A selection of works from a forthcoming book of local myths and legends from the English countryside
Deep as Hell Kettles
15.5x19.5 inches Mixed media on watercolor paper
9x12, watercolor and pencil
The tradition of fairies in the Vale of Neath goes a long way back. In his Journey Through Wales (ca. 1191), Gerald of Wales tells the following story, set around Neath and Swansea:
'The priest Elidyr always maintained that it was he who was the person concerned. When he was a young innocent only twelve years old and learning to read, he ran away one day and hid under the hollow bank of some river or other, for he had had more than enough of the harsh discipline... meted out by his teacher... Two days passed and there he still lay hidden, with nothing at all to eat. Then two tiny men appeared, no bigger than pigmies. "If you will come away with us," they said,"we will take you to a land where all is playtime and pleasure."'
So, they led him through an underground tunnel to a beautiful land of meadows and rivers, where the days were dark because the sun did not shine, and the nights pitch-black, for there was neither moon nor stars.
The people there were very tiny, but perfectly formed, fair in complexion, the men with flowing hair. They had horses about as big as greyhounds, and never ate meat nor fish, but lived on junkets. More than anything in the world they hated lies. Elidyr was brought before their king, who handed him over to his son, a child like himself, and they would play together with a golden ball. Elidyr would often return to the upper world to visit his mother, and was never hindered. But one day she asked him to bring back some of the fairies' gold, and he stole the golden ball. He ran home with it to his mother by his usual route, hotly pursued by the fairies. He tripped over the threshhold, and and as he fell the ball slipped from his hand. The little men at his heels snatched it up, and as they passed Elidyr they spat at him and shouted, "Thief, traitor, false mortal!" The boy was red with shame for what he had done, but was ultimately unable to relocate the entrance to the underground passage. He searched for a year along the overhanging banks of the river, he never found it again.
The boy later became a priest, and whenever the Bishop asked him about the tale, Elidyr would burst into tears. He could still remember the language of the fairies, and when the Bishop related it to Gerald of Wales, he responded that it reminded him of Greek.
If Elidyr was lying to cover his truancy, he was spinning a traditional yarn which he knew could be believed. The underground land of the fairies is found in other early fairytales in Britain as well as Ireland, where the fairies inhabit the sidh or barrow - suggesting that fairies owe at least part of their origin to a cult of the dead.
The Skull of Broome
At Higher Farm, opposite the church, is a “Screaming Skull” which according to a tradition current in the 18th century belonged to Theophilus Broome, who died in 1670 and “…requested that his head might be taken off before his burial, and be preserved at the farm-house near the church ….The tenants of the house have often endeavored to commit [the skull] to the bowels of the earth, but have been as often deterred by horrid noises, portentive of sad displeasure.”
It’s said that Broome was a Royalist during the English Civil War, but defected to the Parliamentarians after witnessing horrors perpetrated on civilians in the name of the king. In particular, he despised the Royalist habit of severing the heads of victims and spiking them on rails as trophies. On his deathbed, Broome made a plea to his sister that his head should be separated from his body and secreted away in the farmhouse, so that even if his body were exhumed, no head could be taken or presumably violated as a trophy.
A manuscript account from the Farm dating from 1829 contains statements from various parishioners confirming the tradition. It is “…remembered when the Scull was brought down stairs, and put in the Cupboard.” A farm tenant “…bought a new Spade, and went to his Relation … who said ‘Now Uncle Doctor, let us go and bury the Scull, when we have had a crust of bread and cheese,’ he said no he would not; but after some time he went, but with an ill will, to bury it in the Churchyard. The Spade broke off at the first spit, and so they took it back again, he thought it presumptuous to attempt it, as the Man had begged that some part might be buried there and the rest in some other places.” This tenant, an Ann Dunman, had also heard that “Brome was a great Warrior, and begged that his body might be laid in three Counties” - a theme also found in the lives of saints, and undoubtedly arising from the fact that their corpses were frequently dismembered for relics.
Long Meg and Her Daughters
9x12 - watercolor/digital
Here, at one of the largest prehistoric stone circles, the legend tells that a local witch and her coven were turned to stone. Long Meg herself is a single twelve-foot narrow slip of sandstone, standing just outside the ring of her 59 daughters - though reports indicate there may have originally been as many as 77 stones.
Though some say “Long Meg” was Meg of Meldon - an early seventeenth century witch - she is more likely to have got her name from the saying “As long as Meg of Westminster,” which applied to any particularly tall person. The biographical tract of this particular Meg tells that she was a giantess, and of her similarly large gravestone, but the author, who is of the opinion that no woman would be put to rest among the monks of Westminster, suggests that the gravestone actually marks a mass grave of monks who died in a year of plague.
However that suggestion might be, several legends sprang up accounting for Long Meg as a victim of petrifaction. Another historian wrote in 1698 that the “sisters” of “Great Mag” solicited her to an unlawful love by enchantment, and were turned with her to stone. Further texts from the eighteenth century add little else to the story apart from the association with witches.
Besides the petrifaction legend, there was a tradition that these were “countless stones,” much like Stonehenge. It was also dangerous to interfere with the stones - if a piece were broken off Meg, she was said to bleed. When crews tried to blast the circle away in 1790, such a tempest arose that workmen fled in fear. Similar dangers are said to spring up at the desecration of barrows.
A mythic king from the twelfth century, fabled to be the father of King Leir (Lear) and the founder of the city of Bath. Geoffrey of Monmouth records him as a “…very ingenious Man, taught Necromancy in his Kingdom, … til he attempted to fly to the upper Region of the Air with Wings he had prepared, and fell down upon the Temple of Apollo in the city of Trinovantum (London), where he was dashed to pieces.”
Geoffrey seems to not know another tradition concerning Bladud, that he was a leper who was cured of his disease by the medicinal mud in the hot springs at Bath. A tale no curiouser than his magical flight, but it draws a neat line from the Greco-Romantic fable of another great artificer, Daedalus. It sounds as if the Roman spa of Bath was so astonishing, the British tradition accounted for it as the work of a wizard, much like Stonehenge. It is worth noting, as well, that the Old English poem The Ruin, thought to be about Bath, describes it as “enta geweorc” - “the work of giants.”
Now swallowed up by the suburban sprawl of Leicester is a series of low hills known as the Dane Hills, which long had remained a wasteland. On the side of one of these mounds there was once a cave cut out of sandstone, about ten or twelve feet across, which was known as Black Annis’ Bower. Black Annis herself was said to have been a savage hag with great teeth and long nails who devoured human victims - particularly children. She hangs skins in the trees, and has fashioned a skirt for herself of the skins of childrens’ hands.
According to verses from 1804, Black Annis’ features were a livid blue, and the blood of children and lambs stained the floor of her cavern, which she had scooped from the rock with her claws. A later contributor wrote: “Little children who went to run on the Dane Hills, were assured that she lay in wait there, to snatch them away to her ‘bower’; and that many like themselves she had ‘scratched to death with her claws, sucked their blood, and hung their skins up to dry’.
Black Annis was also believed to be in the habit of crouching in an old oak that grew from the cleft of her cave, ready to spring out on passers-by. At the end of the nineteenth century, her name appears as “Cat Anna” and she is said to be a witch who lived in the cellars under Leicester Castle. An underground passage was supposed to lead from the castle to the Dane Hills, along which Cat Anna ran.
As to her identity, Rev. John Dudley in 1846 collected her name with the goddess Anu, an Irish tradition often confused with Danu, mother of the Tuatha de Danann. Her devouring of children, Dudley suggested, was an echo of cannibalistic rites conducted in the hills by ancient Britons, but any connection is likely to be indirect and to be part of the development of goddess into ogress. The mother goddesses - Anu, Danu, Morrigan, and even quasi-historical figures like Medhbh (Mabh) - often appear as figures of both sexuality and war. Ann’s terrifying aspect seems to have predicated her later lore as multiple hag traditions - another notable example being the Blue Hag of the highlands - Cailleach Bheur. That the mother goddesses were once worshiped in the area is attested by a carving of a fertility goddess outside Braunstone church.
Support for Dudley’s idea may also come from a custom that used to be practiced in the Dane Hills - the Easter Monday Drag hunt. A dead cat, soaked in aniseed would be dragged from Annis’ Bower through the city to the house of the mayor, where a reception followed. Great numbers used to gather for the event, until it dwindled out in 1767 - although an Easter Monday fair continued for some years to come.
But before we embrace the idea of continuity with the Celtic past, we should perhaps look again at a suggestion from another line of folkloric thinking - that Annis was Agnes Scott, for whom a memorial was fashioned at Swithand church, as described by the folklorist Nichols: ‘This Agnes Scott, as I guess, was an Anchoress [female hermit]; and the word Antrix in this epitaph coined from antrum, a cave, wherein she lived; and certainly (as I have been credibly informed) there is a cave near Leicester .. at this day called Black Agnes’ Bower’
If we are prepared to take seriously the notion of a connection between Anu and Annis, and that of Cat Anna and the Drag Hunt, Annis and aniseed, we cannot neglect the fact that among the mayors of Leicester mentioned by Nichols is one named Annis. We can assume coincidence, but it is more likely that anchoress, cat hunt, mayor have all played their part in the evolution of the legend. It is notable that such a genteel, if gruesome, sport, which are often wrapped in the trappings of ancient tradition, may have pre-dated the legends that grew up around them.
A story comes from a document from the early 1600s from Berkeley Castle of a Sir Maurice, “beinge a man of great strength and courage,” who armed himself and overcame a menacing dragon that had settled near the village of Bisterne despite the efforts of the residents to repel it. The document makes clear that the slaying of the dragon was a “charter myth” - one that sets out to explain how a certain family came to own a particular piece of land, or to account for the imagery of its coat-of-arms, or some local custom. In this case the story serves as an explanation of the Berkeley badge, perhaps kept alive by an image of a dragon’s head over the main entrance to a local park.
In a later version of the tale, the hero set out equipped with a sword, a glass case, and a jug of milk. He poured the milk into cans and hid inside the case, then while the dragon was lapping killed it. The source of this version, printed in the 1920s, says that the place where the dragon was slain was still called Dragon Field. According to the version now current, Sir Maurice de Berkeley was accompanied by his two dogs, who both perished in the battle. In another version, Berkeley only succeeds by covering his armor with bird lime and shards of glass, and a popular telling of the story has it that the fight raged throughout the forest, and when the dragon died, its body turned into a hill. Though the he had defeated the dragon, he had been mentally broken by the battle or poisoned, and after thirty days and thirty nights he went back to the hill to die alone atop it, his body turning into a yew tree which can still be seen today.
The glass case may have entered the tale through confusion with medieval lore concerning cockatrices, which could only be killed by reflecting its deadly glare back upon itself. The idea may indeed have come from a story in the same county, where a cockatrice that lived under a priory was slain with a mirror. The dragon’s liking for milk is a common motif attributed to many other local dragons. The two dogs in the modern story may have been suggested by dogs who assist the dragon-slaying in the French medieval romance The Dragon of Rhodes. Dogs often accompany supposed dragons layers on their tombs.
We tend to associate witches with black cats that operate as their familiar spirits, but more traditionally, the witch transforms herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the neighbors’ cows.
Belief in witches lingered in Devon, especially in country districts, long after 1736 when witchcraft ceased to be a capital offense. Tales about witches were common, and 18th century novelist Anna Bray, in a letter to Southey dated 1833, tells one current in her day about a witch at Tavistock whose little grandson used to get money from the local hunt by snaring hares for them. He never failed to find one, but somehow it always got away, and eventually they became suspicious. They arranged to get the hunt off to a quicker start than usual and the hounds were hard on the heel of the hare when they heard the boy cry: “Run, Granny! Run, run for your life!” The hare dashed into the old woman’s cottage and got in through a hole in the door, which the huntsmen forced open, but were unable to break down until the parson arrived to take off the witch’s spell. They found no hare in the house, but only the old lady herself, scratched and bleeding, and still panting and out of breath as if she had run a long distance.
The Provincial Glossary, written in 1787, relates: ‘Witches often transform themselves into hares, and lead the hounds and huntsmen a long fruitless chase.’ It goes on to describe that the witnesses at the trial of Julian Cox, at Taunton in 1633, said that one day when out hunting he started a hare near the accused’s house and chased it until it hid under a bush. He managed to get hold of it, whereupon it turned into Julian Cox. Though he was terrified, he spoke to her and asked her what she was doing there, but she was too out of breath to answer.
That wounds inflicted on a were-animal would be reproduced on the shape-changer’s body was an old tradition, it is mentioned by Gervase of Tilbury in the twelfth century.
The Slaying of the Dun Cow
9x12, pencil and digital
Guy of Warwick was a celebrated hero who, along with king Arthur, numbered among the Nine Worthies and was said to have lived in the reign of the Saxon king, Athelstan. Already by the 1600s, the line between the historical Guy and the legendary traditions that had sprung up around him were thoroughly confused. A saying, “ He is the black Bear of Arden,” referred to him, and connotes someone who was an object of terror. The allusion was partly to the Warwick crest - a bear and a ragged staff - and partly to his character, said to be “Grim of Person and Surly of resolution.” He was a poor boy, the son of a steward who made good, and embarked on chivalric adventures to win the hand of a woman far above his station. In his travels, he battled many monsters, the most celebrated of which was the Dun Cow.
The fable holds that the Dun Cow of Dunsmore belonged to a giant or a fairy, and freely produced milk that would supply exactly the pail that was brought to it. One day, an old woman or a witch sought to fill a sieve with milk, and thus was able to milk the magical cow dry. Now cursed, it rampaged across the countryside until Guy dispatched it. Isaac Taylor, in his Words and Places (1864), claims that the Dun Cow is a corruption of “Dena Gau” meaning “Danish Settlement” which was erected outside Warwick. If this explanation is correct, the defeat of the cursed beast was an allegorical victory over the Danish and their removal from the area.
Various bones, including elephant tusks and whale ribs, have been attributed to multiple dun cows.
The Welsh winter mumming ritual, personal work done in celebration of the solstice.
The Welsh winter mumming ritual, personal piece in celebration of the solstice.
Mermaid Natural History
Unused pitch work for a coffee table book concerning the natural history of mythical creatures.