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A Wise Wizard and Some Curious Cats

A Wise Wizard and Some Curious Cats - origins

How did the idea of witchcraft come about?

Magic circle by Waterhouse
  • Magic Circle by Waterhouse
  • The idea of 'witchcraft' has been around since ancient times. Originally, witches were men and women who were knowledgeable and clever with herbs. They were known as 'cunning' or wise women and men. Sometimes they used their knowledge for bad purposes but usually people went to them for help if they were sick or unhappy.

    However, in the late 12th century, the Christian church began to believe that witches obtained their power from the devil and such practices were evil and against god. In these times, before science, people looked for other reasons for bad things that happened, such as famine, illness or war; witches were often blamed.

    In 1484, the Pope said that witches had to be found, tried and executed. This led to the Witch hunts that occurred in Europe and later in England and Scotland. Many thousands of people, mainly older women, were put to death by hanging or sometimes burning. However, in Wales, where this story is set, the people did not suffer from the frenzy of the 'witch hunts'.

    This did not mean that the Welsh did not believe in witches. Some Welsh witches were taken to trial, but the treatment of witches was less extreme. Most taken to court were acquitted (sometimes through petition of the local people), others evaded the law. Some 'white' wizards, such as Huw Llwyd in the story, even became celebrated figures.

    What was a Welsh Witch like?

  • More usual view of witches
  • In Wales, there was a long standing belief in magic going back to Celtic times. Witchcraft was part of the magical world of fairies and magicians but was also seen as having a great influence on everyday life.

    There were different types of magic. Black magic caused harm and had its root in evil, such as a 'curse' or a wish to harm a neighbour or their property. However, 'White magic' was believed to provide cures and blessings that could not be obtained through religion or medicine.

    Even witches that used their dark skills to bring harm, could undo this by offering a blessing to the person, animal or object. Those that used their powers to do good for the community were given the title of 'a white witch'. Some men were believed to have special supernatural abilities. They could lift curses, heal the sick, see the future, identify wrong doing and solve mysteries. These men were called a 'knowing man' or 'Wizard' (such as Huw Llwyd in the story).

    Although witches come in all shapes and sizes, including beautiful young women (like the sisters in this story), the typical Welsh Witch was more usually an elderly female beggar. Such women would mumble curses if refused charity at a house.

    They had dark eyebrows that met over a long hooked nose, pointed chins and bony, chapped fingers. Instead of sympathy, such decrepit old women were often shunned as malicious evil-doers by their neighbours. Children would cross to the other side of the road.

    Whatever their looks or age, witches were thought to have incredible power to create mischief. For this reason, it was better to please than to offend them. Indeed, some beggars encouraged the rumours, as they were likely to get more if people thought refusal could bring bad fortune.

    It was thought witches could travel through the air on broom-sticks, summon thunder storms, make people ill, destroy crops, bewitch animals or bring misfortune if they looked at you with their evil eye. To guard themselves, people would carry talismans such as a twig of the Rowan tree, bread or salt, which guarded against all kinds of sorcery.

    Did people really believe witches could change into cats?

    Naughty Cats
  • The Cats
  • The belief that witches could transform themselves into animals was once very widespread and occurs in the legends of many countries. Such tales were very common in Wales.

    In this disguise the witches were more able to do what they wanted. In Wales, the cat and the hare were the favourite animals into which witches transformed themselves. However, other animals included hooded crows, stoats and geese and, in some stories, even insects and spiders.

    It was also commonly believed that if a witch was injured or marked in her assumed form, the injury would remain when she returned to her natural form. In many stories it provides the proof that an individual was involved in black magic.

    Who was Huw Llwyd and how did the myth arise?

    A wizard - by Rackham
  • A Wizard - by Rackham
  • Huw Llwyd, actually existed. He lived in the reign of King James I. He was born around 1533 and died around 1620. He was a soldier in the army of James I, and he is said to have held an important commission and served on the Continent. He was a poet and some of his poems are recorded in the Peniarth Manuscript. But he was also rumoured to be a noted astrologer and wizard.

    He was said to be the seventh son of a seventh son, which at one time was thought to give a person the ability to foretell the future. He increased his knowledge of the black art by the study of magical books.

    As in the story, he lived at Cymorthyn in a farmhouse called Cynfal Fawr. There is a footpath from Llan Ffestiniog that leads to The River Cynfal and a path that descends to a waterfall. In the river above the waterfall is a column of rock, known as Huw Llwyd's Pulpit. It is said he used to stand on the rock to recite poetry, preach sermons and converse with spirits.

    He claimed he was safe from evil while on the rock, because the devil was afraid of water. His night time chants were said to be strange and sometimes terrible.

    He had a rival; another master of the black and white arts was Edmund Pryse, Archdeacon of Merioneth. It is recorded in Welsh lore that they often disagreed and quarrelled but respected each other. When Huw Llwyd died, the Archdeacon wrote an elegy upon his celebrated rival's death.

    It is hard to say how this particular myth arose. Both men could foretell future events, and their counsel was much sought after by the people of North Wales. There are many tales involving Huw Llwyd. Perhaps there were thefts at the Inn and these were investigated and the story grew from this. Many ordinary events were commonly put down to witchcraft.

    A few days before Huw Llwyd died, he is meant to have called his daughter to his side, and begged her to throw all his books of magic into the Llyn Pont, Rhyddu. The daughter tried several times but could not bring herself to do this. But Huw Llwyd insisted he could not die in peace until this was done. When the daughter finally complied, a mysterious hand arose from the depths of the Llyn, grasped the books, and drew them into the deep water. Huw Llwyd died in peace.

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