Copyright
John Rhys.

Celtic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) online

. (page 22 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) → online text (page 22 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


It is hard to say which is the sounder view to take.

The next question which I wish to suggest is as to
the ethnology of the fairies ; but before coming to that,
one has to ask how the fairies have been evolved. The
idea of fairies, such as Welshmen have been familiar
with from their childhood, clearly involves elements of
two distinct origins. Some of those elements come
undoubtedly from the workshop of the imagination, as,
for example, the stock notion that their food and drink
are brought to the fairies by the mere force of wish-
ing, and without the ministration of servants ; or the
notion, especially prevalent in Arfon, that the fairies
dwell in a country beneath the lakes of Snowdon ; not
to mention the more general connexion of a certain
class of fairies with the world of waters, as indicated
in chapter vii. Add to this that the dead ancestor has
also probably contributed to our bundle of notions
about them; but that contains also an element of
fact or something which may at any rate be con-
ceived as historical. Under this head I should place

1 See Holder's Alt-celtischer Sprachschatz, s. v. Lugus ; also the index to
my Hibbert Lectures, s. v. ILeu, Lug, Lugoves.

U U 2



660 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

the following articles of faith concerning them : the
sallowness of their skins and the smallness of their
stature, their dwelling underground, their dislike of iron,
and the comparative poverty of their homes in the
matter of useful articles of furniture, their deep-rooted
objection to the green sward being broken up by the
plough, the success of the fairy wife in attending to the
domestic animals and to the dairy, the limited range
generally of the fairies' ability to count; and lastly,
one may perhaps mention their using a language of
their own (p. 279), which would imply a time when the
little people understood no other, and explain why they
should be represented doing their marketing without
uttering a syllable to anybody (p. 161).

The attribution of these and similar characteristics to
the fairies can scarcely be all mere feats of fancy and
imagination : rather do they seem to be the result of
our ancestors projecting on an imaginary world a primi-
tive civilization through which tradition represented their
own race as having passed, or, more probably, a civiliza-
tion in which they saw, or thought they saw, another
race actually living. Let us recur for examples also
to the two lake legends which have just been mentioned
(p. 650) : in both of them a distinction is drawn between
the lake fairy's notion of bread and that of the men
and women of the country. To the fairy the latter's bread
appeared crimped or overbaked : possibly the back-
ward civilization, to which she was supposed to belong,
was content to support itself on some kind of unleavened
bread, if not rather on a fare which included nothing
deserving to be called bread at all. Witness Giraldus
Cambrensis' story of Eliodorus, in which bread is con-
spicuous by its absence, the nearest approach to it
being something of the consistency of porridge: see
p. 270 above. Then take another order of ideas : the



xn] RACE IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH 66 1

young man in both lake legends lives with his mother
(pp. 3, 27) : there is no father to advise or protect him :
he is in this respect on a level with Undine, who is the
protegee of her tiresome uncle, Kuhleborn. Seemingly,
he belongs to a primitive society where matriarchal
ideas rule, and where paternity is not reckoned 1 . This
we are at liberty at all events to suppose to have been
the original, before the narrator had painted the mother
a widow, and given the picture other touches of his
later brush.

To speak, however, of paternity as merely not
reckoned is by no means to go far enough ; so here we
have to return to take another look at the imaginary
aspect of the fairies, to which a cursory allusion has
just been made. The reader will possibly recall the
sturdy smith of Ystrad Meurig, who would not reduce
the notions which he had formed of the fairies when he
was a child to conformity with those of a later genera-
tion around him. In any case, he will remember the
smith's statement that the fairies were all women : see
p. 245. The idea was already familiar to me as a Welsh-
man, though I cannot recollect how I got it. But the
smith's words brought to my mind at once the story of
Condla Ruad or the Red, one of the fairy tales first
recorded in Irish literature (p. 291). There the damsel
who takes Condla away in her boat of glass to the realm
of the Everliving sings the praises of that delectable
country, and uses, among others, the following words,
which occur in the Book of the Dun Cow, fo. 120 :

Ni fil cenel and nammd acht mnd ocus ingena \
There is no race there but women and maidens alone.

1 For more on this subject see the chapter on the Pictish question in The
Welsh People, pp. 36-74.

2 It is right to say that the story represents the fairies as living under the
rule of a n, a title usually rendered by ' king ' ; but ri (genitive rig} was
probably at one time applicable to either sex, just as we find Gaulish names



662 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

Now what people could have come by the idea of
a race of women only ? Surely no people who con-
sidered that they themselves had fathers : it must have
been some community so low in the scale of civilization
as never to. have had any notion whatsoever of paternity:
it is their ignorance that would alone render possible
the notion of a race all women. That this was a matter
of belief in the past of many nations, is proved by the
occurrence of widely known legends about virgin
mothers 1 ; not to mention that it has been lately estab-
lished, that there are savages who to this day occupy
the low place here indicated in the scale of civilization.
Witness the evidence of Spencer and Gillen in their
recently published work on The Native Tribes of Central
Australia, and also what Frazer, author of The Golden
Bough, says of a passage in point, in the former, as
follows :

' Thus, in the opinion of these savages, every con :
ception is what we are wont to call an immaculate
conception, being brought about by the entrance into
the mother of a spirit apart from any contact with
the other sex. Students of folklore have long been
familiar with notions of this sort occurring in the
stories of the birth of miraculous personages, but this
is the first case on record of a tribe who believe in
immaculate conception as the sole cause of the birth
of every human being who comes into the world. A
people so ignorant of the most elementary of natural

like Biturix and Visurix borne by women. The wonder, however, is that
such a line as that just quoted has not been edited out of the verses long
ago, just as one misses any equivalent for it in Joyce's English expansion of
the story in his Old Celtic Romances, pp. 106-11. Compare, however, the
Land of the Women in the Voyage of Maildun (Joyce, pp. 152-6), and in
Meyer and Nutt's Voyage of Bran, i. 30-3.

1 This conclusion has been given in a note at the foot of p. 37 of The
Welsh People ; but for a variety of instances to illustrate it see Hartland's
chapters on Supernatural Birth in his Legend of Perseus.



xn] RACE IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH 663

processes may well rank at the very bottom of the
savage scale 1 .'

Nevertheless, it is to some population in that low
position, in the remote prehistory of this country, that
one is to trace the belief that the fairies were all women.
It is to be regarded as a position distinctly lower than
that of the Ultonians in the time of Cuchulainn ; for the
couvade seems to me to argue a notion of paternity
perhaps, in their case, as clear a notion of paternity as
was possible for a community which was not quite out
of the promiscuous stage of society.

The neo-Celtic nations of these islands consist,
speaking roughly, of a mixture of the invading Celts
with the earlier inhabitants whom the Celts found in
possession. These two or more groups of peoples
may have been in very different stages of civiliza-
tion when they first came in contact with one another.
They agreed doubtless in many things, and perhaps,
among others, in cherishing an inherited reluctance
to disclose their names, but the Celts as Aryans
were never without the decimal system of counting.
Like the French, the Celtic nations of the present day
show a tendency, more or less marked, to go further
and count by scores instead of by tens. But the
Welsh are alone among them in having, in certain

1 See Frazer's article on ' The Origin of Totemism ' in the Fortnightly Review
for April, 1899, p. 649. The passage to which it refers will be found at
p. 265 of Spencer and Gillen's volume, where one reads as follows :
'Added to this we have amongst the Arunta, Luritcha, and Ilpirra tribes,
and probably also amongst others such as the Warramunga, the idea firmly
held that the child is not the direct result of intercourse, that it may come
without this, which merely, as it were, prepares the mother for the
reception and birth also of an already-formed spirit child who inhabits one
of the local totem centres. Time after time we have questioned them on
this point, and always received the reply that the child was not the direct
result of intercourse.' It is curious to note how readily the Australian
notion here presented would develop into that of the Lapps, as given at
p. 658 from Jessen's notes.



664 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

instances, gone back from counting by tens to count-
ing by fives, which they do when they count between
10 and 20 : for 16, 17, 18, and 19 are in Welsh i on
15, 2 on 15, 3 on 15, and 4 on 15 respectively ;
and similarly with 13 and 14 l . We have seen how
the lake fairy reckoned by fives (pp. 8, 418) all the
live stock she was to have as her dowry; and one
otherwise notices that the fairies deal invariably in the
simplest of numbers. Thus if you wish, for example,
to find a person who has been led away by them,
ten to one you have to go ' this day next year ' to the
spot where he disappeared. Except in the case of the
alluring light of the full moon, it is out of the question
to reckon months or weeks, though it is needless to say
that to reckon the year correctly would have been in
point of fact far more difficult ; but nothing sounds
simpler than ' this day next year.' In that simple
arithmetic of the fairies, then, we seem to have a trace
of a non-Aryan race, that is to say, probably of some
early inhabitants of these islands.

Unfortunately, the language of those inhabitants
has died out, so that we cannot appeal to its numerals
directly ; and the next best course to adopt is to take
as a sort of substitute for their language that of possible
kinsmen of a pre-Celtic race in this country. Now
the students of ethnology, especially those devoted to the
investigation of skulls and skins, tell us that we have
among us, notably in Wales and Ireland, living repre-
sentatives of a dark-haired, long-skulled race of the

1 This feature of Welsh has escaped M. de Charencey, in his instructive
letter on ' Numeration basque et celtique,' in No. 48 of the Bulletin
de la Soc. de Linguistique de Paris, pp. cxv-cxix. In passing, I may be
allowed to mention a numerical curiosity which occurs in Old Irish : it
has probably an important historical significance. I refer to the word for
' seven men ' occurring sometimes as morfeser, which means, as it were,
a magnits seviratus or ' big sixer.'



xii] RACE IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH 665

same description as one of the types which occur, as
they allege, among the Basque populations of the
Pyrenees. We turn accordingly to Basque, and what
do we find ? Why, that the first five numerals in that
language are bat, bi, iru, lau, host, all of which appear to
be native ; but when we come to the sixth numeral we
have sei, which looks like an Aryan word borrowed
from Latin, Gaulish, or some related tongue. The case
is much the same with 'seven,' for that is in Basque
zazpi, which is also probably an Aryan loan-word.
Basque has native words, zortzi and bederatzi, for eight
and nine, but they are longer than the first five, and
appear to be of a later formation affecting, in common
with sei and zazpi, the termination i. I submit, there-
fore, that here we have evidence of the former existence
of a people in the West of Europe who at one time
only counted as far as five. Some of the early peoples
of the British Isles may have been on the same level,
so that our notions about the fairies have probably been
derived, to a greater or less extent, from ideas formed
by the Celts concerning those non-Celtic, non-Aryan
natives of whose country they took possession.

As regards my appeal to the authority of craniology,
I have to confess that it is made with a certain amount
of reservation, since the case is far less simple than it
looks at first sight. Thus, in August, 1891, the Cam-
brian Archaeological Association, including among them
Professor Sayce, visited the south-west of Ireland.
During our pleasant excursions in Kerry, the question
of race was one of our constant topics ; and Professor
Sayce was reminded by what he saw in Ireland of his
visit to North Africa, especially the hilly regions of the
country inhabited by the Berbers. Among other things,
he used to say that if a number of Berbers from the
mountains were to be brought to an Irish village and



666 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

clad as Irishmen, he felt positive that he should not be
able to tell them from the Irishmen themselves, such
as we saw on our rambles in Kerry. This struck me as
all the more remarkable, since his reference was to fairly
tall, blue-eyed men whose hair could not be called black.
On the other hand, owing perhaps to ignorance and
careless ways of looking at things around me, I am a
little sceptical as to the swarthy long-skulls : they did
not seem to meet us at every turn in Ireland ; and as
for Wales, which I know as well as most people do,
I cannot in my ignorance of craniology say with any
confidence that I have ever noticed vast numbers of
that type. I should like, however, to see the heads of
some of the singers whom I have noticed at our Eisted"-
fodau at Cardiff, Aberdare, and Swansea, placed under
the hands of an experienced skull-man. For I have
long suspected that we cannot regard as of Aryan
origin the vocal talent so general in Wales, and so
conspicuous in our choirs of working people as to
astonish all the great musicians who have visited our
national festival. Beyond all doubt, race has not a little
to do with the artistic feelings : a short-skull may be as
unmusical, for example, as I am ; but has anybody in
this country ever known a narrow long-skull to be the
reverse of unmusical ? or has any one ever considered
how few clergymen of the tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed
type have been converted to the ritualistic and aesthetic
movement in the Church of England ?

As it seems to me that the bulk of the Welsh people
would have to be described as short-skulls, it would be
very gratifying to see those who are wont to refer
freely to the dark-complexioned long-skulls of Wales
catch a respectable number of specimens. I trust there
are plenty to be found ; and of course I do not care how
they are taken, whether it be by an instantaneous pro-



xn] RACE IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH 667

cess of photography or in the meshes of some anthropo-
metric sportsman, like Dr. Beddoe. Let them be
secured anyhow, so that one may rest assured that the
type is still numerically safe, and be able to judge with
one's own eyes how heads long and swarthy look on
the shoulders of living Welshmen. We might then be
in a position also to compare with them the prevalent
description of fairy changelings; for when the fairies
steal nice, blond babies, they usually place in their stead
their own aged-looking brats with short legs, sallow
skins, and squeaky voices. Unfortunately for me, all
the adult changelings of whom I happen to have heard
any account had died some years before I began to turn
my attention to the population of Faery, with the ex-
ception, perhaps, of one whose name I obtained under
the seal of secrecy. It was that of the wife of a farmer
living near Nefyn, in West Carnarvonshire. It was
whispered that she was a changeling, so I am inclined
to regard her as no other than one of the representa-
tives of the same aboriginal stock to which one might
conjecture some of her neighbours also to belong ; she
ought to be an extreme specimen of the type. It is to
be hoped that the photographer and his anthropometric
brother have found her out in time and in good
humour ; but it is now many years since I heard of her.
To return again to the fairies, some of them are
described as more comely and good-looking than the
rest (pp. 83, 250), but the fairy women are always
pictured as fascinating, though their offspring as
changelings are as uniformly presented in the light of
repulsive urchins ; but whole groups of the fairy popu-
lation are sometimes described as being as ugly of face
as they were thievish in disposition those, for instance,
of ELanfabon, in Glamorganshire (p. 262). There is one
district, however, which is an exception to the tenor



668 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

of fairy physiognomy : it is that of the Pennant
neighbourhood, in Carnarvonshire, together with the
hills and valleys, roughly speaking, from Cwm Strattyn
to ILwytmor and from Drws y Coed to Dolbenmaen.
The fairies of that tract are said to have been taller
than the others, and characterized by light or even flaxen
hair, together with eyes of clear blue : see pp. 89,
93-7, 105-8. Nor is that all, for we are told that they
would not let a person of dark complexion come near
them (p. 96). The other fairies, when kidnapping, it
is true, preferred the blond infants of other people to
their own swarthy brats, which, perhaps, means that
it was a policy of their people to recruit itself with
men of the superior physique of the more powerful
population around them. The supposed fairy ances-
tress of the people of the Pennant Valley bears, in the
stories in point, such names as Penelope, Bella, Pelisha,
and Sibi, while her descendants are still taunted with
their descent a quarrel which, within living memory,
used to be fought out with fists at the fairs at Penmorfa
and elsewhere. This seems to indicate a comparatively
late settlement l in the district of a family or group of
families from without, and an origin, therefore, some-
what similar to that of the Simychiaid and Cowperiaid
(p. 67) of a more eastern portion of the same count} 7 ,
rather than anything deserving to be considered with
the rest of the annals of Faery. Passing by this oasis,
then, such snap-shot photographs as I have been able
to take, so to speak, of fairyland cleared of the glamour
resting on its landscape, seem to disclose to the eye a
swarthy population of short stumpy men occupying the



1 The non-Welsh names of the fairy ancestress ought possibly to lead one
to discover the origin of that settlement ; and a careful study perhaps of
the language of the Belsiaid or Bellisians, if their Welsh has any dialectic
peculiarities, might throw further light on their past.



xii] RACE IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH 669

most inaccessible districts of our country. They appear
to have cared more for soap than clothing 1 , and they lived
on milk taken once a day, when they could get it. They
probably fished and hunted, and kept domestic animals,
including, perhaps, the pig ; but they depended largely
on what they could steal at night or in misty weather.
Their thieving, however, was not resented, as their visits
were believed to bring luck and prosperity (p. 251).
Their communities formed as it were islands, owing to
the country round about them having been wrested from
them by later comers of a more warlike disposition and
provided with better weapons. But the existence of
the scattered groups of the fairies was in no danger
of coming to a violent end : they were safe in conse-
quence of the superstitious beliefs of their stronger
neighbours, who probably regarded them as formidable
magicians, powerful, among other things, to cause or to
cure disease as they pleased. Such, without venturing
to refresh my memory by perusing what has been
written about dwarf races in other parts of the world,
are the impressions made on my mind in the course of
analysing and sifting the folklore materials crowded into
this volume. That applies, of course, in so far only as
regards the fairies in their character of a real people
as distinguished from them as creatures of the imagina-
tion. But, as I have no wish to earn the displeasure of
my literary friends, let me hasten to say that I acknow-
ledge the latter, the creatures of the imagination, to
be the true fairies, the admiration of one's childhood and
the despair of one's later years : the other folk the
aborigines whom I have been trying to depict form only



1 Our stories frequently delight in giving the fairy women fine dresses
and long trains; but I would rely more on the Ystrad Meurig smith's
account (p. 245), and the case of the Pennant fairy who tears to shreds the
gown offered her (p. 109).



670 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

a sort of substratum, a kind of background to the fairy
picture, which I should be the last man to wish to mar.

It is needless to say that we have no trace of any
fairies approaching the minute dimensions of Shake-
speare's Queen Mab ; for, after all, our fairies are mostly
represented as not extravagantly unlike other people
in personal appearance not so unlike, in fact, that
other folk might not be mistaken for them now and
then as late as the latter part of the fifteenth century.
Witness the following passage from Sir John Wynne's
History of the Gwydir Family, p. 74 :

' Haveing purchased this lease, he removed his dwell-
ing to the castle of Dolwydelan, which at that time was
in part thereof habitable, where one Howell ap Jevan
ap Rys Gethin, in the beginning of Edward the Fourth
his raigne, captaine of the countrey and an outlaw, had
dwelt. Against this man David ap Jenkin rose, and
contended with him for the sovreignety of the countrey ;
and being superiour to him, in the end he drew a
draught for him, and took him in his bed at Penanmen
with his concubine, performing by craft, what he could
not by force, and brought him to Conway Castle. Thus,
after many bickerings betweene Howell and David ap
Jenkin, he being too weake, was faigne to flie the
countrey, and to goe to Ireland, where he was a yeare
or thereabouts. In the end he returned in the summer
time, haveing himselfe, and all his followers clad in
greene, who, being come into the countrey, he dis-
persed here and there among his friends, lurking by
day, and walkeing in the night for feare of his adver-
saries ; and such of the countrey as happened to have
a sight of him and his followers, said they were the
fairies, and soe ran away.'

But what has doubtless helped, above all other things,
to perpetuate the belief in the existence of fairies may



xii] RACE IN FOLKLORE AND MYTH 671

be said to be the popular association with them of the
circles in the grass, commonly known in English as fairy
rings. This phenomenon must have answered for ages
the purpose for our ancestors, practically speaking, of
ocular demonstration, as it still does no doubt in many
a rustic neighbourhood.

The most common name for the fairies in Welsh is
y Tylwyth Teg, ' the Fair or Beautiful Family ' ; but in
South Cardiganshire we have found them called Plant
RhysDwfn, ' the Children of Rhys the Deep '(pp. 151, 158),
while in Gwent and Morgannwg they are more usually
known asBendithy Mamau,'the Blessing of the Mothers'
(p. 174). Our fourteenth century poet, D. ab Gwilym,
uses the first-mentioned term, Tylwyth Teg, in poem
xxxix, and our prose literature has a word corr, cor in
the sense of a dwarf, and corres for a she dwarf. The
old Cornish had also cor, which in Breton is written
korr 1 , with a feminine korrez, and among the other
derivatives one finds korrik, ' a dwarf, a fairy, a wee little
sorcerer,' and korrigez or korrigan, ' a she dwarf, a fairy
woman, a diminutive sorceress.' The use of these words
in Breton recalls the case of the cor, called Rhudlwm or

1 The difference between Mod. Welsh cor and Breton karris one of spelling,
for the reformed orthography of Welsh words only doubles the r where it is
dwelt on in the accented syllable of a longer word : in other terms, when
that syllable closes with the consonant and the next syllable begins with it.



Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 2) → online text (page 22 of 29)