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A Christmas story unique to Glamorgan – or is it?

Mallt y nos the Glamorgan Christmas ghost story.
Picture featured: “Mallt-Y-Nos” by Carys Fletcher (used with artist’s permission). See for more information and other works.

As we move closer to Christmas, our ancestors would have urged us to keep one cautious eye on the night sky over Glamorgan. Because it was at this time of year that people in these parts would traditionally catch sight of one of our most famous, and sinister visitors from the underworld; “Mallt-Y-Nos”.

She is described in some texts as a witch, in others as a ghostly apparition but she is quite unique to the counties of South Wales. She filled the hearts of all who saw her with fear, as she was known to strike down and kill those who crossed her path.

She also has quite a back story, believed to be the ghost of Robert Fitzhamon’s beautiful but cruel mistress to whom he gave lands in Glamorgan. She was known to be a great horsewoman who loved nothing more than riding to hounds. On one particularly exhilarating hunt she quipped, ‘If I cannot hunt in heaven then I would rather not go there.’ She kept up the hunting until the day she died, but when she faced St Peter at the gates of heaven, her wicked soul was refused entry. Instead, she was given a pack of spirit hounds (known locally as the ‘cwn annwn’ or ‘demon dog’) to ride with for all eternity, in a terrifying ghostly hunting party that charged across the still, Winter, night skies.

I believe that the legends of Mallt-y-Nos are derived from stories that not only pre-date Fitzhamon and the Norman invasion, but also pre-date Christianity. Most of Glamorgan’s mythical beasts, ghosts and witches do. But in her case, it looks like some inspiration also came from overseas.

As you know, I study a lot of folklore and mythology, from all over the world, and there is a trend I frequently stumble across which we may have an example of here. Once the Welsh bards had sunk their teeth into a good locally recognisable character for a story, they often would embellish by bringing in much older stories, originally based on other characters, sometimes from other parts of the world and re-employing them locally. In my latest book ‘Historic pubs of Wales’ I expand on this using the example of the stories which led to the naming of ‘the Captains Wife’ in Sully.  We might just have an example of it here, and from an unexpected source.

In Norse mythology there is a legend that on the night of the Winter solstice the god; Odin would lead a team of ferocious gods and ghosts on a rampaging deer hunt through the skies above the towns and villages of Scandinavia. If a mortal encountered the hunting party, there was every possibility they would be slaughtered on the spot. Sound familiar? Incidentally, Odin was also believed to leave gifts for children as he went on this rampage through the skies so not only has this Norse tradition embellished our tradition of Mallt-y-Nos, it also fed into another, more globally familiar mythical character. Someone who also rode through the winter night sky pursuing reindeer and leaving gifts for children. But that is, may be, for another time.

When you start digging around it is surprising how much synergy there is between Celtic and Norse mythology, suggesting that these two cultures were far more aware of one another, possibly through travel, than is generally recognised.

If you are interested in Glamorgan folklore then give my book; Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale a go. It is available to buy on my website, from Amazon and good independent book shops such as the Cowbridge Bookshop, Nickleby’s in Llantwit Major, Bauhaus in Bridgend and Sussed in Porthcawl.

You can also read this and many other items like it in my regular column in the Glamorgan Star newspaper. Out today.

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