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Ceredigion: Folk Tales
By Peter Stevenson
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Peter Stevenson
All rights reserved.
Mari Berllan Pitter
There is a young man, one of those gaunt, earnest young men, with bottle-bottom glasses, unruly fair hair, a book under his arm, and a thermos strapped to a rucksack on his back. He's looking for remains, antiquities, stories from the past, with mud on his boots and bramble scratches on his legs. He's thirsty from walking but too nervous to ask for water in the pub in Pennant, as it was a little rowdy. He's passing an old farmhouse, Mynachdy, and as he reaches the gate, he is wondering whether to ask for a drink, when a girl limps out in front of him. She's dark, jet-black hair flecked with red, deep dark eyes full of pain, and thin red lips that seem to be spitting blood. Plain and pretty at the same time, he thinks, for he is just at that difficult age. She has a slight hunch to her shoulder, head wrapped in a shawl, and hobnailed boots against bare legs. She is burning fury. She turns to look back at the entrance to the farm where the man is standing, and a stream of venom pours from her mouth. His Welsh is poor, though he understands enough to know that this is not kindly meant. She stares him in the eye, he is rooted to the spot, and he doesn't know if he is terrified or in love. But in the blink of a crow's eye, she's gone.
He looks around, and on the road towards Cilau Aeron he sees a hare, watching him. One of those ancient scarred hares that can outstare a lurcher. It runs into a field and follows the line of an old thorn hedge, weaving in and out like dog rose and honeysuckle, unscratched by the blackthorn and bramble. He follows, running along the line of the hedge. It's so thickly woven; how could a hare pass through it? When he is one side of the hedge, the hare is on the other, he climbs over gates and fences, rusting wire tearing his shirt, bruising his leg, trapping fingers, squelching through cow pats. He is in a thorn thicket, his trousers ripped, knees torn, mud mingling with blood. He pulls himself out, and there is the hare, in a circle where a castle once stood, staring at him. It turns and disappears down a bank; he follows, slips on his backside, bangs the back of his head on a stone, and sits there with his boots dangling in the stream.
On the opposite bank is the hare. Their eyes meet. It's laughing at him. It turns and runs up the wooded slope through a carpet of wild garlic, towards a cottage built into the rock face, pretty and double-fronted, smoke billowing from tall chimneys that look like rabbit's ears. He watches the hare run through a patch of strawberries in the garden and in through the front door. He picks himself up, wades across the river and up to the cottage. He hears a voice, 'Dewch i mewn, cariad.' A woman's voice. 'Don't be shy, take off your boots.' He does, and walks in.
The room is sepia and ochre, full of smoke and smells that tickle his nose, sweet and sour, aromatic and leafy, like cooking herbs. The walls are covered in sagging shelves and oak cabinets, full of misty brown jars and green glass bottles. There is an inglenook at one end, surrounded by a wickerwork screen, with dried bryony and wormwood hanging from the lintel. Sat in a worn rocking chair is an old woman, stirring a black pot hanging from a hook and chain over the open fire. She is small, grey hair flecked with black, deep dark eyes, thin white lips, and a wrinkled round face wrapped in a shawl that covers a slight hump on one shoulder. There is no sign of the hare. She ladles out the contents of the cauldron into a bowl and holds it out to him.
'There's bara brith on the table, fill your belly. You're as thin as a rake.' She looks him up and down. 'You've made a mess of yourself, my boy. Sit down, pull down your trousers and we'll bathe those cuts.' He can't refuse. She fetches bottles and jars and mixes potions and powders and, with a small piece of red muslin, she cleans the mud from his wounds and fills them with concoctions and tinctures. She asks him what he is doing in the woods, and he explains: antiquities, folk tales, old characters, you know. She knows, and while she cleans his cuts, she tells him stories, as if she understands exactly what he is seeking.
The cottage, she says, is Berllan Pitter, the Bitter Orchard. A family lived here 200 years ago; John and Mary Davies, with their daughter Mari and son David. Father worked at the big house, Mynachdy, as a gardener. Mynachdy was haunted by a ghost so small it could pass through the eye of a needle. Mari started working there too, as a maidservant. She was one of those dark intense girls, strong-willed and sensitive, mending broken animals, always seeing phantoms, pulling the heads from dolls, invoking spirits. She loved horses; she could whisper to them, send them to sleep, just like the man at Strata Florida. When her parents died, she was turned 50, set in her ways. She had fallen out with a man at the big house long ago, so had to earn a living for herself. She turned to the plants in the woods and became an herbalist. And so the stories started.
She was regarded as a little odd, away with the fairies; fine when you're young and nearly pretty, but when you get older, well, curtains twitch and fingers point. She had a wicked sense of humour. People would ask her, 'What you been doin' today, Mari?' and she would answer, 'Drownin' kittens.' She started visiting people, selling her potions and remedies, asking for money or food in exchange. Many had known her father and took pity on her, and if they refused, she simply turned and walked away with her head down, without a word. Sometimes she cursed them, under her breath, or loudly if they were objectionable. People started to believe that her curses came true. Animals fell ill, people too; butter wouldn't churn; she cursed three farmers and they all lost cattle; she made a young girl walk backwards; she turned Dic Roderick's water wheel at Llanarth into reverse, and horses wouldn't pass her house because she'd put a protective spell on it. Even her own cousin's horse stood stock still until she lifted her curse. Only one man was safe from her spells: Lluestwr, the local poet. Not only could she curse, she could lift the spells of others. She would place a ball of wool in a bowl of water, stick a pin into it and recite a chapter of the Bible, for she was a devout chapel goer. They said she had power, fear spread, and soon the word witchery was heard, which made her curse even more.
Witchcraft was known all over Ceredigion. Young girls made potions to attract men, cure animals and heal wounds. There were stories about Pegi Jonin in Bronant, Black Ellen the Gypsy of Gogerddan, Beti Grwca of New Quay, Beti Havard of Llangybie, and Crick y Wheel of Llanbadarn Fawr who dug up vegetables and milked cows in the middle of the night and threatened to break people's heads with a sickle if they came near. Her daughter supposedly had a crooked eye which could bewitch you just by staring. There were three witches in Aberarth who could make themselves disappear and reappear in Cardigan. A servant at Dolfawr laughed at the idea that Betty'r Bont of Ystrad Meurig had powers, until one night he found he had been turned into a hare and was chased all the way to bed by two greyhounds. Another night she turned him into a horse, saddled him and rode him till dawn. In Llangwyryfon in 1922 a woman cursed a cow, which promptly sat down, refused to move and had to be shot. At Lluest Farm in Llwyngroes, an old woman cursed a farmer who refused her food, and all his pigs lay on their backs with their trotters in the air. In Talybont a woman was thought to have turned herself into a hare, while in Llandre one was shot when in the form of a hare. A woman from Tregaron asked a farmer's wife for a small corner of his large farm to grow some potatoes, but was turned away from the door by a servant. The servant saw a hare looking at him, assumed it was the woman, took a gun and shot at her, but the hare ran away. Friends told him that she could only be killed by a bent fourpenny silver coin. He shot at the hare again, it rolled over screaming terribly, and the old woman was found later with a wound. The doctor was sent for and he found a bent fourpenny silver coin in two pieces embedded in her leg. He called her a witch, refused to treat her and she died.
If there were witches, there were also charms and protections against them. In Bettws Bledrws a woman tried to steal a horse but failed because it wore a protective necklace known as Ialen Cerddenin; a man in Lledrod asked the local conjuror for a written charm after being bewitched by a hag; there were snakestones, round stones thought to be formed when the heads of two snakes met; witch bottles, half-filled with lead, designed to hold her spirit which were then buried beneath a yew tree; in Ysbyty Ystwyth, a couple smeared fungus on a gatepost to protect themselves against a witch, and in Llanafan, a workman found witch's butter on the shafts of a wagon, which he scraped off and burned, thinking that would also kill the witch.
They could cure, too. Up until the late 1920s a woman in Aberystwyth had cured dozens of people of disease of the heart, clefyd y galon, by measuring their heads with a piece of yarn and mixing a drink made of brandy and yellow cake saffron. An old woman in Mynydd Bach a hundred years earlier cured a young woman of love by placing her by a tub of water and molten lead. Indigestion was cured by herbs boiled in urine, and rickets by snipping the ear.
The young man has been listening intently, but his memory is poor and he's cursing himself for not recording all this. He looks at his legs and the wounds are almost healed, the bruising gone from his arms; she's even sewed the rips in his trousers. He thanks her and offers her a piece of chocolate but she refuses, saying a young girl like her must look after her teeth. 'Wouldn't want to turn into an old hag. People would talk.' He takes up his rucksack, and she says, 'I'll tell you what started all this. Mari – when she was young and darkly pretty – one of the squires at the big house took a fancy to her. Kensington, his name. They had a bit of a hoo-ha, well, you know. Then he dumped her, threw her out. She walked out the front gate, turned round and cursed him. She was burning fury. History says she was a witch who died in 1898, carried to her grave in a cart pulled by a horse she'd cursed. Folk say she had a daughter; they went to live in Llanarth, where she died in 1904. There are lots of truths, my boy.'
He leaves and scrambles to the top of the bank, and looks down at the little cottage in the orchard. Berllan Pitter is as it has been ever since Mari left. A ruin.
In the 1980s, Theatr Felinfach were producing a show on Mari's life, and rehearsals went so badly that the cast went to the ruins of her house and buried a script there to pacify her. In 2006 a BBC film crew were at Llyn Tegid, looking for Teggie the lake creature for a series called Celtic Monsters. Filming was affected by a large hornet who attacked Neville Hughes, a BBC employee. The story made the Western Mail because Mr Hughes said the hornet was Mari, who often used to shapeshift. A crude attempt at publicity, the media's overblown ideas of their own importance, a joke that took on a life of its own? Or had Mari flown all the way up to Snowdonia as a hornet specifically to annoy the BBC? They were right about one thing; Mari was known for shapeshifting, often taking the form of a hare to mislead gullible young men.CHAPTER 2
Sir Dafydd Llwyd, The Conjurer of Ceredigion
In Itinerarium Cambriae (1191), a description of his tour of Wales three years previously, Giraldus Cambrensis describes meeting soothsayers who when consulted go into a trance, lose control of their senses as if they are possessed, speak apparently meaningless words which suggest answers to your problems, and have to be violently shaken to wake them. Gerald is describing conjurers, dynion hysbys, cunning men. There have been many in Ceredigion, some charismatic, others solitary, all working their magic in very different ways, and all with their books of spells and written remedies. John Harries of Cwrt-y-Cadno served much of the south of the county early in the nineteenth century, Evan Griffiths from Llangurig oversaw the north, and there were others from Pencader, Talybont, Goginan, Trefechan and Ponterwyd. Then there was Sir Dafydd Llwyd of Ysbyty Ystwyth.
Sir Dafydd lived in the early eighteenth century. He was a clergyman who learned the Black Arts when in Oxford, which lead to him being defrocked by the bishop, taking the title of Sir, and moving to Ysbyty Ystwyth. He had a book of spells where he kept his familiar, a demon which shapeshifted and assisted him in his art. He had no rivals, and there is no description of him, which only adds to his mystique. A conjurer from Lampeter once challenged him to a battle of the Black Arts, to demonstrate their control over demons. On the appointed morning, Sir Dafydd arrived early and sent his young apprentice boy to the top of the hill to watch the road from Lampeter. The boy was eager to please, and aware of what might happen to him if he didn't obey. He scampered up the hill and saw a savage bull approaching. Sir Dafydd proclaimed it was a demon sent from Lampeter, so he stood on Craig Ysguboriau, opened his book of spells and confronted the bull. The bull, seeing what he thought was a clergyman, pawed the ground, bent his head and charged. The conjurer stood his ground and commanded the bull to turn and follow the road back to Lampeter, which it did, goring the Lampeter conjurer to death on the way.
Sir Dafydd was making house calls in Rhaeadr and, on returning to Ceredigion, realised that he had left his book of spells behind. He sent his apprentice boy to fetch it, warning him that under no circumstances was he to look inside, but knowing with certainty that he would. The boy was a curious lad with shaggy black hair, deep eyes and an inquisitive and fearless nature. He sat down and opened the book by the banks of the Wye, the written words began to shiver and shift, and out of the book leapt a monkey demon, a big one, with furrowed eyebrows, hunched shoulders, a bald patch and long ape-like arms. It gazed around, looking gormless, and started to swear. The boy had been taught well, and despite his fear he remembered a spell, 'Tafl Gerrig o'r Afon', and immediately the simple demon leapt into the river and started throwing stones onto the bank. When there were few stones left, the boy couldn't think of another spell, so he ordered the demon to throw the stones back into the river. Then to throw them onto the bank again. This went on until the demon became angry and the idea formed in his small mind that he could either ignore the boy, or eat him. Sir Dafydd had been watching from afar, and commanded the demon back into the book, leaving the boy thinking he had just won a great battle.
One day, Sir Dafydd had been on business in Montgomeryshire, and was feeling too tired for the long journey home, so he summoned a demon in the form of a horse, a black snorting wild creature, and he rode home with his apprentice boy sat behind him, clutching on for dear life. The journey was fast and rollicking and the boy sensed that they were flying, though it was too dark to see. He had been told of another conjurer, Sir Dafydd Siôn Evan of Llanbadarn Fawr, who flew through the air on a talking demon horse, often returning after weeks away covered in seaweed or sulphur. When he got home the boy found he had dropped his sock, so in the morning he set off back along the road to look for it, and found it hanging from the topmost branch of an ash tree. The boy was convinced that Sir Dafydd had flown through the air that night.
The apprentice boy was beginning to learn a few tricks from his master, and one Sunday when Sir Dafydd was on his way to church – 'keeping up appearances' as he put it – he told the boy to be a scarecrow and keep the crows from his corn. The boy decided that chasing crows all day was too energetic, and when Sir Dafydd returned, he found the boy fast asleep under an oak tree. He was about to scold him most severely when he noticed that every crow in the neighbourhood was locked in his barn. The conjurer smiled to know his boy was learning how to command birds.
A local tailor visited the celebrated conjurer and told him that a man had come into his shop to be measured for a new cloak, but the tailor was afraid because the man wore a hood over his head, had deep eyes, big teeth, cloven hooves for feet, and smelled strongly of sulphur. Sir Dafydd advised the tailor to measure the man as agreed, but to keep behind him and never to show himself. When the man came for his new cloak, the tailor kept behind, and every time the man turned, the tailor turned too. The man commanded the tailor to appear in front of him, and there stood Sir Dafydd, who ordered the man to 'Go, and never return,' which he did, for as the conjurer had already sold his soul in return for his powers, the Devil could do little until the contract expired.
Excerpted from Ceredigion: Folk Tales by Peter Stevenson. Copyright © 2014 Peter Stevenson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Mari Berllan Pitter 13
2 Sir Dafydd Llwyd, the Conjurer of Ceredigion 19
3 Tales of the Tylwyth Teg 26
4 John the Painter and the Fairy Ring 32
5 The Aberystwyth Hiring Fair 38
6 The Llwynwermwnt Changeling 44
7 The Lady of Felin-Wern Millpond 50
8 The Salty Welsh Sea 55
9 Rhysyn and the Mermaid 61
10 The Petrified Forest 66
11 The Tale of Taliesin 72
12 The Old Toad of Borth Bog 78
13 Dafydd Meurig and the Dancing Bear 85
14 The Wickedest Man in Ceredigion 90
15 Twm Sion Cati, the Tregaron Trickster 95
16 The Green Man of No Man's Land 100
17 The War of the Little Englishman 106
18 The Devil's Bridge 112
19 The Headless Dog of Penparcau 118
20 The Transvestite White Lady of Broginan 124
21 Crooked Beti Grwca 131
22 Sigl-di-gwt 138
23 The Ffos-y-Ffin Goblin and the One-Eyed Preacher 145
24 The Brwcsod of Ffair Rhos 151
25 The Talking Tree of Cwmystwyth 158
26 The Dribbling Cow and Other Curious Cattle 164
27 The Elephant that Died in Tregaron 170
28 The Queer Old Couple Who Always Quarrelled 176
29 Julie's Been Working for the Drugs Squad 184
30 The King of the Rocks 191