Tylwyth Teg: Welsh Fairylore

Introduction

As we did for the Isle of Man, we will be traveling to Wales for a brief survey of local fairy lore. And, as we did for that installment, we will focus on the oral tradition as preserved by a folklorist and collected in the volume Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales (1911) by J. Ceredig Davies. In introducing the section on Tylwyth Teg (Fair Folk), Davies reports that widespread belief in such entities had only vanished within the generation which preceded the publication of this volume.


From the work
of
J. Ceredig Davies

Origin of Fairies

Concerning the imaginary origin of the Fairies, it was once a belief in Wales that they were the souls of the virtuous Druids, who not having been Christians, could not enter into heaven, but were too good to be cast into hell!

Another curious belief was that in our Saviour’s time there lived a woman whose fortune it was to be possessed of near a score of children, and as she saw our Blessed Lord approach her dwelling, being ashamed of being so prolific, and that He might not see them all, she concealed about half of them closely, and, after His departure, when she went in search of them, to her surprise she found they were gone. They never afterwards could be discovered, for it was supposed that as a punishment from heaven, for hiding what God had given her, she was deprived of them; and, it is said, these, her offspring, have generated the race of beings called the Fairies.

As to the realistic origin of the Fairies, according to the theories of the learned, they were either the ancient Aborigines, living in seclusion so as to hide themselves from their more powerful conquerors, or the persecuted Druids living in subterraneous places, venturing forth only at night. Whether ancient Aborigines hiding from their conquerors or the Druids who were persecuted by both Romans and Christians the Rev. P. Roberts, author of “Collectana Cambrica,” observes that they used these means to preserve themselves and their families, and whilst the country was thinly peopled, and thickly wooded did so successfully, and perhaps to a much later period than is imagined.

The Shepherd Boy and the Fairies of Frenifawr

The following story appeared in the “Cambrian Superstitions,” by W. Howells, a little book published at Tipton in 1831:—

A stripling, of twelve or more years of age, was tending his father’s sheep on a small mountain called Frenifach, it was a fine morning in June, and he had just driven the sheep to their pasture for the day, when he looked at the top of Frenifawr to observe which way the morning fog declined, that he might judge the weather.

If the fog on Frenifawr (a high mountain in Pembrokeshire, 10 miles from Cardigan) declines to the Pembrokeshire side, the peasants prognosticated fair, if on the Cardiganshire side foul weather.

To his surprise the boy saw what seemed a party of soldiers sedulously engaged in some urgent affair; knowing there could not possibly be soldiers there so early, he with some alarm, looked more minutely, and perceived they were too diminutive for men; yet, thinking his eyesight had deceived him, he went to a more elevated situation, and discovered that they were the “Tylwyth Teg” (Fairies) dancing. He had often heard of them and had seen their rings in the neighbourhood, but not till then had the pleasure of seeing them; he once thought of running home to acquaint his parents, but judging they would be gone before he returned, and he be charged with a falsehood, he resolved to go up to them, for he had been informed that the fairies were very harmless, and would only injure those who attempted to discover their habitation, so by degrees he arrived within a short distance of the ring, where he remained some time observing their motions. They were of both sexes, and he described them as being the most handsome people he had ever seen, they also appeared enchantingly cheerful, as if inviting him to enter and join the dance.

They did not all dance, but those who did, never deviated from the circle; some ran after one another with surprising swiftness, and others (females), rode on small white horses of the most beautiful form. Their dresses, although indescribably elegant, and surpassing the sun in radiance, varied in colour, some being white, others scarlet, and the males wore a red triplet cap, but the females some light head-dress, which waved fantastically with the slightest breeze. He had not remained long ere they made signs for him to enter, and he gradually drew nearer till at length he ventured to place one foot in the circle, which he had no sooner done than his ears were charmed with the most melodious music, which moved him in the transport of the moment, to enter altogether; he was no sooner in than he found himself in a most elegant palace, glittering with gold and pearls; here he enjoyed every variety of pleasure, and had the liberty to range whatever he pleased, accompanied by kind attendants beautiful as the howries; and instead of “Tatws a llaeth,” buttermilk, or fresh boiled flummery, here were the choicest viands and the purest wine in abundance, brought in golden goblets inlaid with gems, sometimes by invisible agency, and at other times by the most beautiful virgins. He had only one restriction, and that was not to drink, upon any consideration (or it was told him it would be fatal to his happiness), from a certain well in the middle of the garden, which contained golden fishes and others of various colours. New objects daily attracts his attention, and new faces presented themselves to his view, surpassing, if possible those he had seen before; new pastimes were continually invented to charm him, but one day his hopes were blasted, and all his happiness fled in an instant. Possessing that innate curiosity nearly common to all, he, like our first parents transgressed, and plunged his hand into the well, when the fishes instantly disappeared, and, putting the water to his mouth, he heard a confused shriek run through the garden: in an instant after, the palace and all vanished away, and to his horror, he found himself in the very place where he first entered the ring, and the scenes around, with the same sheep grazing, were just as he had left them. He could scarcely believe himself, and hoped again, that he was in the magnificent fairy castle; he looked around, but the scene was too well known; his senses soon returned to their proper action, and his memory proved that, although he thought he had been absent so many years, he had been so only so many minutes.

Shui Rhys and the Fairies

Shui was a beautiful girl of seventeen, tall and fair, with a skin like ivory, hair black and curling, and eyes of dark velvet. She was but a poor farmer’s daughter, notwithstanding her beauty, and among her duties was that of driving up the cows for the milking. Over this work she used to loiter sadly, to pick flowers by the way, or chase the butterflies, or amuse herself in any agreeable manner that fortune offered. For her loitering she was often chided, indeed, people said Shui’s mother was far too sharp with the girl, and that it was for no good the mother had so bitter a tongue. After all the girl meant no harm, they said. But when one night Shui never came home till bed-time, leaving the cows to care for themselves, dame Rhys took the girl to task as she never had done before. ‘Ysgwaetheroedd, Mami,’ said Shui, ‘I could not help it; it was the Tylwyth Teg,’ (the Fairies). The dame was aghast at this, but she could not answer it—for well she knew the Tylwyth Teg were often seen in the woods of Cardigan. Shui was at first shy about talking of the Fairies, but finally confessed they were little men in green coats, who danced around her and made music on their little harps; and they talked to her in language too beautiful to be repeated; indeed she couldn’t understand the words, though she knew well enough what the Fairies meant. Many a time after that Shui was late; but now nobody chided her, for fear of offending the Fairies. At last one night Shui did not come home at all. In alarm the woods were searched; there was no sign of her; and never was she seen in Cardigan again. Her mother watched in the fields on the Tair-nos ysprydion or three nights of the year when goblins are sure to be abroad; but Shui never returned. Once indeed there came to the neighbourhood a wild rumour that Shui Rhys had been seen in a great city in a foreign land—Paris, perhaps, or London, who knows? but this tale was in no way injurious to the sad belief that the Fairies had carried her off; they might take her to those well-known centres of idle and sinful pleasure, as well as to any other place.”

Fairy Changelings

Mr. B. Davies in the II. Vol. of the “Brython,” page 182, gives the following tale of a Fairy Changeling in the neighbourhood of Newcastle Emlyn, in the Vale of Teifi, and on the borders of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire:—

One calm hot day, when the sun of heaven was brilliantly shining, and the hay in the dales was being busily made by lads and lasses, and by grown-up people of both sexes, a woman in the neighbourhood of Emlyn placed her one-year-old infant in the “gader” or chair, as the cradle is called in these parts, and out she went to the field for a while, intending to return when her neighbour, an old woman overtaken by the decrepitude of eighty summers, should call to her that her Darling was crying. It was not long before she heard the old woman calling to her; she ran hurriedly, and as soon as she set foot on the kitchen floor, she took her little one in her arms as usual, saying to him, “O my little one! thy mother’s delight art thou! I would not take the world for thee, etc.” But to her surprise, he had a very old look about him, and the more the tender-hearted mother gazed at his face, the stranger it seemed to her, so that at last she placed him in the cradle and told her sorrow to her relatives and acquaintances. And after this one and the other had given his opinion, it was agreed at last that it was one of Rhys Ddwfn’s children that was in the cradle, and not her dearly loved baby. In this distress there was nothing to do but to fetch a wizard, or wise man, as fast as the fastest horse could gallop. He said, when he saw the child that he had seen his like before, and that it would be a hard job to get rid of him, though not such a very hard job this time. The shovel was made red hot in the fire by one of the Cefnarth (Cenarth) boys, and held before the child’s face; and in an instant the short little old man took to his heels, and neither he nor his like was seen afterwards from Abercuch to Aberbargod at any rate. The mother found her darling unscathed the next moment. I remember also hearing that the strange child was as old as the grandfather of the one that had been lost.”—“Celtic Folk-Lore” by Sir J. Rhys.

There are many such stories in different parts of Wales and Scotland, and in both countries Fairies were believed to have a fatal admiration for lovely children, and credited with stealing them, especially unbaptized infants.

A Welsh poet thus sings:—

Llawer plentyn teg aeth ganddynt,
Pan y cym’rynt helynt hir;
Oddiar anwyl dda rieni,
I drigfanau difri dir.”

The Rev. Elias Owen’s translation of the above is as follows:—

Many a lovely child they’ve taken,
When long and bitter was the pain;
From their parents, loving, dear,
To the Fairies’ dread domain.”

Another popular mode of treatment resorted to in order to reclaim children from the Fairies, and to get rid of ugly changelings was as follows:—The mother was to carry the changeling to a river, and when at the brink, the wizard who accompanied her was to cry out:—

Crap ar y wrach”—
(A grip on the hag.)

and the mother was to respond:—

Rhy hwyr gyfraglach”—
(Too late decrepit one)

Then the mother was to throw the changeling into the river, and then returning home, where she would find her own child safe and sound.

It was believed that the Fairies were particularly busy in exchanging children on St. John’s Eve.


Introduction: copyright 2020 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

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