• Welsh Omens & Harbingers of Doom

    Welsh Omens by C.M. Saunders

    It can be said that over the years, the Welsh have acquired a rather unfair reputation for being excessively morbid. This sweeping generalization is not helped by the sheer volume of stories and superstitions concerning omens of doom and portents of death that still thrive in the country, though to a much lesser extent than they did only a few hundred years ago. One of the most alluring of these myths is that of the Cyoeraeth (or Cyhyraeth) which, when translated into English simply means ‘the wailing.’ This creature was once deemed one of the most horrible of all supernatural beings. More often than not, the victim could only hear its pitiful moaning at a distance. If the moans of the Cyoeraeth were heard resonating along a street, it was taken to mean that more than one person was getting their card stamped, and if heard near the sea, it denoted a fatal shipwreck was in the offing. Those even less fortunate than to hear the Cyoeraeth could come face to face with it. The creature could be either male or female, and is described as having wild, dishevelled hair, black pointed teeth, long withered arms, and possessing a shriek that could turn blood to ice. Death was said to follow in its wake, though very rarely for the witness himself. Usually, a close friend or family member would be claimed instead.

    View from Pennard castle

    View from Pennard Castle. 'Hag of the Mist' sighted in the area.

    A close relative of the Cyoeraeth is the Gwrach y Rhibyn (Hag of the Mist), an even more terrifying Welsh version of the Irish banshee, which is also said to forecast death or misfortune. The Gwrach y Rhibyn takes the form of a repulsive old hag with piercing black eyes and a long flowing cape, and is said to only appear to those of 'true Welsh' pedigree. Some have seen her with a huge set of leathery, featherless wings, which she uses to beat against the doors and windows of the stricken. The entity is said to frequent many locations in Wales, notably Caerphilly Castle, where it was spotted by multiple witnesses in the second half of the 18th century. Other famous haunts include Beaupre Castle near Cowbridge, St. Donat’s castle in Glamorgan, and Pennard Castle in the Gower. A typical tale concerns a man by the name of Meurig ap Tomos, who lived in or near Caergwrle in Flintshire, and met a Gwrach y Rhibyn one evening in 1868 as he travelled home from a pub. Three times on his journey, he thought he heard the howl of a dog, although at no point did he see the hound. Suddenly, he heard a strange heavy flapping noise coming from above and there was a terrifying scream as something dropped out of the sky and landed next to him. Then, in a sight that must have haunted his dreams for years, the Gwrach y Rhibyn began crawling toward him on all fours, crooning softly. When dawn broke, the man was found by some farm workers babbling incoherently. They took him to a nearby Rectory where his health deteriorated rapidly. Within three months he was dead, the Gwrach y Rhibyn’s prophesy apparently fulfilled.

    St Donat's Castle

    'Hag of the Mist' sighted at St Donat's Castle, south Wales.

    The Deryn Corph or Corpse Bird, is rarely heard of, and even more seldom seen. Some claimed that it was very large, black and threatening, others said that it was a medium sized bird with no feathers or wings, while still others maintained that it was completely invisible. The Deryn Corph was said to manifest itself and beat it’s wings on the locked doors and windows of the ailing, sometimes calling “dewch, dewch! (Come, come!). Interestingly, many poltergeist cases involve what is commonly described as the sound of invisible wings fluttering and beating against doors and windows. Also indicative of poltergeist activity are strange sequences of tapping, knocking or clicking emanating from an untraceable source. The noises are believed to be most commonly heard prior to a death, and are widely known among old Welsh families as the Tolaeth.

    One notable instance of the Tolaeth in action comes from Maesteg, and was related in the excellent book Haunted Wales: A Guide to Welsh Ghostlore, by Richard Holland (2011). One evening, a collier was relaxing at home when he heard what sounded like a group of people approach the door, then barge into the sitting room with a series of bangs and crashes. Although he could see nothing, the collier described the room as being 'full of people.' The very next day, another collier who lived at the house was killed by a fall in the pit. His body was brought back to the house by a group of men, the noises they made perfectly corresponding to the phantom sounds of the night before.

    Probably due to the hazardous nature of their work, miners were great believers in portents, believing them to be well-meant warnings, and frequently downed tools if they felt they were in any danger. A dove spotted anywhere near a mine was thought to be a sure sign of impending doom, as was the sight of a crow circling above. Mysterious tapping or knocking sounds heard underground were also considered bad omens. These tappings were said to be made by the Coblynau (Mine Goblins) or Nocars (Knockers). Interestingly, this phenomenon occurs worldwide. In north America the culprits are known as Tommyknockers, and formed the basis of a Stephen King novel of the same name.

    Morfa Colliery near Swansea was always regarded as an unlucky and dangerous pit to work. On Sunday March 9th 1890, a huge white bird was seen to settle on the winding gear. At around noon the very same day a horrific underground explosion claimed 87 lives. In the weeks following the disaster, stories of many other omens, some witnessed by dozens of miners at once, began to emerge. The sounds of phantom roof falls were heard, along with other strange noises and agonizing screams. Ghostly apparitions of long dead colleagues were seen, and the sickly sweet stench of roses or lilies inexplicably rose from the bowels of the pit. There was also a mass exodus of rats in the days preceding the accident. Miners believed rats would desert a doomed mine the same way sailors believed the creatures would desert a sinking ship. Most troubling of all, many of the miners wives and family complained of seeing or hearing the Red Dogs of Morfa, a local name for what is collectively known as the Cŵn Annwn, or Welsh Hell Hounds, which have a very distinguished history in Welsh folklore.

    The aftermath of a Welsh colliery disaster

    The aftermath of a Welsh colliery disaster.

    These beasts were once thought to be the ghosts of dead animals or witch’s familiars, but over time they have become known as something much more substantial, possibly guardians of some kind as they appear to be very territorial. They can prowl during the daytime as well as the night, with dusk or twilight the usual times (the borderlines separating darkness and light) alone, or in small groups. They are sometimes dripping with water or blood, other times bone dry, but are invariably pure black with blazing red eyes. The Cŵn Annwn seek out those who are destined to die within the next year, even going so far as invading that poor person’s house and ransacking it room by room until they find their victim.

    Another form of ghostly black dog sometimes encountered by the unwary traveller in Wales is the Gwyllgi, or Dog of Darkness. Though very similar in appearance to the Cŵn Annwn, the Gwyllgi is invariably seen alone, often on stretches of road. It is recognizable by its shaggy coat, mesmerizing red eyes, and sheer size. This phantom is also taken as a death omen, and is known by different names throughout Britain. It is said that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the black dog legends as inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.Welsh miners were great believers in the canwyll corff (corpse candle). The people living the coastal regions of South Wales especially lived in fear of encountering the dreaded phenomena on land, sea, or underground, as it was also believed to be a foretelling of imminent death. They appeared as single lights or in clusters, their size and brightness relative to the age or size of the victim, and followed the exact path the subsequent funeral procession would take. If the doomed person was female, the light usually had a bluish hue, if male it was often red. Sometimes, grinning skulls or the features of the victim could be seen in their shimmering light, and it was strongly advised that bystanders get out of their way, as they possessed the ability to bowl a man over or even kill him outright.

    In the south of Clwyd, a man was returning to his home in Melin-y-Wig one night when he noticed before him a little light bobbing playfully in the road. At first he thought it was a lantern, but as he drew closer he realised that there was no one carrying it. The man followed the light, and was alarmed to see it turn into the lane leading to his house. In a panic he ran past it, and slammed the door shut behind him. The light, however, simply passed through the wooden door and hovered about on the ceiling for a few moments, directly beneath a certain servant’s bedchamber. The next morning, the servant was found to have died suddenly during the night.

    Llantwit Major town hall

    Llantwit Major town hall, south Wales.

    Some legends are more localised. In the old university town of Llantwit Major, the passing bell is said to toll without the help of human hands when a death in the parish is imminent. The bell will ring out over, or in the direction of, a house where someone will soon die. Blaenporth in Cardiganshire is also noted for the passing bell signalling a death in the locality. It is often said that if you peer through the windows of certain village churches on specific dates, you will see the spirits of those who will die in the coming year manifested in the pews.

    Yet another portent popular in Welsh folklore are phantom funerals. Generally speaking, the witness would see a ghostly funeral procession which would foretell the death of a loved one, with the procession taking the same route as the actual funeral. However, it was believed that if one was allowed a peek in the casket, he or she would see their own dead body inside and death would inevitably follow soon after. The following abridged account, taken from The Book Of South Wales by Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall (1861) is typical:

    ‘Some years ago, the then occupier of Holloway farm had a pretty servant girl, with whom the man of the rector of Penally fell in love: he used to steal out in the night-time to visit her. One night, coming home, he had passed the turn of the road leading from Holloway to Penally, when, to his astonishment, he saw a funeral coming along the road towards the church, and recognised several of his neighbours among those who carried the coffin. They came on noiselessly, and he stood close against the hedge to let the funeral pass; but the bearers jostled so rudely against him that they hurt and bruised him severely. Considerably ‘shaken’ in every way, he saught his chamber, and in the morning was so ill, from the beating he had received, that he entreated his master to come to him, which he did, but placed no faith whatever in the man’s story, saying that he must have been drinking and fighting. When the man was able to leave his bed, the master yielded to his entreaties: yet no trace of the funeral could be found. Only a week or two had passed since 'the parson's man’ had seen the spirit funeral, and the worthy farmer of Holloway farm lay dead in his long-loved home! The clergyman heard, with much astonishment, the names of the ‘bearers’: they were the same who had been named by his servant as having borne the coffin the night he had been so severely buffeted! But the most extraordinary circumstance remains to be told: the night before the funeral was of such intense frost, that the snow was frozen over field and hedge-row – the bearers missed the road – passed unwittingly over the hedge at the exact spot the servant had pointed out to his master, as that where he had seen the midnight funeral pass – made the same detour in the field, and returned to the high road precisely at the place he had pointed out.'

  • About The Author

    Sker House

    New Tredegar-born C.M. Saunders began writing in 1997, his early fiction appearing in several small-press titles. Following the publication of his first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales (2003) , he worked extensively in the freelance market, contributing to over fifty international publications including Fortean Times , Loaded , Record Collector , Nuts . In addition, he has written several novellas and had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, ezines and anthologies. He taught English and creative writing in China for five years, before settling in London where he works as a writer and editor in the sport, fitness and men's lifestyle sectors. He is represented by Media Bitch literary agency.

    C.M. Saunders

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