As Halloween closes in, our minds turn to the mythical, the magical, and the mysterious. Here’s a selection of weird and wonderful folk tales from Snowdonia.
In a region like Snowdonia, where the history stretches back over thousands of years, folk memories of real events often alter a little with each generation, until the original stories are turned into something quite fantastic.
According to legend, the floodgates were left unattended when their keeper, Seithennyn, had too much to drink and fell asleep. The sea drew in and drowned the kingdom, and all who lived there.
Does this story originate from a folk memory of the changing coastline at the end of the last ice age, handed down through the generations to become a mystical tale of a sunken city whose ghostly warning bells can still be heard out at sea?
Certainly, there is some evidence that there is something out there; the ancient sunken forest under the sea in Cardigan Bay is well documented. However, whether a whole kingdom was ever there remains to be seen.
It’s easy enough to suggest that a real event, like a storm or the end of an ice age, is the source of a folk memory that turned into the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod. But the origins of some of the other weird and wonderful local legends here in Snowdonia are not so easy to trace. Take the story of the magic hare, for instance…
The magic hare
As everyone knows, witches can turn themselves into animals whenever they like. A witch who lived in Llanfrothen with her grandson, Ifan, certainly possessed this skill.
When Ifan came of age he earned a reputation as a skilled game-beater, and enjoyed plenty of work as a result. Whatever the conditions, no matter how little game seemed to be around, Ifan could always manage to raise something out of the bushes for the local lords to hunt.
But after a while, the hunters started to notice something strange. It seemed that Ifan would regularly raise a very large hare which ran so fast, and was so devious, it was never caught. The hunting lords were convinced it was the same hare every time, and superstitious as people were in those days, witchcraft was suspected.
The local priest, when approached for help by the huntsmen, advised that the only way to catch a magic hare was with a black dog with not a single white hair anywhere on its body. The lords managed to find a dog fitting this description, and the next day Ifan was hired again to flush out game. Before long the hare dashed out and the hunters and their new dog ran off after it. No matter where the hare dodged – under bushes, through ditches – the black dog kept on its tail, and as the hare tired, the dog managed to bite one of its back legs, drawing blood.
The hare, in a panic, changed direction and dashed into Ifan’s grandma’s house. The huntsmen burst in and found the old woman sitting in her chair, panting, with blood trickling from bite marks on her muddy legs. Needless to say, Ifan’s services as a beater were not required again.
The Gwiber of Penmachno
The magical creatures of Snowdonia aren’t limited to everyday creatures like hares, of course. The mythical animals are just as fascinating as the real ones. One such creature is the Gwiber, which means Viper in Welsh, but is pretty far removed from any viper you may have seen on a wildlife documentary or in a zoo.
The Gwiber of Penmachno, in the Conwy Valley, was a horrible beast. Descended from a real viper, the Gwiber, if it drank the milk of a woman, could grow much larger and sprout wings. It was somewhere between a dragon and a serpent; call it what you will, but either way it was terrifying!
An outlaw decided it would be a nice achievement if he could kill the Gwiber – something to boast about among his friends – and laughed off the prophesy of a local wizard who warned that by attacking the Gwiber the man would die from a viper’s bite, from breaking his neck, and by drowning. After all, the man thought: who could die three times?
But the prophesy came true when the man tracked the Gwiber to its lair. As the man tried to kill the beast it bit him on the hand. The man, in shock, fell from the rocks, breaking his neck, and then rolled into the river, where he drowned. And thus, the wizard’s prophesy came true.