Odds and Dead Ends: Welsh Folklore – Cyhyraeth

I’m not an expert on folklore or Celtic myths of any kind, but as a writer living in Wales, I find myself intrigued by them. In keeping with the watery theme of week 2 of this season of the podcast, I found myself stumbling upon a creature that caught my attention.

The Cyhyraeth is a ghostly spirit of ancient folklore, normally linked with the River Tywi, a river in the south west of Wales with its source in the Cambrian mountains and its mouth on the south coast overlooked by Llansteffan Castle. Glamorganshire also can be linked to the Cyhyraeth, but considering that the mouth of the Tywi isn’t too far away, I’d argue that it’s probably simply because of the location, and say the Cyhyraeth are linked to a rough area rather than a specific river. Welsh Myths and Legends suggest that it may even have been associated with as far north as Kerry in Montgomeryshire.

The spirits can be heard whenever someone is about to die. Usually, this takes the form of three ghostly moaning wails, with each one getting weaker and weaker to reflect the dying losing energy and effort.

The wails sound before someone dies overseas as well, perhaps in battle in a far off land. In Glamorganshire, it is said that the Cyhyraeth appears before a shipwreck on the shores. This will usually be accompanied by a corpse-light and the Cyhyraeth proceeding to the churchyard. I can’t find anything to say that the Cyhyraeth are siren-like in nature, luring sailors to the rocks themselves, but that they simply appear when a wreck is about to occur to mourn the loss of the sailors.

The wailing and moaning are usually described as disembodied in nature but has appeared as an old hag or beautiful woman. I’ve found in mythology that these two descriptions of female entities are normally interchangeable, and sometimes one is a disguise for the true form of the other.

The Cyhyraeth themselves are not too dissimilar to the Irish legend of the Banshee. Considering connections between the two countries going back a long way, the nations sending kings and queens to each other in folklore (specifically the second branch of the Mabinogion, which includes a war between the two over a princess and a cauldron of necromancy), I’d wager that the two started out the same and became separate creatures over time. Occult World suggests they are related to the Washers at the Ford, such as the Scottish Bean-Nighe.

Oxford Reference also mentions that the Cyhyraeth ‘may once have been a goddess of streams, which would make sense considering the connection to the Tywi. There may also be an issue with mixing legends, however, as the legend has many similarities to the Gwrach y Rhibyn, as Bertram notes in ‘Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development’. The Rhibyn is very much a combination of the Cyhyraeth and the traditional witch image of an old woman that feasts on the unwary. Astonishing Legends has a good quick article on the Rhibyn for those interested: https://www.astonishinglegends.com/astonishing-legends/2019/3/12/gwrach-y-rhibyn

In the wider world, Cyhyraeth was the name of a small death metal band from Dallas, Texas. Also, Jane Aaron notes that the spirit haunts the protagonist of Bertha Thomas’ short story, ‘The Only Girl’, originally published in 1913.

Though other variations of this creature may be more well known, it’s certainly interesting to delve into the specifics of folklore and mythologies from a country where the most well-known creature is the big red dragon (or Draig, in Welsh) on the flag. How that came to be there, however, is a story for another time.

Article by Kieran Judge

Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

(trans), S. D., 2007. The Mabinogion. Great Britain: Oxford World’s Classics.

Aaron, J., 2010. Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Welsh Gothic Fiction. Literature Compass, 7(4), pp. 281 – 289.

Illes, J., 2019. Occult World. [Online]
Available at: http://occult-world.com/welsh-mythology/cyhyraeth/
[Accessed 20 04 2019].

Legends, W. M. a., n.a. Welsh Myths and Legends. [Online]
Available at: http://www.welsh-mythsandlegends.walesdirectory.co.uk/Death_Portents/Cyhyraeth_The_Death_Sound_Kerry.html
[Accessed 20 04 2019].

n.a, 2019. Oxford Reference. [Online]
Available at: http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095656118
[Accessed 20 04 2019].

Puckle, B. S., 2009. Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development. n.a: Library of Alexandria.

Thomas, B. & Kirsti, B., 2008. Stranger Within the Gates. UK: Dinas Powys: Honno.

 

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