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Review: The Folklore of Wales: Ghosts by Delyth Badder and Mark Norman

26 Sep 2023 8 minute read
The Folklore of Wales: Ghosts by Delyth Badder and Mark Norman is published by Calon

Matthew G. Rees

Is there such a thing as a Welsh ghost? A sub-species of spectre with characteristics and patterns of behaviour that distinguish it from apparitions in other nations of the British Isles?

In similar vein, are there strange portents and weird manifestations that have a particular prominence in Wales compared with the ghost-lore of other countries?

The answer that would seem to be ‘out there’ is… Yes.

A Welsh ghost, it seems, will only appear to one witness. It will not speak unless spoken to and will only enter conversation when it and the witness are alone. Such a conversation may not be without its consequences: one belief, from years past, and regarded as particular to Wales, has it that someone who has seen a ghost will thereafter be unable to look a living person in the face.

Shrouded figure

The Welsh ghost, moreover, is unlikely to manifest as a shrouded figure (and almost certainly not as the white-sheeted spectre of caricature). Its appearance is more likely as a kind of distorted or abstract form or shape: at times, a vaguely human figure, perhaps lacking arms; at others, a peculiar fire that kindles at night.

Particularly prevalent in Welsh ghost-lore, compared with sightings beyond Offa’s Dyke, are spirits in animal form: demon dogs, horrifying horses, even a terror-inducing turkey. Wales (or Welsh folklore, at least) has been crawling with such spectral beasts for centuries, it seems.

Meanwhile (and perhaps not for the faint-hearted), unique to the country in terms of prominence within its folklore tradition, are omens of death.

‘Wales possesses its own extremely specific imagery, rituals and belief systems which are not precisely replicated anywhere else,’ write Delyth Badder and Mark Norman, authors of a new book The Folklore of Wales: Ghosts – an attempt, it might be said, at an authoritative modern account of Welsh ghost-lore.

Badder, a consultant pathologist well-known as a contributor to discussions on Welsh folklore, and Norman, a podcaster and senior British folklorist, began the project after a discussion of the folklore surrounding sleep paralysis in North Wales.

Foul phantoms

Their research certainly seems to have been extensive – the bibliography at the back of their new volume is long and detailed, with passages having sources in the sixteenth century and earlier. The range is wide – from foul phantoms of ancient storytelling, such as the hag ghoul known as Hen Wrach, to a more modern report of a spectre said to have seated itself on the back of a motorbike – much to the horror of its rider!

One of the book’s strengths, the authors believe, is their use of material from Welsh-language texts and, at times, very old ones. They consider these a channel to the beliefs and experiences of ordinary people of past generations, avoiding over-reliance on perhaps more patrician accounts penned by clerics and upper-class antiquarians and commentaries written from an English point of view (of the sort that deeply irritated one Welsh writer in the early 1800s).

Their book includes discussion of what we mean by ‘ghosts’, why they may be among us, and how – when deemed necessary in the past – they have been banished. The authors give accounts that range from the pleasingly fanciful (a conjurer’s capture of the spirit of one spectre, that of the soldier Owain Lawgoch, in a bottle flung deep into the River Dulas) to perhaps more sober attempts at exorcisms by priests, including one parson’s bid to curb a notorious Gwynedd ghost, Cadi’r Forwyn (Cadi the Maid), which saw the cleric suffer a violent blow to his head.

Holy ghosts

There are chapters on ghosts in the Welsh landscape – the fairy folk (Tylwyth Teg) along with accounts of Satanic figures (sometimes shape-shifted) seated on boundary stiles. Spectral ‘white ladies’ and water spirits are encountered. ‘Holy Ghosts’ also feature, in the form of sky-dwelling angelic choirs.

The relationship (and, at times, inter-connectivity) between folklore and the Christian church is discussed. Context is frequently provided as to why a particular story has taken root – many tales seemingly being cautionary (the need to keep away from dangerous water, to be alert to disease, to lead a moral life, etc).

The narrative style of the authors is more academic (albeit easily readable) than sensational. Entertainingly florid passages do have their place, however, not least in accounts quoted from ancient chronicles. A case in point concerns beavers, animals that seem to have been the subject of a certain past blurring with the afancwn – water-dwelling demons that lurked in the depths of lakes (this link perhaps springing from the Welsh word for beaver – afanc).

According to one sixteenth-century text, ‘a beast’: ‘all hearie saving the taile, which is like a fishe taile, as broad as a man’s hand. This beaste useth as well the water as the land, and hath a verie sharp teeth, and biteth cruelly, till he perceive the bones cracke; his stones be of great efficacie in physicke…’

Other creatures large and small feature in a chapter that Badder and Norman title ‘Spectral Beasts’. My favourite – among the perhaps better-known fiery-eyed black dogs and strange equines – is an account from the late eighteenth century of a turkey that provoked terror in a Powys chapel-goer on his way home from worship – the bird allegedly being occupied by a shape-shifting Satan. (As the author of a modern dark tale about a turkey on a Welsh hill farm, this reviewer feels joyfully vindicated!)

I found the authors’ chapters about poltergeists and ‘fantastical ghouls’ particularly interesting. One of the latter, the Bwci Melyn Bach y Cwm (The Little Yellow Bogey of the Valley), seems something of a ringer for the titular ‘Bad Little Kid’ in a story by Stephen King.

The prevalence of omens of death within Welsh folkloric is striking – this prominence possibly arising, Badder and Norman think, from low life-expectancy in the likes of mining towns and villages in the South Wales valleys (where omens are said to have shown prior to pit disasters).

Sinister light

Perhaps the best-known omen is the Cannwyll Gorff or Corpse Candle – a sinister light said to travel the route by which a coffin shall be transported to a church or burial place. It has been claimed that the colour and size of the spectral taper provide clues to the identity of those whose death is portended. The Cannwyll Gorff is believed to be a notably Welsh phenomenon. Badder and Norman cite a 1656 source stating the lack of any record of these fiery apparitions outside Wales.

The most dangerous omen a person can encounter, according to one source, is Y Toili – a kind of full-blown phantasmal funeral. This was denounced in a 1767 Monmouthshire text as being the work of ‘Spirits of Evil’ who infallibly foreknew the coming of someone’s death.

Other omens (in this somewhat crowded Welsh field!) include the Aderyn Corff (corpse bird) – a harbinger of death which issues a shrieking cry within earshot of sickbeds and beats its wings against windows where an ailing person lies (the awful avian has reportedly been active among Welsh people as far away as Patagonia and Australia).

Meanwhile, roving in pursuit of evil souls to transport to the afterlife, and (according to one commentator) ‘always dripping in gore’, come the Cwn Annwn – howling, fire-breathing, supernatural hounds whose name derives from the king of the Welsh otherworld).

Wailing wraith

Further harbingers of doom are Y Cyhyraeth – a skeletal, wailing wraith that has apparently foretold shipwrecks, and Gwrach-y-rhibyn – a very unwelcome variety of witch (descriptions vary from an emaciated, crooked-backed hag with a cloak and wings, to a girl of immense size, with eyes that flash fire and teeth of a snaggled sort that resemble the spikes of a harrow).

Badder and Norman are by no means messianic believers in all of the stories and ‘sightings’ they chronicle. They not infrequently raise quizzical eyebrows – at times advancing logical explanations and humorous asides. A certain amount of cold water is poured, for example, on a highly colourful alleged haunting in the Edwardian era of a public house in Carmarthenshire.

However, the authors make clear theirs is not some Mulder-and-Scully mission to prove or disprove the existence of one spirit or another. Folklore, they state, ‘does not demand proof of a ghost: its interest lies in the stories and their transmission, not in the explanation’.

Possibly this reviewer’s only slight query with their volume is that – given the authors’ rejection of any notion that Welsh folklore is somehow lost or obscure but is in fact an ongoing force in Welsh life – the bulk of the sightings they refer to seem pre-First World War.

Could it be that in our own ‘sophisticated’ age witnesses are shy about coming forward?

In the sense that folklore is a body and system of believing built up over time this emphasis on history is perhaps understandable.

It may be that contemporary cases will make for addenda to future editions of this enjoyable and richly informative book. (The illustrations by Katie Marland are a treat.)

The Folklore of Wales: Ghosts by Delyth Badder and Mark Norman is published by Calon. It is available from all good bookshops.

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4 months ago

I loved this. Thank you.
One correction though (I think) around y Cwn Annwn.
Annwn (or Anwyfn) is the name of the Welsh otherworld / underworld. The king is named Arawn, or in later, post-Christian versions (where they claim some random bishop defeated Arawn in a Theological Smackdown), the king is the psychopomp Gwyn Ap Nudd.

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