The Cambro-briton Version Of The Myddvai Legend


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

o 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.