Years ago I wrote a book called Bye-gones, a collection of quirky history and folklore from an old Welsh borderland periodical of that name. That little book only scratched the surface of the extraordinary and abstruse information contained in its many volumes. The following extract from the edition of April 10, 1901, is an intriguing example of white witchcraft in Wales.
A correspondent calling himself ‘W.A.R.’ describes a folk remedy carried out on a man with toothache and another on a person suffering from whitlow, a painful swelling of the tips of the fingers caused by infection from a herpes virus.
What really interests me is the reference to the ‘pryf’ as the cause of both or indeed any disease. In modern Welsh this translates as ‘insect’ but it might I suppose mean any small organism, which would of course include a virus. ‘Bug’ is a more literal translation and is a familiar term in colloquial English. However, the description offered by a witness who claimed to have seen the ‘pryf’ extracted from a finger is even more literal – and bizarre. The extract follows:
‘I remember some years ago being in the company of an old man, a native of Anglesey, since dead. In the course of conversation he stated that he well recollected going in his younger days with a farm labourer, who was suffering intensely from toothache, to an elderly woman in Anglesey, who, he said, was locally noted for her ability to cure this affliction. The sufferer was released from his torture, and “never afterwards suffered from toothache”. I asked the old man if he could describe the process by which the cure was supposed to have been effected.
‘He told me that the woman first took a round piece of iron, hollowed out in the middle, and placed it in the fire until it became red hot. This was taken out, and in the hollow she placed a handful of seeds (my informant telling me it resembled carrot seed), and over all was inverted an earthenware jar. After waiting some time the woman took up the jar, which was now found to be blackened on the inside. Boiling water was poured into it, and the sufferer from toothache had to place his face over the jar and inhale the steam.
‘My informant added that before they left the cottage the old woman took a needle and pricked from the surface of the water in the jar a minute spec, which she asserted was the “pryf”, which was the cause of the toothache. The mention of the “pryf” brings to mind that in other connections and notion prevailed amongst some of our country folk that many forms of disease were due to some living organism. For instance, I might mention the painful gathering on the fingers which I have often heard in Carnarvonshire terrmed in colloquial language “dolur diarth” [which translates as “sore stranger”] – a whitlow, I presume.
‘There have been from time to time many persons with a reputation for curing this affliction, and on more than one occasion I have heard it stated that the finger had been successfully treated by means of the specific remedy of which the local “specialist” only was supposed to know the secret, the latter extracted the “pryf”, and that then nothing remained but to heal the sore.
‘One woman I once overheard asserted that when a husband was undergoing this primitive cure of “dolur diarth” she saw the “pryf” being extracted, and that it actually “crawled on the table” and was “something like a centipede”.