I know it’s been a while since my last post, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’ve dropped off the face of the stacks – always a potential hazard given my ladder climbing skills. However fear not, the ladder is still in one piece. The real reason for my online silence of late is not because I have been trapped under an avalanche of books or lost in the valley of incunabula, I have, rather… been away with the fairies.
‘Tis true! While it may not be quite a year and a day since my last post, for the last couple of months I have been caught up in my own little fairy circle, combing the collections for materials for this year’s Autumn Exhibition’:
What the devil is all this about then, you may ask? Well, it’s less about the devil and more about those ambiguous beings who are often tarred with the same brimstone brush – the fairies, or the ‘tylwyth teg’ (the fair family) as they are commonly known in Wales.
In south Wales the common term for the fairies is Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so-called because of their blessing, or bringing good luck to those whom they favoured or showed them kindness. If they were offended or mistreated by humans then they would inflict various punishments, some quite severe, and they reputedly stole new born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.
Fairies were believed to be secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’, with supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworld adventures. The popular belief was that the fairies had whisked the clergyman and poet Ellis Wynne (1671-1734) to the top of Moelfre Mountain and taken him on a supernatural journey through the world. This belief was expressed by the Bard himself, who described how they ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders, like [a] knight; and away we went like the wind over houses and territories, towns and kingdoms, and seas and mountains’.
This supernatural stigma and secretive lifestyle no doubt stemmed from their somewhat shady origins. Some believed they were the souls of Druids who, not being able to enter heaven and too good to be cast into hell, were condemned to exist in limbo. Scottish fairy-lore also sees the fairies as followers of the devil who tried to get into heaven when they saw hell, but found the gates locked and so they settled in the mounds between heaven and hell.
Interestingly, in Welsh folklore Gwyn ap Nudd, a mythical and slightly magical figure from medieval Welsh literature, is regarded as the King of the Fairies and ruler of Annwn – the ‘otherworld’. Indeed, many Welsh observers believed fairies to be spirits or demons with supernatural powers. The Puritan Charles Edwards (1628-1691) describes them as neighbourly ‘devils’ who appeared as a ‘visible troop’ to drag people away to their merriments, while Edmund Jones (1703-1793) was also convinced that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of Darkness’, while others regarded them as apparitions or spirits of the dead who were conjured by magical practitioners or cunning-folk.
These themes, and many more are explored in our current exhibition – Neighbourly Devils which runs until the end of March 2018. Ok, I’ll admit this may not be quite the jolly-festive post you were expecting at this time of year, but fear not, I have it on good authority (that of the Reverend and antiquarian Elias Owen, 1833-1899 to be precise), that no evil spirit can appear on Christmas Eve.
Besides, there is another jingle to these fairy bells, for these mischievous folk were also very fond of a good old knees up and a sing-song, and not just for Christmas. They were known to have an enchanting, musical voice that was designed to steal people away with them. This so happened to a farmer’s daughter named Shui Rhys, who was so captivated by the fairies who ‘talked to her in a language to beautiful to be repeated’, that she was eventually ‘carried off’ with them, never to be seen again. Tales of fairy circles and their love of dancing and colourful dress are rife in Welsh folklore. Edmund Jones the ‘Old Prophet’ of Pontypool, recorded many instances where fairies were seen dancing and prancing about in their unique attire. Rees John Rosser, for example, heard fine music coming from near his barn and saw a large company come into the floor of the barn with striped clothes, ‘and there danced to their music’, while a young girl of Trevethin on hearing their pleasant music went to dance with them, and described how they were dressed in ‘blue and green aprons’.
Such good fairy cheer does indeed put me in mind of other Welsh Christmas and New Year traditions, such as the plygain – the traditional carol service sung at dawn on Christmas morning, while in the run-up to the service people would gather to decorate the house and sing and dance to harp music. Or the Mari Llwyd (strangely, I know, but listen up) since this famous New Year custom which was prevalent in south Wales, involves a horse’s skull draped in a white sheet and decorated with ribbons and bells which is then carried by a group of men around the local area where they seek to gain entry into the houses through the medium of song or rhyme. The householder is expected to deny entry, also through song, and so this repartee continues until the Mari Llwyd is granted entry and the group are given food and drink. Such was one way to ‘see the Old Year out and the New Year in’. Others marked the occasion, very much like the tylwyth teg, by singing and dancing all night, some by drinking and feasting – some things never change eh?! Staying with the singing for just a note longer, yet another tradition which has since died out was that of the Apple Gift, where children would go from door to door on New Year’s Day bearing apples or oranges curiously decorated, and singing good wishes for the New Year in the hope of receiving some monetary gifts.
And just as the fairies appreciated a little food or drink left out for their visits, I mean who doesn’t (yes, we know that mince pie and shot of whisky is not really meant for Santa), these customs were often designed to ensure a little good luck for the coming year, as well as having a good old jig! And so the moral of this blog post is, well, it’s quite simple really – eat, drink, and remember to be fairy responsible.
So from all of us here at Special Collections and Archives, a fairy Merry Christmas and a Happy New Apple to you all.