Clefyd Yr Ede Wlan Or Yarn Sickness

: Welsh Folk-lore

About twenty years ago, when the writer was curate of Llanwnog,

Montgomeryshire, a young Welsh married woman came to reside in the parish

suffering from what appeared to be that fell disease, consumption. He

visited her in her illness, and one day she appeared much elated as she

had been told that she was improving in health. She told the narrator

that she was suffering from Clwyf yr ede wlan or the woollen thread

kness, and she said that the yarn had lengthened, which was a sign

that she was recovering. The charm was the same as that mentioned above,

supplemented with a drink made of a quart of old beer, into which a piece

of heated steel had been dipped, with an ounce of meadow saffron tied up

in muslin soaked in it, taken in doses daily of a certain prescribed

quantity, and the thread was measured daily, thrice I believe, to see if

she was being cured or the reverse. Should the yarn shorten it was a

sign of death, if it lengthened it indicated a recovery. However,

although the yarn in this case lengthened, the young woman died. The

charm failed.

Sufficient has been said about charms to show how prevalent faith in

their efficiency was. Ailments of all descriptions had their

accompanying antidotes; but it is singularly strange that people

professing the Christian religion should cling so tenaciously to paganism

and its forms, so that even in our own days, such absurdities as charms

find a resting-place in the minds of our rustic population, and often,

even the better-educated classes resort to charms for obtaining cures for

themselves and their animals.

But from ancient times, omens, charms, and auguries have held

considerable sway over the destinies of men. That charming book,

Plutarch's Lives, abounds with instances of this kind. Indeed, an

excellent collection of ancient Folk-lore could easily be compiled from

extant classical authors. Most things die hard, and ideas that have once

made a lodgment in the mind of man, particularly when they are connected

in any way with his faith, die the very hardest of all. Thus it is that

such beliefs as are treated of in this chapter still exist, and they have

reached our days from distant periods, filtered somewhat in their

transit, but still retaining their primitive qualities.

We have not as yet gathered together the fragments of the ancient

religion of the Celts, and formed of them a consistent whole, but

evidently we are to look for them in the sayings and doings of the people

quite as much as in the writings of the ancients. If we could only

ascertain what views were held respecting any particular matter in

ancient times, we might undoubtedly find traces of them even in modern

days. Let us take for instance only one subject, and see whether traces

of it still exist. Caesar in his Commentaries states of the Druids

that, One of their principal maxims is that the soul never dies, but

that after death it passes into the body of another being. This maxim

they consider to be of the greatest utility to encourage virtue and to

make them regardless of life.

Now, is there anything that can be associated with such teaching still to

be found? The various tales previously given of hags turning themselves

and others into various kinds of animals prove that people believed that

such transitions were in life possible, and they had only to go a step

further and apply the same faith to the soul, and we arrive at the

transmigration of souls.

It is not my intention to make too much of the following tale, for it may

be only a shred, but still as such it is worthy of record. A few years

ago I was staying at the Rectory, Erbistock, near Ruabon, and the rector,

the Rev. P. W. Sparling, in course of conversation, said that a

parishioner, one Betsy Roberts, told him that she knew before anyone told

her, that a certain person died at such and such a time. The rector

asked her how she came to know of the death if no one had informed her,

and if she had not been to the house to ascertain the fact. Her answer

was, I knew because I saw a hare come from towards his house and cross

over the road before me. This was about all that the rector could

elicit, but evidently the woman connected the appearance of the hare with

the death of the man. The association of the live hare with the dead man

was here a fact, and possibly in the birthplace of that woman such a

connection of ideas was common. Furthermore, it has often been told me

by people who have professed to have heard what they related, that being

present in the death chamber of a friend they have heard a bird singing

beautifully outside in the darkness, and that it stopped immediately on

the death of their friend. Here again we have a strange connection

between two forms of life, and can this be a lingering Druidic or other

ancient faith?

In the Dictionary of the Welsh Language by the Rev. Canon Silvan Evans,

part i., p. 8, under the word Abred, we have an exhaustive statement on

the subject of transmigration, which I will take the liberty to

transcribe, for it certainly throws light on the matter now treated of.

Abred . . . 1. The state or condition through which, by a regular

upward gradation, all animated beings pass from the lowest point of

existence in which they originate, towards humanity and the highest state

of happiness and perfection. All the states of animation below that of

humanity are necessarily evil; in the state of humanity, good and evil

are equally balanced; and in all the states above humanity, good

preponderates and evil becomes impossible. If man, as a free agent,

attaches himself to evil, he falls in death into such an animal state of

existence as corresponds with the turpitude of his soul, which may be so

great as to cast him down into the lowest point of existence, from which

he shall again return through such a succession of animal existences as

is most proper to divest him of his evil propensities. After traversing

such a course, he will again rise to the probationary state of humanity,

where according to contingencies he may rise or fall; yet, should he

fall, he shall rise again, and should this happen for millions of ages,

the path of happiness is still open to him, and will so remain to all

eternity, for sooner or later he will infallibly arrive at his destined

station or happiness, from which he can never fall. This doctrine of

metamorphosis or evolution, attributed to the Druids and the Welsh bards,

is succinctly but fully stated by its hierophant, Iolo Morganwg, in his

'Poems' (1794), ii., 195-256, and elucidated by documents which had not

previously been made public, but of which none are of an early date.

Thus writes the Welsh lexicographer on this matter. The word abred is

archaic, as is the idea for which it stands; but as already said, very

little has been lost of ideas which were once the property of kindred

races; so here we have no exception to the general rule, though the word

abred and the theory it represented come down to modern times

strengthless, resembling the lifeless mummy of an Egyptian king that once

represented a living people and principle. Still, the word and the idea

it stands for have descended, in form, to our days, and tell us something

about the faith of our forefathers regarding the immortality of the soul.