Fairy Witches #3: Meilyr of Wales April 12, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
The third in our series of fairy-witches is a certain Meilyr, who died at Usk Castle in 1174. True, in the account that follows, taken from that old cobbler-merchant Gerald of Wales, no fairies are mentioned and no maleficium (the normal defining feature of a witch). But there is something in Meilyr’s relations with the spirits that recalls fairy accounts, Welsh and otherwise; and as to being a witch isn’t that, like terrorism, just a matter of perspective? The man did some things that could easily have got him hung, c. 1600.
It is worth relating that in our days there lived in the neighbourhood of this City of the Legions (Caerleon), a certain Welshman [Meilyr] who could explain the occult and foretell the future. He acquired his skill in the following way. One evening, and , to be precise, it was Palm Sunday, he happened to meet a girl whom he had loved for a long time. She was very beautiful, the spot was an attractive one, and it seemed too good an opportunity to be missed. He was enjoying himself in her arms and tasting the delights, when suddenly, instead of the beautiful girl, he found in his embrace a hairy creature, rough and shaggy, and, indeed, repulsive beyond words. As he stared at the monster his wits deserted him and he became quite mad. He remained in this condition for many years.
Meilyr was cured in a monastery of which more anon, but first a couple of thoughts. Who was the monster? Was the girl always the monster, a kind of werewolf or some such? Or had Meilyr been tricked by a spirit who had changed its shape into that of the beloved? The madness that followed is a common motif of wisdom in the Brittonic world: Merlin, Suibne… And making love with an ugly woman (who usually though becomes beautiful) is a theme of Irish and perhaps Celtic sovereignty.
Eventually he recovered his health in the church of St David’s, thanks to the virtues of the saintly men of that place. All the same, he retained a very close and most remarkable familiarity with unclean spirits, being able to see them, recognizing them, talking to them and calling them each by his own name, so that with their help he could often prophesy the future.
Gerald goes on to say that the further in time and space from Meilyr the more likely his prophecies were to be wrong. Something that could be said about the best of us! What follows might be a reference to the wild hunt: not that that has much resonance in Wales…
[The spirits] would appear in the form of huntsmen, with horns hanging round their necks, but it was human souls which they were pursuing, not animals or wild beasts. He saw them most often and in greatest numbers outside monasteries and houses of religion. Wherever man is in revolt, there they deploy their full battalions, there they need their greatest strength. Whenever anyone told a lie in his presence, Meilyr, was immediately aware of it, for he saw a demon dancing and exulting on the liar’s tongue. Although he was completely illiterate, if he looked at a book which was incorrect, which contained some false statement, or which aimed at deceiving the reader, he immediately put his finger on the offending passage. If you asked him how he knew this, he said that a devil first pointed out the place with its finger.
Gerald gives a number of examples of Meilyr’s prophetic ability and mentions another demon hunting. Then comes this.
About this time an incubus frequented Nether Gwent. There he was in the habit of making love to a certain young woman. He often visited the place where she lived, and in his conversations with the local inhabitants [what???] he revealed many secret matters and events which had not yet occurred. Meilyr was questioned about this and he said that he knew the incubus well. He even said what his name was. He maintained that whenever war was imminent, or some great upset in a country, these incubuses were in the bait of visiting human beings.
Finally, Gerald himself gives some interesting thoughts on the nature of demonic power, which recall early modern discussions of the same and even some patristic writing on the mind’s eye.
It seems most odd to me, among all the other remarkable circumstances, that Meilyr was able to see these demons clearly with the eyes in his head. Spirits cannot be seen with our physical eyes, unless they themselves assume corporal substance. Given that they had assumed such corporal substance, and thus made themselves visible, how was it that they could not be seen by other individuals who were assuredly present and were standing quite near? Possibly they could be seen only by some supernatural sort of physical vision…
Any other fairy witches? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com