Celebrating International Women’s Day with Efa Lois’ Welsh witches
Witches have had a tough old time throughout history, with torture, hanging and being burned at the stake all hazards of the job.
Between 1482 and 1782, 40-50,000 people across Europe were accused of witchcraft and murdered – though happily, only five witches were ever executed in Wales.
In her project Gwrachod Cymru (Welsh Witches), Efa Lois has so far documented 60 witches from across the nation.
She explains: “Welsh folklore has always been a part of my art; even in primary school, I was portraying figures from Welsh mythology. The legends and women of Welsh history are still an integral part of my artwork. In more recent years I’ve focused on less familiar aspects of Welsh folklore, such as witches.
“For some years I’ve been collecting books and about Welsh mythology and old articles in order to compile some sort of archive of Welsh witches. What is interesting about these ‘witches’ is that some feel more mythical than others, and it is likely that most myths are inspired by real women.”
So far the fruits of her labour have produced two prints—Welsh Witches, and Welsh Witches II—which document 60 witches in all. In 2019 and 2020 she shared an image of a witch along with her legend on Instagram every day throughout the month of October.
“These witches were often blamed for things people didn’t understand,” she said.
Contrary to the frightening portrayal of witches in films and storybooks, most simply felt a deep connection to the earth and utilised nature to heal those around them through herbal remedies, along with rituals and chants.
Efa shares some of her most interesting discoveries. “Legend has it that Lowri and Siân Owen were witches living in Llanarmon near Pwllheli. Both were able to cast out unclean spirits and demons by holding ceremonies, anticipating a need or want in the ebb and flow of the sea.”
Of course, not every witch used her powers for good: enter Siwsi Dôl y Clochydd from Llanfachtraeth. According to myth, at one time there were many deer in the area, and the lord of Nannau enjoyed hunting them. But, however close he got to the animals, he could never capture them near the River Glas; when the dogs were upon them, the deer would leap over the river and out of sight.
Eventually, the lord decided Siwsi was responsible, and that she was herself morphing into the form of a doe and evading hunters in order to protect the rest of the herd. A bridge was built over the river and named ‘The Bridge of the Doe’s Leap’.
Other witches, meanwhile, had more dire consequences for those around them. Adam de la Roche was the first known inhabitant of Roch Castle in Pembrokeshire. His family lived in the castle for many decades, defending it from the Welsh.
According to local legend, one winter’s day Adam was cursed by a witch who told him he would die of an adder’s bite within a year. Adders being quite common in the area, he locked himself away, with food, clothing and provisions all delivered to his door.
As the year approached its end, he began to suspect the curse was simply an attempt to frighten him, before requesting a servant collect some firewood for his bitterly cold room. He settled down to sleep in the light of the fire.
Unbeknownst to him, an adder was hibernating in the bundle of firewood brought to his room. He was found dead by a servant the next morning.
‘Brought to life’
The fact that around four out of five of those accused of magic were women speaks volumes about what little regard society had for women, and things really haven’t changed much in the meantime.
According to Welsh Women’s Aid data, 21,599 survivors were referred to violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence services during the year 2018/2019, an increase of 61% from 2017/2018.
According to the Women’s Equality Network Wales and Oxfam Cymru’s Feminist Scorecard Report 2020—which analyses the Welsh Government’s progress since its 2018 commitment to becoming a feminist government—while improvements have been made in some areas there is still much work to be done.
Highlighting the Covid-19 pandemic, they said: “It will be women, particularly those who are disabled, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) or on low incomes who are likely to be hardest hit by the pandemic.”
However, practicing witch Catherine Abbott from Caerphilly is pleased society has come some way in its treatment of witches.
“After centuries of negativity, it is wonderful that these ladies have finally been brought to life,” she said. “The vast majority of these witches were healers, the midwives, the cunning women who helped their communities with folk cures, remedies and charms.
“Some were simply taken advantage of, unable at that time to have any say in what was done to them or their lives, something that still happens to women in the world today. I’m so glad that these Welsh witches are being celebrated and hope that we will be honoured in the many years to come.”