‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

6 thoughts on “‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

  1. >The type of tree is not described, but it would not surprise us to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).

    “…but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree…”

    Good post, despite the slight oversight 🙂


    1. Aspasia

      Doh! Time for an edit!

      I knew I’d seen sycamore somewhere! It’s a lone mention of the species, oddly: I’ve never seen it having fairy connections before, unlike oak, ash, elder, rowan and hawthorn.


  2. Another insightful post and really interesting.

    I did a quick Google on associations with the Sycamore Tree because I too am unfamiliar with any fairy connections. The first thing I discovered is that Sycamore Trees were not native to Ireland, being introduced around the Sixteenth Century. This might account for a dearth of stories in Fairy Lore. On the positive side, not being much of an arborist, I had to look it up for confirmation – the seeds of this tree look like a pair of wings and ‘helicopter down’ when they fall to earth. I suspect this feature might have proved an added attraction to both the Fae and those interested in the Fae.

    I want to share with you three events which, as God is my witness, I am relating exactly as they happened and as best as I can recollect – for they happened a few decades ago. That ‘time’ thing, you see.

    Within ‘their field’, there was a particular spot I used to fish a lot – daytime and night time. You might reasonably say that these events were concentrated in that area because that was where I was concentrating my attentions. And, yes, that is true. But, if I was to say that the swim was bounded on each side by a huge Hawthorn ‘Fairy Bush’, you might see why I feel that that was significant, especially when so much happened to me in this area, only a few of which I have space to relate here …

    In the picture of Rhiannon, we find a barn owl being depicted. Owls have a long association with all things spiritual. Quite often, from my ‘perch’ between the two bushes, I would see the white form of a barn owl flying along quartering the ground at dusk looking for prey. One summer’s night, long ago, I was sat in my low-slung camping chair, hiding behind the bankside reeds as much as possible with my rod just poking through. It was night time and I was wearing a head torch which may have added to the confusion – though I suspect not. I was sitting very still in my hiding place holding a freshly-poured-steaming-hot cup of coffee ready to enjoy its reviving warmth. The sky was clear, and the stars were out. I felt the unaccountable urge to look skywards and take in the majesty of the heavens. As I did so, instead of beholding the stars sitting in the firmament, I beheld the silent white out-stretched wings of what I took to be an owl about to swoop down on me. Instinctively, I ducked my head down violently thus ensuring that my eagerly-anticipated cup of coffee went all over my hands scalding them in the process.

    I was immediately clear on one thing – although it might have looked to be a ‘natural event’, it most definitely was not. Whether the owl was real and under the control of the Fae, or was a shape shifting Fae, I couldn’t say. I just knew that they were ‘having some sport’ with me. After all, I was very much in their domain …

    Some time after this, I think, I was in the same location, this time in the day time. I ‘happened’ to glance at the base of the hawthorn bush to my right. As I did so, I caught sight of the unmistakeable form of a tiny winged creature moving along the ground at incredible speed before vanishing. At the time, it was the first time I had seen one ‘going about its business’. I had had them land on my leg at night whilst remaining invisible, and would have to say that the weight I had felt tallied with the diminutive creature I saw that day. I believed then, as I believe now, that I was directed to see this entity because the Fae jealously guard who is allowed to see them.

    Lastly, and perhaps after both of the previous occurrences, the following happened, still in the same location. Although it was a big surprise at the time (they certainly do like their surprises …!), in some ways, it was almost no surprise as it seemed like almost anything could be possible there …!

    Again, I was sat fishing between the two hawthorn bushes, and again, it was day time. Suddenly, I could hear this loud rustling sound coming from inside the hawthorn bush on my right. It was not in the leas bit furtive like you might expect from the likes of a rat., for example. What’s more, it seemed to be getting louder as it approached. By now, I was curious to see what creature it might be. I sat very still, fixing my eyes on the spot where I expected it to emerge. What did emerge was something totally unexpected, something I have never seen since in any location, not even there. Out popped the black and white markings of the head of a ferret or polecat! We seemed to look at each other for a second or two before it disappeared back whence it had come. As I have said, this was such a rarity and so unusual, I was convinced it was no normal occurrence, especially in the context of the other things that had happened there. I still think that. They wished to surprise me, and they did!

    Going back to the subject of birds and their possible Fae associations, you might find the following instances interesting, the first of which is rooted in the supernatural, the second, not so much.

    The first time it happened to me, I was sitting in my mothers sitting room looking out at her garden and the golf course beyond. It was growing dark outside. The ceiling is unusually high with small top windows sitting above the main windows. From the topmost windows, it seemed like this large black formless bird swooped down towards me before disappearing. I tried to dismiss it as a trick of the light whilst also marking it down as a portent of ill omen. I don’t remember the details, other than to say that, yes, something untoward did befall a member of my family. Coincidence, is what I attributed it to. some years later, this time fishing at night opposite ‘their field’, which I had not visited in a long time, the same thing happened again, the same black vision of a bird swooping down, the same expectation of something untoward, and the resulting portended event being unfortunate, to say the least …

    The second instance is much more charming and drawn from my recent fishing trip to a local lake. I had fished this particular swim a number of times last summer, staying out all night as is my custom. It is fair to say that on some of those trips, they had shown themselves capable of much mischief, not necessarily because it is a particular locus of theirs (like ‘their field’ is), but more because I was there and they were in the mood to play …

    On this occasion, it was early morning, and as I was setting up my two rods, I became aware of the constant whirring of wings of a bird going from one side of the swim to the other and back. Eventually, I settled in my chair and payed closer attention. It turned out to be a rather plump robin with some of its fledging down still visible. It alighted on one of my rods, cocked its head, and fixed me with its beady eye. I knew what it wanted. As soon as my hand reached for the maggots, it flew to the bush on the left disappearing from view. As soon as a few maggots had been sprinkled on the dry earth, it was back using the handle of my landing net as a temporary perch from which to launch repeated assaults on the hapless maggots. Later, a slimmer, adult robin also joined in. They kept this up throughout the day and the following morning.

    Clearly, as I had experienced robins demanding to be fed by visiting anglers on two separate occasions – once on this lake, once on its neighbour – I had every reason to think of it as a perfectly natural event. Oh, in case you are wondering, it had to be maggots as bread was completely ignored …

    So, I didn’t go out of my way to consider it as a fairy-inspired occurrence when there seemed to be a perfectly viable alternative explanation, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to part of me wondering whether they were not behind this charming scene, especially when it had not happened there before but so much else had previously …



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