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Myths and legends of Walesby Gary Reading, Jun 2018
There are many myths and legends across Wales. Here are some of our favourite stories.
King Arthur and his knights regularly appear in our mythology and folklore. Sites throughout Wales are connected with him and his magician Merlin.
Today we are still a leading source of Arthurian literature. The County Library(link is external) at Mold is home to the world’s largest collection of books on Arthur, comprising nearly 2,000 volumes.
In Wales Arthur’s fame lives on in our everyday place names. Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen(link is external)) is believed to be Merlin’s birthplace and is named after him. There’s Maes-y-Camlan or Camlan Field; Bryn y Cleifion (Hill of the Wounded) marks the area where the casualties may have been laid and Nant-y-Saeson (Stream of the Saxons) suggests where Arthur’s enemies pitched camp.
These place names are not devised to try and prove a point – they are real names, centuries old, part of a community memory which is still alive. The name Arthur comes from the same stem as the Welsh word ‘arth’, meaning bear.
He is also supposed to have fought his last battle at Bwlch y Saethau – the Pass of Arrows – which is below Snowdon’s summit. Llyn Llydaw is the lake where Arthur’s sword Excalibur was thrown.
On the Gower peninsula stands Arthur’s Stone(link is external) which is said to be the ‘pebble’ that he removed from his boot on his way to the battle of Camlann in AD 539. He threw it over his shoulder and it landed seven miles away on Cefn Bryn Common near Reynoldston.
Vortigern and Dragons
It is fabled Vortigern, a Celtic King in North Wales chose the area of Dinas Emrys to build a fortress. A young boy who is said to have been Merlin, the sorcerer, warned him that his chosen site for a castle was above an underground lake where two dragons lay sleeping.
Vortigen’s men dug down and sure enough, found two dragons (one red, one white) who started to fight fiercely. The red dragon triumphed and was said to represent Vortigen’s people and (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth) – was a prophecy of the coming of King Arthur, whose father’s name ‘Uther Pendragon’ translates as ‘Dragon’s Head.’
And if you don’t believe us, a 1945 excavation of the Dinas Emrys site revealed evidence of a lake and fortress dating back to Vortigen’s time…careful where you roam in Wales (remember: let sleeping dragons lie).
The Mabinogion (pronounced ‘Mabin-OGion’) is a collection of our medieval tales dating back a thousand years which still have the ability to fascinate and appeal to all. They are regarded by many as a masterpiece of medieval literature and Wales’ greatest contribution to European literature.
The tales are set in a magical landscape which corresponds geographically to the western coast of Wales. The Mabinogion tales are full of white horses, giants, beautiful, intelligent women and heroic men.
Although these characters are long gone, the ancient sites associated with these legends remain. For example, Harlech Castle(link is external) was where according to the tales of the Mabinogion, Matholwch, King of Ireland, arrived to marry the giant Bendigeidran’s sister Branwen. But the ill-fated marriage resulted in warfare between the two countries and the death and carnage broke Branwen’s heart and she was buried on the banks of the river Alaw.
Llyn y Fan Fach(link is external), a remote lake in our Black Mountains has its very own Lady of the Lake legend. The story goes that it was here a young farmer named Gwyn won and then tragically lost the love of his life.
He fell in love with a beautiful water fairy and she agreed to marry him but warned him she would leave him forever if he struck her three times. They lived happily and had three sons but when Gwyn struck her playfully for the third time she disappeared into the lake and he never saw her again.
She would sometimes reappear to her sons and teach them the powers of healing with herbs and plants. They became skillful physicians, as did their children after them. Some of their ancient remedies have survived and are in the Red Book of Hergest, one of our most important medieval manuscripts.
From the village of Beddgelert, in the National Park of Snowdonia(link is external), comes the tale of Prince Llewelyn and Gelert, his favourite dog. One day Llewelyn and his wife went out hunting, leaving their baby son at home. The servants left the baby alone and unprotected.
Llewelyn noticed that Gelert wasn’t with the pack and headed back home, suspecting something was wrong and returned home.
He discovered that Gelert was covered in blood and the baby’s cradle overturned and empty. Filled with anger Prince Llewelyn drew his sword and killed Gelert. The baby was found unharmed. Gelert had killed the wolf as it tried to attack the baby. With huge remorse, Llewelyn buried Gelert in a meadow nearby and marked his grave with a cairn of stones. The village of Beddgelert(link is external) (Gelert’s grave(link is external)) owes its name to this site.
The Nanteos Cup is said to be the Holy Grail, a cup which once carried the blood of Christ and made its way to the United Kingdom for safe keeping. The cup is said to have healing powers and is now stored in the National Library for Wales(link is external).
The Prince is said to have discovered America when he sailed from Rhos on Sea, avoiding a bloody battle for land following the death of his father Owain Gwynedd in 1170. His men are said to have married into the local tribe and if true, he discovered America before Christopher Columbus.