Birds And Beasts

: Welsh Folk-lore

Folk-lore respecting animals is common in Wales. It has been supposed

that mountainous countries are the cradles of superstitions. But this

is, at least, open to a doubt; for most places perpetuate these strange

fancies, and many of them have reached our days from times of old, and

the exact country whence they came is uncertain. Still, it cannot be

denied that rugged, rocky, sparsely inhabited uplands, moorlands, and

> fens, are congenial abodes for wild fancies, that have their foundation

in ignorance, and are perpetuated by the credulity of an imaginative

people that lead isolated and solitary lives.

The bleating of the sheep, as they wander over a large expanse of barren

mountain land, is dismal indeed, and well might become ominous of storms

and disasters. The big fat sheep, which are penned in the lowlands of

England, with a tinkling bell strapped to the neck of the king of the

flock, convey a notion of peace and plenty to the mind of the spectator,

that the shy active mountain sheep, with their angry grunt and stamping

of their feet never convey. Still, these latter are endowed with an

instinct which the English mutton-producer does not exercise. Welsh

sheep become infallible prognosticators of a change of weather; for, by a

never failing instinct, they leave the high and bare mountain ridges for

sheltered nooks, and crowd together when they detect the approach of a

storm. Man does not observe atmospheric changes as quickly as sheep do,

and as sheep evidently possess one instinct which is strongly developed

and exercised, it is not unreasonable to suppose that man in a low state

of civilisation might credit animals with possessing powers which, if

observed, indicate or foretell other events beside storms.

Thus the lowly piping of the solitary curlew, the saucy burr of the

grouse, the screech of the owl, the croaking of the raven, the flight of

the magpie, the slowly flying heron, the noisy cock, the hungry seagull,

the shrill note of the woodpecker, the sportive duck, all become omens.

Bird omens have descended to us from remote antiquity. Rome is credited

with having received its pseudo-science of omens from Etruria, but whence

came it there? This semi-religious faith, like a river that has its

source in a far distant, unexplored mountain region, and meanders through

many countries, and does not exclusively belong to any one of the lands

through which it wanders; so neither does it seem that these credulities

belong to any one people or age; and it is difficult, if not impossible,

to trace to their origin, omens, divination, magic, witchcraft, and other

such cognate matters, which seem to belong to man's nature.

Readers of Livy remember how Romulus and Remus had recourse to bird omens

to determine which of the brothers should build Rome. Remus saw six

vultures, and Romulus twelve; therefore, as his number was the greater,

to him fell the honour of building the famous city.

But this was not the only bird test known to the Romans. Before a battle

those people consulted their game fowl to ascertain whether or not

victory was about to attend their arms. If the birds picked up briskly

the food thrown to them victory was theirs, if they did so sluggishly the

omen was unpropitious, and consequently the battle was delayed.

Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, gives us many proofs of that great

general's credulity. The historian says:--Upon his (Alexander's)

approach to the walls (of Babylon) he saw a great number of crows

fighting, some of which fell down dead at his feet. This was a bad

sign. But I will not pursue the subject. Enough has been said to prove

how common omens were. I will now confine my remarks to Wales.