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Friday, June 18, 2010

OLL LEWIS: Afancs for the Memories

Anyone who regularly follows my writings on cryptozoology will be aware that there are some subjects quite close to my heart, indeed some subjects that I can be positively obsessive about.

The aquatic monsters of Wales is one of those subjects: were I ever a contestant on Mastermind it would definitely be one of my specialist subjects.

Although I have never actually sat down to do the maths I can quite confidently say that there are more aquatic monsters per square kilometre in Wales than in almost any other country. There are hundreds of tales of odd creatures lurking in lakes, rivers and around the coast found in modern eyewitness sightings and in folklore (some of which may well have a grain of truth behind it). Why this is so when the neighbouring country of England has comparatively few tales of strange underwater beasts can only be guessed at. Those of a romantic bent may wax lyrical about Wales’ mystical past or this being a relic of ancient Pagan water cults or cynics may suggest there are just more rivers in Wales and that with the capacity of Iolo Morganwg, the Prichards, their friends and countless others to manufacture phoney folklore for an eager Victorian audience it can be hard to separate genuine folktales with a decent pedigree from what are just interesting tall tales.

One Lake monster that is mentioned in both folklore and modern accounts is the Afanc (pronounced ‘ee-fank’) of Llangorse Lake or Syfaddon mere as the lake was once known. The Afanc was well known enough by the 15th century for the bard Lewys Glyn Cothi to feature it in a poem, an English translation of which follows:

The afanc am I, who, sought for, bides
In hiding on the edge of the lake;
Out of the waters of Syfaddon Mere
Was be not drawn, once he got there.
So with me: nor wain nor oxen wont to toil
Me to-day will draw from here forth.

The Afanc - or rather an Afanc, as it would have to be very old if it were the same one - is still occasionally encountered on the lake in modern times and is often described as a gigantic pike. When I went on an investigation to the lake I obtained a photograph of a huge pike skull along with several accounts from people claiming to have seen the animal. Should you wish to know about my findings there in greater detail then you can watch the short youtube documentary Jon and I made upon my return: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lvm5lh6_qc8&feature=player_embedded.

One thing mentioned in the investigation that I couldn’t go into much detail about at the time was the mysterious ‘textile’ found on the crannog of Llagorse Lake in 1993. During my recent trip to Cardiff I was able to investigate a piece of the textile and question members of its conservation team at the National Museum of Wales. The textile dates from before 916 AD when the crannog’s palace was burned down by Saxons. The textile is one of the most important pieces housed in a British museum as it is thought to be the earliest surviving examples of soumak weave in the world and of a style and complexity that would reach the Near East centuries later. The charred fabric was found with hinges from a portable reliquary dating to about the 8th century so it is possible that the ornate cloth was so important it was wrapped around the relics themselves. Other suggestions are that it was the cloak of one of the Kings of Brycheiniog or a member of his family and was used to wrap the reliquary while it was hidden from the Saxons, only to be lost in the subsequent fire.

There is no doubt that the textile is a most interesting item with an interesting history but as a cryptozoologist there is something I find even more interesting about it. When researchers scanned the textile in order to be able to glimpse its pattern through the charring they found the patterns were composed from animals found in and around Llangorse Lake from dogs to water birds like heron. However, some of the animals on the textile are unlike any seen in artwork elsewhere and do not conform with any known animal. One theory is that these were depictions of the Afanc. If, and that is a big if because of the lack of further supporting evidence, it is then that would make the Afanc of Llangorse lake one of the oldest cryptids in Europe for which there is supporting evidence.


Dale Drinnon said...

"Afnac" suffers from the same basic problem as most other local "Water Monster" names up to and including "Nessie": it is a generic name for anything unusual which mifht be seen in the water. Giant pikes are noted in many areas-some of them are lumped in with Lindorms in Scandinavia-but the basic Afnac is a four-legged, amphibiuos animal. I have seen referencesd in Ivan Sanderson's archives which led him to believe it was a slimy giant amphibian, which he later called The Great Orm: in that case it would have been legless, like a giant eel. But some of te descriptions specify that it has four legs and a better candidate might well be the Master-Otter.

As to being one of the oldest documented cryptids, that very concept is fraught with any number of problems, particularly since the category seems to be composite in the first place. Technically, there were no cryptids before Linneaus made up the binomial system because before then there was no scientific classification of species. EVERYTHING was a cryptid then, in a very real sense.

Ego Ronanus said...

The word afanc is an adaptation of afac and seems to have been originally a humanoid monster. One threw a spear at Peredur, so I think we can eliminate the pike. The correspondening word in Irish is abhac (dwarf) from which we can infer that behind both stands a humanoid creature.

Oll Lewis said...

As there are at least 8 different ways to spell Afanc and different traditions, legends, folklore and descriptions associated with the word across the Celtic world it is best to think of Afanc, not as a single type of animal but rather a generic catch-all term for something unusual of a largish size that lives in the water. For example a spear throwing Afanc may not be the same sort of creature as a crocodile-like or pike-like creature. For a modern day example of how this works one only has to look at how Chubacabra has come to mean several different animals across the Americas within the space of a few years. Although this process has no doubt been sped up by today's international communications it really wouldn't take many years longer for similar things to happen in the dark age Celtic world. Also places like Llangorse were not the comparative backwaters they are now, it was the capital of a quite wealthy small kingdom with a major religious centre so there would have been plenty of monks, bards and other travellers passing through sharing tales of the places they had been. In it's early history the Afanc of Llangorse may have had an entirely different name and not been known as an Afanc at all but it only takes one person to start calling it that because they thought it sounded a bit like another creature they'd heard referred to as an afanc and the name could have stuck. Again though, like I tried to point out in the article a lot of this is just speculation, because Welsh history, particularly obscure stuff like this, is poorly studied. What is interesting is that things like the textile present tantalising possibilities to us, weather they are true or if true could ever be proven is another matter.