Ways to Spot the Tylwyth Teg

One of the Welsh coblynau

The faery folk of Wales, the tylwyth teg, seem to have some particular fashions of their own which make them unique. Here are two accounts that typify this.

I have mentioned before the valuable record of folklore to be found in Francis Kilvert’s Diaries. In December 1870 he spoke to David Price who lived near Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. Price was a good parishioner, telling the Reverend Kilvert that faeries were seldom seen any more because people’s minds were on God instead, but he didn’t deny their existence, all the same; indeed, in a memorable phrase, he affirmed that “the faeries travel yet.” As evidence of this, he described a sighting by his own nephew who worked down a colliery in Monmouthshire. He had seen the faes dancing in a field to beautiful sweet music. They had all come over a stile very near to him, so there had been little mistaking what he witnessed. The young man described them as “very yellow in the face- between yellow and red- and dressed almost all in red.” He didn’t like seeing them, and was fully convinced of the reality of what he saw- as indeed was his uncle. The dancers were, the youth recalled, about the size of an eleven year old girl.

Compare this account to that of one Dr. Edward Williams, recorded for 1757. It took place at Bodfari, which is south-east of St Asaph in Denbighshire:

“On a fine summer day (about midsummer) between the hours of 12 at noon and one, my eldest sister and myself, our next neighbour’s children Barbara and Ann Evans, both older than myself, were in a field called Cae Caled near their house, all innocently engaged at play by a hedge under a tree, and not far from the stile next to that house, when one of us observed on the middle of the field a company of—what shall I call them?—beings, neither men, women, nor children, dancing with great briskness. They were full in view less than a hundred yards from us, consisting of about seven or eight couples: we could not well reckon them, owing to the briskness of their motions and the consternation with which we were struck at a sight so unusual. They were all clothed in red, a dress not unlike a military uniform, without hats, but their heads tied with handkerchiefs of a reddish colour, sprigged or spotted with yellow, all uniform in this as in habit, all tied behind with the corners hanging down their backs, and white handkerchiefs in their hands held loose by the corners. They appeared of a size somewhat less than our own, but more like dwarfs than children. On the first discovery we began, with no small dread, to question one another as to what they could be, as there were no soldiers in the country, nor was it the time for May dancers, and as they differed much from all the human beings we had ever seen. Thus alarmed we dropped our play, left our station, and made for the stile. Still keeping our eyes upon them we observed one of their company starting from the rest and making towards us with a running pace. I being the youngest was the last at the stile, and, though struck with an inexpressible panic, saw the grim elf just at my heels, having a full and clear, though terrific view of him, with his ancient, swarthy, and grim complexion. I screamed out exceedingly; my sister also and our companions set up a roar, and the former dragged me with violence over the stile on which, at the instant I was disengaged from it, this warlike Lilliputian leaned and stretched himself after me, but came not over. With palpitating hearts and loud cries we ran towards the house, alarmed the family, and told them our trouble. The men instantly left their dinner, with whom still trembling we went to the place, and made the most solicitous and diligent enquiry in all the neighbourhood, both at that time and after, but never found the least vestige of any circumstance that could contribute to a solution of this remarkable phenomenon. Were any disposed to question the sufficiency of this quadruple evidence, the fact having been uniformly and often attested by each of the parties and various and separate examinations, and call it a childish deception, it would do them no harm to admit that, comparing themselves with the scale of universal existence, beings with which they certainly and others with whom it is possible they may be surrounded every moment, they are but children of a larger size…”

This account is reproduced in Elias Owen’s Welsh Folklore, in Gwynn Jones’ Welsh Folklore & Folk Custom and in Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins. Sikes mistakenly refers to the beings seen as knockers or coblynau– mine faeries- hence the drawing at the head of this post. The text itself doesn’t give such an impression; perhaps Sikes inferred it from the the neckerchiefs tied round their heads- it’s not clear. There seems little reason for not calling them tylwyth teg.

The similarities between the two stories are intriguing and, as far as complexion and clothing go, they confirm what we learn elsewhere. Both Evans Wentz in The Fairy Faith and John Rhys in Celtic Folklore record that red was a particular colour preferred by the tylwyth teg for their clothes- hence the common habit of comparing them to little soldiers, the British redcoats of the time. As for their skin tones- well, on this point matters are somewhat less certain. It’s widely thought that tylwyth teg (the fair family) suggests that the Welsh faes tend to be pale and blond- and there’s certainly evidence to this effect. Nevertheless, as I’ve described before, there’s also material that indicates that a range of rather less healthy or natural skin tones might be encountered- absolute chalk white certainly being amongst them. See my British Fairies and Faery Lifecycle for more on these issues. Suffice to say, orange and crimson skin need not surprise us.

A view over Cae Caled cottage and the surrounding fields. NB: Cae Caled is a holiday cottage for two, if you feel like trying to meet the tylwyth teg yourselves…

5 thoughts on “Ways to Spot the Tylwyth Teg

  1. I think you may write more deeply than you realise. Over the last 25 years I have travelled extensively in South America collecting folklore and tradition. What is interesting are the parallels with beliefs involving spirit figures and entities in other cultures, especially those attired in green and red. This overlaps with shamanistic traditions, and on a symbolic level the colours of vegetation, spring and autumn being reflected. It also echoes some apparitional sightings where witnesses are struck by the colour of clothing and attire.

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    1. Alan

      Thank you for this comment. It’s really fascinating to see how global certain aspects of folk tradition about the supernatural prove to be. I’m sure that the seasonal symbolism of colours is present in British tradition; the unity of experience of witnesses is striking, though.

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  2. Alan, thankyou for a very interesting article, firstly i have family in Bodfari and secondly i am reading again the excellent book ‘The Genesis 6 Conspiracy’ written by Gary Wayne, which i guarantee would interest you as it mentions Celtic and European folklaw, the Tuatha Denaan, Tyleth Teg in great depth.

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  3. Something that just occurred to me reading this is that in most cases the witnesses of fairies seem to immediately recognize that something is not right with them, even though they often simply appear as ordinary humans dancing. Might there be something instinctual in us which causes us to recognize that what we’re seeing is not human?

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    1. Thanks for this- I think you’re quite right. It’s not, to my knowledge, something that anyone has really examined in detail, but if you read enough of the folklore accounts, there’s definitely the impression that people have an indefinable sense that the person they’ve encountered is somehow different. Often, it’s obvious- height, eyes, conduct; sometimes there are hints- such as green clothes; but just as often it is, as you say, just instinct…

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