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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

OLL LEWIS: Penllyn Is In My Ears And In My Eyes



A few of you will probably be aware that one of my internet nom de guerres is ‘gwiber’ and I’ve actually been asked a few times what it means.

A gwiber (pronounced ‘why-bur’) is a type of wing-ed serpent said to be found almost exclusively in Wales. In folklore they range in size from fairly small beautiful creatures to great big monsters that are often said to protect a hoard of treasure and sometimes, if a would-be slayer is lucky, a particularly attractive maiden. They are the original form of the Welsh dragon, the four legged red ‘Ishtar gate’ style dragon that features on today’s Welsh flag is a modern creation that came into being sometime after the crusades. The use of the red dragon as a symbolic representation of Wales according to folklore came from Merlin’s prophesy relating to a red gwiber and a white gwiber he saw fighting. After the victory of the red gwiber Merlin proclaimed that the original people of Britain would eventually defeat the invading Saxons while fighting under a red dragon, this came to pass with the ascension to the throne of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), a direct descendant of Welsh royalty after his victory over the English king Richard III. However, the gwiber was a symbol of the British people long before this legend was supposed to have taken place but, you’ll have to come to watch my talk at this year’s Weird Weekend in August (tickets are available now by the way) to learn more about that…

There hundreds of gwibers mentioned in Welsh folklore, from all over the principality, differing in size and ferocity. Often, due to the nature of folklore it is impossible to offer all but the vaguest date ranges to when the animals were meant to have been seen, let alone verify if the sighting even happened in the first place or what animals might have been seen. There have however been gwibers seen in fairly modern times and one witness was interviewed by Marie Trevelyan some years before she published her 1909 book ‘Folklore and Folkstories of Wales’:

“The woods around Penllyne Castle, Glamorgan, had the reputation of being frequented by winged serpents, and these were the terror of old and young alike. An aged inhabitant of Penllyne, who died a few years ago, said that in his boyhood the winged serpents were described as very beautiful. They were coiled when in repose, and "looked as though they were covered with jewels of all sorts. Some of them had crests sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow." When disturbed, they glided swiftly, "sparkling all over," to their hiding places. When angry, they "flew over people's heads, with outspread wings bright and sometimes with eyes, too, like the feathers in a peacock's tail." He said it was "no old story," invented to "frighten children," but a real fact. His father and uncles had killed some of them, for they were "as bad as foxes for poultry." This old man attributed the extinction of winged serpents to the fact that they were "terrors in the farmyards and coverts.”

Parts of the description make the animals sound very unlikely to say the least but never the less, last year I went to the woods around Penllyn, to see if I could find any trace of these creatures or, more likely, existing animals in the woods that these tales could have been based upon. Upon my arrival to Penllyn the first thing I noticed was just how quiet the village was. I live in a slightly larger village and no matter where you walk, or what time of the day, you always see someone out and about, weather they are walking a dog, off to the shop or pub or just posting a letter. Penllyn was different. During my wanderings around the village itself all I saw was the occasional car passing though and the gravestones of the local church, the only sign of current habitation was the village noticeboard and the well kept and tidy nature of the place. Perhaps I was unlucky and went on a day when all the residents were busy, but this meant that there was nobody in the village itself I could ask about local fauna or if they had heard about their village’s cryptozoological claim to fame.

So I headed off to the woods. In the woodland I was surprised to encounter the same quietness I had in the village, there was almost no bird song. I wandered through the woods, lifting up stones and logs and investigating the leaf litter but the only animals to be found were woodlice worms and other invertebrates and certainly nothing that could have been mistaken for a brightly coloured snake, let alone a winged one. I did find some eerie looking ruins, but if there was anything of cryptozoological note in the woods I didn’t find it that day. Before I left Penllyn I had one last avenue to pursue; Penllyn castle. Unfortunately the family living in the castle did not want to be interviewed by me, as they ‘don’t want publicity’ and neither did they want me taking any photographs while on site. This was strange considering they had had scenes from the Doctor Who episode ‘Tooth and Claw’ filmed there recently, but you have to respect people’s wishes. I explained that I was there for scientific reasons and wasn’t from ‘Heat magazine’ or something and left my business card with them but I never did hear back from them.

So did gwibers even exist in Penllyn? Or were they just folktales? Well there is certainly no evidence for them that has been unearthed yet other than stories and fantastical claims, so if I had to bet either way I’d say they probably did not, or at least not in the way they were described. Feathers on a snake would be odd indeed because there is no president for this and snakes are very far removed from dinosaurs and birds in evolutionary terms, but if an account was just talking about ‘wings’ on a snake and made no mention of feathers then it could be argued that it might be referring to something like a cobra. Real or not gwibers and other Welsh dragon legends are a huge part of Welsh folklore and very compelling creatures.

1 comment:

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Owl pellets, that's where you'll find any evidence of the gwiber if there is any to be found. Just find a source of owl pellets in the area which dates from approximately the right sort of time period (if you stop finding bones of Rattus norvegicus then you are looking at medieval or earlier deposits) and start dissecting the pellets looking for obviously reptilian remains.