The Shepherd of Myddvai, by Joseph Jacobs
Up in the Black Mountains in Caermarthenshire lies the lake known as
Lyny Van Vach. To the margin of this lake the shepherd of Myddvai once
led his lambs, and lay there whilst they sought pasture. Suddenly, from
the dark waters of the lake, he saw three maidens rise. Shaking the
bright drops from their hair and gliding to the shore, they wandered
about amongst his flock. They had more than mortal beauty, and he was
filled with love for her that came nearest to him. He offered her the
bread he had with him, and she took it and tried it, but then sang to
Hard-baked is thy bread,
'Tis not easy to catch me,
and then ran off laughing to the lake.
Next day he took with him bread not so well done, and watched for the
maidens. When they came ashore he offered his bread as before, and the
maiden tasted it and sang:
Unbaked is thy bread,
I will not have thee,
and again disappeared in the waves.
A third time did the shepherd of Myddvai try to attract the maiden, and
this time he offered her bread that he had found floating about near
the shore. This pleased her, and she promised to become his wife if he
were able to pick her out from among her sisters on the following day.
When the time came the shepherd knew his love by the strap of her
sandal. Then she told him she would be as good a wife to him as any
earthly maiden could be unless he should strike her three times without
cause. Of course he deemed that this could never be; and she, summoning
from the lake three cows, two oxen, and a bull, as her marriage
portion, was led homeward by him as his bride.
The years passed happily, and three children were born to the shepherd
and the lake-maiden. But one day here were going to a christening, and
she said to her husband it was far to walk, so he told her to go for
"I will," said she, "if you bring me my gloves which I've left in the
But when he came back with the gloves, he found she had not gone for
the horses; so he tapped her lightly on the shoulder with the gloves,
and said, "Go, go."
"That's one," said she.
Another time they were at a wedding, when suddenly the lake-maiden fell
a-sobbing and a-weeping, amid the joy and mirth of all around her.
Her husband tapped her on the shoulder, and asked her, "Why do you
"Because they are entering into trouble; and trouble is upon you; for
that is the second causeless blow you have given me. Be careful; the
third is the last."
The husband was careful never to strike her again. But one day at a
funeral she suddenly burst out into fits of laughter. Her husband
forgot, and touched her rather roughly on the shoulder, saying, "Is
this a time for laughter?"
"I laugh," she said, "because those that die go out of trouble, but
your trouble has come. The last blow has been struck; our marriage is
at an end, and so farewell." And with that she rose up and left the
house and went to their home.
Then she, looking round upon her home, called to the cattle she had
brought with her:
Brindle cow, white speckled,
Spotted cow, bold freckled,
Old white face, and gray Geringer,
And the white bull from the king's coast,
Grey ox, and black calf,
All, all, follow me home,
Now the black calf had just been slaughtered, and was hanging on the
hook; but it got off the hook alive and well and followed her; and the
oxen, though they were ploughing, trailed the plough with them and did
her bidding. So she fled to the lake again, they following her, and
with them plunged into the dark waters.
And to this day is the furrow seen which the plough left as it was
dragged across the mountains to the tarn.
Only once did she come again, when her sons were grown to manhood, and
then she gave them gifts of healing by which they won the name of
Meddygon Myddvai, the physicians of Myddvai.
SHEPHERD OF MYDDVAI.
Source.—Preface to the edition of "The Physicians of Myddvai"; their
prescription-book, from the Red Book of Hergest, published by the Welsh
MS. Society in 1861. The legend is not given in the Red Book, but from
oral tradition by Mr. W. Rees, p. xxi. As this is the first of the
Welsh tales in this book it may be as well to give the reader such
guidance as I can afford him on the intricacies of Welsh pronunciation,
especially with regard to the mysterious w's and y's of Welsh
orthography. For w substitute double o, as in "fool," and for
y, the short u in b_u_t, and as near approach to Cymric speech will
be reached as is possible for the outlander. It maybe added that double
d equals th, and double l is something like Fl, as Shakespeare
knew in calling his Welsh soldier Fluellen (Llewelyn). Thus "Meddygon
Myddvai" would be Anglicè "Methugon Muthvai."
Parallels.—Other versions of the legend of the Van Pool are given in
Cambro-Briton, ii. 315; W. Sikes, British Goblins, p. 40. Mr. E.
Sidney Hartland has discussed these and others in a set of papers
contributed to the first volume of The Archaeological Review (now
incorporated into Folk-Lore), the substance of which is now given in
his Science of Fairy Tales, 274-332. (See also the references given
in Revue Celtique, iv., 187 and 268). Mr. Hartland gives there an
ecumenical collection of parallels to the several incidents that go to
make up our story—(1) The bride-capture of the Swan-Maiden, (2) the
recognition of the bride, (3) the taboo against causeless blows, (4)
doomed to be broken, and (5) disappearance of the Swan-Maiden, with (6)
her return as Guardian Spirit to her descendants. In each case Mr.
Hartland gives what he considers to be the most primitive form of the
incident. With reference to our present tale, he comes to the
conclusion, if I understand him aright, that the lake-maiden was once
regarded as a local divinity. The physicians of Myddvai were historic
personages, renowned for their medical skill for some six centuries,
till the race died out with John Jones, fl. 1743. To explain their
skill and uncanny knowledge of herbs, the folk traced them to a
supernatural ancestress, who taught them their craft in a place still
called Pant-y-Meddygon ("Doctors' Dingle"). Their medical knowledge did
not require any such remarkable origin, as Mr. Hartland has shown in a
paper "On Welsh Folk-Medicine," contributed to Y Cymmrodor, vol. xii.
On the other hand, the Swan-Maiden type of story is widespread through
the Old World. Mr. Morris' "Land East of the Moon and West of the Sun,"
in The Earthly Paradise, is taken from the Norse version. Parallels
are accumulated by the Grimms, ii. 432; Köhler on Gonzenbach, ii. 20;
or Blade, 149; Stokes' Indian Fairy Tales, 243, 276; and Messrs.
Jones and Koopf, Magyar Folk-Tales, 362-5. It remains to be proved
that one of these versions did not travel to Wales, and become there
localised. We shall see other instances of such localisation or
specialisation of general legends.