Monday, 20 September 2010

St. Patrick and the Faeries - Part 1

In Neath, in South Wales, is a beautiful Country Park called 'The Gnoll'. It was created during the 1800's by the then owner of the estate, a Lady Mackworth. Being of considerable influence she had requested the collection of various interesting standing stones from around the area, which were used as decorative features in the grounds.

One of these stones was obtained from an area near to a Roman road at Banwen - an area which was known as a favourite spot of the local faeries. One account tells of diminutive faeries having been seen in their hundreds at this spot, riding along the road four a-breast on tiny white horses; and it was here that local people had been known to join in with the faeries song and dance. The stone itself was inscribed with a mysterious language, a faery language it was assumed as the fae had been seen dancing around the stone on fine evenings. This stone was added to the grotto that Lady Mackworth created, along with others that she had acquired, just one hundred yards south of the house. But soon after there was a terrible thunder storm and the grotto was destroyed. It was generally agreed that this was an act of revenge by the faeries. The following is an account from the gentleman who was under-gardener at the gnoll at that time;
"..fairies were constantly seen on a fine evening by Clwyda'r Banwan, dancing within the rings; but since the wonderful stone (on which was written fairy language in their characters, for nobody had ever understood them) had been removed from the centre of the largest circle to Gnoll gardens, nobody had ever seen the fairies. But they had their revenge; for no sooner had the grotto, which cost Lady Mackworth thousands of pounds, been finished, than one evening -- oh! I shall never forget it! -- there was thunder and lightning and rain, such as was never seen or heard before; and next morning the grotto had disappeared, for the hill behind it fell over it, and has hidden it for ever; and woe betide the man that will dare to clear away the earth. When the storm abated we all heard the fairies laughing heartily". (CISP)

The grotto was left ruined and in the early 1900s the stone was taken to Swansea Museum where it can be seen today. The inscription is thought to be Latin, which probably did seem like a faerie language at the time. The Gnoll Country Park is beautifully maintained, but the housing estate next to it has many problems, such as addiction, crime, unemployment etc. I tend to think of this as a continuing example of the faeries revenge as that estate is ironically named 'Fairyland'.

I visited the stone in the museum but I wanted to try and find the place where it used to stand; not in the Gnoll but in it's original position near the Roman road at Banwen.

It's very easy to find this road as Banwen is hardly more than the 60 or so houses that run along it. Though a minor road now, I think we can assume that this road would have been of considerable importance in it's day. This is part of the Sarn Helen Roman Road, and Banwen  is situated between the two Roman towns of Neath (Nidum) and Brecon (Cicucium). Infact, aerial photos reveal just how significant Banwen was to the Romans as the remains of a Roman Fort, Marching Camp and a building (possibly a Villa) are still visible. The local residents assert that this is the birthplace of St. Patrick and having looked into this I tend to agree.

We know from his own letters, that Patrick was born to a noble Romano-British family (probably in the 5th century) and that he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland in his teens. In his 'Confession' he writes;  "I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a presbyter, of the settlement of Bannaven Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive." He was treated as a slave for six years after which he briefly returned to Britain and his family.

View tafarn y banwen in a larger map

Could Bannaven Taburniae be Banwen? Many places do claim to be his birthplace of course, and the Latin place name is broken up accordingly in order to justify such claims. However, it seems that Banwen shares more than a passing resemblance to the Latin when you consider it's older name of Tafarn-y-Banwen. It is my belief that Bannaven Taberniae is simply the Latin version of this Welsh place name, which means the White Peak Tavern. As for the faeries, they are often found in  saintly locations in Wales, and it may be that they provide evidence of pre-Christian worship at such sites. In my next blog I want to share a story which explicitly links Patrick with the faeries, and perhaps provides even further evidence of his connection with this particular area of Wales.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

the physicians of myddfai - legend and legacy

I want to share this lovely little video with you as it follows on so well from my last blog. It was made by the young people of Myddfai as part of an oral history project. Here one of the older inhabitants recalls the history of the Physicians of Myddfai and their knowledge of plants, keeping their story alive for another generation.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

the lady of llyn-y-fan fach

This is one of the most famous of all of the Welsh faerie tales and one of the most beautiful ones too. It is also the story which inspired my many adventures into the Welsh countryside so it seems only right to begin with it here. I hope you enjoy it.

Gwyn knew that the best grazing was to be found on the banks of Llyn-y-Fan Fach, a lake high in the Black Mountains, so that was where he took his mother's cattle to feed. He was also in the habit of taking some food for himself as the lake was some distance from his village.

One morning while Gwyn was eating his lunch he happened to glance across the water and, to his amazement, he saw a beautiful woman standing out in the centre of the lake, her image perfectly reflected in the still water. As he watched, she began to drift towards him and, not knowing quite what to do, he held out the bread he had been eating towards her. "Your bread is too hard", she said, and then disappeared back into the water.

When Gwyn got home he told his mother what had happened and she gave him un-cooked dough to take with him the following day, just in case he should meet this wondrous lady again.

The next morning Gwyn was at the lake bright and early, but there was no sign of the woman he'd seen the day before. But when afternoon came she appeared out of the centre of the lake as before. Again he offered her his bread and again she refused saying, "your bread is unbaked", and she vanished into the lake once more.

By now Gwyn was so in love with the lady of the lake that he hardly noticed the journey home, and his mother, realising how much the lady meant to her son, spent the entire evening in the kitchen until she was satisfied that her bread was baked to perfection.

The following day, with his heart beating as if it would burst from his chest, Gwyn again climbed the mountain to the lake. He waited all morning but she didn't appear. Then he waited all afternoon but still she didn't appear. Then, just as the sun began to set, she drifted over the lake towards him. This time she accepted his gift and Gwyn was so overjoyed that he immediately told her of his love for her and asked for her hand in marriage.

At first she declined his offer but he was so determined that eventually she consented. "I will marry you", she said, "but if you strike me three times without due cause i shall leave and you will not see me again."

Gwyn could not imagine himself ever striking the woman he loved and so the marriage was agreed. All that was needed was her father's blessing, and for this she went into the lake once more.

A moment later Gwyn saw a weather worn old man rise out of the water and at each side of him was a beautiful woman, each identical to the other. "You may marry my daughter if you can tell me which of the two is your true love" he said. Of course Gwyn loved her so much that he had noticed everything about her, including the way she tied her shoes, and looking at the feet of the two sisters he completed his challenge with ease. The father gave his consent and as a dowry he gave them as many cows, goats, sheep, pigs and horses that she could count in one breath. Gwyn had never known such wealth.

They lived very happily for many years and were blessed with three sons, and no more was said of the promise Gwyn had made. Gwyn was not a violent man, he loved his wife too much to ever harm her and he had sworn a solemn promise to this effect.

Some years after their wedding they were invited to the marriage of another couple who lived in the next village. They decided to make the journey by horseback and it was agreed that Gwyn would get the saddles and riding gloves while his wife, the beautiful lady of the lake, fetched their mounts. But when Gwyn returned he found his wife at the exact spot where he had left her. Without thinking, he tapped her lightly with the gloves, just enough to urge her on. "That was the first causeless blow" she said, and reminded her husband of his vow.

A few years later Gwyn and his wife were invited to a christening as their friends union had produced a little baby boy. During the ceremony Gwyn noticed his wife was crying and tapped her on the shoulder to see if anything was troubling her. "I am crying because the baby will know nothing but pain. He will not be long on this earth," she said. Then she added "that was your second causeless blow. Husband remember your promise".

Gwyn was terrified that he should lose the woman he loved so much and he took extra care not to do anything that might cause her to leave.

It seemed no time at all had passed when they received news that the little baby had died, just as the lady of the lake had predicted. A funeral was arranged and Gwyn and his wife attended. But this time Gwyn noticed that his wife was laughing. Without thinking he tapped her on the shoulder, this time to urge her silence in respect of their friends' loss. "I am laughing" she said "because the baby is no longer in pain. He is free now. but you have served me a third blow and i must leave you forever."

Gwyn pleaded with her to stay but a faery promise is binding and as she began to call all the cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats to her, he could do nothing but weep. The lady of the lake led the animals up the mountain and into the lake. The tracks left by her plough can be seen to this day. But gwyn could not bear to lose her, and following her into the water he gave his life to the lake.

But our story doesn't end there. You'll remember that they had three sons? Well the sons loved their mother almost as much as Gwyn had, and they returned to the lake everyday in the hope that she might return to them; and eventually she did.

"Your future is here," she told them, and she explained that their task was to relieve people of their suffering. She spent many days teaching her sons all she knew of magical healing ways, before she vanished back to the lake for the last time.

The news of her sons' magical healing abilities soon spread and people came from far and wide to be treated by them. Being born of a faery mother they could, of course, work wonders. Soon the lord of Llandovery and Dynevor heard of their skills and he granted them lands at Myddfai where they could establish their practice. The wisdom of the physicians of Myddfai (as they became known) was passed down through generation after generation.