Thursday, 30 June 2005
Eli, installation, Llandudoch
THE CHARM SISTERS FROM TYRYET, PONTFAEN, CWM GWAUN, SIR BENFRO
Until the advent of the National Health system there was always cost to see a doctor. People could resort to their own devises – creating a folk herbal tradition, or turn to the local herbalists, healers or doctors, all of which have evolved and borrowed from each other over the years. There have always been an extraordinary range of people to turn to should the problem seem to be beyond your control or capacity to treat: the shaman, the witch, the wise woman, the wart healer, the barber surgeon, the medical doctor, the medical herbalist etc. And you didn’t always get medicine to swallow or an ointment to apply – there were charms and spells, magic and psychic powers afoot.
Dig back far enough and wide enough in your area or even family and you will surely hear of a healer and perhaps one that didn’t apply lotions, medicines or even their hands.
In west Wales in the early twentieth century there were two sisters, Gwawr and Mair Evans, who from their mid teens seemed to have had a gift for making charms to cure various ills of the body and occasionally the heart. It is believed they gained their knowledge from an unmarried great aunt on their father’s side, who lived close to them in Cwm Gwaun.
The sisters were born and brought up at Tyryet in Pontfaen, Cwm Gwaun. When their mother married a few years after the death of their father, when they were 20 and 22, the unmarried sisters moved to a small cottage, Iet-hen-isaf near Mynachlog ddu.
They both seemed to have knowledge of the use of herbs but rarely used them to treat others; some notes and letters sent to a cousin give suggestions of treatment with herbal decoctions, tinctures and ointments. They did use herbs and spices and flowers in the making of the charms that took the form of actual objects. Also both houses where they lived had significant springs close by and they often made mention of use of particulars waters to take or to be involved with ritual.
The charms were individually tailored to the person and the ailment and given along with instructions of how to use them. It is not clear in what form payment was.
These were not two sisters from a poor family, but certainly there was no spare income from the family farm. But they survived, it would seem, without any other income or work than the charms, though it is known that Mair was outstanding at decorative embroidery. Not a lot else is known about them, though a visiting academic from Cardiff made particular note about their well-stocked library everything from herbals to poetry to philosophy to science. All was lost when the sisters died in a devastating house
fire, thought to have been caused by a lightening strike, in 1930. The sisters were only aged 29 and 31.
Little collections of charms, some with more detailed information than others remain in the possession of local families; presumably grateful people for whom the charms worked.
The three charms here were given on different occasions to Bethan Edwards of Maenclochog. The ball was made by Gwawr and apparently is made of petals including soapwort and pink roses, along with hair from Bethan. It is not known if the wax and petals continue to the centre or if it is wrapped around some other substance. Also recorded is that it contains frankincense and certainly after it has been confined in a box for a while and is first brought out there is a hint of the fragrance. It seems that Bethan had ongoing menstrual problems and the ball was hung on her bed during daylight hours and taken to hang by an east-facing window during hours of darkness. It was originally held within a silk tulle bag of which there is a scrap left.
Mair, whose work, apparently always had silk ribbon flowers attached, made the other two charms. Bethan received the rose with bird foot and feathers charm during her difficult pregnancy with her first daughter, Caryl. The charm was kept enclosed in a small box above the fireplace until the labour started then it was taken out of the box and hung in the window of Bethan’s bedroom, where the birth took place. Afterward it was kept near the baby’s crib for a year and a day.
The feather charm was made for Bethan’s son Dafydd who was ill as a teenager. It is made with feathers that seem to match those on the rose ball – possibly a grey wagtail. It is not known if this is particular to Bethan’s family or to Mair herself. It has a small piece of elderflower attached – the elder has always been an important tree for protection.
Both children grew up healthy and remained in the area. Dafydd died in 1993 aged 91 and Caryl in 2002 aged 82. It was Caryl who had received the charms from her mother and passed them on to a great niece living locally. It seems there were others but not in a very good state of repair.
Many charms made by Gwawr and Mair were never meant to be kept, as their use included putting them outside where the weather and rain undid them again.
Mynachlog-ddu, a historical survey, E.T. Lewis 1969
Pethau Cysegredig, Amgueddfa Sir Gaerfyrddin, 1996
Dedicated to and influenced by the rigorous scholarship and creativity of Iolo Morganwg, without whom contemporary Welsh culture would be depleted