The mystical, the mysterious, and the magical or supernatural are strongly present in Celtic culture. These can be found not only in folklore but in the landscape and history of Celtic nations. Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “mysterious” as “exciting wonder, curiosity, or surprise.” Those mysteries that also include a spiritual or magical element and those that produce a sense of awe are considered “mystical.” Here are seven places in Wales that fit those definitions.
The Welsh landscape is dotted with dolmens, stone constructions from the Neolithic period which served, archaeologists believe, as single-chambered tombs. These are usually composed of two or more large stones (megaliths) with a flat capstone laid across the top of the standing stones. While the prevailing theory is that dolmens are burial chambers, a few alternative theories about their purpose exist. Some scholars believe they could have served as storage areas for food, water, and other necessities that would help the community survive long, hard winters. According to some scholars, the dolmens are centers of concentrated energy and may have served as spiritual centers or gathering places.
Because they are sites of strong energy, there is a theory that dolmen chambers may have been used as healing areas. The sick person was laid facing the exit, and was expected to be healed by the energy. People visiting these sites have reported having been physically or emotionally changed. Some have reported feeling fatigued or squeezed. Many of the reports, though, are positive. People say they get a feeling of peace or comfort and relief from pain. Others report feeling energized.
Two notable dolmens are Cromlech Bach Wen and Pentre Ifan. Cromlech Bach Wen is located in Clynnog Fawr, Caernarfon, Gwynedd. It is situated between beautiful hills and the sea.
The dolmen at Pentre Ifan is at Newport, Pembrokeshire in southwestern Wales. Believed to be more than 6,000 years old, it looks down on the Nevern Valley. Local folklore speaks of red-capped faeries haunting the site.
Speaking of faeries, folklore connects them to the ruinous state of Pennard Castle in Swansea. It is said that the lord of the castle got on the wrong side of the local faeries (never a good thing to do!). They responded by enveloping the castle in sand. What remains of the erstwhile fortress now stands on the edge of Pennard Pil and overlooks the picturesque Three Cliffs Bay.
The Lost Castle of Llys Helig
Nothing remains of Llys Helig except the legend. On the north coast of Wales, there is a headland (a promontory surrounded on three sides by water) called the Great Orme. According to legend, the castle of Llys Helig once stood there. It was the residence of the Prince of Tyno Helig. He had a daughter, Helig ap Glannawg. She, the story goes, was cruel and hard-hearted.
Tahal, the son of a baron from Snowdonia, sought her hand in marriage. He did all he could to woo her, court her, and win her heart. But she refused to marry him until he obtained a golden collar. To accomplish this task, Tahal murdered a certain Scottish chieftain and took his collar.
Seeing the golden collar, Helig accepted Tahal, and plans were made for their wedding. But when the big day arrived, the Scotsman’s ghost appeared and cursed the couple and their families.
Nothing happened immediately. The couple wed and, as some time passed, they laughed off the curse. Then, during a night of revelry, while guests were gathered and all were making merry, seawater poured into the palace, completely submerging it. All that is left of Helig and Tahal but their story.
Medieval nobleman Ifor Bach didn’t want anything to happen to his castle, Castell Coch. He especially didn’t want anyone to disturb him after his death. So he built a secret chamber deep within the castle as his final resting place. Bach then, it is said, used witchcraft to transform two of his men into stone eagles and charged them with guarding the entrance to his burial chamber. A long time after his death, according to legend, two thieves broke into his tomb. The two stone eagles came to life and chased the thieves out of the castle.
In the 18th century, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, acquired Castell Coch. It was passed down in the family through the generations. In the 19th century, John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute, inherited it. He completely renovated it into a more fairytale-style castle. There are no reports of the eagles disturbing the renovation.
The castle is located in Tongwynlais, in northern Cardiff, Wales.
The Dangers of Cadar Idris
At the southern end of Snowdonia National Park in Gwynedd lies the mountain of Cadar Idris. The name means “Idris’ Chair.” Legend says that the giant, Idris, fashioned the mountain into a seat for himself to gaze at the stars. In addition to being an astronomer, the giant was a philosopher and a poet.
At the foot of the mountain is a collection of boulders. These are said to be stones the giant shook out of his shoe. Full of natural beauty, the mountain is popular with hikers. But spending the night there is risky. Popular legend says that those who do will wake up either as a poet or a madman. There is also a chance one may never wake up at all.
There is a second danger associated with Cadar Idris. It is said to be the hunting ground of the Welsh Ruler of the Underworld, Gwyn ap Nudd. He is accompanied by a pack of spectral hounds, the Cŵn Annwn. The howling of these dogs is said to foretell the death of anyone who hears them. The dogs will find the person and herd him or her to the Underworld.
The Lake of the Afanc
Wales’ version of the Loch Ness Monster is the Afanc. This lake monster resembles a giant beaver. It will attack and devour anyone who comes near its water. Welsh folklore says that the Afanc once caused a massive flood throughout Wales simply by thrashing its tail. Its home is said to be in the Afanc Pool near Betws-y-Coed, but three other places claim to be the Afanc’s lair. They are Llyn Llion, Llyn Barfog, and Llyn-yr-Afanc.
The Home of the Red Dragon
In Snowdonia National Park, is a beautiful lake, Llyn Dinas. Overlooking the southern end of the lake is a mountain. This mountain is, according to legend, the home of the Red Dragon, the national symbol of Wales. The story of the dragon includes the historical figure of Vortigern, an early medieval Welsh king, and the legendary character of Merlin, the famed sorcerer of Arthurian legend.
This story takes place when Merlin was a child. The Celtic king, Vortigern, wanted to build a castle on the mountain but experienced tremendous frustration. Each day, the workers would build the walls. Each night, the walls would collapse. Perplexed, the king consulted his soothsayers and sorcerers. They told him the foundation had to be sprinkled with the blood of a fatherless boy.
Vortigern sent his men to find a fatherless boy. That boy was Myrddin Emrys, who later became known as Merlin. The king intended to have the boy sacrificed, but Merlin prophesied the reason the walls kept falling down. He said there was a deep lake beneath the foundation. In this lake, he claimed, two dragons, one white and one red, were entangled in a fierce battle. Merlin advised if the king to drain the lake.
His men began digging and found the lake. They also discovered that, as the boy foretold, there were two dragons locked in battle. When Vortigern’s men drained the water, the white dragon flew away, and the red dragon returned to his lair. Following this, the castle finally was built successfully. To honor Merlin, Vortigern named his new fortress Dinas Emrys.
It is said that the dragons were fighting to determine who would rule Wales. The red dragon’s victory, the legend goes, was a sign of the coming of Arthur Pendragon. Many scholars believe the historical Arthur, as well as Arthurian legend, originated in Wales. The Welsh claim Arthur as their own and have made his symbol, the Red Dragon, their national emblem.
The ruins of Dinas Emrys are in North Wales, one mile northeast of Beddgelert. The site can be reached by car, bus, or by the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway.
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