Of Folklore and Myth

Rhiannon yn CysguIllustration by Margaret Jones

It is often said that faërie and folk tales contain remnant myths, the significance having been forgotten while the form remains. This is sometimes true, but I think not always. When such tales contain mythic material it is often quite apparent rather than obscure. But folk tales are as likely to contain elements of everyday wisdom, old social customs and, perhaps more significantly,  insights into our inner lives. It is in the latter case that the distinction between mythic and non-mythic becomes difficult to discern.

While some of the tales that have come down to us originate in collected oral lore, many more have undergone a process of literary production and changed through a series of written adaptations. Where these are simply people recording versions of traditional tales it might be that this is no different from the changes or nuances oral tellers might introduce for particular audiences or to suit changing times. Basic story elements and motifs were often linked together to allow open-ended adaptations and tales of varying length.  But the practice of weaving different stories together into a longer literary production was widespread during the Middle Ages and is not entirely absent from later literature. Here, even if the original tales remain intact, their context and the effects of shaping by more sophisticated literary devices integrate and overlap what had previously been kept distinct and linked only with connectives.

In the First Branch of the Mabinogi tales there is an episode where Rhiannon is falsely accused of murdering her own son who has in fact been snatched away in the night. The women who were supposed to be watching him smear Rhiannon with blood from a puppy while she sleeps  and leave the bones about her as evidence that she has devoured her own child. Like other episodes in these tales, this one has parallels elsewhere in folk and faërie narratives as well as in more obvious mythic material. Mabon, Son of Modron, is said to have been taken from his mother “when he was three nights old” in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Reading the implications across to the closely related Mabinogi tales, this contextualises the relationship between Rhiannon and her son with that between Modron and Mabon, whose names are later versions of Matrona and Maponos. The mythic context of a divine son of a divine mother is therefore unmistakable. But the broader setting in this tale of a wife who is falsely accused of murdering her child occurs more widely in folk narratives and in the content of faërie tales even when its mythic context is less obvious. Not only does the woman lose her child, but she is maligned and has to undergo humiliation or punishment before her child is eventually returned to her.

We can construe this in mythic terms too, but underlying the symbolism of the seasonal cycle this is one of the deeply embedded themes of folk narrative across many cultures which take on significance in different ways when told within particular cultures. Then they take on resonance and power, as if their significance is potential and dormant until they are enacted with other elements of universal folk narratives and the potential is realised. Like the gods they inhabit psychic space but manifest themselves in physical space in particular forms in particular places and take on identity in the stories we tell.

So as well as embodying mythic themes the universal motifs of folk narratives also contain elements of deep soul stuff, keys to personal journeys, initiatory experiences and perceptions of otherness. Sometimes they are simply agencies for other significant events in the story. So with Rhiannon’s ‘humiliation’ at the horse block and the eventual restoration of her son by Teyrnon all of which follows from this accusation, supporting the mythic content and opening the way to it.

Consider, too, how the same theme is used incidentally in this way in Grimm’s tale of the Six Swans ( and its variants such as the Seven Ravens). Here six brothers have been turned into swans and the only way their sister can restore them to human form is to sew a shirt for each of them out of Star Flowers (Stitchwort?).

Rie_Cramer_GrimmsFairyTales_1927_TheSixSwansGrimm’s story illustrated by Rie Cramer

But she must also remain silent for the six years it will take her to do this. While undertaking this work she is discovered alone in the forest by a young king who marries her in spite of her unwillingness to say a word to anybody. She, too, then has her children snatched away and is falsely accused of killing them but cannot defend herself so is condemned to death. The tale concludes as follows:

When the time had elapsed, and the sentence was to be carried out, it happened that the very day had come round when her dear brothers should be set free; the six shirts were also ready, all but the last, which yet wanted the left sleeve. As she was led to the scaffold, she placed the shirts upon her arm, and just as she had mounted it, and the fire was about to be kindled, she looked around, and saw six swans come flying through the air. Her heart leapt for joy as she perceived her deliverers approaching, and soon the Swans, flying towards her, alighted so near that she was enabled to throw over them the shirts, and as soon as she had done so, their feathers fell off and the brothers stood up alive and well; but the youngest was without his left arm, instead of which he had a swan’s wing. They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen, going to the King, who was thunderstruck, began to say, “Now may I speak, my dear husband, and prove to you that I am innocent and falsely accused;” and then she told him how the wicked woman had stolen away and hidden her three children. When she had concluded, the King was overcome with joy, and the wicked stepmother was led to the scaffold and bound to the stake and burnt to ashes.

The episode has differences of detail but a clear similarity of form with the Rhiannon story. If the mythic significance of this is less obvious it does touch something deep in its references to transformation across species and the working out of a number of folk tale motifs, including that of the falsely accused wife which is simply the last of a series of adversities which are resolved in the final scene.

So, too, with Rhiannon when her son, now named Pryderi (‘care’, ‘anxiety’) is restored to her and she is restored to her proper place in the court. But here is a difference. In the mythic tale it is necessary that the restoration is complete:

Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, was raised with care as was proper, until he became the most gallant youth and the handsomest and the best skilled in all worthy pursuits of any in those lands.

But in the folktale the human dimension of incomplete resolution prevails. The little touch of one unfinished shirt resulting in one brother retaining a swan’s wing instead of an arm suggests that, for us, it never quite works out so neatly. As with the gods, so with us; but imperfectly so.

Maes Gwyddno and the Waters of the Otherworld

The semi-fossilised remains of trees on the beach near Borth.

Maes Gwyddno lies under the sea, west of the Cambrian Mountains and around the estuary of the River Dyfi. Some of it is still open to the air: sand dunes, salt marsh, peat bog and water meadows reclaimed from the bog and the marsh. Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Longshanks’) whose land it was, spoke with Gwyn ap Nudd, and was the father of Elffin who found the infant Taliesin in a salmon weir on the land called Maes Gwyddno , better known as Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land under the waves. So much myth, legend and Brythonic lore implicate him in the unfolding of their stories. The intersections of legend, geology and history are enmeshed here too as this is a factually drowned land as the semi-fossilised trees uncovered on the beach at low tide confirm. Most of these can be seen near the village of Borth, originally surmised to be Porth Gwyddno. To the south and to the north of this area causeways run out into the sea and they too are uncovered at low tide like roads running into an undersea domain. At the end of one of these, known as Sarn Cynfelyn, is a rocky outcrop marked on the maps as Caer Wyddno (“Gwyddno’s Fort’). According to the Taliesin story the salmon weir in which he was found by Elffin was in sight of Gwyddno’s fortress and so, knowing the stretch of coast as intimately as I do, I wonder which of the rivers running into the sea across the level land between the cliffs either side is the one on which the weir was placed. Was it Eleri, as at least one re-telling in Welsh claims? Was it Clarach? – though this seems too far south. Or was it one of the other streams that run into these rivers, or like Clettwr into the Dyfi estuary, but which might once have run directly to the sea?

It is difficult to know as the land is submerged and the coastline is not now where it was. The well-known story is that a character called Seithennin did not close the sluice gates when the tide came in because he was drunk. But this story is a recent one. The older story, recorded in verses in The Black Book of Carmarthen which are thought once to have been part of a prose saga, tells of a woman called Mererid who has caused the flood. She is referred to by the title ‘Machteith’ which means ‘maiden’ but was also an official title indicating an office at court, often the attendant of the Queen. As she is also called a “fountain cup bearer” she clearly had some responsibility for a well or spring. John Rhŷs identifies a number of legends from Wales according to which lakes have their origins in the overflowing of sacred wells when they have been neglected or because the well guardian is offended in some way. This is part of Rhŷs’s general survey of the importance of water as a portal to the Otherworld[*].

So the drowned land was submerged because Mererid allowed the well to overflow. But who was she? We might suppose she had the office of guardian or priestess of the well. As such her story can be re-imagined as it is HERE. Her name is the equivalent of Margaret or ‘Pearl’. John Rhŷs felt that this could hardly have been her original name and other, more recent, scholars have agreed. One analysis of the structure of the verses finds the lines containing her name to be metrically too long.[**] So a shorter name would be a better fit. Elsewhere John Rhŷs suggests that the name Morgan or Morgen (‘sea-born’) would have been attached to female water spirits who inhabited wells or springs as well as to mermaids. So was Gwyddno’s land flooded in the same way that lakes like Llyn Llech Owen were created by the overflowing of a spring, and did a Morgan, a nereid or water deity, cause the land to be engulfed by water from the Otherworld?

If we retreat from the flat land and climb to higher ground, to where the old Roman road called Sarn Elen runs along a ridge, we will find a Bronze Age chambered tomb known as Bedd Taliesin (‘Taliesin’s Grave’) just above the ridge and below a track running off from Sarn Elen, to an area of higher ground called Cae’r Arglwyddes (‘The Lady’s Field’) which is scattered with the remains of what look like many broken cairns. Even higher, sitting in its own rocky bowl above this, is a lake called Moel Y Llyn. From one side of the lake streams run off to form the River Clettwr which runs directly down the wooded slopes to join the estuary of the River Dyfi, and on the other side streams run off to form the River Ceulan which flows on into the River Eleri. But none of these streams run directly from the lake as the following piece of local folklore, translated here directly from Welsh, indicates:

“There are a number of unexplained mysteries linked with the lake. No crystal shines brighter than its waters though they are heavy with peat. No drop of water runs into it nor from it. The lake is self-sufficient and unchanging. I saw it in the Winter of 1936 and it was full, but a friend who accompanied me said he had seen it in the middle of the dry summer and it was no different and was equally full then. Summer and Winter – wet or dry – the lake is the same.

According to tradition the lake is guarded by a supernatural power. The following story was told by Mr Richard Griffiths [… references to the reliability and family connections of the source …]. One summer when there had been no rain for several weeks the River Ceulan dried up and the owner of the water mill decided to release the waters of the lake into the river to get the mill working again. He went with others up to the lake on a clear summer’s day and began digging a ditch towards the lake. As they were working heavy clouds formed and began to descend and a gloom came over the mountain above them. Thunder and lightning followed as a violent storm developed. The men fled in fear for their lives. The ditch can still be seen at the lakeside. Mr Griffiths estimated that this had happened about 120 years before.” [***]

Imagine then if the ‘supernatural power’ of this lake was unleashed. Something worse than the digging of a ditch by the miller must have been involved to offend such a spirit and cause the lake to overflow. But if it did then the waters rushing down the hill would fill the narrow rivers running down to the sea and overflow onto the steep slopes to drown the flat land of Gwyddno’s domain below allowing the sea to wash over them. Might this have been the original story that is reflected in the verses about Mererid? She is said to cry out from the ramparts of the fortress and from the back of a bay horse. The refrain “after presumption there is loss .. after presumption there is repentance .. after excess is want” seems to indicate regret. Seithennin here is addressed in the first verse and in the final verse he is referred to as “Seithennin the presumptuous” in his grave. We can only guess at what story was told in a lost saga relating the events leading to the flood. Flood legends are common. But Rachel Bromwich observed that the story was “not to be sought in the Bible tale; here we have an ancient story-theme common to the Celtic nations” [****].

What links, if any, can be made to the other stories about Maes Gwyddno? ‘Taliesin’s Grave’ some way below the lake has been dated to the Bronze Age. There is a ‘Gwion’s Hill’ (Bronwion) just over the ridge above the Einon Valley. It is said in the tale of Taliesin that the contents of Cerridwen’s cauldron spilt into the river and poisoned Gwyddno’s horse so its estuary was afterwards referred to ‘’Gwenwynfeirch Gwyddno’ (Gwyddno’s Horse-poison). Gwilym Morus has outlined his own theories about links between this landscape and the Taliesin story HERE. But any attempt to link it with the inundation would place the origins of the legend a lot further back in time than the sixth century. The common denominator in all this is Gwyddno Garanhir. Rachel Bromwich says of him that “It would seem that the historical Gwyddno of the North either took over some of the attributes of an earlier mythological character , or that there were two persons of the same name known to tradition.” [****] Either way he seems to be a key figure in the mythological, the legendary and the imaginative life of the Brythonic cultural ethos so it is hardly surprising that we also have a record of him conversing with Gwyn ap Nudd.

[*] John Rhŷs Celtic Folklore (1901)
[**] Jenny Rowland Early Welsh Saga Poetry (1990)
[***] Evan Isaac Coelion Cymru (1938)
[****] Rachel Bromwich ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ chapter in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe eds. C Fox & B Dickens (1950)

Faërie Gold


Dolbury Camp

In one of her County Folklore (Somerset) volumes, Ruth Tongue records a comment collected in 1907 about the legend of buried treasure on Dolbury Camp:

“ but but nobody hasn’t found the treasure yet. And for why? Well, to start up with it don’t belong to they, and so they won’t ever meet up with it. Twill go on sinking down below never mind how deep they do dig. I tell ee tis the gold of they Redshanks as used to be seed on Dolbury Top. To be sure there’s clever book-read gentlemen as tell as they was Danes, and another say twere all on account of their bare legs being red with the wind, but don’t mind they.

My granny she did tell me they was fairies, ah, and all dressed in red, and so if the treasure med be theirs. If they was Danes how do ee explain all those little clay pipes as ee can find on Dolbury? They did call em ‘fairy pipes’, old miners did. An if there be fairy pipes then there was fairies, and nobody need doubt they was the Redshanks.”

It’s interesting that these faeries wear red. Green is a more usual colour, though red caps are often worn. Sometimes they are naked, or wear old brown-coloured rags. So there is no consistency. Faerie treasure can never be found and even if bestowed may become worthless if misused. Here it is said that it can only be found by those it belongs to.

These faeries have departed, as often with stories about them. Often they leave a place because they don’t like the bell installed in the church or because some human development gets too close. As there is less wild land the faeries shrink into smaller spaces and become less visible. There are many stories of the last of them on their way to somewhere else. But there are always traces. They do not leave entirely, or at least have not done so yet.

Their gold still gleams in hidden caverns out of sight. Its story brightly seams the lands we love; we cannot own it but it is ours to cherish with delight.

Midwinter Reckoning


There were two brothers who lived on a rented small holding after their parents were dead. But it could not support both of them. So one took the money that was left and went to see the world and the other stayed in that place and inherited the implements and animals which was estimated at about the value of the remaining money. So they were equal. But as his brother left John, who was to remain, gave his brother another shilling that he had earned the season before when he went away to work. For a while John just about survived from year to year, but only just.

Midwinter Day was a day of reckonings. The yearly rent was due. But John was sixpence short and wasn’t sure how he was going to pay. All he had was an old donkey and a cow that was like a skeleton together with with three apple trees. He never grumbled but always cut the grass along the lane to feed the donkey and the cow and gathered a few herbs and apples for cider. Somehow he had kept going but now as Midwinter Day approached he began to wonder how he would pay.

The short days shrank and light thinned early into dark until the eve of Midwinter Day. That night the darkness was entire. There was no Moon for she, too, had waned to nothing so no glimmer of her light could be seen. Clouds covered the stars and rain dripped intermittently from the overcast sky. But John needed no light to guide him around his land. He raked his fire and mulled the last of his cider with a poker and drank a toast for the Solstice and the embers he would keep smouldering through the night. Then he went out with the cup in his hand and followed his senses through the gloom along a path down into the boggy hollow just beyond his fields.

An old lichened willow tree stood down in the hollow shaded by pines on the higher ground around it. No-one remembered when it last had leaves. But mosses grew up its trunk and the fine green lichens over its bark and the hanging lichens from its branches were as good as leaves. Though most thought it dead John knew better. So he went down to the tree and stood and wondered what future there was for those whose wealth was shed and scattered by the winds and withered in the wet ground. Then he poured the remains of his cider over the roots as a gift for the tree. Rain dripped from the hanging lichens as he stood in the dark and felt life ebbing away from him and running away in the trickling streams.

As he stood he heard a voice, though it was not quite a voice but still it spoke to him and he knew that this dark time would pass. He went back along the dark path to his cottage where the hearth still glowed and he banked it up with peat for the rest of the night. Then he slept soundly and awoke not particularly early but before the Sun was up and he went out to greet the first light of day. Later, looking across to the far hills, he saw a figure coming towards him. As it approached he saw that it was a man and as he came even closer he suddenly recognised his brother coming with yuletide gifts and to re-pay the shilling he had been given now that he was doing well in the world. So the rent was paid and the fire burnt brightly in the hearth that Yule and the cottage was warm and bright.

Adapted and extended from a traditional tale about Midwinter Reckonings