By Lisa Tallis, Assistant Librarian of the Special collections Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, Cardiff University
Whilst Palace Green Library’s Between Worlds exhibition looks to dispel modern misconceptions of fairy folk in Northern Britain, Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University chose to delve right into the dark side of Welsh folklore.
Here, Lisa Tallis tells us about the special collection currently on display in the Arts and Social Studies Library at Cardiff University (on show until 31 March 2018). The exhibition studies the folklore, myths, and history surrounding spiteful fairies and demons in Wales, looking at first-hand accounts, poetry, and artwork from the fifteenth century up until modern times.
Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library
To coincide with the Welsh Government’s Year of Legends, Special Collections and Archives decided to curate an exhibition based on the theme of myths and legends. As the Assistant Librarian, I was aware that our collections were incredibly rich in materials relating to these themes, especially works on folklore and Celtic myths. The fairies were an ideal subject since they touch upon so many aspects of these themes, from the supernatural to their almost human characteristics and conducts.
Appropriately, we launched the exhibition on Halloween with a fascinating talk by Professor Diane Purkiss entitled ‘Darkness Made Visible: What Are Fairies?’. A supernatural setting for our exhibition – Neighbourly Devils – was a welcome spin, for as the title suggests, one of the themes that I was especially keen to highlight was the darker side of these intriguing beings.
Known variously as Y Tylwyth Teg (The Fair Family) and Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so called because of their bestowing blessings on selected mortals whom they favoured, the fairies could also invoke fear as they reputedly stole new-born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.
‘Jennet Francis struggles with the fairies for her baby’, illustration by T. H. Thomas from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880).
Naming them by a harsh epithet was known to invoke their anger, and it was essential to show them kindness as they were known to punish those who failed to do so, quite severely in some instances. Fairies were considered secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’ – a ‘Between Worlds’ existence certainly. They were believed to have supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworldly adventures.
Hence we have on display an edition of Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard). First published in 1703, this classic piece of Welsh religious prose describes how it was the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ who ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders’ and took the bard on his otherworldly journey where he witnessed scenes of earthly vice, death, and hell.
This belief is also expressed in a small book of Welsh folktales named Ysten Sioned (Sioned’s Pitcher), based on the character of a beggar woman who would collect any charities offered, no matter what they were, in her pitcher. So too this book gathers together an eclectic mix of Welsh tales and traditions, one of which relates to Ellis Wynne and the popular belief that he was whisked away to the top of Moelfre mountain by the fairies who then took him with them through ‘the whole world’.
Extract from D. Silvan-Evans, Ysten Sioned (Wrexham, 1894), relaying the popular belief that the fairies have taken Ellis Wynne away from them.
It is interesting that Ellis Wynne initially mistook the fairies for a bunch of ‘witsiaid-melldigedig’ – accursed witches. This brought to mind the story of the ‘old woman of the mountain’ recorded by the author and Independent minister, Edmund Jones (1702-1793) in his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (1790), which we also have on display. This apparition, believed to be the ghost of a witch named Juan White, would haunt Llanhyddel mountain in Monmouthshire, leading travellers astray.
‘The Old Woman of the Mountain’ by T. H. Thomas. Frontispiece from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880), where various versions of the tale are recorded.
Again, what’s interesting is this connection between fairies, witches, and ghosts because they do share certain characteristics. Like fairies, witches were known to punish those who had caused them offence and were also believed to be able to transport people on supernatural journeys, while fairies were thought to be spirits of the dead who would converse with witches or cunning folk. However, the one figure that does bind them all is of course the Devil!
Some people in Wales believed that fairies were the souls of Druids who, not being Christians, could not enter heaven but were too good to be cast into hell and therefore condemned to exist in limbo. For many others, however, their origins were far more ominous. Several sources portray fairies as spiritual beings of demonic origin. In 1677, the Puritan Charles Edwards describes them as neighbourly, or friendly devils (cythreuliaid cymdeithgar), a phrase that lent itself very well as an exhibition title as it captures their mischievous and demonic nature. Edwards explained how these ‘vermin of darkness’ used to appear as a visible ‘swarm’ to drag people away to their merriments. Edmund Jones was also in ‘no doubt’ that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of darkness’, while an anonymous author of an early eighteenth-century tract against witchcraft and conjuration claimed they were spirits that were conjured by cunning-folk, and argued that it was forbidden to seek help from those who converse with ‘the dead’ (y meirw). The author was under no doubt that that such spirits were, in fact, devils.
The Fairies by Peter Roberts. Illustration appears in his Cambrian popular antiquities: or, An account of some traditions, customs, and superstitions, of Wales; with observations as to their origin, &c. (London, 1815).
These demonic understandings of the fairies might surprise those of us who are more familiar with the delicate, winged depictions that became popular with the increase in fairy tale publications and the development of Victorian fairy illustration. This is yet another key theme that the exhibition explores as many of the works included featured beautiful illustrations by some of Wales’s most talented artists. Most of these follow the Victorian tradition of romanticising the appearance of fairies, such as Margaret Lindsay Williams’ paintings of the Llyn y Fan Fach Legend, or the lady of the lake.
He saw a girl sitting on the lake’s smooth surface illustration by Margaret Lindsay Williams, from William Rees, Chwedl Llyn y Fan (The Legend of Llyn y Fan) (Liverpool, 1917).
However, some artists appreciated the darker side of the Tylwyth Teg and created haunting images that reflected this, one of which provided the initial inspiration for the exhibition. So, I will leave you to ponder the following from the proofs of Shirley Jones’ book Chwedlau (Legends) and her description of creating this particular print, and what happened next…
Shirley Jones, ‘Llên Werin’: Chwedlau: page proofs (Brecon, 2005).
‘Llen Werin, or Folklore, was the final chapter in my artist book, Chwedlau, an exploration into fifteen centuries of Welsh myths, legends and folklore. I thought a fitting image would be of a candle, by which so many of these tales were told. I drew our own candle in its holder, and burnished out this image on a mezzotint copperplate. I left the finished plate overnight, in my studio, protected by a sheet of paper, having decided it needed nothing more added to it. I locked my studio door, as usual, intending to take a print from it next day. But this was when I had a shock: there was now smoke coming from the candle on my mezzotint plate! I hadn’t burnished it out, and no one else could have. And I have never known how it came to be there.’
Special Collections and Archives’ exhibition Neighbourly Devils/Cythreuliaid Cymdogol is open until 31 March, 2018, and is available online at neighbourlydevils.weebly.com.
Find out more at www.cardiff.ac.uk/special-collections. Follow Cardiff University’s Special Collections Archives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @CUSpecialColls.
Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250