Last evening was one of those evenings, with nothing on tv, and I’d finished part of reading a book and come to a natural juncture in it, that I found myself at a loose end. What to do? So I reached for one of my grandmother’s old journals. Like me, she journalled a lot, and this particular old and dusty journal of hers was probably one of a few that I had never really read in depth.
Placing in on the small table in front of the armchair, it fell open, roughly midway, and there was the story about the Gwyber. My grandmother was a prolific story-teller, and used to tell me and my brother amazing stories about some of the forgotten creatures of Wales. Interestingly, there was always a moral attached to the tale. Isn’t that they way with ancient story and myth?
And, so I began to read another of her stories about this area of Wales, a place of myth and ‘magic, a place of ancient Christians meeting in the woods (for safety), of Druids, Pagans, of Cunning folk, and mythical creatures such as the Gwyber.
Ah, the Gwyber. When reading it, I bore in mind those stories from ancient times. stories about: Angels singing at the dawn of creation; Jonah and the sea creature, the sun standing still, George and the dragon, the ‘Dyfed triangle’ – the latter being very current. Did they really happen? What meaning, morals or wisdom do they impart to us today? And so, in that light, I read on:
My Grandmother wrote: Now, the Gwyber (sometimes spelled ‘Gwiber’) is a most dangerous creature that you would not want to encounter, but if, by happenstance you did come across one, you should slowly back off, never losing eye-contact.
Gwyber is Welsh for viper or adder, and though those are small snakes, the Gwyber is more. It can travel on land or in water, and it can move silently. It eats fish, and when it is really hungry it will slither onto dry land or swoop down from the sky and devour small sheep and other animals.
Actually, although many believe the Gwyber resembles a dragon (and dragons are wonderful and beautiful creatures), the Gwyber is really a much-scaled, scarred wyvern, and some have feathered wings. [If you want to know the difference(s) between a dragon and a wyvern, see my article here]. Now, the Gwyber is really a cross between a long snake and a wyvern, and it stands about 7 feet tall (2 meters), is green or grey in colour, and is easily camouflaged, virtually unseen. Some say they can actually become invisible.
Oh, and you should know, they have long teeth; long, long fangs which drip poisonous venom and which can kill. It can spit that venom, too.
There is a story, that a long time ago local residents of Penmachno [just ten miles south-west from where I live a Capel Curig], the villagers and farmer were being harassed by the Gwyber, a most monstrous beast who devoured the villagers livestock, and so they offered a large sum of money to anyone who could kill the foul beast.
Up stood a young man by the name of Owen Ap Gruffydd. Owen, who lived nearby but in the mountains did his research and visited a local wise man called Rhys Ddewin who told him that his chances of defeating the Gwyber were non-existent, and that he would receive a fatal bite from the creature. Owen left, depressed and greatly worried.
The following day, Own visited Rhys Ddewin for advice, again, but this time Owen was dressed as a vagrant. He told the wise man of his plan, and Rhys Ddewin , again told him, that he would lose the battle, fall, and suffer a broken neck. Owen left, even more depressed, and even more worried.
The day after that, Owen went back to the wise man, enquired about his chances of killing the creature. Owen was dressed, now, like a miller. Rhys Ddewin, freely gave him advice about the Gwyber, and concluded that the young miller would die by drowning.
Owen could bear it no more, and pulled of his miller-worker’s disguise, and became angry with Rhys Ddewin. ‘Three times I’ve visited you, Rhys Ddewin, and each time you’ve given me a different prediction regarding my own demise’, Owen shouted.
Rhys Ddewin just smiled sadly and said, ‘We will see. Time will tell’.
Owen was a young man, fearless, and maybe a wee bit stubborn, and he ran out of Rhys Ddewin’s cottage at Penmachno, and set off down the alley in search of the Gwyber, to kill it.
The valley was steep, indeed, and as Owen was striding across some rocks, the Gwyber struck, swooping down from the sky, flapping its tremendous wings. Without warning, the Gwyber bit poor Own on the neck. Owen fought back bravely, and lashed out wildly with his sword. So wildly that Owen slipped on the rocks. He fell awkwardly, with such a force that he hit his head and he heard the most gruesome snap – like a branch breaking, as his neck broke. Owen rolled on those slippery rocks, and fell into the deep, fast-slowing river at the foot of the valley, and drowned.
When Owen’s lifeless body was discovered by his friends, they set off to kill the Gwyber. After several hours of searching, they found the Gwyber on the bank of the river, wounded, bloodied, exhausted, half-dead thanks to Owen’s battle with it, but not quite dead. With a blood-curdling scream the Gwyber lunged at them. They each let loose a hail of arrows, and the creature fell backwards, plunged into the river and was never, ever seen again.
The people of Penmachno were pleased that Owen and his friends, by working together, had killed the creature, but were saddened that the good fight had had an enormous cost to dear Owen.
Even to this day the people of Penmachno, it is said, rarely venture into the nearby national park at dusk – Gwydir national park – alone, for fear of encountering the Gwyber. Ah, the Gwyber! Ah, in Gwydir!