Cylch Blodeuwedd

Druidic Grove in North-West Wales

Away with the fairies?

by Oak King - October 18th, 2010.
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In the days before industrialisation and the coming of the railway rural Wales, especially her western upland areas, was still very much closed off from the rest of Britain. Generally, people lived and worked in the same place all their lives, knew everyone and everything, walked to where ever they had to go to and word of mouth was the most common way news travelled.

In this setting ancient customs and traditions were kept alive and tales of awe and wonder were passed down from generation to generation. The belief in fairies was widespread and in many parts of Wales fairy mythology flourished. People easily shared their world with beings from the unseen world and from the reports that have come down to us it becomes clear that they wanted to be taken seriously. When in the 19th century the world of industry and commerce began to literally make inroads into into rural Wales the native population was eager not to be seen eccentric and, in order to conform with the ‘sophisticated’ incomers, all too easily let go of much of their rich traditions and deeply held beliefs. It is down to folklorists and antiquarians such as Sir John Rhys and David Jenkins, who towards the end of that century collected and wrote down a good deal of these oral traditions, that we are able to get a glimpse into the belief system of our forebears today.

In parts of South Wales (Dyfed) the fairies used to be known as Plant Rhys Dwfn, meaning The Children of Rhys of the Deep, which marks them quite clearly as being rooted in the Celtic otherworld of Annwn, also referred to in English as The Deep. In Glamorgan they were also called Bendith y Mamau, literally The Blessing of the Mothers for it was seen as a blessing to be on good terms with them. Their most common name though is Y Tylwyth Teg, the Fair or Beautiful Family which does them far more justice than the word fairy with its associations of Victorian fancy. Even the often employed term Fair Folk seems rather incorrect in that it does not relate to the belief in ancestral spirits which only the term Fair Family mirrors, for these fairies are of an ancient and robust kind. In his 1880 book British Goblins Wirt Sikes, an American who came to Cardiff as a consul and later settled in Wales, undertook a classification of Welsh fairies according to their kind of habitat. Thus we have the Ellyllon (elves of the groves and valleys), the Coblynau (mine fairies), the Bwbachod (household fairies), the Gwragedd Annwn (fairies of the lakes and streams) and the Gwyllion (mountain fairies), all of which displaying their very own characteristics.

The following distinction of the types of fairy is to be found in Sir John Rhys’ volume Celtic Folklore, first published in 1901. Drawing on earlier articles by William Jones of Llangollen, whom he calls ‘the best living authority on the folklore of Beddgelert, Drws-y-Coed and surrounding districts’, he says that ‘in some places the Tylwyth Teg are described as a small folk of a thieving nature, living in summer among the fern bushes in the mountains and in winter in the gorse and heather. These were wont to frequent the fairs and to steal money from farmer’s pockets, where they placed in its stead their own fairy money which looked like the coin of the realm but when it was paid for anything bought it would vanish in the pockets of the seller’. In other districts the fairies were described as ‘a little bigger and stronger folk, but these were also of a thieving disposition. They would lurk around people’s houses, looking for an opportunity to steal butter and cheese from the dairies and they skulked around the cow-yards in order to milk the cows and goats which they did so thoroughly that many a morning there was not a drop of milk to be had. The principal mischief however which those used to do was the carrying off of unbaptized infants and place in their stead their own wretched and peevish offspring’. That kind of fairie was said to live in caves in the mountains. He then goes on to say that ‘there is yet a third species of Tylwyth Teg, quite unlike the other two. Not only was this kind far more beautiful and comely than the others but they were also kind and honest towards mortals. Their whole nature was replete with joy and fun and hardly ever were they beheld other than engaged in some sort of merrymaking or another. They might be seen on bright moonlit nights, singing and carolling on the fair meadows and green slopes. Although they were spiritual and immortal beings, they still ate and drank like humans, married and had children. This kind of fairie was believed to live underground and the entrance to their world lay under hollow banks that overhung the deepest parts of lakes and rivers so that mortals could not follow them if they tried. They were also known for their cleanliness and rewarding neat maidservants and hospitable house wives’.

The latter is is a characteristic that features in many a tale. Mistresses would insist that their maidens clean the house thoroughly before going to bed to be sure that, if the Tylwyth Teg entered the house during the night, they would leave some pay on the hob. Sometimes a tin of water was left by the stairs and a clean cloth on the table with bread and cheese on it. In any case, even if they didn’t come, the house would be clean and tidy for the next morning.

Their liking of cheese is also found in one version of the well known tale of the Meddygon Myddfai (Physicians of Myddfai). Here the farmer sees the Lady of the Lake rowing up and down the lake in a golden boat with golden oars for many a night without her answering his call to become his wife. Stricken with desire for the beauty, he went for counsel to a soothsayer who dwelt in the mountains and recommended that he should entice the damsel with gifts of bread and cheese which he begun to do on Midsummer’s eve. But only when the next New Year’s Eve he floated seven of his best loaves of bread and his biggest, handsomest cheese on the water did she come ashore and agree to be his wife.

For mortals to marry a fairy was nothing so unusual in many districts of Wales but in all these cases she would return to her own world before too long. The story of the farmer’s son of Drws-y-Coed in Eryri (Snowdonia) who fell in love with one of the Tylwyth Teg contains a couple of unique elements though. One is that the young man actually seeks the permission of her father to marry his daughter which he readily gets, albeit on the usual condition that he should not strike his fairy wife with iron. As in all these tales, the inevitable happens one day when they both ride along near a lake and her horse slips into a bog to his belly. As he tries to help her onto his own horse her knee touches the iron stirrup, so then fairy song is heard nearby and before they reach their home she had disappeared back into fairyland. The other specific feature, linking the story clearly to Llyn y Dywarchen (Lake of the Sod or Turf) close by, is that the fairy and her mother devised a method which allowed her to still converse with her husband and her children, a beautiful girl and boy. As according to the laws of her own country she was no longer allowed to walk the earth with a mortal being they floated a large piece of turf from by the overhanging bank of the lake, where the gateway to their world was and, sitting on it for many hours, she was able to converse with her husband at the lake’s shore, which she did until the day he drew his last breath. It is said that their descendants owned Drws-y-Coed for many generations and that they intermarried with the people of the district. They were to be recognised by their light and fair complexion. In fact, many a fight was apparently caused at fairs at Dolbenmaen or Penmorfa when the men of the district of Eifionydd used to call their neighbours from the Pennant area ‘Bellisians’, for the name of the lady is also given as Bella.

During the last two decades of the 19th century John Rhys, for many years headteacher on the Isle of Anglesey and later the ‘first professor of Celtic at Oxford’, collected many tales of encounters with the Tylwyth Teg in the Lleyn peninsula. There the Fair Family showed the habit of borrowing padell a gradell to bake their bread at night. A gradell is a kind of round iron on which the dough is put and a padell some form of pan to put over it, back then still commonly used to bake a good loaf. Hence many good house wives would after their own baking leave these utensils out for the fairies to use who would in turn pay a reward by leaving them a loaf.

But there, as in many other places of Wales, the fairies were also feared for their stealing of infants and replacing them with their own offspring which at first was an exact look-a-like but quickly aged and grew exceedingly ugly. Many struggles took place to recover the stolen child with one method being to place the fairy infant on the floor and everyone present in the house to throw a piece of metal at it, which always worked to convince the Tylwyth Teg of their intention to kill the changeling and induced them to bring the right child back. A notable character, thought of by many to be a changeling, was a certain Elis Bach of Nant Gwrtheyrn below the iron age hill fort of Tre’r Ceiri. His father was a farmer there and his children were like ordinary folks, except Elis who was deformed with legs so short that his body seemed only inches off the ground when he walked. He had a squeaky voice but was of sharp wit and found his way among the rocks easily when searching for his father’s sheep and goats. What he is most remembered for is that, when his parents had guests for dinner and urged them to eat, Elis would squeak ‘Buta ‘nynna buta’r cwbwl’, meaning ‘Eating that means eating all we have’.

Not only infants were at risk of being kidnapped by the Tylwyth Teg but also young men were easily seduced and drawn into their world. Although some reports speak of mortal children happily playing with those of the fairies and farmers exchanging friendly words with the some of the Tylwyth in broad daylight, it was the nights of the full moon when they were in their element, emerging at midnight to sing and dance till cock-crow and in many locations the villagers were said to have sat and watched their frolics for hours. But when a young man, besotted with the beauty of their damsels, got too close then they could get drawn into their circle and a spell put onto them that made them invisible. The only way of getting him out of there was for the others to hold a long pole of mountain ash into their circle, because the fairies can not touch that, and when the young man came round he could get hold of the pole and be pulled out. But that had to be achieved before cock-crow or else he might spend many years with them, often thinking it’s only been minutes for they do not have the dimension of time. In that they truly do live in Annwn, the old Celtic otherworld rather than in the hills of Wales.

If it wasn’t their dancing that enchanted mortals then it was the fairies’ music that seduced them. The harp is said to have been played most widely, sometimes a fiddle was also heard and on grand occasions the sounding of a bugle. A recurring feature of their music was that it proved impossible for mortals to learn the tunes and quite often it was only just heard dying away as the fairies made off again over the mountains. But a few inspired souls obviously did manage to memorize some of their songs. Going back to the year 1881, John Rhys relates how the grandmother of the author Craigfryn Hughes used to recite and sing one that began like this:

Canu, canu, drwy y nos,

Dawnsio, dawnsio, ar Waen y Rhos

Y’ ngoleuni’r lleuad dlos:

Hapus ydym ni!

Pawb ohonom sydd yn llon

Heb un gofid dan ei fron:

Canu, dawnsio, ar y ton,

Dedwydd ydym ni!

Singing, singing, through the night,

Dancing, dancing, with our might,

Where the moon the moor doth light

Happy ever we!

One and all of merry mien,

Without sorrow are we seen,

Singing, dancing, on the green,

Gladsome ever we!

As for the language of the fairies, in most parts of Wales it seemed to have been the language of the district but from the Lleyn peninsula, pointing westwards like a finger towards Ireland, two different stories have been handed down to us. An old woman, who lived at Glan y Gors farm near Edern, had gone to a fair at Criccieth when on the way home she beheld a great crowd of men and women coming towards her. Stepping somewhat fearfully across a fence she let them pass and then continued on her way. Soon after another crowd of people appeared and so she crossed the fence again and stayed there until she could be sure they had gone. She was close enough to hear them talking and chatting but not a single word could she understand. It was not Welsh and she didn’t think it was English either, although it is likely that she did not even know English. She thought that the second crowd shouted ‘Wi’ to the one ahead who replied ‘Wi Wei’ or something similar. John Rhys interprets this incident as a Welsh phantom wedding march where the last crowd is on the heels of the first one who had kidnapped the bride.

At Perth y Celyn farm, also near Edern, lived a man by the name of Griffith Griffiths who was known for both his bodily strength and his great piety. One day, when he was in his prime, he set out on foot at two in the morning to walk to Caernarfon in order to pay his rent. When he got to Bwlch Trwyn Swncwll, where the road crosses between the three peaks of Yr Eifl mountains, what should he hear but a great deal of talking and then he saw a crowd of little men and little women fearlessly coming his way. He moved to a ditch to let them pass by and although they spoke loudly he could not understand a single word. He too thought that it was neither Welsh nor English but he believed them to be the Tylwyth Teg. Knowing that fairies are rather conservative and do knot know the pressure of ‘moving with the times’ it stands to reason that they spoke a far more ancient language and with well documented periods of immigration by settlers from Ireland this could well have been Goidelic, if not an even earlier idiom. The belief held by some that the old hill fort of Tre’r Ceiri, which tops one of these hills, was inhabited by a mixed race of Goidels and Picts would support that supposition.

Which brings us to the question of race. With our modern way of thinking we are most likely to rank the fairy races among nature spirits or elemental beings, visible to those whose consciousness is able to reach beyond the physical sphere. Writing during the later Victorian age, Wirt Sikes relates the two most common theories in his days as to the origin of the fairies. Not surprising that in a Wales dominated by non-conformist chapels in every village, the most widespread belief was that the Tylwyth Teg were the souls of mortals not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell. Condemned to live on earth, in secret places, they were thought of either incessantly toiling without ever harvesting the fruits of their labour or playing without ever getting any satisfaction out of it, and finally to be admitted to paradise on Resurrection day.

Another, both interesting and somewhat curious belief, first voiced at the close of the 18th century by a certain Reverend Peter Roberts, was that the Tylwyth Teg were the ancient Druids, hiding from their enemies. A variation of this notion, based on countless hostile landings of Irish settlers in Wales, was that the fairies represented small portions of these peoples either left behind or unable to return. Forced to live in caverns for fear of discovery they would send out their children at night in fanciful dress, for food and other provisions, thus securing themselves. But the customs of the fairies were considered too systematic and general to be an expression of a race reduced to distress and so the Druid version was favoured. To support this reasoning, Wirt quotes Roberts, author of the Collectanea Cambrica, stating that the customs of the Tylwyth Teg were ‘those of a consistent and regular policy instituted to prevent discovery, and to inspire fear of their power and a high opinion of their beneficence.’ Whatever one might think of the fairies, John Rhys rightly held that ‘As a reality to those who believed in them, the superstitions of our ancestors form an integral part of their history …. and it is a mark of an uncultured people not to know or not to care to know the history of the race.’

Returning to our time, knowledge has produced enough scepticism to generally replace faith, including that in the fairies, but who amongst us would not sometimes remember the innocence of childhood and feel a longing for a world less matter-of-fact, less practical, less commonplace and less subject to natural laws and their scientific explanation and find joy and comfort in fairy mythology with all it’s dramas, it’s wonders, it’s dreams and it’s delights. The contemporary author of many books on the history and mythology of Wales, Michael Senior, relates how in the second half of the 1990’s he was involved in a TV programme marking the centenary of the opening of the Snowdon mountain railway, where he was told in all seriousness of the negative effect it had on the Tylwyth Teg. Not being able to cross the continuous line of iron, the fairies of the southern slopes became confined and caused trouble in the valleys further south. The recent re-opening of the Welsh Highland narrow gauge railway that runs through the nearby Nant Colwyn valley, which was known to the old people of the area as Gwlad y Tylwyth Teg (Land of the fairies), may well have given rise to similar problems. Having made that journey myself not long ago, it did not take much effort for me to realize why the area came to be associated with the Fair Family.

One other person that I could name as a believer in the Tylwyth Teg in our days is my good friend and neighbour Alison. At the top of her garden she keeps a Fairy ring, a patch of grass that she never mows and that no-one is allowed in. Generally, wherever in the open Welsh countryside there is a circle of grass greener than its surroundings it is believed that is where the fairies dance and a misfortune might befall anyone entering it. But then, Wirt Sikes tells us that the Welsh sheep are the only beasts to eat the grass inside the fairy rings. All other creatures avoid it, but the sheep eat it greedily and hence the assumed superiority of Welsh mutton over all other.

In almost all reports of encounters with the Tylwyth Teg the information appears second hand, usually belonging to the previous one or two generations. That way the Fair Family always stays just beyond our direct grip, just as we can never touch a rainbow. Perhaps that is where the fascination in their exploits lies. And just like the appearance of a rainbow has its explanation, the tales of the Tylwyth Teg are more than idle nonsense of our childhood years and there are sufficient reasons for them to be in the world. Being firmly rooted in ancient mythology, they stretch our imagination, thus opening the gates to a world far greater than the one we can see with our eyes. May we continue to respect them!

Bibliography:

Rhys, John: Celtic Folklore, Oxford, 1901

Jenkins, David: Bedd Gelert, Pothmadoc, 1899

Sikes, Wirt: British Goblins, Pennsylvania, 1880

Senior, Michael: Faithful Hound, Llanwrst 2009

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