This is not one of the best known Welsh tales but is one worth telling.
It happened in late medieval times on the east coast of Ynys Mon, a hole-ridden boat with no mast, oars or rudder drifted in on an incoming tide at Red Wharf Bay. It was not welcomed by the locals, who did not want to have their privacy and way of life upturned by this fearful-looking boatload of a bedraggled crew.
But, before they could return the vessel to the open sea, the leader of the women aboard struck the salt beach with her stick (or was it her wand) from which a fountain of fresh water gushed.
Impressed, bewildered or perhaps from fright, the villagers agreed to let them stay, provided they settle outside the village.
This was, without doubt the worse mistake they made in their lives.
They were soon frightened into submission by their curses, threats, spells and oaths. The women of this tribe never paid for anything in the shops, whilst in the market nobody bid against them. Their menfolk were renown for their thieving and smuggling. When confronted or pursued by the villagers or revenue men they released swarms of deadly black flies from their neck scarves, causing the pursuers to flee whilst they carried on their criminal activities.
There were two particularly famous witches amongst them, Bella Fawr (big Bella) and Siani Bwt (little Betty) who was less than four feet tall with two thumbs on her left hand that twitched like the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They say that her descendants still live in the village. Bella was very large and very ugly. As leader of this tribe of witches, she was known for her terrifying curses calling for the neck bones to break, also shape-shifting and spells on farming livestock. According to legend she met her match in Goronwy ap Tudor, a local farmer who stood toe-to-toe, went curse-for-curse, oath-to-oath with her.
It all started when he noticed his cows were giving less and less milk. Suspecting the witches , whilst hidden in a hedge, he saw a hare going from cow to cow suckling their teats until they were drained of all milk. Being prepared for witch trouble, having his musket loaded with silver pieces, since normal shot will not penetrate a witches body. He fired at the hare, wounding it in the legs. It limped and hopped off, followed by the farmer all the way back to Bella’s hovel.
There – changing back to human form, Bella was bleeding from the legs. Goronwy knowing that he had found the culprit went to collect the black fungus found on oak trees, called Witches Butter. He moulded it into the shape of a doll, went back to Bella asking her to undo her curses and spells but she refused. So he stuck pins in the effigy calling out Bella’s name, eventually in extreme pain from this spell she relented and was forced to pronounce a blessing removing all curses from the livestock, the farmer and his kind.
And they were never troubled by the witches again.
There are many variants of this story, but this is how the legend was told me many years ago.
This 13th century story tells of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of North Wales, going on a hunting trip and leaving his baby son in the charge of his faithful hound Gelert.
On his return,when greeted by his dog, noticed his muzzle was soaked in blood and his baby son was nowhere to be seen.Llewelyn suspecting that Gelert had killed his young son, attacked him with his sword, gravely wounding him. However, within minutes of Gelert dying, the cry of a baby was heard. He stumbled through the bushes to find his young son safe in his cradle and the body of a giant wolf beside it. The wolf was covered in wounds from a fight to the death with Gelert.
Llewelyn hastened back to his faithful dog, only to watch him die from the blows of his sword.The sad and ashamed Prince buried Gelert with honour and it is said the Prince never smiled again.
The village that grew up here took the name Beddgelert, Welsh for the grave of
Next month I’ll tell you another tale from the land of mystery and magic, speak to you then,….regards Emrys
In the 15th century, that’s more than 500 years ago, tales of mystery and magic were told. This oral, medieval tradition of Welsh storytelling has been put to print and is known as ‘The Mabinogion’.
One of its stories tells of a plague that bewitched the island of Britain. It was described as a terrifying scream heard across the land every Mayday eve. The people were so afraid that, and to quote the Mabinogion, ‘The men would lose their strength, the women the fruit of their wombs, young folk their senses, and all trees left barren.’
The ruler at that time, much troubled by this terror, consulted his wise brother who told him that the screams were made by two dragons fighting. To locate the dragons he would have to find the exact centre of his kingdom and dig a pit there with a tub of wine set in it. When the dragons next clash and eventually grew tired from the combat, they would fall into the vat, drink the wine and fall asleep. They must then be captured and buried under a mountain of rocks. As long as they remain in their prison of stones, no further harm will fall on this island.
On the next Mayday all this was done, the two dragons captured and taken to their prison of stones, a mound of rocks in North Wales, now known as Dinas Emrys. Dinas means fortification and Emrys the name of a local warrior prince who rallied the British resistance to a foreign invasion.
The whole area is full of folklore; Emrys apparently was acquainted with a magician Merlin who, according to legend, buried his treasure in a gold chalice on the hill. Another legend is that of Beddgelert only a few miles away. This story I will tell in my next post.
Meanwhile, the two dragons remain imprisoned under the rocks of Dinas Emrys and will remain there forevermore… We hope!