THE SPIRIT OF THE VAN
AMONG the mountains of Carmarthen, lies a beautiful and romantic piece of water, named The Van Pools. Tradition relates, that after midnight, on New Year's Eve, there appears on this lake a being named The Spirit of the Van. She is dressed in a white robe, bound by a golden girdle; her hair is long and golden, her face is pale and melancholy; she sits in a golden boat, and manages a golden oar.
Many years ago there lived in the vicinity of this lake a young farmer, who having heard much of the beauty of this spirit, conceived a most ardent desire to behold her, and be satisfied of the truth. On the last night of the year, he therefore went to the edge of the lake, which lay calm and bright beneath the rays of the full moon, and waited anxiously for the first hour of the New Year. It came, and then he beheld the object of his wishes gracefully guiding her golden gondola to and fro over the lake. The moon at length sank behind the mountains, the stars grew dim at the approach of dawn, and the fair spirit was on the point of vanishing, when, unable to restrain himself, he called aloud to her to stay and be his wife; but with a faint cry she faded from his view. Night after night he now might be seen pacing the shores of the lake, but all in vain. His farm was neglected, his person wasted away, and gloom and melancholy were impressed on his features. At length he confided his secret to one of the mountain-sages, whose counsel was--a Welsh one, by the way--to assail the fair spirit with gifts of cheese and bread! The counsel was followed; and on Midsummer Eve the enamoured swain went down to the lake, and let fall into it a large cheese and a loaf of bread. But all was vain; no spirit rose. Still he fancied that the spot where he had last seen her shone with more than wonted brightness, and that a musical sound vibrated among the rocks. Encouraged by these signs, he night after night threw in loaves and cheeses, but still no spirit came. At length New Year's Eve returned. He dressed himself in his best, took his largest cheese and seven of his whitest loaves, and repaired to the lake. At the turn of midnight, he dropped them slowly one by one into the water, and then remained in silent expectation. The moon was hid behind a cloud, but by the faint light she gave, he saw the magic skiff appear, and direct its course for where he stood. Its owner stepped ashore, and hearkened to the young man's vows, and consented to become his wife. She brought with her as her dower flocks and herds, and other rural wealth. One charge she gave him, never to strike her, for the third time he should do so she would vanish.
They married, and were happy. After three or four years they were invited to a christening, and to the surprise of all present, in the midst of the ceremony, the spirit burst into tears. Her husband gave an angry glance, and asked her why she thus made a fool of herself? She replied, "The poor babe is entering in a world of sin and sorrow, and misery lies before it; why should I rejoice?" He gave her a push. She warned him that he had struck her once. Again they were, after some time, invited to attend the funeral of that very child. The spirit now laughed, and danced, and sang. Her husband's wrath was excited, and he asked her why she thus made a fool of herself? "The babe," she said, "has left a world of sin and sorrow, and escaped the misery that was before it, and is gone to be good and happy for ever and ever. Why, then, should I weep?" He gave her a push from him, and again she warned him. Still they lived happily as before. At length they were invited to a wedding, where the bride was young and fair, the husband a withered old miser. In the midst of the festivity, the spirit burst into a copious flood of tears, and to her husband's angry demand of why she thus made a fool of herself, she replied in the hearing of all, "Because summer and winter cannot agree. Youth is wedded to age for paltry gold. I see misery here, and tenfold misery hereafter, to be the lot of both. It is the devil's compact." Forgetful of her warnings, the husband now thrust her from him with real anger. She looked at him tenderly and reproachfully, and said, "You have struck me for the third and last time. Farewell!"
So saying, she left the place. He rushed out after her, and just reached his home in time to see her speeding to the lake, followed by all her flocks and herds. He pursued her, but in vain; his eyes never more beheld her. [a]
As far as we have been able to learn, the belief in Fairies is confined in Wales to the southern counties of Glamorgan, Carmarthen, and Pembroke, the parts into which the Saxons had penetrated farthest, and where they of course had exercised most influence. In these counties the popular belief in these beings is by no means yet extinct, and their attributes in the creed of the Welsh peasant are similar to those of their British and Irish kindred.
The usual name given to the fairies in these parts of Wales, is Y Dynon Bach Têg, i. e. The Little Fair People. Ellyll, in the plural Ellyllon, also signifies an Elf, from which word, indeed, it may have been derived. The bells of the Digitalis or fox-glove are called Menyg Ellylon, or the Elves'-gloves; in Ireland, also, they are connected with the fairies. The toadstools or poisonous mushrooms are named Bwyd Ellyllon, or Elves'-food. Perhaps, however, it is not the large ugly toadstools that are so named, but those pretty small delicate fungi, with their conical heads, which are named Fairy-mushrooms in Ireland, where they grow so plentifully. Finally, there was formerly in the park of Sir Robert Vaughan a celebrated old oak-tree, named Crwbenyr-Ellyll, or The Elf's Hollow-tree. The popular belief respecting these Ellyllon is, that they are the souls of the ancient Druids, who, being too good for relegation to Hell, and too evil for re-admittance to Heaven, are permitted to wander among men upon earth till the last day, when they also will enter on a higher state of being. [b]
The legends of which we will now proceed to give a specimen, were collected and published in the latter half of the eighteenth century, by a Welsh clergyman, who seems to have entertained no doubt whatever of the truth of the adventures contained in them. [c]
The two daughters of a respectable farmer in the parish of Bedweilty were one day out hay-making with their man and maid servant and a couple of their neighbours, when on a hill, about quarter of a mile distant, they saw a large flock of sheep. Soon after, they saw them going up to a place half a mile off, and then going out of their sight as if they vanished in the air. About half-an-hour before sunset, they saw them again, but not all alike; for some saw them like sheep, some like greyhounds, some like swine, and some like naked infants. They appeared in the shade of the mountain between them and the sun, and the first sight was as if they rose out of the earth. "This was a notable appearance of the fairies, seen by credible witnesses. The sons of infidelity are very unreasonable not to believe the testimonies of so many witnesses of the being of spirits."
E. T. going home by night over Bedwellty Mountains, saw the fairies on each side of him. Some of them were dancing. He also heard the sound of a bugle-horn, as if people were hunting. He began to grow afraid, but recollecting to have heard that if on seeing the fairies, you draw out your knife, they will vanish, he did so, and saw them no more. "This the old gentleman sincerely related to me. He was a sober man, and of the strictest veracity."
A young man having gone early one morning to a barn to feed oxen, when he had done, lay down on the hay to rest. As he lay he heard the sound of music approaching the barn, and presently came in a large company, wearing striped clothes (some more gay than others), and commenced dancing to their music. He lay quite still, thinking to escape their notice; but a woman, better dressed than the others, came up to him with a striped cushion, with a tassel at each corner, and put it under his head. Some time after, a cock was heard to crow, which seemed either to surprise or displease them, and they hastily drew the cushion from under his head, and went away.
P. W., "an honest virtuous woman," related that one time, when she was a little girl on her way to school, she saw the fairies dancing under a crab-tree. As they appeared to be children of her own size, and had small pleasant music, she went and joined in their exercise, and then took them to dance in an empty barn. This she continued to do for three or four years. As she never could hear the sound of their feet, she always took off her shoes, supposing noise to be displeasing to them. They were of small stature, looked rather old, and wore blue and green aprons. Her grandfather, who kept school in the parish-church, used, when going home from it late in the evening, to see the fairies dancing under an oak, within two or three fields of the church.
The learned writer gives finally a letter to himself, from a "pious young gentleman" of Denbighshire, dated March 24, 1772, in which he informs him, that about fifteen years before, as himself, his sister, and two other little girls were playing at noon of a summer's day in a field, they saw a company of dancers, about seventy yards from them. Owing to the rapidity of their whirling motions, they could not count them, but guessed them at fifteen or sixteen. They were in red, like soldiers, with red handkerchiefs spotted with yellow, on their heads. As they were gazing and wondering at them, one of the dancers came running towards them. The children, in a fright, made for an adjacent stile. The girls got over, but the boy was near being caught, and on looking back when over, he saw the red man stretching his arms after him over the stile, which it would seem he had not the power to cross. When they came to the house, which was close at hand, they gave the alarm, and people went out to search the fields, but could see nothing. The little man was very grim-looking, with a topper-coloured face. His running-pace was rather slow, but he took great strides for one of his size.
The following legends were collected in 1827, in the Vale of Neath, in Glamorganshire, by a lady with whom we became acquainted when travelling through North Wales, in the preceding autumn. [d]
An old woman assured our fair friend, that she one time, many years before, saw the fairies to the number of some hundreds. They were very small, were mounted on little white horses, not bigger than dogs, and rode four a-breast. It was almost dusk at the time, and they were not a quarter of a mile from her. Another old woman said that her father had often seen the fairies riding in the air on little white horses, but he never saw them come down on the ground. He also used to hear their music in the air. She had heard, too, of a man who had been five-and-twenty years with the fairies, and thought he had been away only five minutes.
[a] Abridged from "A Day at the Van Pools;" MS. of Miss Beale, the author of "Poems" and of "The Vale of the Towey," a most delightful volume. We have since received from our gifted friend the following additional information. "Since writing this letter, I have heard a new version of the last part of the Spirit of the Van. The third offence is said to be, that she and her husband were ploughing; he guiding the plough, and she driving the horses. The horses went wrong, and the husband took up something and threw it at them, 'which struck her. She seized the plough and went off, followed by the flocks and herds she had brought with her to Van Pool, where they all vanished, and the mark of the ploughshare is shown on the mountain at this present day. She left her children behind her, who became famous as doctors. Jones was their name, and they lived at a place called Muddfi. In them was said to have originated the tradition of the seventh son, or Septimus, being born for the healing art; as for many generations, seven sons were regularly horn in each family, the seventh of whom became the doctor, and wonderful in his profession. It is said even now, that the Jones of Muddfl are, or were, until very recently, clever doctors."--A. B. A somewhat different version of this legend is given by Mr. Croker, iii. 256.
[b] For the chief part of our knowledge respecting the fairy lore of Wales we are indebted to the third or supplemental volume of the Fairy Legends, in which Mr. Croker, with the aid of Dr. Owen Pugh and other Welsh scholars, has given a fuller account of the superstitions of the people of the Principality, than is, we believe, to be found any where else.
[c] A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales, by the Rev. Edward Jones of the Tiarch.--For our extracts from this work we are indebted to Mr. Croker.
[d] The lady's name was Williams. The legends were originally Intended for the present work, but circumstances caused them to appear in the supplemental volume of the Irish Fairy Legends. We have abridged them.