The following story of a Ceredigion witch comes from ‘Coelion Cymru’ (‘Welsh Superstitions’) by Evan Isaac, published in 1938. The book is in Welsh and I am grateful to my friend Rose Smith for the translation. I’ve often wanted to know what it was all about! The ‘witch’ seems to be a version of the Gwrach y Rhibyn, a Welsh version of the Irish banshee which were said to be hideous to look upon and sometimes inhabited swamps (eg the marshy ground round Caerphilly Castle).
I have heard this tale nowhere else but in the parish of Llangynfelyn, and it is less known nowadays due to the locals’ changed way of life. The witch has a terrible curse, and can only be destroyed by fire – as she lives in a boggy swamp there’s little hope of that.
The residents of Tre Taliesin (pictured) lived in fear of the witch for generations. No one escaped her curse, neither grown men nor young children; the witch was merciless. Local folk believed the marsh was her home and that within it she was all-knowing and all-powerful. She never left her home except in the dead of night in thick fog because she was ashamed of her ugliness; luckily for her there was plenty of fog around the marsh.
Betsen of Llain Fanadl met her once. Betsen lived in a cottage on the edge of the marsh, and one evening as she returned from collecting firewood she saw a woman sitting on a hump of sedge. The woman had a large head, and jet black hair that fell in a huge wave down her back and piled up on the floor; she was eating buckbeans and frog meat. Betsen called out ‘Good evening’. The witch jumped up, and Betsen saw she was 7 feet tall, thin, bony and sallow, with black teeth. The witch hissed like a snake in Betsen’s face, then disappeared. Betsen was said never to be the same again.
The residents of Taliesin were troubled for generations by a disease, a type of fever, and the symptoms were particularly bad in some people. At first they felt weak and ill as though they were seasick. Then their whole body would start shaking, which would last a full hour. They would shake once a day, but one hour later each time. This would continue for 8 – 10 days, until their strength slowly returned and the time between shaking would increase to a day, then 2 days, etc. The person could do light work on these days, but be confined to bed on shaking days.
A book by Mr Richard Morgan, MA, of Llanarmon-yn-Iâl, tells of a girl from Taliesin who was in school in nearby Tal y Bont when he taught there. One day she said, “Please sir, I shan’t be in school tomorrow.” “You shan’t be in school tomorrow! And why?” he replied. “Please sir, I shall be shaking tomorrow.”
The disease was believed to be caused by the witch, and it was named after her. On dark nights she made a thick fog, crept in it to the village, sneaked into the house of her choice despite any efforts to prevent her, and into the bedroom, then breathed her curse on the sleepers. They would wake the next morning from a restless sleep full of bad spirits, feeling ill and depressed. Shaking would begin later that day. The shaking could be so strong the whole bed rattled, and the sufferer would be unable to speak. Others would say, “such-and-such has the Old Witch.”
Sufferers of this illness were rarely seen by doctors, for two reasons. Firstly, they were too poor to afford doctors, and the nearest were in Aberystwyth or Machynlleth nine miles away. Secondly, the doctors were powerless to do anything anyway. The illness simply had to run its course. Nobody died of the Old Witch, but it is certain that they were affected to some extent for the rest of their lives.
Twenty years ago the curse suddenly stopped, and it is widely believed that the Old Witch must have died during a particularly harsh winter. At the same time the main fuel of the villagers became coal instead of peat, so the marsh is less disturbed – perhaps the Old Witch is just sleeping until the coal runs out…
[One wonders whether the illness was malaria, or is this too obvious? One would expect doctors to recognise the symptoms and make the connection with the marsh.]