After a few apt expletives Twm finds the right words which  set the horse galloping away again and escapes selling the horse for more profit.

Twm and the farmer

Another tale tells how an angry farmer hunted after Twm after he had stolen one of his cows.  The farmer on arriving outside the home of Twm’s mother sees a beggar outside the house and asks him if Twm Siôn Cati lived there.  The beggar tells the farmer that indeed he does live there.  The farmer then asks the beggar to hold his whip and horse while he goes into the house to confront Twm.

The farmer storms into the house looking for Twm but the beggar is really Twm and gallops off full pelt on the  horse straight to the farmer’s house.  Once there he jumps from the horse and rushes to find the farmer’s wife.  He finds her and tells her that the husband is in deep trouble and is in desperate need of money.  To convince her he presents her husband’s horse whip and horse as proof.  Convinced, she gives him the money but instead of taking it to the farmer he rides off to London and sells the horse when he gets there.

Twm and the shopkeeper

On another occasion Twm enrolled the help of a beggar to steal a pot from a shop.  After entering the shop separately Twm began talking to the shopkeeper, saying his pots were not very good, while the beggar looked around as if interested in buying something.  Twm further distracted the shopkeeper by telling him one of the pot had an hole in.  This annoyed the shopkeeper who took great pride in the quality of his wares and began to examine one closely.  Twm told him to put his hand in the pot, which he did and then Twm pointed out that there must be a hole for him to get his hand inside.  Meanwhile with the shopkeeper distracted his accomplice has sneaked off taking the best pot in the place with him.

Twm and the squire’s daughter

Another tale tells how Twm robbed a young woman who was accompanied by her father, a local squire.  According to this, Twm fell in love with the woman at first sight and gave her the jewellery back.  He tried his best to win her affections by conventional means but he was unsuccessful.

However, not being one to give up easily he came up with a more unconventional way. One night when there was a full moon he crept up to her bedroom window, tapped lightly on the pane and when she opened it he grasped her hand tightly.  Kissing it  passionately he refused to let go until she had agreed to be his wife.  Defiantly, the woman refused to accept the proposal. Twm drew his knife and cut her wrist slightly causing it to bleed.  He then told her that unless she promised to marry him he would cut her hand off.

Hardly a romantic moment but she agreed to the marriage, which despite her father’s opposition took place soon after.  Now, some say the woman had been married before to the Sheriff of Carmarthen who had died leaving her a widow.   The Sheriff was said by some to have been Twm’s arch enemy.  Nevertheless, whatever the truth in this, they married.

Respectability

Ironically, it seems that with marriage he eventually gained enough respectability to become a justice of the peace, judging others until his death in 1620.  At some stage he appears to have been given a Royal Pardon by Elizabeth Ist and apart from his outlaw days is remembered as a justice of the peace, bard, Welsh historian, genealogist and a pillar of respectability.

© 13/01/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright January 13th 2016 zteve t evans

The legend of the sunken realm of Tyno Helig of Wales

Around the coasts of the British Isles and many other parts of the world there are many legends that tell of lands and civilizations that have been lost to the sea. The land of Lyonnesse was believed to have lain between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. The city of Ys of Brittany was also said to have succumbed to the sea, and of course there was Atlantis, the most famous of all. Wales also has legends of lands and kingdoms that have sunk below the waves. One such kingdom was Cantre’r Gwaelod and another one was Tyno Helig, that was once a kingdom of northwest Wales. This article will look at the legend of Llys Helig and the lost land of Tyno Helig.

Prince Helig ap Glannawg

In Tyno Helig the ruler, Prince Helig ap Glannawg, had a magnificent palace known simply as Llys Helig which means Helig’s Palace in English. Prince Helig ap Glannawg was believed to have lived in the 6th century and ruled an area that stretched from what is now Flintshire in the east to Conwy in the west and further. Helig’s Palace was thought to be situated in the north of his realm around two miles from the present day coast now submerged below the waters of Conwy Bay.  Read more

The Welsh folktale of King March’s ears

Legends, folktales and mythology often provide a way to look at the human condition and provide lessons that still have value today. The Welsh folktale of March’s ears looks at the subject of physical deformity and gives insight into what is really important in a human being. It is a very old tale and versions of it exist in many parts of the world. The story deals with a number of themes including the shame felt by humans affected by deformity and the urge to conceal it from the world. It helps us come to terms with our own self perceived imperfections and recognize and accept the important qualities in people.

King March

The tale tells how there once lived in Wales a ruler called King March Ab Meirchion. He had a rich palace and court at Castellmarch, Lleyn. March was one of the great sea traders of Britain and his marine time trade was very lucrative. He was the ruler over a rich and prosperous land where the fields were well tilled and produced ample crops for the people. His subjects were happy and worked hard upon the land and were generally content with their lot. They loved their king for his kindness, generous spirit and the justice of his rule. In his palace in a strong room he kept a great treasure trove which was full of pearls, jewels, gold and silver. He had all the wealth and possessions he could possible need and by any reckoning should have been a very happy man, but the truth is he was not. Read more Continue reading

The Welsh legend of Mereid of Cantre’r Gwaelod

Cantre’r Gwaelod was a legendary land situated in Cardigan Bay, Wales, that became flooded by the sea drowning many of its inhabitants and forcing survivors to seek new homes further inland.  There are many different legends which give an account of how this deluge happened and this work looks at the one which casts the blame on a maiden named Mereid, who was responsible for maintaining a sacred well which fed the spirit of a goddess into the land.

Submerged forest, Borth, Ceredigion, Wales – By Richerman – CC BY-SA 3.0

Few people survived the catastrophe that Mereid had let loose.  Seithennin was drowned along with most other inhabitants of the land.  Her father, Gwyddno and his sons survived and a few other people  made it to high ground.  Their descendants scratched out a living among the rugged hills and valleys further inland to the new shoreline. Today, sometimes remnants of the fair land of Cantre’r Gwaelod are sometimes seen at low tides such as the submerged forest near Ynyslas, near Borth, invoking distant memories of a lost land taken by the sea.  Read more Continue reading