Posted Under Paganism & Witchcraft

An Introduction to Welsh Witchcraft

Druid Burial Mound in Wales

Growing up in a rural part of Wales, speaking Welsh as my first language, I was always acutely aware of the magic woven into my culture. It was no surprise to my mother, or frankly anyone who knew me growing up, when I became deeply obsessed with Witchcraft as a pre-teen. I had, after all, spent my childhood obsessed with mythology, fairy tales, and magic. My favourite tales in my youth were the tales of my land. Tales of fairy maidens living in lakes, of giants crossing the Irish sea, and of wizards discovering dragons under the Earth. The magic of my landscape inspired me daily, and yet when I turned to Witchcraft and magic, I seemingly forgot all of that. As I began exploring Witchcraft and magic, my path was more so inspired by books on Wicca, or new age spirituality. It was not until I was sixteen years old, sitting in a Druid's home listening to him speaking about our country's charming traditions and practises, that I finally began incorporating the wisdom of Welsh legend and lore into my magical and spiritual practise.

Finding information on the magical traditions and practises of Wales is no easy feat. Despite there being countless books, blogs, articles and even videos on the topic of Celtic spirituality and magic, rarely do you hear much beyond a passing mention of Wales. Frustrated at this very fact, I decided to embark on a journey incorporating the very essence of Welsh magic into my practise. Here in this article, I will share some of the key elements that make up my practise today, a practise rooted in the landscape I was born and informed by the traditions of folklore, magic, and myth native to it.

Where does one start when embarking upon a journey into discovering a magical practise informed and inspired by the magic of Wales?

The Mythology of Wales
The first thing I believe one should familiarise oneself with when embarking upon a journey to become acquainted with the magic of Wales is to dive deep into the ancient myths and legends of this landscape. Most of the myths and legends of Wales stem from medieval literature, such as the Mabinogi. Though these legends were compiled in written format in the 12th to the 13th centuries, they derive from older oral traditions of storytelling. The Mabinogi (pronounced Mah-Bee-Nogg-ee) is a collection of various legends separated into four branches. The legends themselves speak of otherworldly kings, giants, wizards and magic.

Growing up in a Welsh schooling system, we studied the Mabinogi from a very young age. We took part in art projects surrounding some of the tales, watched theatrical retellings of them, and even went on school trips to places of significance regarding some of the legends. The legends of the Mabinogi are captivating, and it seems the more you read and study them, the more secrets you notice woven into them. Tales such as Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed's descent into the otherworld, or of Branwen's story filled with abuse and heartache, are seared onto my mind from the numerous times we went over them in school. Yet, despite having studied many of these legends to death, I am still surprised by them whenever I read them again.

Those with an interest in Celtic mythology, Paganism, or modern Witchcraft might meet some familiar faces within the pages of the Mabinogi. It is within these tales we are introduced to characters such as Rhiannon, Gwyn ap Nudd, and Arianrhod, all of which are revered and worshipped as deities by many modern day Pagans. It is within the pages of the Mabinogi one would seek out the source material surrounding these enigmatic entities.

Beyond the Mabinogi there is also an abundance of Welsh poetry and prose to look to. The story1; of Taliesin’s birth recounts the legend of Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess of inspiration, a practitioner of the magical arts whose cauldron bubbles with the very spirit of Awen divine inspiration. The Kat Godeu, or the battle of the trees, recites a tale of a wizard summoning an army of trees and provides us a glimpse into the virtues and qualities of native Welsh trees.

There is no better place to start when seeking Welsh magic, than in the myths, legends, prose and poetry of this land. I personally recommend that those who wish to learn more of the magic of Wales get their hands on a copy of the Mabinogi and immerse themselves in the legends themselves. Mythology can inspire and inform our magical practise in profound ways.

Welsh Folklore and Fairy Tales
Beyond the vast amount of ancient literature and mythology within the Welsh continuum, Wales also has a rather enchanting folkloric landscape. Welsh folklore is filled to the brim with fairies, fantastical creatures, terrifying entities, and cunning magical practitioners.

In comparison to mythology, folklore is often overlooked or simply seen as whimsical stories, but the truth is the magical practitioner can gain a wealth of wisdom and inspiration from folklore. The teacher and folklorist W. Jenkyn Thomas recorded numerous Welsh folk tales during his life in the late 19th to the early 20th century, and in these tales recorded various aspects of magical lore. For example, in the book More Welsh Folk Tales, published in 1957, not only does Thomas record various stories about the virtues and magical properties of certain sacred wells in Wales, but also records tales surrounding fairies, conjurers, and even the Welsh version of familiar spirits. In a chapter dedicated to familiar spirits, he describes how some magicians and conjurers employed familiar spirits to work with them, and often kept these spirits in physical objects such as books.

There seems to be an abundance of Welsh folk tales that cover a wide array of magical practises, from examples of how to deal with fairies, to an explanation of how traditional Welsh herbalism was passed down to the Welsh from a fairy (in the legend of Llyn y Fan Fach and the physicians of Myddfai).

The works of W. Jenkyn Thomas, Elias Owen, and Wirt Sikes, to name a few should, certainly be on the bookshelves of any seeker of Welsh magical lore. These tales are more than just whimsical bedtime stories, if you know how to look at them with the eye of a seeker.

Welsh Folk Magic
As I progressed in developing a magical and spiritual practise that was rooted in my land, I began wondering what magical traditions stemmed from my locale. I grew up hearing folk tales about Witches or listening to local lore about healing wells and sacred lakes, and so when I began exploring Witchcraft and learnt about various forms of folk magical practises from across the world my first question was, "What does Welsh folk magic look like?"

To no surprise, I learnt that there was a rather strong history of folk magical practises rooted to many parts of Wales. I began digging up old Welsh books written by folklorists, priests, and historians, which outlined various quirky traditions, superstitions, and beliefs found across the country. I learnt that my ancestors believed that dipping a bundle of pine into freshly collected spring water and splashing it onto your face and body on New Year's Day was a cleansing and blessing custom. There was a collection of practises in Wales called Rhamanta, which were forms of divination that focused on love and relationships, some of which were rituals to summon an apparition of your future spouse. Black cats were considered bewitched animals, and if a family took in a black cat and took care of it well, it would keep all disease and sickness away. The prickly furze and the rowan tree were considered protective plants that would keep away trickster fairies and malevolent spirits. Beliefs such as these are found throughout Welsh history, deviating slightly from region to region, amplifying each region's individualistic approach to folk magic and superstition.

Historically speaking, Wales was left virtually untouched by the Witch hysteria that ravaged England and most of Europe. At a time when our neighbours the English were persecuting numerous innocent people under the guise of dealing with "Witches," the Welsh did not succumb to the hysteria. Witch trials did happen in Wales, but very rarely and usually in areas that were highly anglicised or influenced by England in some way. There were more Witch trials per county in England than there were in the entirety of Wales as a country, and in those few trials only five people were ever executed in Wales over a period of almost two hundred years.

There are numerous theories as to why the Welsh did not succumb to the fear of Witches in the same volume as neighbouring countries, from the ideas that the Welsh people of the early modern period were more concerned about thieves or even fairies to care much about Witches, to a theory that the Welsh refused to allow England to tell them what to do.

In Wales during the period of the Witch trials, we did not even have a native term to describe Witches—during the rare trials the courts referred to the accused as Wits or Witshes when conversing in the Welsh language, and obvious borrowing of the English Witch. In modern Welsh, the most common word used to describe a Witch is Gwrach, but this term is more aligned with the fairy tale archetype of the hag, or a folkloric ogre, and so was not utilised in formal court spaces.

The lack in a native term for a Witch, however, does not mean that the Welsh did not have a native term to describe those who were learned practitioners of the magical arts. In fact, the Welsh language has an abundance of terms to describe magical specialists, those who made a career out of aiding the community with their magical expertise: Dewin, Consuriwr, Dyn Hysbys, Gwiddan, Rheibies, Swyngyfareddwyr, Planedydd, Daroganwr…These are just a handful of terms that were used to describe those who were skilled in the magical arts of conjuration, divination, blessing, cursing, and curing.

The term I use to describe myself is Swynwraig. The Welsh word Swyn means spell, charm, or incantation, and wraig comes from gwraig, meaning "woman" or "wife." The direct translation of Swynwraig is “charm lady”, “spell wife” or “woman who practises incantations”. A Swynwraig was a charmer, healer, and diviner in the community; she used her skills and knowledge of healing herbs, divinatory techniques, and charms or incantations to aid the community in numerous ways. The Swynwraig could help you heal from illness, heal your animals, protect your home, find lost objects, divine the future, or simply give you advice. The male equivalent of the Swynwraig would be a Swynwr and a gender-neutral equivalent would be Swynydd.

Those who carried out these magical specialisms practised an art known as Swyngyfaredd, which many Welsh dictionaries define as magic, sorcery, the art of incantations and spells, and sometimes even Witchcraft. In rural Wales throughout history, magic was part of everyday life, and the magical specialists were sometimes feared but mostly revered as useful contributors to the community.

Wales has an abundance of folk magic a modern day practitioner of the magical arts could glean inspiration from. Many of these folk magical traditions and beliefs are echoed in books on folklore, or recorded in history books today. Though it is unlikely the folk magical specialists and practitioners of the past would have referred to themselves as Witches, those who don the label of Witch today can easily relate to these old practises and incorporate them into their magical modern ways.

Welsh Witchcraft
A Witchcraft that is rooted in the very essence of the Welsh landscape, in my opinion, incorporates all of these elements that are the foundations of the Welsh magical continuum. As a modern day Swynwraig, a Welsh folk Witch, I study the old myths and legends of the land and devote myself to the Gods and spirits of this place. I am consistently looking to folklore for inspiration and wisdom, and I am informed and inspired also by the continuum of magical arts that were practised in this land by those who served their community and devoted much of their life to studying that which most folk would find unthinkable.

Welsh Witchcraft in the way I practise it is rooted in the land, informed by our rich magical lore, and takes inspiration from the enchantment found in our tallest mountains, our deepest lakes, our sacred groves and ancient sites.

A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, by Richard Suggett, 2008
Byd y Dyn Hysbys, by Kate Bosse Griffiths, 1977
Coelion Cymru, by Evan Isaac, 1938
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present, 2018
Welsh Folk-Lore, by Elias Owen, 1887
Y Mabinogi/The Mabinogion (Many translations of these legends are available now, my personal favourite in English being the Sioned Davies translation)

About Mhara Starling

Mhara Starling (Chester, England) was born in North Wales, raised on the Isle of Anglesey, and is a native Welsh speaker. She is a transgender woman who has been practicing witchcraft from a very young age, and her ...

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