The Cambro-briton Version Of The Myddvai Legend
Category: MEN CAPTURED BY FAIRIES.
Source: Welsh Folk-lore
A man, who lived in the farm-house called Esgair-llaethdy, in the parish
of Myddvai, in Carmarthenshire, having bought some lambs in a
neighbouring fair, led them to graze near Llyn y Van Vach, on the Black
Mountains. Whenever he visited the lambs, three most beautiful female
figures presented themselves to him from the lake, and often made
excursions on the boundaries of it. For some time he pursued and
endeavoured to catch them, but always failed; for the enchanting nymphs
ran before him, and, when they had reached the lake, they tauntingly
Cras dy fara,
Anhawdd ein dala,
which, with a little circumlocution, means, 'For thee, who eatest baked
bread, it is difficult to catch us.'
One day some moist bread from the lake came to shore. The farmer
devoured it with great avidity, and on the following day he was
successful in his pursuit and caught the fair damsels. After a little
conversation with them, he commanded courage sufficient to make proposals
of marriage to one of them. She consented to accept them on the
condition that he would distinguish her from her two sisters on the
following day. This was a new, and a very great difficulty to the young
farmer, for the fair nymphs were so similar in form and features, that he
could scarcely perceive any difference between them. He observed,
however, a trifling singularity in the strapping of her sandal, by which
he recognized her the following day. Some, indeed, who relate this
legend, say that this Lady of the Lake hinted in a private conversation
with her swain that upon the day of trial she would place herself between
her two sisters, and that she would turn her right foot a little to the
right, and that by this means he distinguished her from her sisters.
Whatever were the means, the end was secured; he selected her, and she
immediately left the lake and accompanied him to his farm. Before she
quitted, she summoned to attend her from the lake seven cows, two oxen,
and one bull.
This lady engaged to live with him until such time as he would strike her
three times without cause. For some years they lived together in
comfort, and she bore him three sons, who were the celebrated Meddygon
One day, when preparing for a fair in the neighbourhood, he desired her
to go to the field for his horse. She said she would; but being rather
dilatory, he said to her humorously, 'dos, dos, dos,' i.e., 'go,
go, go,' and he slightly touched her arm three times with his glove.
As she now deemed the terms of her marriage broken, she immediately
departed, and summoned with her her seven cows, her two oxen, and the
bull. The oxen were at that very time ploughing in the field, but they
immediately obeyed her call, and took the plough with them. The furrow
from the field in which they were ploughing, to the margin of the lake,
is to be seen in several parts of that country to the present day.
After her departure, she once met her two sons in a Cwm, now called Cwm
Meddygon (Physicians' Combe), and delivered to each of them a bag
containing some articles which are unknown, but which are supposed to
have been some discoveries in medicine.
The Meddygon Myddvai were Rhiwallon and his sons, Cadwgan, Gruffydd, and
Einion. They were the chief physicians of their age, and they wrote
about A.D. 1230. A copy of their works is in the Welsh School Library,
in Gray's Inn Lane.
Such are the Welsh Taboo tales. I will now make a few remarks upon them.
The age of these legends is worthy of consideration. The legend of
Meddygon Myddvai dates from about the thirteenth century. Rhiwallon
and his sons, we are told by the writer in the Cambro-Briton, wrote
about 1230 A.D., but the editor of that publication speaks of a
manuscript written by these physicians about the year 1300. Modern
experts think that their treatise on medicine in the Red Book of
Hergest belongs to the end of the fourteenth century, about 1380 to
Dafydd ab Gwilym, who is said to have flourished in the fourteenth
century, says, in one of his poems, as given in the Cambro-Briton, vol.
ii., p. 313, alluding to these physicians:--
Meddyg, nis gwnai modd y gwnaeth
Myddfai, o chai ddyn meddfaeth.
A Physician he would not make
As Myddvai made, if he had a mead fostered man.
It would appear, therefore, that these celebrated physicians lived
somewhere about the thirteenth century. They are described as Physicians
of Rhys Gryg, a prince of South Wales, who lived in the early part of the
thirteenth century. Their supposed supernatural origin dates therefore
from the thirteenth, or at the latest, the fourteenth century.
I have mentioned Y Gwylliaid Cochion, or, as they are generally styled,
Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy, the Red Fairies of Mawddwy, as being of
Fairy origin. The Llanfrothen Legend seems to account for a race of men
in Wales differing from their neighbours in certain features. The
offspring of the Fairy union were, according to the Fairy mother's
prediction in that legend, to have red hair and prominent noses. That a
race of men having these characteristics did exist in Wales is undoubted.
They were a strong tribe, the men were tall and athletic, and lived by
plunder. They had their head quarters at Dinas Mawddwy, Merionethshire,
and taxed their neighbours in open day, driving away sheep and cattle to
their dens. So unbearable did their depredations become that John Wynn
ap Meredydd of Gwydir and Lewis Owen, or as he is called Baron Owen,
raised a body of stout men to overcome them, and on Christmas Eve, 1554,
succeeded in capturing a large number of the offenders, and, there and
then, some hundred or so of the robbers were hung. Tradition says that a
mother begged hard for the life of a young son, who was to be destroyed,
but Baron Owen would not relent. On perceiving that her request was
unheeded, baring her breast she said:--
Y bronau melynion hyn a fagasant y rhai a ddialant waed fy mab, ac a
olchant eu dwylaw yn ngwaed calon llofrudd eu brawd.
These yellow breasts have nursed those who will revenge my son's
blood, and will wash their hands in the heart's blood of the murderer
of their brother.
According to Pennant this threat was carried out by the murder of Baron
Owen in 1555, when he was passing through the thick woods of Mawddwy on
his way to Montgomeryshire Assizes, at a place called to this day
Llidiart y Barwn, the Baron's Gate, from the deed. Tradition further
tells us that the murderers had gone a distance off before they
remembered their mother's threat, and returning thrust their swords into
the Baron's breast, and washed their hands in his heart's blood. This
act was followed by vigorous action, and the banditti were extirpated,
the females only remaining, and the descendants of these women are
occasionally still to be met with in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire.
For the preceding information the writer is indebted to Yr Hynafion
Cymreig, pp. 91-94, Archaeologia Cambrensis, for 1854, pp. 119-20,
Pennant, vol. ii, pp. 225-27, ed. Carnarvon, and the tradition was told
him by the Revd. D. James, Vicar of Garthbeibio, who likewise pointed out
to him the very spot where the Baron was murdered.
But now, who were these Gwylliaid? According to the hint conveyed by
their name they were of Fairy parentage, an idea which a writer in the
Archaeologia Cambrensis, vol. v., 1854, p. 119, intended, perhaps, to
throw out. But according to Brut y Tywysogion, Myf. Arch., p. 706,
A.D. 1114, Denbigh edition, the Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy began in the
time of Cadwgan ab Bleddyn ab Cynvyn.
From Williams's Eminent Welshmen, we gather that Prince Cadwgan died in
1110, A.D., and, according to the above-mentioned Brut, it was in his
days that the Gwylliaid commenced their career, if not their existence.
Unfortunately for this beginning of the red-headed banditti of Mawddwy,
Tacitus states in his Life of Agricola, ch. xi., that there were in
Britain men with red hair who he surmises were of German extraction. We
must, therefore, look for the commencement of a people of this
description long before the twelfth century, and the Llanfrothen legend
either dates from remote antiquity, or it was a tale that found in its
wanderings a resting place in that locality in ages long past.
From a legend recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis, which shall by and by be
given, it would seem that a priest named Elidorus lived among the Fairies
in their home in the bowels of the earth, and this would be in the early
part of the twelfth century. The question arises, is the priest's tale
credible, or did he merely relate a story of himself which had been
ascribed to some one else in the traditions of the people? If his tale
is true, then, there lived even in that late period a remnant of the
aborigines of the country, who had their homes in caves. The Myddvai
Legend in part corroborates this supposition, for that story apparently
belongs to the thirteenth century.
It is difficult to fix the date of the other legends here given, for they
are dressed in modern garbs, with, however, trappings of remote times.
Probably all these tales have reached, through oral tradition, historic
times, but in reality they belong to that far-off distant period, when
the prehistoric inhabitants of this island dwelt in Lake-habitations, or
in caves. And the marriage of Fairy ladies, with men of a different
race, intimates that the more ancient people were not extirpated, but
were amalgamated with their conquerors.
Many Fairy tales in Wales are associated with lakes. Fairy ladies emerge
from lakes and disappear into lakes. In the oriental legend Pururavas
came upon his absconding wife in a lake. In many Fairy stories lakes
seem to be the entrance to the abodes of the Fairies. Evidently,
therefore, those people were lake-dwellers. In the lakes of Switzerland
and other countries have been discovered vestiges of Lake-villages
belonging to the Stone Age, and even to the Bronze Age. Perhaps those
that belong to the Stone Age are the most ancient kind of human abodes
still traceable in the world. In Ireland and Scotland these kinds of
dwellings have been found. I am not in a position to say that they have
been discovered in Wales; but some thirty years ago Mr. Colliver, a
Cornish gentleman, told the writer that whilst engaged in mining
operations near Llyn Llydaw he had occasion to lower the water level of
that lake, when he discovered embedded in the mud a canoe formed out of
the trunk of a single tree. He saw another in the lake, but this he did
not disturb, and there it is at the present day. The late Professor
Peter of Bala believed that he found traces of Lake-dwellings in Bala
Lake, and the people in those parts have a tradition that a town lies
buried beneath its waters--a tradition, indeed, common to many lakes. It
is not therefore unlikely that if the lakes of Wales are explored they
will yield evidences of lake-dwellers, and, however unromantic it may
appear, the Lady of the Van Lake was only possibly a maiden snatched from
her watery home by a member of a stronger race.
In these legends the lady does not seem to evince much love for her
husband after she has left him. Possibly he did not deserve much, but
towards her children she shows deep affection. After the husband is
deserted, the children are objects of her solicitation, and they are
visited. The Lady of the Van Lake promised to meet her son whenever her
counsel or aid was required. A like trait belongs to the Homeric
goddesses. Thetis heard from her father's court far away beneath the
ocean the terrible sounds of grief that burst from her son Achilles on
hearing of the death of his dear friend Patroclus, and quickly ascended
to earth all weeping to learn what ailed her son. These Fairy ladies
also show a mother's love, immortal though they be.
The children of these marriages depart not with their mother, they remain
with the father, but she takes with her her dowry. Thus there are many
descendants of the Lady of the Van Lake still living in South Wales, and
as Professor Rhys remarks--This brings the legend of the Lady of the Van
Lake into connection with a widely spread family; and, it may be added,
shows that the Celts on their advent to Wales found it inhabited by a
race with whom they contracted marriages.
The manner in which the lady is seized when dancing in the Ystrad Legend
calls to mind the strategy of the tribe of Benjamin to secure wives for
themselves of the daughters of Shiloh according to the advice of the
elders who commanded them,--Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and
see, and behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances,
then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you everyone his wife of the
daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin, Judges, ch. xxi.
The rape of the Sabine women, who were seized by the followers of Romulus
on a day appointed for sacrifice and public games, also serves as a
precedent for the action of those young Welshmen who captured Fairy wives
whilst enjoying themselves in the dance.
It is a curious fact, that a singular testimony to wife snatching in
ancient times is indicated by a custom once general, and still not
obsolete in South Wales, of a feigned attempt on the part of the friends
of the young woman about to get married to hinder her from carrying out
her object. The Rev. Griffith Jones, Vicar of Mostyn, informed the
writer that he had witnessed such a struggle. The wedding, he stated,
took place at Tregaron, Cardiganshire. The friends of both the young
people were on horseback, and according to custom they presented
themselves at the house of the young woman, the one to escort her to the
church, and the other to hinder her from going there. The friends of the
young man were called Gwyr shegouts. When the young lady was
mounted, she was surrounded by the gwyr shegouts, and the cavalcade
started. All went on peaceably until a lane was reached, down which the
lady bolted, and here the struggle commenced, for her friends dashed
between her and her husband's friends and endeavoured to force them back,
and thus assist her to escape. The parties, Mr. Jones said, rode
furiously and madly, and the struggle presented a cavalry charge, and it
was not without much apparent danger that the opposition was overcome,
and the lady ultimately forced to proceed to the church, where her future
husband was anxiously awaiting her arrival. This strange custom of
ancient times and obscure origin is suggestive of the way in which the
stronger party procured wives in days of old.
Before the marriage of the Fairy lady to the mortal takes place, the
father of the lady appears on the scene, sometimes as a supplicant, and
at others as a consenting party to the inevitable marriage, but never is
he depicted as resorting to force to rescue his daughter. This
pusillanimity can only be reasonably accounted for by supposing that the
little man was physically incapable of encountering and overcoming by
brute force the aspirant to the hand of his daughter. From this conduct
we must, I think, infer that the Fairy race were a weak people bodily,
unaccustomed and disinclined to war. Their safety and existence
consisted in living in the inaccessible parts of the mountains, or in
lake dwellings far removed from the habitations of the stronger and
better equipped race that had invaded their country. In this way they
could, and very likely did, occupy parts of Wales contemporaneously with
their conquerors, who, through marriage, became connected with the mild
race, whom they found in possession of the land.
In the Welsh legends the maid consents to wed her capturer, and remain
with him until he strikes her with iron. In every instance where this
stipulation is made, it is ultimately broken, and the wife departs never
to return. It has been thought that this implies that the people who
immediately succeeded the Fair race belonged to the Iron Age, whilst the
fair aborigines belonged to the Stone or Bronze age, and that they were
overcome by the superior arms of their opponents, quite as much as by
their greater bodily strength. Had the tabooed article been in every
instance iron, the preceding supposition would have carried with it
considerable weight, but as this is not the case, all that can be said
positively is, that the conquerors of the Fair race were certainly
acquainted with iron, and the blow with iron that brought about the
catastrophe was undoubtedly inflicted by the mortal who had married the
Fairy lady. Why iron should have been tabooed by the Fairy and her
father, must remain an open question. But if we could, with reason,
suppose, that that metal had brought about their subjugation, then in an
age of primitive and imperfect knowledge, and consequent deep
superstition, we might not be wrong in supposing that the subjugated race
would look upon iron with superstitious dread, and ascribe to it
supernatural power inimical to them as a race. They would under such
feelings have nothing whatever to do with iron, just as the benighted
African, witnessing for the first time the effects of a gun shot, would,
with dread, avoid a gun. By this process of reasoning we arrive at the
conclusion that the Fairy race belonged to a period anterior to the Iron
With one remark, I will bring my reflections on the preceding legends to
an end. Polygamy apparently was unknown in the distant times we are
considering. But the marriage bond was not indissoluble, and the
initiative in the separation was taken by the woman.
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