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Welsh Folklore: The Beasts That Haunt the Hills of Wales

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

It's not hard to see how the Welsh landscape; characterized by rolling green meadows, rugged mountains, and tranquil streams; could have inspired tales of goblins, griffons, and warrior kings.

Of course, the forests and roads are dark and eerie places at night, which explains the gallery of ghostly creatures and vicious night terrors that also inhabit Welsh mythology.

American journalist and writer Wirt Sikes said that Wales is the “cradle of fairy legend”; and J.R.R Tolkien drew heavily on the Welsh language when creating the languages of Middle Earth, calling it "of this soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain".

Here are some examples of mythical creatures from Welsh folklore, that today feature in a wealth of literature and popular entertainment.

The Lake Monster

They say a beast dwells in the depths.

They say a beast dwells in the depths.

Called the Afanc in modern welsh, this beast dwells beneath the surface of the lake, where it preys upon those foolish enough to approach the shore.

According to the Mythical Creatures Guide, it takes the form of a large frog with claws on each of its limbs, although it has also been depicted as a crocodile-like creature.

Legend claims that nearby townsfolk attempted to rid themselves of the horror by luring it into a trap and binding it with chains, but it thrashed so wildly that it brought about a flood of apocalyptic proportions.

Eventually, King Arthur (though in other versions it is the Welsh hero, Peredur) had his faithful steed haul the beast onto dry land, where he slew it once and for all.

Supposedly the hoofprint of Arthur's horse, Liamrai, can still be seen on a rock near Llyn Barfog (The Bearded Lake) in Snowdonia, imprinted there as the stallion bravely dragged the Afanc from the depths.

According to legend, this is the hoofprint made by Arthur's horse during his battle with the dreaded "Afanc".

According to legend, this is the hoofprint made by Arthur's horse during his battle with the dreaded "Afanc".

Griffons

Griffons are legendary beasts that feature in stories told by cultures throughout the world.

Griffons are legendary beasts that feature in stories told by cultures throughout the world.

The Adar Llwch Gwin were giant birds that could tear a man to shreds, often at the behest of a master, as they could understand human speech.

In this particular legend, that master was Drudwas ap Tryffin; the son of the king of Denmark, and a knight of King Arthur's court.

It just so happened that Drudwas and Arthur had a falling out, which could only be settled by a duel to the death.

As was customary, a place and time were set for the duel; but Drudwas decided that while honor was all well and good, three man-eating birds were better. He commanded his griffons to kill the first man to step onto the field of battle.

He should have worded his command more carefully. His own sister was Arthur's mistress, and for the sake of her brother, had attempted to convince the king to withdraw from the duel, delaying him in the process.

Drudwas thus arrived on the field expecting to find his griffons perched over the eviscerated corpse of his opponent, only to find them still awaiting the first man to step onto the field, which turned out to be himself.

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What happened next is best summed up in a song composed by a 6th-century British prince:

“it was a misfortune to all-
the griffins slew him."

The Hounds of Annwn

Herne the Hunter, whose ghostly hounds accompany him on an eternal hunt.

Herne the Hunter, whose ghostly hounds accompany him on an eternal hunt.

Spirits of the dead, accompanied by ghostly steeds and vicious hounds black as night, carry out an eternal hunt across the sky. This is known in European folklore as “The Wild Hunt” (fans of The Witcher will be familiar with this myth).

The hounds, otherwise referred to by their Welsh name Cwn Annwn (Annwyn being the Welsh Otherworld, the realm of the gods) appear in many other legends, such as that of the 'hounds of Hell', which Christians believed would appear on Good Friday. In English folklore, they are associated with Herne the Hunter, from William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The hounds make nightmarish howls when pursuing their prey, but the howls fade as they draw closer, until they can't be heard at all.

This makes the prospect of being pursued by such hounds all the more terrifying. A traveler walking a lonely road at night might hear the howls and run for his life, but then the howls give way to a deathly silence. Does this mean the hounds have left, or that they are right behind him, closing in for the kill?


Tormented Spirits

The Banshee of Irish folklore is closely related to the "Cyhyraeth" of Welsh legend.

The Banshee of Irish folklore is closely related to the "Cyhyraeth" of Welsh legend.

The howls of the wind at night have sinister origins, according to Welsh tales of the Cyhyraeth; known in Scotland as the Highland Caoineag (the weeper), and in Ireland as the Banshee.

This is the ghost of a woman who roams the riverbanks or the coast at night, crying mournfully in the darkness. The Cyhyraeth's tormented moans are likened to that of a person dying from a deathly illness; and if heard three times in succession, are taken as an omen of impending death.

Shipwrecks on the coast of Glamorganshire were preceded by sightings of a spectral woman wandering the shore, accompanied by flickering lights known as will-o-the-wisps that would lure the ships onto the rocks.

A similar legend tells of the Gwrach y Rhibyn, a hag-like woman that approaches a window at night and calls out three times the name of one who is close to death.

Goblins

Goblin-like creatures are a staple of fairy legends throughout the world.

Goblin-like creatures are a staple of fairy legends throughout the world.

The Coblynau are small, ugly creatures that dwell deep in the mines of Wales. They have been depicted as goblin or gnome-like creatures, or as fairies.

The knocking sound of their tools on the stone walls can be heard echoing through the mines. If they are treated with proper respect, they may show the miners where the richest veins of gold can be found. But if not, the knock of their tools may lure intruders into a deadly trap.

The Henchman of Death

"Ankou", the Henchman of Death.

"Ankou", the Henchman of Death.

In Breton, Cornish and Welsh folklore; the one named Ankou is the Henchman of Death, collecting souls and watching over graveyards on his behalf.

In some tales, he is depicted as a man wearing a black robe, and a large hat that conceals his face. In others, he takes the form of a shadow.

His origins also vary from one legend to the next. One legend claims he was the first child of Adam and Eve, while another tells of an arrogant prince who was cursed by Death to wander the world collecting souls.

An Irish proverb ominously states: "When the Ankou comes, he will not go away empty".

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Dragons

"Y Ddraig Goch", the famous red dragon of Wales, which legend claims was the battle standard of King Arthur.

"Y Ddraig Goch", the famous red dragon of Wales, which legend claims was the battle standard of King Arthur.

Of course, no discussion of Welsh folklore would be complete without mentioning dragons; since the red dragon known as Y Draig Goch famously adorns the nation's flag.

A tale tells of a red dragon battling a white dragon, and the two of them eventually being imprisoned beneath a hill. In the Historia Brittonum (a purported history of the British, written in 828 A.D.), King Vortigern of the Britons attempts to build a castle on that very hill, but it keeps collapsing.

He summons a young Merlin, who has a vision of a red and white dragon locked in a struggle that would determine the course of history. In the vision, the red dragon defeats the white, and Merlin prophesies that the red dragon represents Vortigern's people, the Britons, who will ultimately triumph over the Saxons, represented by the white dragon.

He was prophesying the Battle of Mount Badon, in which a British leader (King Arthur himself, according to some legends) won a decisive victory over the invading Saxons.

Comments

DonnaDM on April 29, 2015:

Most interesting. I enjoyed reading this.

Anne Harrison from Australia on April 25, 2015:

As the Comte de Mirabeau wrote, the landscape is a primary source. Looking at your photos, it is easy to see why Welsh culture has such rich mythology. A dark and stormy night in Wales would be a scary place!

Thank you for sharing these, voted up

Anne

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