As a result of my recent work on the Physicians of Myddfai, which coincides with the redevelopment of our Apothecary’s Garden, I have become curious about the significance of legends involving fairies and the role they occupy in the ancient culture of Wales.
It seems to be universally claimed that the Physicians of Myddfai were descended from a fairy that emerged from lake Llyn y Fan Fach, near the village of Myddfai, in north-east Carmarthenshire. While watching his mother’s cattle grazing on the hillsides near Llyn y Fan Fach, a young farmer came across a beautiful girl sitting on the surface of the lake. He is said to have instantly fallen in love with her but, before she would accept his proposal of marriage, he had to successfully complete two tasks: firstly, to produce a perfectly baked loaf of bread and, secondly, to be able to distinguish her from her identical twin sister. When both tasks were satisfactorily completed, the girl agreed to become his wife. However, on the day of their marriage, she warned her husband that if he were to strike her three times, she would return to the fairy kingdom beneath the lake.
The young couple lived happily for many years and produced three sons. The husband took great care never to strike his wife, but with the advent of three seemingly innocuous incidents, a tap on the shoulder while preparing to attend a christening, another tap on the shoulder at a wedding and finally, a touch on the arm at a funeral, all perceived as blows, the wife returned to the lake, taking with her the animals she had brought as dowry.
The grieving husband spent much time gazing into the lake hoping to catch a glimpse of his lost wife. On one occasion she did, indeed, emerge but only for one day, and for the purpose of handing to one of her sons her secret herbal remedies, based on the herbs that proliferated on the nearby mountainsides.
The son’s name was Rhiwallon and together with his own sons, Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion, he founded the celebrated, unbroken, hereditary line of healers known as the Physicians of Myddfai who are said to have practiced from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.
From the distant and relatively rational perspective of the twenty-first century, what are we to make of this story?
First of all, it is certainly not the only one of its kind and there are examples relating to other Welsh lakes with fairy inhabitants, for example Llyn Rhos Ddu in Anglesey, Llyn Eiddwen in Cardiganshire and Llyn Cŵn Llwch in south Powys. Taken together, these and other stories form a substantial heritage of Welsh myths and legends that contribute to defining the ancient culture of a small and often embattled nation. Additionally, the story reflects the belief systems of the time. People did believe in magic as a powerful force in daily life.
For the Physicians of Myddfai the legend may have significance other than medical. Their supposed fairy ancestry would most certainly have enhanced their reputation and prestige and contributed to their historical status. It is highly probable that there have been many respected and eminent healers in Wales but, seemingly, none who can claim an ancestry that originated in a fairy kingdom set in the dark and silent waters of a remote mountain lake. For this reason, their work is lost to us.
The fairy has served the Physicians well … in more ways than one!