Questing Beast

Variations: Beste Glapissante; Beste Glatissant, Bête Glatissante, Glatisant Beast; Beste Diverse, Bête Diverse, Diverse Beste, Diverse Beast; Besta Ladrador, Besta Desasemelhada (Portuguese, from the Demanda); Barking Beast, Yelping Beast

The Questing Beast is a creature of many names, sizes, and appearances. Several features, however, are consistent throughout its appearances in Arthurian legend. First, it very noisy, its offspring within its belly baying and yelping constantly. It is also always a portentous creature, but what it symbolizes has varied from author to author. Finally, it is commonly pursued or hunted, whether by knights or by its own offspring within its belly, and often ends up giving birth in the process.

Although “Questing Beast” has been popularized in the English-speaking world by Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the creature is more commonly known as the Beste Glatissant or Beste Glapissant (in modern French, Bête Glatissante or Bête Glapissante). Glatir or glapir refers to the sound coming from the creature’s belly, a yelping or baying sound like those of hounds chasing prey. This is also the definition of “questing”; a more accurate modern name would be the Yelping Beast or Barking Beast.

The concept of noisy animals in their mother’s womb precedes the Questing Beast. William of Malmesbury describes a dream that was had by King Eadgar. In it, the king sees a pregnant hunting dog lying at his feet. She was silent, but the pups in her womb were barking loudly. This was interpreted as meaning that after King Eadgar’s death, miscreants within his kingdom would bark against the church of God. In the Slavic Twelve Dreams of Sehachi, the titular character dreams of a foal neighing within a mare’s belly, and whelps barking in a dog’s belly; these are interpreted as mothers acting immodestly with their daughters and children rejecting the advice of their parents, respectively.

Another contributor to the genesis of the Questing Beast is the supernatural boar hunt. The most famous examples of those are the boar Twrch Trwyth and the sow Henwen. The latter is even more closely connected to the Questing Beast; like the Beast, Henwen (“Ancient White”) is white in color, and dangerously fecund. Her offspring were to be harmful to Britain, so she was hunted across the country, giving birth along the way to various young. Finally, Henwen disappeared into the sea at Penryn Awstin, similar to the stricken Questing Beast diving into a lake.

The oldest iterations of the Questing Beast have it encountered by Perceval over the course of his search for the Grail. In the Perlesvaus, Perceval finds a beautiful glade, with a red cross at the center of it. A knight dressed in white is seated at the far end of the glade, with a fair young damsel next to him. Soon a snow-white, emerald-eyed creature, between a fox and a hare in size, enters the glade. The whelps in its womb are barking like hounds, and it is terrified and agitated because of that. Perceval tries to take the small Beast onto his horse, but he is cautioned by the knight, who tells him the Beast has a destiny to fulfill. The Beast runs to the cross, where its twelve young are brought forth. They immediately tear their mother to pieces, but can only devour her head. Upon doing so, they go mad and scatter into the forest. King Pelles later explains the significance of the creature to Perceval: it represents Jesus Christ, and the twelve hounds that killed it and scattered are the twelve tribes of Israel.

Gerbert de Montreuil’s continuation of Perceval borrows from the Perlesvaus. We are not given a description of the Beast, but are instead told that it is grant a merveille (“marvelously large”). The Beast’s young are barking and yelping from within its belly, and when it comes up to the cross in the glade, they emerge violently, breaking it in two pieces. The young then devour their mother before going mad, turning on and killing each other. This bloody episode has a far more mundane meaning – Perceval is told that the loud, murderous whelps are the people who disturb church services by talking loudly and complaining about hunger!

In the Estoire du Saint Graal, there is a Beste Diverse (“Diverse Beast”) found beside a cross. No mention is made of its yelping, but it is white as snow, and has the head and neck of an ewe, the legs of a dog, black thighs, the body of a fox, and the tail of a lion. In the prose Merlin, the Diverse Beste or Beste Diverse sounds like 30 or 40 baying hounds and is moult grant (“very big”). Perceval is destined to hunt it.

In the prose Tristan, the Beste Glatissant has the legs of a stag, the thighs and tail of a lion, the body of a leopard, and the head of a snake; its yelping is equal to that of a hundred hunting hounds. The addition of snake, leopard, and lion elements grant it unsavory connotations; the combination of lion and leopard is reminiscent of the Beast of the Apocalypse, and a snake or dragon is always inauspicious.

No longer a creature of purity torn apart by its own offspring, the Questing Beast is now an evil, wretched being spawned from violence. Its mother was the daughter of King Ypomenes, who lusted for her brother. When she could not have him, she instead turned to a devil, who slept with her and convinced her to accuse her brother of attempting to rape her. He was duly sentenced to be torn apart by dogs. As he died, the brother proclaimed that his sister would give birth to a monster, one from whose belly the barking of dogs would forever remind others of his shameful death. As predicted, the daughter gave birth to the Questing Beast, and she was executed for her crimes.

The Saracen knight Palamides had particular reason to hate the Questing Beast, as its horrid shriek had killed eleven of his twelve brothers. In the Portuguese Demanda, the Questing Beast is finally slain during the last years of the Grail quest, when Palamides strikes it and it runs into a lake that immediately starts to boil. The lake has since then become known as the Lake of the Beast.

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the foremost mention of the Questing Beast in English literature, follows the prose Tristan in its description. The Questing Beast is said to have a head like a serpent’s, a body like a leopard’s, buttocks like a lion’s, and feet like a hart. Its belly made a noise like thirty couple hounds barking. King Arthur first sees the Questing Beast after an illicit tryst with the wife of King Lot of Orkney. Arthur had stopped to rest by a well when the Questing Beast, making a horrid din, came up to drink from it. As it drank, the noise coming from its belly was quelled, but it started up against as soon as the creature had finished and ran off. Arthur then encountered Sir Pellinore, who hunted the Questing Beast. After Pellinore’s death, the task of hunting the Questing Beast was passed on to Sir Palamides.

Merlin later revealed to Arthur the significance of the Questing Beast. The king had seen the beast because he, too, had just done something unforgivable. The wife of King Lot was in fact his sister on his mother’s side, and the child of this adulterous and incestuous union – Mordred – was destined to destroy Arthur’s kingdom.

References

Evans, S. (1903) The High History of the Holy Graal. J. M. Dent & Co., London.

Gaster, M. (1900) The Twelve Dreams of Sehachi. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 623-635.

Löseth, E. (1891) Le Roman en Prose de Tristan, analyse critique. Emile Bouillon, Paris.

Malory, T. (1956) Le Morte d’Arthur, v. I. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Malory, T. (1956) Le Morte d’Arthur, v. II. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Nitze, W. A. (1902) The Old French Grail Romance Perlesvaus, A Study of its Principal Sources. John Murphy Company, Baltimore.

Nitze, W. A. (1936) The Beste Glatissant in Arthurian Romance. Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, 56, pp. 409-418.

Paris, G. and Ulrich, J. (1886) Merlin: Roman en Prose du XIIIe Siècle, t. I. Librairie de Firmin Didot et Cie., Paris.

Pickford, C. E. (1959) L’evolution du Roman Arthurien en Prose vers la Fin du Moyen Age. A. G. Nizet, Paris.

Williams, M. (1925) Gerbert de Montreuil: La Continuation de Perceval, t. II. Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris.

Fad Felen

Variations: Fall Felen

Fad Felen

When the Fad Felen, the “Yellow Pestilence”, “Yellow Death”, or “Yellow Plague”, came to Wales in the 540s, it took the form of a column of watery cloud, one end on the ground and the other high in the air. Any living creature caught in the pestiferous pillar died or sickened to death. It was called the Yellow Pestilence because of the livid, bloodless complexion of those stricken by it. Those physicians who tried to cure the afflicted themselves took ill and died.

Taliesin the poet prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd, King of North Wales. “A strange creature will come from the marsh of Rhianedd”, he said, “to punish the crimes of Maelgwn Gwynedd; its hair, its teeth, and its eyes are yellow, and this will destroy Maelgwn Gwynedd”. This manifestation of the Fad Felen was perhaps a hideous hag with baleful eyes, in the same way as the ague is referred to as the wrach or hen wrach (the “hag” or “old hag” respectively). Other accounts speak of it as a basilisk; the poet Rhys Tenganwy mentions a scaly monster with claws and pestiferous breath.

Maelgwn Gwynedd saw the Fad Felen through the key-hole of Rhos Church, and died as a result – presumably a poetic way of saying that he died of plague in the church.

References

Llwyd, R. (1837) The Poetical Works of Richard Llwyd. Whittaker & Co., London.

Rees, W. J. (1840) The Liber Landavensis, Llyfr Teilo. The Welsh MSS Society, Llandovery.

Rhys, J. (1884) Celtic Britain. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.

Rhys, J. (1892) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion. Williams and Norgate, London.

Sikes, W. (1880) British Goblins. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London.

Aderyn y Corph

Variations: Aderyn y Corff, Aderyn y Cyrff, Corpse-bird

Aderyn y Corph

The Aderyn y Corph or corpse-bird chirps at the door of a dying person in Wales. Its call is dewch, dewch (“come, come”). It has no feathers or wings and can soar easily without them. When not presaging death it lives in the land of illusion and fantasy.

It is a variant of the screech owl whose call portends death. Aderyn y corph is also Welsh for the screech owl or brown owl.

References

Evan, D. S. (1858) An English and Welsh Dictionary. Thomas Gee, Denbigh.

Sikes, W. (1880) British Goblins. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London.

Stray Sod

Variations: Ar Iotan, Egaire, Fairy Grass, Faud Shaughran, Fair-Gortha (potentially), Herb of Distraction, Herbe à Adirer, Herbe d’Egarement, Herbe d’Engaire, Herbe de Fourvoiement, Herbe Maudite, Herbe d’Oubli, Herbe à la Recule, Herbe Royale, Herbe des Tournes, Lezeuen Eur, Lezuenn er Seudann, Tourmentine

Tourmentine

“Stray sod” is a general term used here to refer to any plant that, if trodden upon, causes travelers to lose their way. Stray sods have been reported primarily from France and Ireland, and come about in a number of ways. Usually they are specific herbs with magical properties that grow along footpaths. At other times they form over the graves of unbaptised children, or are patches of grass enchanted by fairies. They themselves may be fairies or inhabited by fairies.

No matter the origin, the result is always the same. A solitary traveler at night will inadvertently step on a stray sod, and no matter how good their sense of direction, they immediately lose their path. All landmarks seem to vanish, all roads are dead ends. The unfortunate victim is compelled to wander aimlessly through the night, trudging through hedges and thorns, crossing rivers, slogging through marshes, and feeling their way through thickets. The spell is broken at daybreak, when they find themselves with their clothes torn and stained, their hands and feet bleeding, and miles away from home.

When this happens it is advised to turn one’s coat inside out to counteract the spell. Other remedies include the usage of metal as abhorrent to fairies, or finding certain plants or benevolent spirits to regain one’s bearings.

The stray sod is known as the herbe à adirer (“herb of misplacement”) in Anjou, the herbe à la recule (“herb of turning back”) in Besançon, the herbe d’oubli (“herb of forgetfulness”) in Brittany and Lorraine, the egaire in Normandy, and the herbe maudite (“damned herb”) or herbe des tournes (“herb of turning”) in Saintonge. The ar iotan (“golden herb”) of Brittany is inhabited by a spirit that shines like a glowworm; touching a piece of wood or metal breaks its spell, as does changing horseshoes on one side. The lezeuen eur (“golden herb”) and the lezuenn er seudann (“herb of dizziness”) of the Morbihan cause their victims to walk in circles until daybreak. The herbe royale (“royal herb”) of Saint-Mayeux causes even horses to lose their way. The herbe d’engaire of the Berry grows in vast plains, and causes those who step on it to lose sight of the path entirely. The tourmentine (Potentilla erecta, formerly Potentilla tormentilla) of Forez, which causes disorientation for 12 hours, can be countered by the parisette (Paris quadrifolia), a plant whose fallen seeds guide travelers by pointing in the right direction.

The faud shaughran of Ireland induces a sensation of flying, of being incapable of stopping until one is over twenty or thirty miles from home. There is a herb that counteracts its effects, but it is known only to the initiated. The similar fair-gortha causes unnatural hunger and craving for food if stepped on. One man in County Leitrim turned his coat and hat inside out but was unable to find his way home, ending up miles away from his destination.

References

Barton, B. H. and Castle, T. (1845) The British Flora Medica. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Duncan, L. L. (1893) Folk-Lore Gleanings from County Leitrim. Folklore, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 176-194.

Rolland, E. (1904) Flore populaire, Tome V. Librairie Rolland, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1894) Les travaux publics et les mines dans les traditions et les superstitions de tous les pays. J. Rothschild, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1898) Les Forêts. Revue des Traditions Populaires, t. XIII, no. 12, pp. 641-661.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Wilde, F. S. (1887) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, v. II. Ward and Downey, London.

Llamhigyn y Dwr

Variations: Water Leaper, Water Spirit

Llamhigyn y Dwr

Welsh fishermen, especially around Llyn Gwynan and Llyn Glas, have to contend with the attention of the troublesome Water Spirit, the Llamhigyn y Dwr or “Water Leaper”.

A llamhigyn y dwr looks like a large and monstrous toad, except with a long tail and wings instead of legs. It hides in lakes and other bodies of water, and is carnivorous by nature. Shepherds know not to let their sheep or dogs near the water’s edge, lest the llamhigyn y dwr pounce on them and drag them below.

Fish lost to anglers in those lakes are always the work of a llamhigyn y dwr. It will take the bait cleanly off hooks, or even pull fishermen into the lake. They are fast and powerful swimmers, and will run away with hook, line, rod, and angler. One fisherman’s grandfather told of hooking a llamhigyn y dwr, only for it to emit an ear-splitting shriek, and it would have pulled him off the boat had his friend not been with him.

These tales of the llamhigyn y dwr were told – with significantly more colorful language – by one Ifan Owen, a trustworthy angler by trade with no reason to exaggerate.

References

Jones, T. G. (1930) Welsh Folklore and Folk-custom. Methuen and Co., London.

Rhys, J. (1901) Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, vol. I. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Lavandière de Nuit

Variations: Lavandière, Laveuse de Nuit (French); Kannerez Noz, Cannerez Noz, Gannerez Noz (Breton); Bean nighe, Bhean Nighe, Caoineachag, Nigheag Bheag a Bhroin (Gaelic); Washerwoman, Night Washerwoman, Washer of the Ford, Little Washer of Sorrow (English)

Lavandiere

The lavandières de nuit (“washerwomen of the night”) are present in some form or other from Scotland to Provence. Their exact nature is uncertain; sometimes they are ghosts, other times members of the fairy kingdom. Their best-documented haunt is Brittany.

Lavandières are female, and can be seen washing laundry in the odd hours of the night. They usually take the form of tall, gaunt, and withered crones, but the Gollières a Noz of Romandie are as beautiful as they are cruel. Some of them sing as they wash, earning them the name of kannerez noz (night singers). Their song is sadder than a De Profundis. Those of Morbihan have had their song recorded as follows:

Tors la guenille, tors // Le suaire des épouses des morts.

(Wring the rags, wring // the shroud of the wives of the dead).

Often a lavandière is condemned to wash a shroud in atonement for a sin committed in life. Some merely did laundry on Sunday. Others were greedy misers who denied decent clothing to the poor. The grimmest were those guilty of infanticide. The outline of a baby’s corpse could be seen in their blood-soaked sheets; try as they might, the blood never washed out, and the bones never whitened.

The bean nighe of the British Isles are women who died in childbirth before their time, and who are doomed to wash the clothes of those fated to drown until the day when they were meant to die. Their appearance foretells death. Some are aligned with the Morrigan, and wash the corpses of the dead. Cú Chulainn saw one, the daughter of Bodhbh, washing bloodstained clothes and weeping; he died in battle not long after.

In France, especially in Brittany, they call passers-by to help them wring out the laundry. This isn’t a choice – those who accept out of ill will get their arms broken, and those who refuse are drowned. To escape their clutches, one must wring in the same direction they do, turning clockwise when they turn clockwise and vice versa. But this has to be kept up all night, and the lavandières never tire. One false move and the unfortunate victim is crushed, wrung out, their corpse mangled beyond recognition. Even the strongest man is no match for a lavandière, who wrings humans out as easily as a pair of tights.

Another way of escaping their clutches is to tell them Diwasket ho poan ha me diwasko ma hini (“wring out your sins, and I will wring out mine”). Running away at top speed always helps, and lavandières cannot cross recently-ploughed fields. Finally, making the sign of the cross or reciting Biblical verses is always helpful.

The lavandière of Chantepie was a stingy woman who buried her husband in a dirty shroud. She continues to wash it every night.

The lavandières of Fond-de-Fond hold up the bodies of the recently-deceased.

In Landéda, the lavandières are powerless against the goodhearted, but tie the sinful into knots.

The lavandière of Noes Gourdais, near Dinan, appeared early in the morning and had a skull for a head.

The Mille-Lorraines of Lower Normandy form fairy circles around ponds.

Several lavandières gather in the pond of Roc-Reu, and drown anyone who tries to touch them.

Around Dinan, the teurdous (“twister”) is a rare male counterpart. He does not wash, but instead offers to help washerwomen wring out their laundry. If they accept, he breaks their arms.

The true nature of the lavandières is more prosaic. Unfamiliar sounds have been invoked – the croaking of frogs or toads, for instance, might have suggested the sound of washboards. The lavandières themselves may have had nothing supernatural about them. A number of flesh-and-blood women may have had reason to do laundry at night: those who worked during the day, those who did not wish to be seen doing menial work, those who wanted to clean the clothes of their illicit lovers… Anyone coming upon them could be forgiven for seeing them as ghosts.

Others managed to exploit the superstitious fear of lavandières. A garde-champêtre in Vaucluse once stumbled upon a pair of lavandières in spectral white clothes. “Wring the laundry!” they cackled, grabbing him by the collar. And wring he did, all night long. He also noted the fine quality of the cloth they were washing, but did not dare stop until morning, when they left. Only later did the warden find out that a nearby castle had been robbed of various items of clothing. He had spent the whole night helping the thieves wash their ill-gotten gains.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Giraudon, D. La lavandière de nuit Ar gannerez-noz. In Loddo, D. and Pelen, J. (eds.) (2001) Êtres fantastiques des régions de France. L’Harmattan, Paris.

Kilfeather, A. (2003) Legend and wetland landscape in Ireland. Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 3, pp. 37-50.

Le Quellec, J. (1988) Le légendaire du Sud-Vendée: organisation spatio-mythique. Etuderies 3-4.

MacPhail, M. (1898) Folklore from the Hebrides III. Folklore, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 84-93.

Sand, G. (1877) Légendes Rustiques. Ancienne Maison Michel Lévy Frères, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1881) Littérature orale de la Haute-Bretagne. Maisonneuve et Cie, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1968) Le folklore de la Bretagne. Éditions G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris.