Friday, September 11, 2015

Gwrach Y Rhibyn (The Hag of the Dribble)

In the modern age, people tend to think of elderly women as being kind, sweet, and always eager to offer people some freshly-baked cookies. But in ancient times, it was believed that these women were in possession of supernatural powers, and they were very much feared for this reason. In Celtic mythology, these fears coalesced into the Hag, a hideous old woman that aligned herself with the forces of evil and commanded great power. This figure can be found in traditions all over the world (like the Irish Cailleach Bhéara and the Russian Baba Yaga), but one of the most frightening aspects of the Hag can be found in Wales. In this rainy British country, the Hag is seen as a harbinger of death, not unlike the Irish Banshee. The Welsh know this creature as Gwrach Y Rhibyn, and they fear her appearance more than anything else. The Welsh know that seeing this hideous old crone means that not only will someone close to them pass away in the very near future, but that the eyewitness themselves may soon fall victim to the hag’s hunger for blood.

According to Welsh folklore, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn (pronounced goorack er hreebin) is a monstrous supernatural hag or a crone that appears to families of pure Welsh blood to warn them of an approaching death. In this respect, she is the Welsh answer to Ireland’s infamous Banshee. But unlike the Banshee, who doesn’t usually seek to harm humans, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is thoroughly malicious in her intentions towards people. Like the Vampire of Central and Eastern Europe, the hag feeds on human blood and will take every opportunity that she possibly can in order to satisfy her terrible hunger. Those who have the misfortune to encounter the creature are not only at risk of someone they love dying, but they are also in peril of having their very life stolen from them. In the Welsh countryside, it pays to stay inside the house at night and not to wander off in search of entertainment or a mug of ice-cold lager (as the case may be).

In the Welsh tongue, the name gwrach y rhibyn means “Hag of the Dribble” or “Hag of the Mist”. According to Dr. Bob Curran, the name “may suggest old and doting women who dribble when they speak”. Interestingly, the word gwrach can also mean “witch” as well as “hag”. This seems to imply that there is a connection between this creature and black magic. In the olden days of yore, witchcraft and the Devil were inseparably interlinked in the eyes of the European people. When most people think of witches, they picture an old hag with a hooked nose and warts on her face, dressed in black robes and wearing a pointy hat. If one puts the Gwrach Y Rhibyn into this context, then a person might begin thinking of her as a witch, transformed by black magic or demonic forces into a hideous monster, all the more suited to serving her dark master. The Gwrach Y Rhibyn fits the mold of the witch almost perfectly, but with a few key differences (which shall be explored later). It should be noted, however, that this is only speculation and that there is little evidence to back this notion up other than what is given here.

According to legend, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is a truly hideous monster. In her book Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales (1909), folklorist Marie Trevelyan describes the Gwrach Y Rhibyn in great detail, saying “This spectral form is described as having long hair, black eyes, and a swarthy countenance. Sometimes one of her eyes is grey and the other black. Both are deeply sunken and piercing. Her back was crooked, her figure was very thin and spare, and her pigeon-breasted bust was concealed by a sombre scarf. Her trailing robes were black. She was sometimes seen with long flapping wings that fell heavily by her sides, and occasionally she went flying down low along watercourses, or around hoary mansions. Frequently the flapping of her leathern black wings could be heard against window panes” (Nicholas 66). In his fantastic book Vampires (New Page Books, 2005), Bob Curran describes the hag as a hunched-over old woman with a greenish hood or some other piece of material covering her head, underneath which is nothing but empty darkness or a visage so frighteningly ugly that any man who looks upon it will be driven into complete and utter madness. Other accounts, as given by Dr. Curran, tell of the creature having a hooked nose with a single nostril, a mouth filled with sharp, tusklike teeth (or, in some stories, a single “gobber” tooth), hands and feet that are webbed or have talons like those of a bird, long sagging breasts, a very long barbed tongue, stringy gray hair, and her skin is sometimes said to be a green or a blue-gray color (Curran 110-111). Another description is given by Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins (1880), calling her “a horrible old woman with long red hair and a face like chalk, and great teeth like tusks” (Nicholas 67). All in all, it can be said that the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is a truly horrifying creature!

The Gwrach Y Rhibyn is something of a contradiction. She warns people of impending doom, and yet she will attack innocent people in order to feed on their blood. When she wants to warn a person of an upcoming death, she fades away into invisibility and silently follows that person as they walk along their way. When that person reaches the crossroads or a stream, she suddenly shrieks “My wife!” (“Fy ngwraig!” in Welsh) if a woman is going to die, “My husband!” (“Fy ngwr!” in Welsh) if a man will soon pass away, or “My child!” (“Fy mlentyn!” in Welsh) if a child is about to die (Bane 127, Paciorek 348). Inarticulate screams mean the death of the one who heard her screams himself (Briggs 210). But she will only shriek if someone of pure Welsh blood is about to die. However, there is a distinctive possibility that the person whom the hag had intended to warn will either die of a heart attack or else will become irreparably insane from hearing her ungodly shriek! In some legends, the hag is accompanied by a great black hound that the Welsh know as Gwyllgi, the “Dog of Darkness”. This dog is another omen of death for the Welsh, and the two being seen together carries dire implications.

On the other hand, the Hag of the Dribble preys upon the weak and the helpless so that she may feed upon their blood. Typically, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn takes as her prey small children and the elderly, and those who are bedridden are especially in danger. The hag only takes a small, survivable quantity of blood from her victims, leaving them pale, grumpy, and feeling sick. The real danger of her attacks is that the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is known to return to feed on the same individual over and over and over again until the victim wastes away and dies, a trait that links the hag to the Vampire in the folklore of Central and Eastern Europe. The crone usually attacks at night, at late hours and especially on nights where the sky is lit by a full moon. Nobody knows exactly how the hag takes the blood from her victims, but there are some theories. Some legends say that she sucks the fluid away through hollow fangs or teeth, while other tales say that she drains the blood of her victims through her long, black barbed tongue (much like the vampires on the FX television series The Strain). This feeding inevitably leaves her mouth covered in fresh blood, which drips from her mouth onto her tattered cloak, hence the name “Hag of the Dribble” (Curran 110-112). This blood gives her both power and strength beyond that of mere humans, while at the same time sustaining her and satisfying her ungodly hunger.

The Gwrach Y Rhibyn does have a few supernatural powers at her disposal. Not only does she know when someone of pure Welsh descent is about to die, but she is able to render herself invisible to human eyes and thus is able to stalk her prey without their knowledge (although they may still be able to hear her approaching). The hag is possessed of supernatural strength, and is able to make herself even stronger by drawing upon the supernatural power of her connection with the moon. She shares this connection with certain ancient Celtic goddesses, which might mean that the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is a demonized former deity (Bane 127, Curran 112), or at least was at some point in the distant past. According to some legends, this evil crone has the limited ability to shapeshift into a ball of ghostly light not unlike the flickering light of a lit candle, which links the hag to a phenomenon that the Welsh know as the Canwyll Corph, or “corpse candle” (Curran 111). According to Dr. Curran, these eerie bluish-white lights are thought of as “harbingers of inevitable doom”, and are strongly associated with the powers of darkness and evil. These lights are most often seen hovering about cemeteries and “places where people had died perhaps in tragic circumstances” (Curran 111). Given the wicked nature of the Gwrach Y Rhibyn and her propensity for spreading death wherever she goes, it’s no wonder that the two are often linked together. Additionally, the hag is able to fly for great distances at speed on a pair of leathery, batlike wings. This enables her to move about the Welsh countryside quickly while she goes about searching for her next meal. The crone is also able to pass through solid objects (like doors or walls), suggesting that the hag isn’t completely a corporeal being.

There seems to be very few recorded encounters with the Gwrach Y Rhibyn, and one can imagine that this might be because very few people actually live to tell the tale! Only two such stories are known to this blogger, and one is recorded by author Alvin Nicholas in his excellent book Supernatural Wales (Amberley Publishing, 2013). Originally published by Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins (1880), the book tells the tale of a respectable farmer that Mr. Sikes met while on a walk close to Cardiff in 1878, who told the author of his encounter on the night of November 14th, 1877 with the terrible Hag of the Dribble. While visiting an old friend in Llandaff, the farmer was sleeping soundly in his bed when he was abruptly awakened “by a terrible screeching and shaking of my window. It was a loud and clear screech, and the shaking of my window was very plain, but it seemed to go by like the wind.” Excited more than frightened, the farmer jumped out of bed, ran over to the window, and flung the thing open. What he saw next would haunt him for the rest of his life…

“Then I saw the Gwrach Y Rhibyn,” the farmer said, “a horrible old woman with long red hair and a face like chalk, and great teeth like tusks, looking back over her shoulder at me as she went through the air with a long black gown trailing along the ground below her arms, for body I could make out none.” The hag gave out another ungodly shriek while the farmer stared at her, completely dumbfounded by what he was seeing. Then he heard the creature buffeting her wings against another window on a house just below the one he was staying in. And then, she finally vanished from his sight. The farmer stared into the night, and swore that “as I am a living man, sir, I saw her go in at the door of the Cow and Snuffers Inn, and return no more.” He watched the inn’s door for a long time after the incident, but he never saw her come back out before he drifted off into sleep once again.

The next day, the farmer was told that the innkeeper of the Cow and Snuffers, who went by the name of Llewellyn, had passed away during the night. The man had kept the inn for seventy years, and his family for three hundred years before him, at the exact same inn. The farmer, having sworn that all of this was true, left Mr. Sikes with one final thought: “It’s not these new families that the Gwrach Y Rhibyn ever troubles, sir, it’s the old stock” (Nicholas 67, O’Donnell 49). This account reinforces many of the traits that have been listed and discussed here: a hideous old woman with disheveled hair, tusklike teeth, the leathery wings of a bat, a pale complexion, a terrifying screech, and a long black cloak that completely concealed her hideous body. From the sound of it, the farmer was lucky to be alive after his encounter! It seems that, on that particular night, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn had only come to warn the people of an approaching death. Needless to say, they got lucky.

The next recorded instance of an encounter with the Gwrach Y Rhibyn comes from Dr. Bob Curran, from his book Vampires (2005). In the hamlet of Llyn-y-Guelan-Goch, near Llanfor, lived a retired Christian minister by the name of Reverend Elias Pugh. He may not have given services to the good people of Llanfor or even been a local man, but he was well-liked by the people and was said to be both saintly and a man of great faith. He also knew a great deal about witchcraft and how to combat those dark forces. It was even rumored that he had exorcised and banished ghosts from a home at one time. This sat well with the local people, as there was an ancient burial ground close to the village with a very evil reputation. People passing by on the road going past the place’s crumbling walls claimed to have seen ghost lights flying about the outer walls and reported hearing dreadful sounds from beneath the ground. Needless to say, the villagers were deeply afraid of the place, and avoided going anywhere near the accursed cemetery, especially after dark. But they had never had a serious incident associated with the place, until late one night…

On one particular night, an elderly woman by the name of Ann Hughes was walking by the old cemetery. Peering into the darkness, she saw a dark, stooping figure wandering through the weathered gravestones. It appeared to be another old woman like herself, but what on earth would an old lady be doing wandering through a haunted cemetery at this hour? The figure was moving too quickly for her to be certain, and then it vanished. Although a full moon shown in the sky, she couldn’t see anything else, so she simply shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

Before too long, Ann began feeling that something was following her. Although crippled by arthritic pains, the thing seemed content to walk at the poor old woman’s pace. She made a pained effort to hurry along, not daring to look around out of fear of what might be there. In a short time, a crossroads appeared, and the thing behind her began moving faster. Ann glanced behind her, only to see a bluish-white flame the size of a man rushing towards her! The flame suddenly began to change, condensing itself into the form of an old lady, which “looked like a Hag in an old green cloak, down the front of which were dribbles of red—perhaps of blood!” Mrs. Hughes tried to fight the hideous thing off, but it was too powerful! Ann eventually passed out and fell down on the road.

When Mrs. Hughes awoke, she found herself lying on the road, all alone. Feeling a pain on her wrist, she was horrified to find a small, bleeding puncture wound. She knew that this was where the monster had drank of her blood. Carefully picking herself up, Ann quickly made her way home and bolted the door shut behind her. For much of the night, Ann “thought that she heard the Gwrach Y Rhibyn (for such she supposed it to be) moving and scraping about outside her house, trying to get in.” When dawn finally came, Mrs. Hughes believed that it was finally over. It wouldn’t be long before she would find out how wrong she was…

Over the next two months, a number of people became sick, and many of them died. Meanwhile, the hideous hag-creature was seen multiple times within the confines of the crumbling graveyard. Knowing what the creature was, they all agreed that something had to be done. So, a group of the villagers (which included Ann Hughes) went to see the Reverend Elias Pugh, and they asked him if he could do something about the hag’s visitations. Pugh listened to the people, all the while taking his flock’s concerns with all due seriousness. The Reverend knew “that the cemetery held some people of somewhat dubious repute,” and believed that the people buried there may have indeed been what had brought the hag into the area to begin with. But the man also knew that once she had tasted a community’s blood, it would be very difficult to drive the Gwrach Y Rhibyn away for good. Elias Pugh was a man of the cloth, and thus wasn’t a violent man. But he was convinced that the only way to rid the community of the hag’s presence was through the use of physical violence, and thus would have to be quite literally beaten out. He carved a stout, heavy stick for himself to use as a weapon, and made his way to the cemetery.

Night had fallen, and the moon was full and bright when the Reverend reached the burial ground. For an instant, Pugh saw a sphere of light weaving and bobbing through the old headstones, just beyond the ruined wall. As he drew closer, he saw a figure crouching down in the darkness. The figure was wearing a tattered green gown, “from which a pale light—the glow of putrescence—flickered.” Gripping his cudgel tighter, the Reverend moved closer. Suddenly, the figure turned into a ball of light and darted towards him! When the light reached Pugh, it assumed a humanlike shape and knocked him to the ground. The priest lashed out with his staff, and it hit something solid. The thing sounded hollow, “as if he had struck an empty drum.” The blow had knocked the creature back, but then it jumped at him again! Pugh looked up, and he saw “a greasy green head-covering and, below it, almost solid darkness. The thing had no face!” He also saw that upon the front of the creature’s clothing were a number of reddish-brown streaks. Those streaks couldn’t have been anything but dried blood that the monster had stolen from the villagers! At that moment, the Reverend Pugh realized that this demonic creature was none other than the notorious Gwrach Y Rhibyn, and Elias knew that he was going to die unless he did something immediately!

In an instant, Pugh knew what to do. “In the Name of God, leave me be!” the Reverend shouted. The weight on his chest disappeared, and the creature retreated. The Reverend Pugh knew at that moment that it was his faith that had saved him from certain death. But he needed to get back home, and hurriedly made his way back to the house. Once home, the Reverend immediately began making preparations for his next battle with the hag. Elias started by cutting himself another heavy stick, but this time he carved a small cross into the head of the cudgel. With the moon still full, he once again journeyed to the cemetery the very next night.

Sure enough, Pugh saw the orb of light flying around the ancient headstones. He began moving towards the low wall, and the light once again approached him. The light slowly took on the form of the hideous old hag, and she shot out her long, black tongue at the priest. Raising his staff, Pugh dealt the disgusting appendage a hard blow, and the hag quickly retracted her tongue. But she still kept advancing on him, and each time he struck her, she got back up and kept coming. The hag stood up and towered over him, and she opened her mouth wider than any human being should be capable of doing. The Reverend had had enough. Grasping his cudgel with both hands, Pugh struck the hag so hard that it sent her reeling to the ground! Pugh started walking towards her, and suddenly the Gwrach Y Rhibyn “turned into a ball of light, almost as big as a man, and shot off across the nightbound country. It wasn’t seen in that area again” (Curran 112-115).

As was hopefully made clear in the tale told above, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is extremely dangerous, but she is not without her respective weaknesses. Uttering the Name of God will stop any attack in its tracks, and it would be logical to believe that a handheld holy icon (like a crucifix, a cross, or a rosary) might have the same effect. A heavy hardwood staff with a cross carved into it (or a steel ferrule with the cross engraved into it) has great power over the Hag, as seen in the previous tale. Dr. Curran notes another connection to witches in that “in Ireland, a staff with a similar carving was sometimes used in order to beat local witches. The same may have been true in Scotland” (Curran 115). Most faeries and their kin (with the exceptions of redcaps, dwarves, and possibly mining spirits) abhor iron in all of its forms (blades, horseshoes, nails, scissors, et cetera), and many faeries can be harmed or even slain by iron. The Gwrach Y Rhibyn is considered at the very least to be related to faeries by most folklorists, if not a faerie in her own right. It stands to reason that this hag would be affected by the metal in the same way. Salt may also work to keep her at bay, and so a handful of rock salt or iodide-free table salt may be carried in a small bag or a plastic tube as a charm against her attentions.

While it seems that the Gwrach Y Rhibyn can be driven off with a combination of physical force and faith, little is known regarding how to kill the evil hag. Iron is detrimental to many supernatural beings, especially if it is relatively pure and cold-forged. An iron blade thrust through the heart may be advisable for this. Decapitating any supernatural creature after first incapacitating it is always a good bet, as is dismembering the body. And, of course, one must always be sure to burn the body and scatter the ashes afterwards. Without this crucial final step, one risks the Gwrach Y Rhibyn returning to life and seeking bloody revenge on her would-be killers.

Today, the Gwrach Y Rhibyn is still widely and very much feared, but only because her appearance foretells of coming death. The Welsh seem to have removed the vampiric element from their folk traditions, and now the Hag of the Dribble merely attaches herself to old Welsh families, where her appearance foretells of someone’s imminent demise, or hearing her terrible keening wail is a sign of misfortune or death to come (Curran 115). In essence, she has become the Banshee of Wales. But a few of the older Welshmen and women remember the old stories, and they are wary of any mysterious old woman. Just because the latest generation of the Welsh has turned the Gwrach Y Rhibyn into a harbinger of impending death doesn’t mean that the hag has lost her taste for blood. Even now, she may be lurking around a dark road, waiting for her next meal to pass by. Dr. Curran once recorded an old Celtic saying, which was perhaps a warning against such creatures: “Always avoid old women, for they have great power about them.”

Acknowledgements

I would like to take this opportunity to give my sincerest thanks to Dr. Bob Curran, who allowed me to use his fantastic book Vampires (2005) for this entry, as much of the information that you’ve been reading here comes from his book. I would also like to sincerely thank Andy Paciorek, who allowed me to use his excellent book Strange Lands (2010) as a resource for this entry. Bob and Andy, you’re both fantastic friends, and I couldn’t ask for more than that in this world. I hope that this study on the Welsh Hag does both of you proud!

Sources

Bane, Theresa. Actual Factual Dracula: A Compendium of Vampires. Randleman, NC: NeDeo Press, 2007.

Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.

Curran, Dr. Bob. Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Stalk the Night. Franklin Lakes, New Jersey: New Page Books, 2005.

Franklin, Anna. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies. London, England: Anova Books Company Ltd, 2004.

Nicholas, Alvin. Supernatural Wales. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2013.

O’Donnell, Elliot. The Banshee. 1907. Fairford, Gloucestershire: The Echo Library, 2012.

Paciorek, Andrew L. Strange Lands: A Field-Guide to the Celtic Otherworld. United Kingdom: Blurb Inc., 2010.