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Beasts of Welsh Mythology

Updated on April 25, 2015
Lake Vynwry near Welshpool Wales
Lake Vynwry near Welshpool Wales | Source

American journalist and writer Wirt Sikes once claimed that Wales was the “cradle of fairy legend”, and it's not hard to see how its rolling green hills and crystal clear lakes could have inspired tales of goblins, griffons and warrior kings. No doubt its forests and roads were dark and eerie places at night though, which would explain the array of ghostly creatures and vicious night terrors that also inhabit its fictional landscape.

Here's a few examples of mythical creatures that today feature in a wealth of literature and popular entertainment, but have their origins in Welsh folklore.

The Lake Monster

They say a beast dwells in the depths
They say a beast dwells in the depths | Source

Otherwise known as the 'Afanc', this beast makes the calm and clear waters of the lake its home, rather than the raging ocean; proving that even the most serene surface can conceal a threat. For many foolish travelers, this lesson came too late.

The Mythical Creatures Guide describes it as resembling a large frog with claws on each of its limbs. In ancient days, 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 (similar to the flood of Judeo-Christian legend)

Eventually King Arthur (though in other versions it is the Welsh hero Peredur) realized that no fisherman’s tricks would work on the beast, as so long as it was within the water it was too strong to be contained.

So with the aid of his faithful steed, he hauled the beast onto dry land and slew it once and for all. Supposedly the hoof print of Arthur's horse, Liamrai, can still be seen on the rock near Llyn Barfog in Snowdonia, having been imprinted there as it heroically dragged the Afanc from the depths.

Carn March Arthur: According to legend, the hoofprint made by Arthur's horse during the battle with the dreaded Afanc.
Carn March Arthur: According to legend, the hoofprint made by Arthur's horse during the battle with the dreaded Afanc. | Source

Griffons

Griffons, legendary beasts in numerous mythologies
Griffons, legendary beasts in numerous mythologies | Source

The Adar Llwch Gwin were giant birds that could tear a man to shreds, and since they could understand human speech, they often did so at the behest of a master. 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. A place and time was 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 chosen his words more carefully. His own sister was Arthur's mistress, and for the sake of her brother, had attempted to delay the king in order to prevent the duel. Drudwas 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.

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

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

Hounds of Annwn

Herne the Hunter, whose ghostly hounds join him on an eternal hunt across the skies
Herne the Hunter, whose ghostly hounds join him on an eternal hunt across the skies | Source

Spirits of the dead, accompanied by ghostly steeds and vicious hounds black as night carry out an eternal hunt across the sky, known in European folklore as “The Wild Hunt”. The hounds, otherwise referred to by their Welsh name 'Cwn Annwn', were the basis for the 'hounds of Hell' that Christians believed would appear on sacred holidays such as 'Good Friday'

The prospect of being pursued by such hounds was all the more terrifying because of the sounds they made; nightmarish howls that would grow quieter and quieter as they drew closer to their prey, until they couldn't be heard at all.

So if a traveler happened to hear such howls while walking a lonely road at night, the sound fading into the distance brought no relief. How could they know whether the hounds had truly moved on, or were simply closing in for the kill?

Tormented Spirits

The Irish Legend of the Banshee is closely related to the Welsh Cyhyraeth
The Irish Legend of the Banshee is closely related to the Welsh Cyhyraeth | Source

The howl of the wind at night had 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 was the ghost of a woman who would roam the riverbanks or the coast at night, crying mournfully in the darkness.

Its tormented moans were likened to those of a person dying from a deathly illness; and if heard three times in succession, was 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 would come to a window at night and call out three times the name of one who was close to death.

Coblynau (Goblins)

Goblins appear in various forms in mythologies throughout the world
Goblins appear in various forms in mythologies throughout the world | Source

The Coblynau are ugly creatures dwelling deep in the mines of Wales. They may wear miner's clothing and carry mining tools, but their work always seems to be left unfinished.

That said, they might assist miners in finding ore if treated with proper respect. Rub them the wrong way though, and the miner will be lured deep into the tunnels before being killed in an 'accidental' rock-slide.

Death

Ankou - Henchman of Death
Ankou - Henchman of Death | Source

Breton folklore collector Anatole Le Braz called Ankou the ‘henchman of death’; the one who collects the souls and watches over the graveyards.

Some stories have him appearing in the form of a shadow of a man wearing a hat and carrying a scythe, though the one casting the shadow is nowhere to be seen. In others, he is a skeleton whose head turns to perceive everything and everyone.

Dragons

Ah, dragons. Whatever would storytellers do without them?
Ah, dragons. Whatever would storytellers do without them? | Source

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

In the Mabinogion (a collection of Welsh folk tales), the story of Lludd and Llefelys tells of two dragons, one red and the other white, doing battle and wreaking destruction on the land around them. On the advice of his wise brother Llefelys, the British king Lludd lured the dragons into a trap and imprisoned them underground.

In the "Historia Brittonum", King Vortigern attempts to build a castle upon that very land, but each attempt ends in failure. He summons a young Merlin, who sees a vision of a red and white dragon locked in a struggle that would determine the course of history. The red dragon triumphs, and Merlin prophesies that the white dragon represents the Saxons, who will ultimately be defeated by Vortigern's people, the Britons - signified by the red.

Some might say that this prophecy was false, as centuries later King Edward I ensured that the Welsh were firmly under the boot heel of his Saxon-Norman empire. Others will argue that the prophecy eventually came to fruition; as the half-Welsh Henry Tudor, with a red dragon on his banner, triumphed over King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and won the English throne.

Y Ddraig Goch, the famous red dragon of Wales
Y Ddraig Goch, the famous red dragon of Wales | Source

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    • profile image

      DonnaDM 2 years ago

      Most interesting. I enjoyed reading this.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      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