Of all the lore concerning the coming of Winter and the transitions (both personal and mythological) which shape the deeper significances of the dark months at the the year’s end, the image of the Washer at the Ford, the Cailleach, the Shadow Woman – call her what you will – is most deeply embedded in my responses to Winterfall. I have written of her elsewhere but I recently came across this interleaving of deep mythos, local folklore and Brythonic legend in a folklore record from North Wales:
“… there is a parish called Llanferrys and Rhyd y Gyfarthfa, ‘Ford of the Barking’, is there, and in olden times the dogs of the country would come there to bark, and no-one would venture to go to see what was there until Urien of Rheged came. He saw nought but a woman washing. And then the dogs stopped barking, and Urien took hold of the woman and had possession of her.”
from T. Gwynn Jones Welsh Folkore and Custom (1930)
The story continues that she is the daughter of the King of Annwn but is destined to have a child fathered by a christian man. She tells him to return at the end of the year and when he returns she presents him with a son and a daughter: Owain and Morfudd.
This is interesting in itself because of the conflation of historical and legendary material from the ‘Old North’ of Welsh tradition with a local tale which itself contains elements of both mythological and folkloric provenance. The coupling of Urien, the sixth century king of the Brythonic territory of Rheged in what is now southern Scotland and north-western England, with the daughter of the King of of the Otherworld (Gwyn ap Nudd) suggests a union between Thisworld and the Otherworld intricate with a sovereignty theme in that a king in Thisworld has to marry and Otherworld woman to validate his power (consider the marriage of Pwyll to Rhiannon in the first of the four Mabinogi tales). At its worse, the tale as related here however portrays the union as little more than a casual rape by a powerful lord of a woman washing her clothes in the river. But identifying the woman as an Otherworld princess shifts the tale to another level. Would such a woman be washing her clothes in the river and would she permit herself to be raped? It seems unlikely on both counts, but Otherworld women are rarely what they seem. The story appears to rationalise her compliance with Urien in that it is her ‘destiny’ to bear his children. But the image of the Washer at the Ford is far too profoundly embedded in the mythos for its appearance here to be taken, as the wording above has it, as “nought but a woman washing”.
In some occurrences of the sovereignty theme in folklore and myth, the king has to be prepared to couple with the goddess of the land both in her winter and her summer aspects, or he has to take her as an old hag so that she may become a young woman again. This is often also a variant in stories about dalliances with Otherworld women who are able to change their form from beautiful to hideous and there is sometimes a suggestion of initiatory processes in this being accepted by the would-be lover. Such an initiatory journey may itself be portrayed in disguised form in story and so find its way into the folklore record. A man may have to be prepared to marry an old crone who becomes a beautiful young woman after he has slept with her, as in stories that made their way into mainstream literature such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tale. A young woman might equally have to become subject to an ogre or, in the classic fairy story, to kiss a frog. It is the confrontation with otherness that is enacted here, being prepared to be tested or to step out of the comfort zone of everyday life. When such stories are embedded in the folk or faërie lore record they tend to reflect in a generalised way personal journeys of quest, change or psychological discovery. At the religious level they are reflective of initiation into the mysteries. Mythologically they embody the personas of the gods through the changing seasons, the changes of history, geology, cosmology. The Washer at the Ford is not to be ‘possessed’ at a whim and it is significant that it has to wait for a great figure like the legendary Urien to approach her.
We have here, then, an impacted record of change. A change of season from Autumn to Winter where the Washer sits at the threshold of the two seasons wailing for the fate of the God of Summer as the leaves fall from the trees all about her. A change of status for one who dares to cross the ford and confront her. A change that also reflects here shifting historical, cultural and religious patterns across the Island of Britain as a momentous leader of an old kingdom in the North turns up in Wales in a story about a place people fear to go to and the barking of the dogs ceases as he appeases the spirit of the place. In such ways are different traditions and older mythologies overlaid, one on the other, interwoven and re-synthesised into stories the significance of which may not always be clear, or even fully discernible, but through which the gods still speak to us as they always have.