Real Halloween: Magic, ritual and faith in 18th century Cardiganshire

Researched and written by Jane Blank, author of ‘The Shadow of Nanteos‘ and ‘Nanteos: The Dipping Pool‘, the below was given as a live session with reading from the Nanteos Novel series.

Welcome to the Nanteos novel blog, an exploration of life in Cardiganshire around 1750 that I’ve put together to celebrate the launch of the second Nanteos novel, ‘Nanteos: The Dipping Pool’. I must take you first to a strange world, lived in the open air for much of the year, but lit by reeds set in tallow and meagre peat fires during the long damp winters. Nos Galan Gaeaf ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ is just a game to many of us now, yet, in the 1750s, both the Christian significance and the more ancient pagan festival was so real for many. On All Hallow’s Eve, not only did the people visit the graves of their ancestors to clean and dress the monuments with flowers, but it was also one of many powerful  ysbryd nos or ‘Spirit Nights’ in which divination could be practised, ritual purification and offerings accepted by the fates and the gap between the corporal and the spirit world  seen to merge.  It may seem odd that people who had a genuine belief in Christianity would also take part in the traditional customs from a more pagan time yet, even in my extended family in living memory, it is not unknown for regular chapel goers to seek help from Y Dyn Hysbys to lift bad fortune from the family. Rhywun wedi e’ rhibo fi/ someone’s put a curse on me, is a phrase I’ve actually heard spoken. Back in the Eighteenth century it seems that, though the increasingly powerful Non-Conformists were trying to stamp out these ancient folk practices, the established church appeared to exhibit a patronising, if exasperated, tolerance.

I visited the beautiful Georgian Plas Nanteos as a child and was haunted by stories of the Powell family who lived here between 1730 and 1950; of Y Ladi Wen, the ‘Grey Lady’ who is said to roam the house, especially on the  long first floor landing and the grand stairs. Elizabeth Powell, born Elizabeth Owen, the Grey Lady of Nanteos died young in tragic circumstances and is said to be searching in vain for her lost jewels. She is the main character in the first of the Nanteos novels ‘The Shadow of Nanteos’ published in 2015 and launched in the Grade 1 Rococo Music room at the mansion.  The mansion, now a country house hotel, is internationally renowned for the Nanteos Cup, used by many to heal and thought by some to be the Holy Grail. Having recently been stolen, it is now lodged securely in Aberystwyth at the National Library of Wales where it can be viewed under glass.  Other legends, stories and testimony swirl in and around this atmospheric house: the wheels of a carriage, driven by a headless coachman, can be heard on the gravel; a strange harp sounds from the woods. But you don’t have to go far to come across practices that are far from imaginary! In fact, when my daughter and I stayed here one Halloween,  a walk in the clear, October air took us off the Nanteos estate and onto the remains of an Iron Age hillfort in the woods where people had left animal skulls, feathers and totems between the branches of the stunted oaks that formed a near perfect circle at the summit.

So… what may the people have done at All Hallow’s Eve in 1750? Well, there was a huge class disconnect: the wealthy, like the Powell family who owned Nanteos would have, most likely, only taken part in the Christian elements of the festivities. Largely illiterate, mostly monoglot Welsh people, Y Werin Bobl  were more likely to have been present at the great bonfires on the mountains. Contemporary accounts and the research recorded later in the century by amateur historians describe many rituals, the details of which varied greatly from place to place but which had in common a desire to divine the future – in particular to discover who would live, who would die in the coming year; who would be your future lover or spouse. Nine seemed to be a hugely significant number: you would eat the Stwmp 9 rhyw / 9 parts mash with potatoes, carrots, peas, turnips, parsnips leeks, pepper and salt. A ring was hidden in the mixture and all partook – if you found the ring, you would be the first to be married in the new year. Only the Welsh could celebrate a solemn ritual with a mash of root veg!   You would walk 9 times around the Halloween fire; and this ritual, used to conjure your future spouse, I love. It was recorded by S.R.Meyrick in 1810 and shared by Trefor M. Owen in his classic book, Welsh Folk Customs. ‘ A person leaves the house and walks around it nine times. Holding a glove in his hand he asks Dyma’r faneg, ble mae’r llaw?’/ Here is the glove, but where’s the hand? He then meets the spirit of his sweetheart who stretches forth her hand to obey his call’.  The Mid Cardiganshire version is even more fun and typically earthy for, in this part of the world you walk around your dung heap nine times holding a shoe saying  Dyma’r esgid; ble mae’r troed?  Here’s the shoe, but where’s the foot?’!  

But it wasn’t just divining the future; some of the rituals could even influence and change the future. Some elements of the spirit night festivities would be familiar to us now: apple bobbing and the roasting of apples and nuts; going from house to house with lanterns to beg food and drink. However, in the 18th Century it was likely to be cross-dressing adult men and women who would call at your homestead or cottage to wassail on spirit nights, and they were often called ‘gwrachod’ ‘witches’.  How very different from our modern version: junior school children accompanied by their parents carrying plastic shop bought props and begging sweets. We still know the frisson of walking out into the night, but then the nights were so much darker, the population so much sparser and the stakes, in a rural economy always only one harvest, one milking cow, one saleable rent pig, away from starvation, so much higher. Back then the rituals practised during the year to ensure a good harvest and good health were no game. Spirits of the dead would walk abroad to sit on the stiles at midnight and gather at the crossroads. Sometimes it was the Ladi Wen you would see, or even the Hwch Ddu Gwta – the huge, tailess black sow who roamed the countryside at Calan Gaeaf!

The Nanteos novels are shot through with divination and traditional folk practices. Guilt and grief are treated by a visit to the Cwnjwr, a figure still at work in mid Wales in living memory. The miners in the silver and lead mines of the Cambrian mountains were, as many miners are now, extremely superstitious. They believed quite literally in the tiny miners, the Cnocwyr who could be heard with their spades and picks as they worked their own tunnels underground. But these were no wicked spirits; there are many accounts of them warning of impending danger from flood or roof fall and even such learned figures such as the polymath Lewis Morris seemed to have believed in them.

From the very beginning of the new novel ‘Nanteos: The Dipping Pool’ we are in the middle of the twilight world of folk practice and ritual, in a crowd of people – musicians, farmers, gipsies, out on the mountain at the great bonfires, this time at the May spirit night, Calan Mai.  They are here to burn the herd, to drive them live between the fires, to bring good fortune to the land for the following year.  In this first chapter, set in the dark out on the mountain where they dance, drink and try to look into the future, relationships are made which can never be undone.

Nanteos: The Dipping Pool by Jane Blank is available now (£9.99, Y Lolfa)

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