One element that recurs throughout Welsh Gothic fiction is … the death omen. Whether it’s a raven being shot and showering the bride-to-be in blood as it plummets down a well (‘The Prediction‘, 1827), or a cow biting off its own teats on a failing farm (Martha, Jac a Sianco, 2004, I kid you not), if someone’s going to die, you’ll know about it.
I’ve played with death omens, especially birds behaving badly, in The Crows – due to be released 4 January 2020. If you like Gothic creepiness, New Weird overtones and paranormal towns where your fate is set in stone, check it out! Now available for pre-order from Kerri Davidson’s Shop, Smashwords (20% available free), Amazon and all Books2Read outlets.
Yet the death omen isn’t given a specific chapter in Aaron’s book. In the second part of Welsh Gothic, Jane Aaron instead looks at select figures that reappear throughout the genre. She only mentions four of them: the Witch, the Druid, the Hounds of Annwn, and the Sin-Eater. She skirts over other elements, like the death omens of Wales, which include corpse-candles and phantom funerals, but these are not dealt with in this section of her book except where they are tied to the four figures under primary discussion. I can fully appreciate why: the book is ambitious enough in its scope without covering absolutely everything, and there’s another monograph and a PhD’s worth of stuff (at least) left to discuss.
To fill this gap very briefly and contextualise the paragraph where she does list some of these elements, I’m starting this next series of posts by looking at death omen folklore, then I’ll get into what Aaron says about the Big Four, and the chapters she dedicates to these.
Canwyll Corff / Corpse-Candles
The origin for corpse-candles is said to be from the fifth century, as a result of the prayers of St David. St David wanted no Welshman to be unprepared for the day of their death, so that they could prepare their souls. In a vision he was told that the people of Wales would never be unprepared again, and his intercession would result in the Welsh seeing lighted tapers before them when and where death was expected.
Such superstitions were kept alive in Wales despite the strong grip of Nonconformist Christianity, because, as Revd. Edmund Jones said in his 1813 volume, A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales, if men were deny the existence of spirits, they would then deny the existence of God, who is spirit.
Colliers claimed to see these dim, mysterious lights before disasters; at Llanbradach, before one such disaster, men claimed to have seen corpse candles ‘without number’ hovering around the mouth of the pit. They showed up on the open roads too, warning of accidents and dangers yet to come. They also appeared inside homes, as this story indicates:
In the year 1880 [the storyteller’s] brother, a native of Carmarthenshire and captain of a vessel, was away at sea. When at home, he occupied a small room only suitable for one person. One evening, about six o’clock, a dim light was seen in that room by a cousin from a neighbouring farm. The young man asked : “Is Jack come home?” “No,” was the reply. “Then who is in the room ?” he asked, and the answer was that “nobody had been there with a candle.” The circumstance passed unnoticed, until another member of the family, and an inmate of the house, saw a dim glimmer, “like a rushlight or taper,” through the window. Later still the mother one night, going into the room to pull down the blind, turned to go to the door, and over the bed saw a dim hovering light. She went downstairs in considerable agitation, and exclaimed to the members of her family the hope that nothing had befallen Jack. The mail was eagerly waited for, and in the meantime neighbours saw the dim light in Jack’s room. A few weeks later news reached the family that the captain died at Singapore of fever about the time the corpse-candle appeared in his room.
~ Correspondence from “Mr Price” of the USA, featured in p. 180 of Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales
One example from Ysbyty Ystwyth, recounted by Mary Thomas (1905-1983), tells of her grandfather’s experiences with corpse candle sightings. The translated transcript of the recording is available via the link. Here is an extract:
[INTERVIEWER:] Had your grandfather had any other experiences himself?
[MARY THOMAS:] He’d had many experiences of the corpse candle. My grandmother died when my mother was eight years old, my Uncle David six and Aunty Charlotte a baby, a young girl, twenty-eight years old. She died of the dicâd [tuberculosis], as they called it in those days, [and] there was no cure. And the night before she died he was by her bedside, and he saw a little lighted candle on the bed, and he saw it going out of the house. And then his wife died. And he saw his wife’s corpse candle going out of the house. And she saw it too. She said: ‘Do you see that light going out through the door, Tomos?’ Both she and he saw the light, and she died the next day.
Toili / Phantom Funerals
Phantom funerals were often witnessed on the roads, and in these tales they are also always discerned by the animals of those who see them. Horses in particular are sensitive to the supernatural, and in most accounts they stop first to allow the procession to pass, before their rider or driver sees what they see.
Here is one classic example of the tales, but they could also be funerals warning of the deaths of others, not just of the one who witnessed the scene.
A farmer living in the Vale of Glamorgan had the weird experience of “seeing his own funeral.” He had been to Cowbridge Market, and was returning home just before nightfall, when he saw a procession coming down the lane leading from his own house to the highway. His horse appeared to be witnessing the same scene, for the animal halted at the entrance of the lane to allow the crowd to pass. The farmer gazed spellbound as the mourners approached, because immediately after the coffin came his own wife dressed in the deep mourning of a widow! She was supported by her eldest son. The crowd passed and vanished, and the horse, scared by the scene, rushed up the lane and abruptly halted at the garden gate. Hearing the clatter of the horse’s hoofs, and fearing the animal was riderless, the farmer’s wife and son hastened out, and were thankful to find the husband safe and unhurt. That night the farmer was unusually moody and silent. He could not help thinking of the strange scene he had witnessed. A few weeks later he was seized with a serious illness, from which his family hoped he would soon recover. “I shall never get up again,” he said, and then he related his recent experience. One of the sons who told me this story said everybody present was unspeakably thrilled. Three days later the farmer died.
~Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, p. 185
Deryn Corff / Corpse Bird
The Corpse-bird is described as sounding ‘metallic’ in some versions, or at least melancholy and easily distinguishable from a cuckoo. In some parts of Wales it is said to call in Welsh, “Come! Come!” and has no feathers, but rather fur. Some say it has no wings, or has fin-like flappers like a penguin that help it hop from bough to bough.
A Breconshire family always heard this mysterious bird before a death in the family. It had a doleful chirrup, and was quite unlike any other bird. In size and shape it resembled a robin, but its feathers were of a dull ashen grey, and bedraggled, while its eyes were “like balls of fire,” and remarkably restless. It always appeared “in an old apple-tree” quite close to the house, and sometimes remained for weeks almost motionless. When death took place it disappeared.
~ Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, p. 184.
In 1911, it was the most common death omen according to J. Ceredig Davies, who recounted a Pembrokeshire version of the bird:
An old woman in Pembrokeshire, Miss Griffiths, Henllan, near Eglwyswrw, told me this bird is a little grey one and that it came flapping against her own window before the death of her father, and also before the death of each of her three uncles.
I have met with people in almost every district throughout the country who have heard the flappings of this mysterious bird before a death.
~Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales, Jonathan Ceredig Davies, (Aberystwyth, 1911) p. 207
It is usually grey in colour, and arrives in the early morning to sit outside the window where a death will take place. It chirps all day with few interruptions. In some places, it is only heard, but rarely seen.
These omens also follow the Welsh around the world:
A few years ago a Corpse Bird appeared in Perth, Western Australia, before the death of a Welsh lady in that city; and this reminds me of a strange incident which happened in Patagonia, 30 years ago, when I was there. Two Welsh gentlemen, Mr. Powell, who was known as “Helaeg,” and Mr. Lewis Jones, a friend of the late Sir Love Jones Parry, M.P., were returning to the Welsh Colony, from Buenos Ayres, in a sailing vessel. When the ship came within a few miles of the mouth of the river Chubut, the captain found it necessary to remain in the open sea that day, as the tide was too low to enter the river over the bar just then. Mr. Jones and Mr. Powell, however, left in a small boat manned by Italian sailors; but when they were within a certain distance of the land the sea was very rough, and a certain bird appeared suddenly on the scene. Mr. Powell pointed out the bird to his friend and said, “Do you see that bird, that’s the Bird of Biam! We shall be drowned this very moment.” Just as he spoke, the boat suddenly turned over, and the unfortunate speaker got drowned on the spot. The other men were saved. Mr. Powell, who, unfortunately, got drowned, was a gifted Welsh Roman Catholic gentleman, who knew about twelve languages, and was a friend of the President of the Argentine Republic.
~ Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales, J. Ceredig Davies, p. 207
… You cannot outrun your omens, in the same way that you cannot outrun death.