Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Welsh customs and superstitions




Alas for the old world stories and customs of our country side! They are fast being driven out by railways, steamboats, telegraphs, and such like innovations; so fast, that in a few years the very tradition of them will be gone out, and their place know them no more. Even Wales, so mountainous and difficult of enterprise, is gradually yielding to the pick and shovel of the navvy, while rustics and shepherds in out-of-the-way valleys and moory uplands are becoming cognisant of excursion trains and time-tables, instead of the former once-a-year visit to the nearest town on fair-day. Can nothing be left alone? and must we always be vexing and fretting over experiments and inventions until every spot is changed, every nook and cranny laid open to the world? As yet, however, I know of some charming dells and villages, guarded by hills from the inquisitive eyes of tourists, which have remained stationary for very many years, and will continue to remain so, I imagine, for a few years longer, preserving their ancient usages of dress, their old superstitions, and perhaps their old simple ways, though these are generally the first to go, the more’s the pity. Many Welsh customs and traditions are interesting enough to be worth keeping, and at all events may serve to show my readers to what manner of people they belonged. I think that customs are apt to die out sooner than superstitions or legends, for the reason that they are more dependent on the circumstances of the time for their being performed; a tradition may lie dormant and undisturbed in the minds of people for a long time, but a custom requires a state of action to prevent its lapsing into a thing of the past. A very pretty usage, which eventually died away (although it has been partially revived in some places), was that of the Plygain, which consisted in holding an early service on Christmas morning in the church, illuminated for the occasion. At four o’clock, a.m., the bells rang out merrily, and the singers proceeded to the parsonage to escort the vicar to the church porch, lighting up the road with their torches, and singing carols lustily. Crickhowell, in Breconshire, was noted for its Plygain, though it has been discontinued for some years, the vicar and inhabitants preferring their slumbers to the early service. It is, I believe, carried out as in days of yore in the parish of Llanover, in Monmouthshire, the Welsh character of which village is carefully kept up by Lady Llanover, an enthusiast in nationality and Welsh flannel. My readers who have visited that most charming of watering-places, Tenby (and those who have not done so should speedily wipe away the reproach), may have heard or read in the “Archæologia Cambrensis” some of the graceful customs that prevailed in that place not so many years back. Early on the New Year’s morning, crowds of boys and girls visited each house, carrying with them a cup of water and a sprig of box, with which they besprinkled not only the inmates, but also the furniture of the rooms, accompanying the operation with the following singular rhyme:

Here we bring new water from the well so clear,
For to worship God with, this happy new year;
Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine,
With seven bright gold wires, and bugles that do shine;
Sing reign of fair maid with gold upon her toe,
Open you the west door, and turn the old year go;
Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin,
Open you the east door and let the new year in.

There is a discussion as to the meaning of the term “levy dew,” which looks like “levez Dieu,” but which Welsh scholars pronounce to be a corruption of “llef i Dduw”—a cry to God. At all events, it is a pretty song, and surely better worth preserving than the stereotyped coarseness of

A pocket full of money,
And a cellar full of beer.

The May-day festivals were kept up with the usual accompaniment of garlands and may-poles, which, when erected, were obliged to be jealously watched, lest the inhabitants of the adjoining village or parish should lay violent hands on it. The same practice was common in Glamorganshire on Easter Monday, when a gaily decorated birch tree was hoisted up and watched for four days and nights, lest it should be stolen. Great was the triumph of that village which not only succeeded in keeping its pole intact, but also in exhibiting by its side the stolen property of its neighbour. One characteristic of the May festivals, which was, and indeed still is, prevalent amongst the northern nations, appears to have become obsolete from a very early period, viz., the Beltin, or Belting-fires, identical with the Sun-fire of the Scotch, and the Beal-tane of the Irish. In both these countries the practice is in existence, though perhaps under a different name. But in Wales there is nothing of the sort which we can identify with them.

Social customs kept their footing longer than others, though, as civilisation was brought more into the heart of the country by intercourse with the “Sassenach,” they lost ground in a corresponding ratio. The wedding custom of “bidding” still exists in some isolated parishes. As many of my readers are doubtlessly aware, it consisted in the happy couple bidding the invited to attend at their wedding, and then and there to present them with a donation of money or kind according to their means, it being an understood thing that such offerings were to be returned when the next occasion offered. Indeed, I have seen it stated, that the legal obligation to refund such gifts was once recognised by the Court of Sessions held at Cardiff.

The whole tenor of this novel “bidding prayer” is of a most commercial description:

“We are encouraged by our friends to make a Bidding on Tuesday, the 23rd inst., when your most agreeable company will be humbly solicited by your humble servants,

Thomas Jones,
Mary Price.”

“N.B. The young woman’s father and mother, Thomas and Sarah Price, and her brothers and sisters, Benjamin, Watkin, Evan, Winifred and Sarah, desire that all gifts due of the above nature will be returned to the young woman on that day; and whatever donation you may be pleased to bestow on them will be warmly acknowledged and cheerfully repaid whenever called for on a similar occasion.”

Horse-weddings were formerly much in vogue, and, about ten years ago, the practice was carried on at Devynnock, in Breconshire, when the well-mounted bride was pursued by pretty nigh all the parish, in the vain attempt to steal her away, somewhat after the fashion of the Tartar tribes. Of course she was caught only by her own intended, to whom she yielded a willing captive, and it is to be hoped that man and wife lived a happy and peaceable life together. Did they not do so, the episode of the “cefyl pren” became an unpleasant feature in their married career. Perhaps the misdemeanour was of a class which, in high life, would have involved the calling in the aid of Sir Cresswell to solve the difficulty; or perhaps it was only a simple case of sævitia upon the part of the lady, who, in the attempt to prove that the grey mare was the better horse, had dared to lay hands on her lord. In either case, an effigy of the principal offender was paraded about to the accompaniment of cleavers, whistles, and other hideous noises, and finally halted at the house of the guilty parties, when it was pelted, ducked, or otherwise maltreated. Indeed, in gross cases, a sort of Lynch-law was inflicted on the persons of the unfortunates, who, however, frequently deemed it most prudent to abscond before the vox populi made itself heard.

Funerals are great occasions in Wales—even greater than weddings—because there is an excitement of grief which, I believe, is often the most acceptable form of excitement to the female population, of which the greater number of funeral-goers are composed.

No invitation is required, but the fact of being an acquaintance or neighbour is quite sufficient; consequently the burial of a popular character, especially if he be a person of mark in the dissenting ranks, is generally attended by an enormous crowd.

There is no “keening” as in the sister isle, but its place is taken by singing, in which the whole train lustily join. If the deceased is well off, there is the additional inducement of the funeral baked meats, which are dispensed previous to starting, in the shape of spiced-ale and a cake, made in a particular way, for the occasion.

While on the subject of deaths, I must mention a singular superstitious custom which lingered, not very long ago, in some of the secluded mountain-vales of Carmarthenshire.

When a person died, his friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who, for the small sum of half-a-crown, actually took upon himself the sins of the deceased, by the simple process of eating them. The plan of operations was this: A loaf of bread was provided, which the sin-eater first placed upon the dead person’s chest, then muttered some incantations over it, finally eating it. Will it be credited that he was believed to have taken from the defunct the heavy weight of his sins, and to appropriate them to himself, for which act of kindness he was regarded by everybody as a tabooed outcast? Indeed, immediately after the ceremony was finished, and he had received his pay, he vanished in double quick time, it being the usual custom for the friends to belabour him with sticks—if they could catch him.

Deaths are common subjects of superstitious lore in almost every county. Wales, not less than other places, rejoices in the belief of corpse candles, which, when seen by parties in good health, betoken, like the Banshee of the west, the death of one of the members of the family. In some cases, indeed, not only a corpse candle, but a whole spectral funeral has appeared to persons coming home late at night, in which they have been able to foretell, from seeing the name on the coffin plate, which of their friends or acquaintance would be the next subject. Of similar ominous import, though extending more to localities than persons, was the Cyhiraeth, which appears to have been a sound more than a sight. It was generally heard at night in degrees varying from a low murmur to the most piercing scream, which petrified with horror the villagers in their beds as it swept past. As the Cyhiraeth was most frequently heard in sea-side places, it was considered to portend a wreck, which, however, in those days, was anything but a dispiriting prospect to the dwellers on the coast, who hoped to obtain good plunder thereby.

Before quitting the subject of Welsh usages, we must not omit to mention the Holy Wells, which are both numerous and important, although for one well in use and properly cared for, there are at least fifty desecrated, filled up, and comparatively unknown. We always find that the estimation in which they were held depended on two causes:—First, their medicinal virtues or properties; and, second, their character and associations. Of course, at one time or another, all the healing effects were based upon a superstitious foundation, and probably environed with superstitious rites; but it is an encouraging fact, that all these wells retain the patronage of the sick and infirm to this day, while those which were celebrated merely in connection with religion have lost their prestige, and in nine cases out of ten retain only the legend. First and foremost of Welsh wells is that of St. Winifred, at Holywell, in Flintshire, celebrated as much for the exquisite perpendicular building within which it is enshrined, as for the marvellous properties of the water, proofs of which are plentiful in the forest of sticks, crutches, and other kinds of votive offerings which have been deposited in the fretwork of the roof and pillars. There is really so much that is curious about this well, that apart from the legend, we cannot wonder that a large amount of the supernatural clung to it. The enormous quantity of water that bubbles up, viz., 100 tons a minute, the colouring of the stones by the red moss, attributed to the blood of the saint, the singular fact that although intensely cold, the water never freezes, are all features worth notice in themselves. It was invested with other properties in times of yore, as Drayton gravely informs us that no animal would drown when thrown in—

Shee strongly beares it up, not suffering it to sinke.

St. Gowan’s Well, in Pembrokeshire, is of a different class, although possessing medicinal claims, which are highly thought of by the neighbouring country folk. Here, however, it is not so much the water that acts as a specific as the red mud or clay from the adjoining rocks, which is made into a poultice, and thoroughly plastered round the invalid, who is then left to dry in the sun, while offering up prayers and vows to the patron saint. A well at Llandegla, in Denbighshire, was celebrated for its powers over epilepsy, but the mode of using the water was mixed up with a tremendous religious ceremony. First, the patient must wash himself in the well, then offer fourpence, and walk round it three times, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. After this he must carry a cock in a basket, again repeating the Paternoster. Finally, he must offer sixpence more, enter the church, and sleep for the whole night under the communion table. Even after all this amount of energy, the disease is not supposed to be cured unless the cock fortunately happens to die, in which case the afflicted invalid may fairly congratulate himself on having transferred his fits to the bird. Many wells were popular for other or less amiable qualities, being generally known as cursing wells, at which persons, by paying a consideration to the attendant minister, could procure any amount of discomfort or harm to their enemy, in proportion to the fee bestowed. The name of the devoted individual was registered in a book, and a pin or pebble, with his initials inscribed thereon, thrown into the water. These are certainly not the customs which we would wish retained, for they are neither pleasant or useful, and must have engendered a fearful amount of hate and revenge.

But while we dismiss the customs, every owner of property on which a well is situated should endeavour to restore it to its former efficiency, for many reasons—first, as a memorial of bygone times, and (in many cases) of extremely beautiful Gothic architecture; and, secondly, even if the character of the water is not medicinal, and thereby a cheap remedy for many disorders, as being at all events an easy and practical commentary on the old text that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”

G. P. B.