That I would start this series with lessons from The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach seems almost necessary. It is one of the tales I recall best from my early childhood, one of the first and most frequent that I told my own daughter, and one that I have wrestled with many times as regards its meaning.
The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach was first published in English in 1861 as the introduction to The Physicians of Myddfai. The tale had originally been written down by William Rees from Llanymddyfri.
Some of the motifs in this story are quite central to Celtic folklore, both Welsh and Gaelic. The idea of a female fairy associated with a lake, and the importance of water can be found in many, many tales. The idea that the physical world and the Otherworld exist side-by-side transcends national boundaries of Celtic countries. The same is true of the motif of the fairy sweetheart or fairy bride.
There are even various versions of this very story. The versions of the tale I quote from in English or refer to in this essay are the one recorded by Sir John Rhys in his collection, Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901), which he based on the oral records of three informants from Myddfai; the translation from the 1861 edition of The Physicians of Myddfai published originally by the Welsh Manuscript Society and now by Llanerch Press; and the version by T. Gwyn Jones from Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom (1930).
This tale is ripe for analyses of its complicated motifs, themes that are important in Welsh folklore, and what it suggests sociologically and historically about Welsh society. In fact, there is much written in this regard. However, these subjects are not in the scope of this essay, which is focused more on the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach as a wisdom tale: What life lessons lie beneath the surface?
Llyn y Fan Fach is a real place. It means “Lake of the small hill”. Llyn y Fan Fach is a lonely place, a hollow high in the Black Mountain of South Wales. It is a lake of approximately 25 acres in size on the northern edge of the Black Mountain in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, and located within the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Unlike many Celtic tales with which you might be familiar, such as the Arthurian sagas, there are no lords and ladys here, no royalty or nobility, no warriors or knights. In fact, the family we encounter here, the mother and son, are alone because her warrior husband had been killed in the wars with the English. In one version of the tale, the husband and three older sons were all killed, leaving only the mother and the youngest son to run the farm.
The story of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach is dominated by two of the most famous incidents in Welsh folklore. The first is when the young herder, Gwyn, encounters an enchanting woman on the lake. Many texts record her name as Nelferch. Through three efforts over three days he wins her pledge to marry (though it be with conditions), the approval of her father, and acquires a great bounty that she brings with her.
The spiritual world and the material world are separated by the thinnest veil. We live along that border, a border that can be crossed intentionally or accidentally. Indeed, it often requires something outstanding to open our eyes to what is always near. Such is the territory we enter with this tale.
The second occurs many years later and focuses upon how hard seemingly small challenges can be, but how important they are to happiness. It also explores how differently the same event, such as a marriage or funeral, can be viewed, particularly when two people are bonded across a cultural chasm, and how at times we fail to be fully present and aware of another’s feelings and needs.
What does love require of us, be it love of a person, a land, or a people?
The story has yet another very interesting element. However fantastical it may seem to our modern minds, it is attached to a real family with a known lineage, and lies at the root of that family story.
The tale itself will appear in italics, with my discussion of the story following the italicized sections.
When the eventful struggle made by the Princes of South Wales to preserve the independence of their country was drawing to its close in the twelfth century, there lived at Blaensawdde near Llanddeusant, Carmarthenshire, a widowed woman, the relict of a farmer who had fallen in those disastrous troubles.
The widow had an only son to bring up, but Providence smiled upon her, and despite her forlorn condition, her live stock had so increased in course of time, that she could not well depasture them upon her farm, so she sent a portion of her cattle to graze on the adjoining Black Mountain, and their most favourite place was near the small lake called Llyn y Fan Fach, on the north-western side of the Carmarthenshire Fans.
The son grew up to manhood, and was generally sent by his mother to look after the cattle on the mountain. One day, in his peregrinations along the margin of the lake, to his great astonishment, he beheld, sitting on the unruffled surface of the water, a lady; one of the most beautiful creatures that mortal eyes ever beheld, her hair flowed gracefully in ringlets over her shoulders, the tresses of which she arranged with a comb, whilst the glassy surface of her watery couch served for the purpose of a mirror, reflecting back her own image. Suddenly she beheld the young man standing on the brink of the lake, with his eyes riveted on her, and unconsciously offering to herself the provision of barley bread and cheese with which he had been provided when he left his home.
Bewildered by a feeling of love and admiration for the object before him, he continued to hold out his hand towards the lady, who imperceptibly glided near to him, but gently refused the offer of his provisions.
Encountering the unknown
If Gwyn felt lonely, the story does not tell us about it. However, the setting was one in which a young man might easily dream and wonder about the world beyond that land.
The unique story of Gwyn’s life starts on a normal day while the cattle grazed along the banks of the lake. Whatever he was doing just prior to the occurrence that would change his life we do not know. It is simply recorded that he was astonished to see a lady sitting on the unruffled water, some distance from the land. The tale records that he regarded her as “. . . one of the most beautiful creatures that mortal eyes ever beheld, her hair flowed gracefully in ringlets over her shoulders, the tresses of which she arranged with a comb, whilst the glassy surface of her watery couch served for the purpose of a mirror.”
We are told in response to this remarkable happening that he stood “ . . . with his eyes riveted on her, and unconsciously offering to herself the provision of barley bread and cheese with which he had been provided when he left his home. Bewildered by a feeling of love and admiration for the object before him, he continued to hold out his hand towards the lady . . . “
Some versions indicate he attempted to touch her and she evaded the touch. Others do not record this attempt. Perhaps he did so haltingly, without confidence. In any case, he could not articulate the feelings welling up inside him. So, he stood, unable to move, and reached out offering her the bread.
Thus we begin one of the most famous series of interactions in Celtic legend.
The Lady was one of the Gwragedd Annwn, the term in Welsh for female fairies of the lakes and streams. Unable to find an equivalent in Welsh, I’ll mention that in Gaelic, the term “siubhal-sìthe”(fairy walk) is used to describe the movement portrayed here. She is described as having “imperceptibly glided near to him.” Her movement was smooth, quiet, she did not seem to walk, and her movement did not disturb the water.
He attempted to touch her, but she eluded his grasp, saying
Cras dy fara, O thou of the crimped bread
Nid hawdd fy nala, It is not easy to catch me,
and immediately dived under the water and disappeared, leaving the love-stricken youth to return home, a prey to disappointment and regret that he had been unable to make further acquaintance with one, in comparison with whom the whole of the fair maidens of Llanddeusant and Myddfai whom he had ever seen were as nothing.
On his return home the young man communicated to his mother the extraordinary vision he had beheld. She advised him to take some unbaked dough or “toes” the next time in his pocket, as there must have been some spell connected with the hard-baked bread, or “Bara cras,” which prevented his catching the lady.
Next morning, before the sun had gilded with its rays the peaks of the Fans, the young man was at the lake, not for the purpose of looking after his mother’s cattle, but seeking for the same enchanting vision he had witnessed the day before; but all in vain did he anxiously strain his eyeballs and glance over the surface of the lake, as only the ripples occasioned by a stiff breeze met his view, and a cloud hung heavily on the summit of the Fan, which imparted an additional gloom to his already distracted mind.
Hours passed on, the wind was hushed, and the clouds which had enveloped the mountain had vanished into thin air before the powerful beams of the sun, when the youth was startled by seeing some of his mother’s cattle on the precipitous side of the acclivity, nearly on the opposite side of the lake. His duty impelled him to attempt to rescue them from their perilous position, for which purpose he was hastening away, when, to his inexpressible delight, the object of his search again appeared to him as before, and seemed much more beautiful than when he first beheld her. His hand was again held out to her, full of unbaked bread, which he offered with an urgent proffer of his heart also, and vows of eternal attachment. All of which were refused by her, saying–
Llaith dy fara! Unbaked is thy bread!
Ti ni fynna! I will not have thee.
But the smiles that played upon her features as the lady vanished beneath the waters raised within the young man a hope that forbade him to despair by her refusal of him, and the recollection of which cheered him on his way home. His aged parent was made acquainted with his ill-success, and she suggested that his bread should next time be but slightly baked, as most likely to please the mysterious being of whom he had become enamoured.
Impelled by an irresistible feeling, the youth left his mother’s house early next morning, and with rapid steps he passed over the mountain. He was soon near the margin of the lake, and with all the impatience of an ardent lover did he wait with a feverish anxiety for the reappearance of the mysterious lady.
The sheep and goats browsed on the precipitous sides of the Fan; the cattle strayed amongst the rocks and large stones, some of which were occasionally loosened from their beds and suddenly rolled down into the lake; rain and sunshine alike came and passed away; but all were unheeded by the youth, so wrapped up was he in looking for the appearance of the lady.
The freshness of the early morning had disappeared before the sultry rays of the noon-day sun, which in its turn was fast verging towards the west as the evening was dying away and making room for the shades of night, and hope had well-nigh abated of beholding once more the Lady of the Lake. The young man cast a sad and last farewell look over the waters, and, to his astonishment, beheld several cows walking along its surface. The sight of these animals caused hope to revive that they would be followed by another object far more pleasing; nor was he disappointed, for the maiden reappeared, and to his enraptured sight, even lovelier than ever. She approached the land, and he rushed to meet her in the water. A smile encouraged him to seize her hand; neither did she refuse the moderately baked bread he offered her; and after some persuasion she consented to become his bride, on condition that they should only live together until she received from him three blows without a cause,
Tri ergyá diachos.
Three causeless blows.
Entering a “Thin Place”: Are we ready when the remarkable happens?
Gwyn told his mother about what happened, and she replied that perhaps the Lady did not want, or could not eat, hard-baked bread, so she sent Gwyn out with unbaked dough the next day. (In case you were wondering, no, his mother never said: “You saw a beautiful girl sitting on the water brushing her hair? Really?”)
Like the day before, he was riveted by her. All he could do is offer the bread as he did the day before. Some versions say he tried to declare himself, such as that recorded by Sir John Rhys. Others do not record that effort. Perhaps he was inarticulate but trying to declare his love. She refused the gift saying:
Llaith dy fara, O thou of the moist bread,
Ti ni fynna. I will not have thee.
As before, she dove and vanished under the water, but this time there was something slightly different in her disappearance. This time, just before she sank out of sight, she smiled upon Gwyn so sweetly and so graciously that his heart became fuller than ever of love.
He told his mother what had happened, and she advised him, inasmuch as the lady had refused both hard-baked and unbaked bread, to take with him next time bread that was half-baked.
Again, the day past the same as the previous day had past, with his spirits lowering hourly. Yet, as dusk started to fall, and as Gwyn was preparing to head home, he, once again, cast a last farewell look over the lake. This time he beheld some cows walking on its surface. The sight of these beasts made him hope that they would be followed by the lady herself, and, sure enough, before long the maiden emerged from the water. She seemed lovelier than ever, and Gwyn was almost beside himself with joy at her appearance. His excitement increased when he saw that she was gradually approaching the land, and he rushed into the water to meet her, holding out the half-baked bread in his hand. Her smile gave him courage enough to take her hand. She, smiling, took his gift, and allowed him to lead her to dry land.
Why? What happened on this third day? This incident of the bread is rich in symbolism.
The setting in which this strange encounter occurred is significant in and of itself. Dramatic experiences in the mythos of many cultures frequently occur in changing times, liminal time; those phases of transition when one is in-between; between work and home, between towns, between night and day, between one ecosystem and another, between episodes in a life. Even as in the Scottish Gaelic saying, eadar a’ ghrìosaich ‘s an stairsneach, between the fireside and the threshold.
In the Celtic lands a place where the separation between the physical and the spiritual is very close is called in English a “thin place”.
Changing times, liminal time, or thin places, are spaces, temporal or spatial, between two states of being or being two physical places. These are places of transition, and in such places we are vulnerable and uncertain on the one hand, and free, temporarily, from the structures of our usual daily world on the other. Such places can be spaces for spiritual or magical moments.
The term liminality comes from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”. In its origins it was an anthropological term referring to the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold”. Their identity is in flux.
This state doesn’t require ritual to enter. One may simply wander into it as does Gwyn. The Otherworld, a spiritual realm, is all around us if we have the eyes to see it. Sometimes we just stumble into it.
There are many “threes” in this story. The three days seeing her, the three types of bread, the stipulation regarding the three blows. Later they have three sons. The number three plays a significant role in the cultures of all Celtic peoples. It represents a multiplying effect, indicating the conveying of mystery or greater power. In this case, Gwyn being forced to return three times to that place where he saw the Lady and to try three times for acceptance indicates the need for persistence, and the importance of determination in attaining some goal.
What makes one ready for love?
For me the bread itself was always the most interesting part. When I finally realized what it could mean it seemed amazingly simple.
Bread has connections with the ancient practice of offerings placed in water. In that food is nourishment it can represent the most precious gift of your world. However, in fairy lore there is a widespread understanding that fairies do not eat human food and humans should not eat fairy food. The partaking of food from another world means one is consuming the spiritual nourishment of that world and is binding oneself to it. Thus, one could see this act as an act by which she commits herself to his world, but it has to be the right kind of bread. Their respective values must be recognized and accepted. Therefore, he has to present the values of his world in the right way (with the right texture).
With that understanding, what made one bread better than another?
The first bread was hard baked, finished. She rejected it. Should one go to a relationship, much less a marriage, finished, uninterested in changing?
The second was unbaked. She rejected it. Should one enter a relationship having had so little experience in the world that one does not know oneself? Should one be completely unformed?
The third bread was partially baked. It had substance, but was not fully formed. Perhaps that is the ideal state for marriage, to know oneself, but be open and ready to grow and change. Certainly it was good symbolism for two people from different worlds. This bread she accepted.
With this new offer he seemed freer. He could not speak, but he ran into the water, into her element, into the unstable unknown. There she accepted the gift and let him bring her onto dry land, a solid place.
Gwyn finally took some definite action beyond standing transfixed in mute awe and reaching his hand out with the bread. He had to step from the safety of his shore into the unknown and ever shifting water.
But he was still speechless at first. It’s written that her beauty dazzled him, and for some time he could do nothing but gaze upon her. As he gazed upon her he saw that the sandal on her right foot was tied in a peculiar manner. She smiled so graciously upon him that he at last recovered his speech and declared his love and asked her to marry him.
In his speechless state Gwyn began to truly notice her, not bask in the first glow of the lovestruck, but to notice the details that made her unique and real. Yet, speak we must, and ultimately Gwyn is able to put words to the emotions flooding over him.
However, this is a Celtic tale and she’s not finished testing him yet. She would not consent to marriage at first. He pleaded, however, so earnestly that she at last promised to be his bride, but only on the following condition. “I will wed you,” she said, “and I will live with you until I receive from you three blows without a cause – Tri ergyd diachos. When you strike me the third causeless blow I will leave you forever.”
Gwyn grew in that moment. In quiet he went past being awestruck at the appearance she presented. He came to see her uniqueness, the details of who she was, such as how she tied her shoes. And he finally spoke. He gained the courage to speak from his heart, and, eventually, she consented to marry, albeit with conditions.
What have we learned? The possibility of love, even of a spiritual experience, is around us at all times, but love tends to come when we do not necessarily expect it, when we are not pursuing it, even when we have nearly given up. However, the potential of love requires more from us than just being awestruck, just waiting for it. It requires being ready to not just admire it, but live with it. We need to prepare to be worthy of the moment. We need to have experienced life and have some substance to us. We need to know ourselves well enough to know what we want. We must bring ourselves into the relationship knowing ourselves, but also knowing that this relationship will change us.
We must not let the first wave of love keep us from understanding the other in their uniqueness, in the details of their real life, not just as our fantasy of them. The latter keeps the other in a stationary place meant only to reflect our own wants. Love must move from this initial awestruck state to devotion to the real person, turning the focus from ourselves to them.
We have to accept that love does not come with certainty, whether that love is for another person, the land, the people, the world. A great love and devotion to something greater than ourselves cannot await a perfect understanding that will not come. It requires a leap into the unknown, a willingness to live with uncertainty, but with a commitment to which we give reality by deed and word. In other words, our full self must be given as a gift to love. When the moment comes we must go through a transformation and be different when we enter the wedding canopy.
In our story, Gwyn and Nelferch are still at the lake. He readily agreed to what seemed to him a small stipulation, that she would leave should he ever strike her three causeless blows. How could he ever do such a thing? He would have readily agreed to any stipulation proposed.
And if he ever should happen to strike her three such blows she would leave him for ever. To such conditions he readily consented, and would have consented to any other stipulation, had it been proposed, as he was only intent on then securing such a lovely creature for his wife.
Thus the Lady of the Lake engaged to become the young man’s wife, and having loosed her hand for a moment she darted away and dived into the lake. His chagrin and grief were such that he determined to cast himself headlong into the deepest water, so as to end his life in the element that had contained in its unfathomed, depths the only one for whom he cared to live on earth. As he was on the point of committing this rash act, there emerged out of the lake two most beautiful ladies, accompanied by a hoary-headed man of noble mien and extraordinary stature, but having otherwise all the force and strength of youth. This man addressed the almost bewildered youth in accents calculated to soothe his troubled mind, saying that as he proposed to marry one of his daughters, he consented to the union, provided the young man could distinguish which of the two ladies before him was the object of his affections. This was no easy task, as the maidens were such perfect counterparts of each other that it seemed quite impossible for him to choose his bride, and if perchance he fixed upon the wrong one all would be for ever lost.
Whilst the young man narrowly scanned the two ladies, he could not perceive the least difference betwixt the two, and was almost giving up the task in despair, when one of them thrust her foot a slight degree forward. The motion, simple as it was, did not escape the observation of the youth, and he discovered a trifling variation in the mode with which their sandals were tied. This at once put an end to the dilemma, for he, who had on previous occasions been so taken up with the general appearance of the Lady of the Lake, had also noticed the beauty of her feet and ankles, and on now recognizing the peculiarity of her shoe-tie he boldly took hold of her hand.
“Thou hast chosen rightly,” said her father; “be to her a kind and faithful husband, and I will give her, as a dowry, as many sheep, cattle, goats, and horses as she can count of each without heaving or drawing in her breath. But remember, that if you prove unkind to her at any time, and strike her three times without a cause, she shall return to me, and shall bring all her stock back with her.”
Such was the verbal marriage settlement, to which the young man gladly assented, and his bride was desired to count the number of sheep she was to have. She immediately adopted the mode of counting by fives, thus:–One, two, three, four, five–One, two, three, four, five; as many times as possible in rapid succession, till her breath was exhausted. The same process of reckoning had to determine the number of goats, cattle, and horses respectively; and in an instant the full number of each came out of the lake when called upon by the father.
The young couple were then married, by what ceremony was not stated, and afterwards went to reside at a farm called Esgair Llaethdy, somewhat more than a mile from the village of Myddfai, where they lived in prosperity and happiness for several years, and became the parents of three sons, who were beautiful children.
Reaching Across a Chasm
Though historical and sociological motifs are not the focus of this essay, it bears noting that three very important cultural or legal matters passed here. She had the right to consent to marriage (in fact in some versions she is the one who proposes marriage), the right to set conditions upon the marriage, and she owned everything forever that she brought with her.
They wed with great celebration and lived in great happiness at a farm named Esgair Llaethdy (Dairy Ridge) near the village of Myddfai. And Gwyn thought little of the condition to which he agreed when marrying. They had three sons and their lives were filled with joy. In a Celtic story when you come across such a state of bliss you can be sure it is about to change.
What can we understand so far? Two people from two different worlds have come together. Life in the otherworld, in this case below the waters, is characterized in folklore as one of joy, pleasure, peace, and hospitality. Typically, it also results in great material wealth, as evidenced by the large amount of livestock in our story. A fairy bride guarantees the mortal richer meadows and harvest, and healthier livestock. This could be interpreted as bounty rising from a positive relationship with the earth. It could also indicate that material wealth is richest when it arises from a state of peace in which joy and creativity are enjoyed by all.
Still, the tales make clear the distinctions between the Otherworld and this world, and in tales like this a mutual attraction between residents of the two worlds is at the core of the story. The mortal is drawn to the beauty, joy, mystery, and abundance of the fairy bride. She admires the striving of humans for something better. In these stories they live through the conflicts caused by their mutual attraction.
Her wealth-bearing, life affirming gifts have effect only as long as the mortal allows her and those characteristics unique to her to exist in their own right alongside him, and as long as he adheres to certain rules that maintain a balance between them.
We never intend to take things for granted. We just become less mindful. It’s not hard to lose those gifts.
Once upon a time there was a christening to take place in the neighbourhood, to which the parents were specially invited. When the day arrived the wife appeared very reluctant to attend the christening, alleging that the distance was too great for her to walk. Her husband told her to fetch one of the horses which were grazing in an adjoining field. “I will,” said she, “if you will bring me my gloves which I left in our house.” He went to the house and returned with the gloves, and finding that she had not gone for the horse jocularly slapped her shoulder with one of them, saying, “go! go!”, when she reminded him of the understanding upon which she consented to marry him:–That he was not to strike her without a cause; and warned him to be more cautious for the future.
On another occasion, when they were together at a wedding, in the midst of the mirth and hilarity of the assembled guests, who had gathered together from all the surrounding country, she burst into tears and sobbed most piteously. Her husband touched her on her shoulder and inquired the cause of her weeping: she said, “Now people are entering into trouble, and your troubles are likely to commence, as you have the second time stricken me without a cause.”
Years passed on, and their children had grown up, and were particularly clever young men. In the midst of so many worldly blessings at home the husband almost forgot that there remained only one causeless blow to be given to destroy the whole of his prosperity. Still he was watchful lest any trivial occurrence should take place which his wife must regard as a breach of their marriage contract. She told him, as her affection for him was unabated, to be careful that he would not, through some inadvertence, give the last and only blow, which, by an unalterable destiny, over which she had no control, would separate them for ever.
It, however, so happened that one day they were together at a funeral, where, in the midst of the mourning and grief at the house of the deceased, she appeared in the highest and gayest spirits, and indulged in immoderate fits of laughter, which so shocked her husband that he touched her, saying, “Hush! hush! don’t laugh.” She said that she laughed “because people when they die go out of trouble,” and, rising up, she went out of the house, saying, “The last blow has been struck, our marriage contract is broken, and at an end! Farewell !” Then she started off towards Esgair Llaethdy, where she called her cattle and other stock together, each by name. The cattle she called thus:-
Pedair cae tonn-frech,
Yr hen wynebwen.
A’r las Geigen,
Gyda’r Tarw Gwyn 0 lys y Brenin
A’r llo du bach,
Sydd ar y bach,
Dere dithau, yn iach adre!
The four field sward mottled,
The old white-faced,
And the grey Geingen,
With the white Bull,
From the court of the King;
And the little black calf
Tho’ suspended on the hook,
Come thou also, quite well home!
They all immediately obeyed the summons of their mistress. The ‘little black calf’, although it had been slaughtered, became alive again, and walked off with the rest of the stock at the command of the lady. This happened in the spring of the year, and there were four oxen ploughing in one of the fields; to these she cried:
Pedwar eidion glas Sydd ar y maes,
Deuwch chwithau Yn iach adre!
The four grey oxen that are on the field,
Come you also Quite well home!
Away the whole of the live stock went with the Lady across Myddfai Mountain, towards the lake from whence they came, a distance of above six miles, where they disappeared beneath its waters, leaving no trace behind except a well-marked furrow, which was made by the plough the oxen drew after them into the lake, and which remains to this day as a testimony to the truth of this story.
The smallest things can cause the most damage
What has happened? Does the tragic outcome seem out of proportion to the offense? Gwyn certainly did not understand her response to the birth and funeral.
A lack of understanding seems natural given that she is a fairy and responds to things differently. She saw something beneath the surface, something to which her finely tuned senses responded, but which was wholly out of keeping with the communal response around her.
Yet, three seemingly minor instances disrupted a well ordered and happy life.
Perhaps one thing we can we can take from this is to not take our lives for granted. It’s easier to guard ourselves against the large mistakes, the things that seem so obvious. However, the small matters that happen as a result of a lack of attention, unintentional callousness, or frustration can simply pile up until they topple the structure. Sometimes sweating the small stuff can help keep our lives together.
Another lies in Gwyn’s frustration with Nelferch. In the first instance he was frustrated because they were late and she seemed to not be helping get along. In the second and third instances his frustration lay in his discomfort or embarrassment by her public behavior. We all become frustrated with our family members, even those we love most intimately. We are all guilty of thinking more of ourselves than the other in such instances. Gwyn saw her behavior and possibly the response of others to it, but he did not hear in her silence, tears, or laughter what was going on inside her.
In the later two cases she explained herself, but his immediate reaction was not to ask her what she felt, but to chastise her, though playfully or lightly. Though for very different reasons he could again not speak right away, just as he could not when he first met her.
One version of the story has Nelferch has Nelferch explain her behavior in the first incident as perceiving that if their child would need them, and, in fact the child becomes ill.
Still, the question looms before us all: How can you ever “causelessly” strike the one you love? No one imagines themselves capable of it. Gwyn was certain it could not occur. But suddenly there is a moment you never imagined. You don’t understand this person before you. This person you love and think you know has places in themselves you have never glimpsed. They seem like a stranger. The earth is opening around you, and on the brink of a chasm you didn’t see coming you act. It doesn’t even have to be a physical blow. Perhaps the person you suddenly don’t know is actually yourself, but without thought, in some way, you hurt the one you love.
Sometimes it takes a great crisis for us to realize how self-centered we have been. Had Gwyn listened more carefully, and inquired as to what Nelferch felt, the three causeless blows may never have occured and their lives might never have fallen apart. How often do we ignore a loved one’s unspoken emotions, or turn the other way from someone’s pain? How do we make such a transformation that our ego does not hinder our ability to hear and see? How do we turn to not ask not “What do I want?” but “What is needed of me?” Not, “How do I get what I want” but “How do I serve?”
What became of the affrighted ploughman–whether he was left on the field when the oxen set off, or whether he followed them to the lake, has not been handed down to tradition; neither has the fate of the disconsolate and half-ruined husband been kept in remembrance. But of the sons it is stated that they often wandered about the lake and its vicinity, hoping that their mother might be permitted to visit the face of the earth once more, as they had been apprised of her mysterious origin, her first appearance to their father, and the untoward circumstances which so unhappily deprived them of her maternal care.
In one of their rambles, at a place near Dôl Howel, at the Mountain Gate, still called “Llidiad y Meddygon,” The Physicians’ Gate, the mother appeared suddenly, and accosted her eldest son, whose name was Rhiwallon, and told him that his mission on earth was to be a benefactor to mankind by relieving them from pain and misery, through healing all manner of their diseases; for which purpose she furnished him with a bag full of medical prescriptions and instructions for the preservation of health. That by strict attention thereto he and his family would become for many generations the most skilful physicians in the country. Then, promising to meet him when her counsel was most needed, she vanished. But on several occasions she met her sons near the banks of the lake, and once she even accompanied them on their return home as far as a place still called “Pant-y-Meddygon,” The dingle of the Physicians, where she pointed out to them the various plants and herbs which grew in the dingle, and revealed to them their medicinal qualities or virtues; and the knowledge she imparted to them, together with their unrivalled skill, soon caused them to attain such celebrity that none ever possessed before them. And in order that their knowledge should not be lost, they wisely committed the same to writing, for the benefit of mankind throughout all ages.’
The family in the wake of the tragedy
In such a tragic end for their family you could not blame the three sons for wandering away and becoming wholly detached from their community. However, that is not what happened.
Gwyn’s heart was broken. Some say he followed his wife to the lake, crushed with woe, and put an end to his misery by plunging into the depths of the cold water. However, others do not record what became of him.
The sons often wandered about the lake and its vicinity, hoping to see their mother once more. Their longing was heard and she returned to them and gave them a gift of knowledge.
Profiting by their mother’s instruction, they became the most skilful physicians in the land, particularly the eldest son, Rhiwallon, who taught his sons, Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion. Rhys Grug, Lord of Llandovery and Dynevor Castles, gave Rhiwallon rank, lands and privileges at Myddfai for their maintenance in the practice of their art and for the healing and benefit of those who should seek their help. Rhys Grug also encouraged them to write down their remedies. The fame of the Physicians of Myddfai was established’ over the whole of Wales, and continued into at least the late 18th century among their descendants.
Perhaps beyond the individual lessons we might draw from this story, is simply how deeply, how completely, and how passionately we might love beyond all convention, across all barriers, and how such love washes over the centuries.
Rhiwallon’s descendants are said to have continued his work, in an unbroken hereditary line, until the eighteenth century. In fact some say that the line did not die out until the death in 1842 of the physician Rice Williams of Aberystwyth.
The remedies and treatments of the Physicians of Myddfai came to be handed down in written form as well as orally. In the fourteenth century, some five hundred of these were incorporated into a renowned collection of poetry and prose known as The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest), one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language.
Additionally, the area around Myddfai remains to this day a landscape rich in wild medicinal herbs.
The herbal remedies and the uniqueness of this part of Wales is a subject for future articles.