Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Chapter III
Lake Fairies

The Gwragedd Annwn, or Dames of Elfin Land--St Patrick and the Welshmen; a Legend of Crumlyn Lake--The Elfin Cow of Lyn Barfog--Y Fuwch Laethwen Lefrith--The Legend of the Meddygon Myddfai--The Wife of Supernatural Race--The Three Blows; a Carmathenshire Legend--Cheese and the Didactic Purpose in Welsh Folk-Lore--The Fairy Maiden's Papa--The Enchanted Isle in the Mountain Lake--Legend of the Men of Ardudwy--Origin of the Water Fairies--Their prevalence in many Lands


THE Gwragedd Annwn (literally, wives of the lower world, or hell) are the elfin dames who dwell under the water. I find no resemblance in the Welsh fairy to our familiar mermaid, beyond the watery abode, and the sometimes winning ways. The Gwragedd Annwn are not fishy of aspect, nor do they dwell in the sea. Their haunt is the lakes and rivers, but especially the wild and lonely lakes upon the mountain heights. These romantic sheets are surrounded with numberless superstitions, which will be further treated of. In the realm of faerie they serve as avenues of communication between this world and the lower one of annwn, the shadowy domain presided over by Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the fairies. This sub-aqueous realm is peopled by those children of mystery termed Plant Annwn, and the belief is current among the inhabitants of the Welsh mountains that the Gwragedd Annwn still occasionally visit this upper world of ours. ['Archaeologia Cambrensis,' 2nd Se., iv., 253] The only reference to Welsh mermaids I have either read or heard is contained in Drayton's account of the Battle of Agincourt. There it is mentioned, among the armorial ensigns of the counties of Wales:

As Cardigan, the next to them that went,
Came with a mermaid sitting on a rock

[There is in 'Cymru Fu' a mermaid story, but its mermaid feature is apparently a modern embellishment of a real incident, and without value here.]


Crumlyn Lake, near the quaint village of Briton Ferry, is one of the many in Wales which are a resort of the elfin dames. It is also believed that a large town lies swallowed up there, and that the Gwragedd Annwn have turned the submerged walls to use as the superstructure of their fairy palaces. Some claim to have seen the towers of beautiful castles lifting their battlements beneath the surface of the dark waters, and fairy bells are at times heard ringing from these towers. The way the elfin dames first came to dwell there was this: A long, ay, a very long time ago, St. Patrick came over from Ireland on a visit to St. David of Wales, just to say 'Sut yr y'ch chwi?' (How d'ye do?); and as they were strolling by this lake conversing on religious topics in a friendly manner, some Welsh people who had ascertained that it was St. Patrick, and being angry at him for leaving Cambria for Erin, began to abuse him in the Welsh language, his native tongue. Of course such an insult could not go unpunished, and St. Patrick caused his villifiers to be transformed into fishes; but some of them being females, were converted into fairies instead. It is also related that the sun, on account of this insolence to so holy a man, never shed its life-giving rays upon the dark waters of this picturesque lake, except during one week of the year. This legend and these magical details are equally well accredited to various other lakes, among them Llyn Barfog, near Aberdovey, the town whose 'bells' are celebrated in immortal song.


Llyn Barfog is the scene of the famous elfin cow's descent upon earth, from among the droves of the Gwragedd Annwn. This is the legend of the origin of the Welsh black cattle, as related to me in Carmarthenshire: In times of old there was a band of elfin ladies who used to haunt the neighbourhood of Llyn Barfog, a lake among the hills just back of Aberdovey. It was their habit to make their appearance at dusk clad all in green, accompanied by their milk-white hounds. Besides their hounds, the green ladies of Llyn Barfog were peculiar in the possession of droves of beautiful milk-white kine, called Gwartheg y Llyn, or kine of the lake. One day an old farmer, who lived near Dyssyrnant, had the good luck to catch one of these mystic cows, which had fallen in love with the cattle of his herd. From that day the farmer's fortune was made. Such calves, such milk, such butter and cheese, as came from the milk-white cow never had been seen in Wales before, nor ever will be seen again. The fame of the Fuwch Gyfeiliorn (which was what they called the cow) spread through the country round. The farmer, who had been poor, became rich; the owner of vast herds, like the patriarchs of old. But one day he took it into his silly noddle that the elfin cow was getting old, and that he had better fatten her for the market. His nefarious purpose thrived amazingly. Never, since beef steaks were invented, was seen such a fat cow as this cow grew to be. Killing day came, and the neighbours arrived from all about to witness the taking-off of this monstrously fat beast. The farmer had already counted up the gains from the sale of her, and the butcher had bared his red right arm. The cow was tethered, regardless of her mournful lowing and her pleading eyes; the butcher raised his bludgeon and struck fair and hard between the eyes; when lo! a shriek resounded through the air, awakening the echoes of the hills, as the butcher's bludgeon went through the goblin head of the elfin cow, and knocked over nine adjoining men, while the butcher himself went frantically whirling around trying to catch hold of something permanent. Then the astonished assemblage beheld a green lady standing on a crag high up over the lake, and crying with a loud voice:

Dere di felen Emion,
Cyrn Cyfeiliorn-braith y Llyn,
A'r foci Dodin,
Codwch, dewch adre.

Come yellow Anvil, stray horns,
Speckled one of the lake,
And of the hornless Dodlin,
Arise, come home.

Whereupon not only did the elfin cow arise and go home, but all her progeny to the third and fourth generations went home with her, disappearing in the air over the hill tops and returning nevermore. Only one cow remained of all the farmer's herds, and she had turned from milky white to raven black. Whereupon the farmer in despair drowned himself in the lake of the green ladies, and the black cow became the progenitor of the existing race of Welsh black cattle.

This legend appears, in a slightly different form, in the 'Iola MSS.,' as translated by Taliesin Williams, of Merthyr: [Llandovery, published for the Welsh MSS. Society, 1848.] 'The milk-white milch cow gave enough of milk to every one who desired it; and however frequently milked, or by whatever number of persons, she was never found deficient. All persons who drank of her milk were healed of every illness; from fools they became wise; and from being wicked, became happy. This cow went round the world; and wherever she appeared, she filled with milk all the vessels that could be found, leaving calves behind her for all the wise and happy. It was from her that all the milch cows in the world were obtained. After traversing through the island of Britain, for the benefit and blessing of country and kindred, she reached the Vale of Towy; where, tempted by her fine appearance and superior condition, the natives sought to kill and eat her; but just as they were proceeding to effect their purpose, she vanished from between their hands, and was never seen again. A house still remains in the locality, called Y Fuwch Laethwen Lefrith (The Milk-white Milch Cow.)'


The legend of the Meddygon Myddfai again introduces the elfin cattle to our notice, but combines with them another and a very interesting form of this superstition, namely, that of the wife of supernatural race. A further feature gives it its name, Meddygon meaning physicians, and the legend professing to give the origin of certain doctors who were renowned in the thirteenth century. The legend relates that a farmer in the parish of Myddfai, Carmarthenshire, having bought some lambs in a neighbouring fair, led them to graze near Llyn y Fan Fach, on the Black Mountains. Whenever he visited these lambs three beautiful damsels appeared to him from the lake, on whose shores they often made excursions. Sometimes he pursued and tried to catch them, but always failed; the enchanting nymphs ran before him and on reaching the lake taunted him in these words:

Cras dy fara,
Anhawdd ein dala;

which, if one must render it literally, means:

Bake your bread,
'Twill be hard to catch us;

but which, more poetically treated, might signify

Mortall, who eatest baken bread,
Not for thee is the fairy's bed!

One day some moist bread from the lake came floating ashore. The farmer seized it, and devoured it with avidity. The following day, to his great delight, be was successful in his chase, and caught the nymphs on the shore. After talking a long time with them, he mustered up the courage to propose marriage to one of them. She consented to accept him on condition that he would distinguish her from her sisters the next day. This was a new and great difficulty to the young farmer, for the damsels were so similar in form and features, that he could scarcely see any difference between them. He noted, however, a trifling singularity in the strapping of the chosen one's sandal, by which he recognized her on the following day. As good as her word, the gwraig immediately left the lake and went with him to his farm. Before she quitted the lake she summoned therefrom to attend her, seven cows, two oxen, and one bull. She stipulated that she should remain with the farmer only until such time as he should strike her thrice without cause. For some years they dwelt peaceably together, and she bore him three sons, who were the celebrated Meddygon Myddfai. One day, when preparing for a fair in the neighbourhood) the farmer desired her to go to the held 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 at the same time slightly tapped her arm three times with his glove.

... The blows were slight--but they were blows. The terms of the marriage contract were broken, and the dame departed, summoning with her her seven cows, her two oxen, and the bull. The oxen were at that moment ploughing in the field, but they immediately obeyed her call and dragged the plough after them to the lake. The furrow, from the field in which they were ploughing to the margin of the lake, is still to be seen--in several parts of that country--at the present day. After her departure, the gwraig annwn once met her three sons in the valley now called Cwm Meddygon, and gave them a magic box containing remedies of wonderful power, through whose use they became celebrated. Their names were Cadogan, Gruffydd and Emion, and the farmer's name was Rhiwallon. Rhiwallon and his sons, named as above, were physicians to Rhys Gryg, Lord of Dynevor, and son of the last native prince of Wales. They lived about 1230, and dying, left behind them a compendium of their medical practice. 'A copy of their works is in the Welsh School Library in Gray's Inn Lane.' ['Cambro Briton,' ii., 315]


In a more polished and elaborate form this legend omits the medical features altogether, but substitutes a number of details so peculiarly Welsh that I cannot refrain from presenting them. This version relates that the enamoured farmer had heard of the lake maiden, who rowed up and down the lake in a golden boat, with a golden oar. Her hair was long and yellow, and her face was pale and melancholy. In his desire to see this wondrous beauty, the farmer went on New Year's Eve to the edge of the lake, and in silence awaited the coming of the first hour of the new year. It came, and there in truth was the maiden in her golden boat, rowing softly to and fro. Fascinated, he stood for hours beholding her, until the stars faded out of the sky, the moon sank behind the rocks, and the cold gray dawn drew nigh; and then the lovely gwraig began to vanish from his sight. Wild with passion, and with the thought of losing her for ever, he cried aloud to the retreating vision, 'Stay! stay Be my wife.' But the gwraig only uttered a faint cry, and was gone. Night after night the young farmer haunted the shores of the lake, but the gwraig returned no more. He became negligent of his person; his once robust form grew thin and wan; his face was a map of melancholy and despair. He went one day to consult a soothsayer who dwelt on the mountain, and this grave personage advised him to besiege the damsel's heart with gifts of bread and cheese. This counsel commending itself strongly to his Welsh way of thinking, the farmer set out upon an assiduous course of casting his bread upon the waters, accompanied by cheese. He began on Midsummer eve by going to the lake and dropping therein a large cheese and a loaf of bread. Night after night he continued to throw in loaves and cheeses, but nothing appeared in answer to his sacrifices. His hopes were set, however, on the approaching New Year's eve. The momentous night arrived at last. Clad in his best array, and armed with seven white loaves and his biggest and handsomest cheese, he set out once more for the lake.

There he waited till midnight, and then slowly and solemnly dropped the seven loaves into the water, and with a sigh sent the cheese to keep them company. His persistence was at length rewarded. The magic skiff appeared; the fair gwraig guided it to where he stood; stepped ashore, and accepted him as her husband. The before-mentioned stipulation was made as to the blows; and she brought her dower of cattle. One day, after they had been four years married, they were invited to a christening. In the midst of the ceremony the gwraig burst into tears. Her husband gave her an angry look, and asked her why she thus made a fool of herself. She replied, 'The poor babe is entering a world of sin and sorrow; misery lies before it. Why should I rejoice?' He pushed her pettishly away. ' I warn you, husband,' said the gwraig; ' you have struck me once.' After a time they were bidden to the funeral of the child they had seen christened. Now the gwraig laughed, sang, and danced about. The husband's wrath again arose, and again he asked her why she thus made a fool of herself. She answered, 'The dear babe has escaped the misery that was before it' and gone to be good and happy for ever. Why should I grieve?' Again he pushed her from him, and again she warned him; he had struck her twice. Soon they were invited to a wedding; the bride was young and fair, the groom a tottering, toothless, decrepit old miser. In the midst of the wedding feast the gwraig annwn burst into tears, and to her husband's question why she thus made a fool of herself she replied, 'Truth is wedded to age for greed, and not for love-summer and winter cannot agree--it is the diawl's compact.' The angry husband thrust her from him for the third and last time. She looked at him with tender love and reproach, and said, 'The three blows are struck-husband, farewell!' He never saw her more, nor any of the flocks and herds she had brought him for her dowry.

In its employment of the myth to preach a sermon, and in its introduction of cheese, this version of the legend is very Welsh indeed. The extent to which cheese figures in Cambrian folk-lore is surprising; cheese is encountered in every sort of fairy company; you actually meet cheese in the Mabinogion, along with the most romantic forms of beauty known in story. And herein again is illustrated Shakespeare's accurate knowledge of the Cambrian goblins. Heaven defend me from that Welsh fairy!' says Falstaff, 'lest he transform me to a piece of cheese '['Merry Wives of Windsor', Act. V., Sc. 5] Bread is found figuring actively in the folk-lore of every country, especially as a sacrifice to water-gods; but cheese is, so far as I know, thus honoured only in Cambria.


Once more this legend appears, this time with a feature I have nowhere else encountered in fairy land, to wit, the father of a fairy damsel. The son of a farmer on Drws Coed farm was one foggy day looking after his father's sheep, when crossing a marshy meadow he beheld a little lady behind some rising ground. She had yellow hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks. He approached her, and asked permission to converse; whereupon she smiled sweetly and said to him, 'Idol of my hopes, you have come at last!' They there and then began to 'keep company,' and met each other daily here and there along the farm meadows. His intentions were honourable; he desired her to marry him. He was sometimes absent for days together, no one knew where, and his friends whispered about that he had been witched. Around the Turf Lake (Llyn y Dywarchen) was a grove of trees, and under one of these one day the fairy promised to be his. The consent of her father was now necessary. One moonlight night an appointment was made to meet in this wood. The father and daughter did not appear till the moon had disappeared behind the hill. Then they both came. The fairy father immediately gave his consent to the marriage, on one condition, namely, that her future husband should never hit her with iron. ' If ever thou dost touch her flesh with iron she shall be no more thine, but she shall return to her own.' They were married--a good-looking pair. Large sums of money were brought by her, the night before the wedding, to Dnvs Coed. The shepherd lad became wealthy, had several handsome children, and they were very happy. After some years, they were one day out riding, when her horse sank in a deep mire, and by the assistance of her husband, in her hurry to remount, she was struck on her knee by the stirrup of the saddle. Immediately voices were heard singing on the brow of the hill, and she disappeared, leaving all her children behind. She and her mother devised a plan by which she could see her beloved, but as she was not allowed to walk the earth with man, they floated a large turf on the lake, and on this turf she stood for hours at a time holding converse with her husband. This continued until his death ['Cymru Fu,' 476].


The didactic purpose again appears in the following legend, which, varying but little in phraseology, is current in the neighbourhood of a dozen different mountain lakes: In other days, before the Cymry had become reconciled to their Saxon foe, on every New Year's morning a door was found open in a rock hard by the lake. Those mortals who had the curiosity and the resolution to enter this door were conducted by a secret passage to a small island in the middle of the lake. Here they found a most enchanting garden, stored with the choicest fruits and flowers, and inhabited by the Gwragedd Annwn, whose beauty could be equalled only by the courtesy and affability which they exhibited to those who pleased them. They gathered fruit and flowers for each of their guests, entertained them with the most exquisite music, disclosed to them many secrets of futurity, and invited them to stay as long as they liked. 'But,' said they, ' the island is secret, and nothing of its produce must be carried away.' The warning being heeded, all went well. But one day there appeared among the visitors a wicked Welsh-man, who, thinking to derive some magical aid therefrom, pocketed a flower with which he had been presented, and was about to leave the garden with his prize. But the theft boded him no good. As soon as he had touched unhallowed ground the flower vanished, and he lost his senses. However, of this abuse of their hospitality the Gwragedd Annwn took no notice at the time. They dismissed their guests with their accustomed courtesy, and the door was closed as usual. But their resentment was bitter; for though the fairies of the lake and their enchanted garden undoubtedly occupy the spot to this day, the door which led to the island has never been reopened.


In all these legends the student of comparative folk-lore traces the ancient mythology, however overlain with later details. The water-maidens of every land doubtless originally were the floating clouds of the sky, or the mists of the mountain. From this have come certain fair and fanciful creations with which Indo-European folk-lore teems, the most familiar of which are Undine, Melusina, Nausicaa, and the classic Muse. In Wales, as in other lands, the myth has many forms. The dispersion of dark clouds from the mountains, by the beams of the rising sun, or the morning breezes, is localized in tile legend of the Men of Ardudwy. These men make a raid on the maidens of the Vale of Clwyd, and are pursued and slaughtered by the latter's fathers and brothers. The maidens thereupon cast themselves headlong into the lake, which is thenceforth called the Maidens Lake, or Llyn y Morwynion. In another legend, the river mist over the Cynwal is the spirit of a traitress who perished long ago in the lake. She had conspired with the sea-born pirates of the North (the ocean storms) to rob her Cambrian lord of his domains. She was defeated by the aid of a powerful enchanter (the sun), and fled up the river to the lake, accompanied by her maidens, who were drowned with her there. ['Arch. Camb.,' 4th Se., vii., 251]


As the mermaid superstition is seemingly absent in Wales, so there are no fairy tales of maidens who lure mortals to their doom beneath the water, as the Dracae did women and children, and as the Nymph of the Lurley did marriageable young men. But it is believed that there are several old Welsh families who are the descendants of the Gwragedd Annwn, as in the case of the Meddygon Myddfai. The familiar Welsh name of Morgan is sometimes thought to signify, 'Born of the Sea.' Certainly môr in Welsh means sea, and gân a birth. It is curious, too, that a mermaid is called in Basse Bretagne 'Mary Morgan.' But the class of stories in which a mortal marries a water-maiden is large, and while the local details smack of the soil, the general idea is so like in lands far remote from each other as to indicate a common origin in pre-historic times. In Wales, where the mountain lakes are numerous, gloomy, lonely, and yet lovely; where many of them, too, show traces of having been inhabited in ancient times by a race of lake-dwellers, whose pile-supported villages vanished ages ago; and where bread and cheese are as classic as beer and candles, these particulars are localized in the legend. In the Faro Islands, where the seal is a familiar yet ever-mysterious object, with its human-like eyes, and glossy skin, the wife of supernatural race is a transformed seal. She comes ashore every ninth night, sheds her skin, leaves it on the shore, and dances with her fairy companions. A mortal steals her sealskin dress, and when day breaks, and her companions return to their abode in the sea, compels her to remain and be his wife. Some day he offends her; she recovers her skin and plunges into the sea. In China, the superstition appears in a Lew-chewan legend mentioned by Dr. Dennys, ['Folk-Lore of China,' 99] which relates how a fairy in the guise of a beautiful woman is found bathing in a man's well. He persuades her to marry him, and she remains with him for nine years, at the end of which time, despite the affection she has for their two children, she 'glides upwards into a cloud' and disappears.

Next: Chapter IV: Mountain Fairies