8 AUGUST 2019
THE CURSE OF PANTANNAS
SERIES · I EPISODE · II
For the most part, the people of Glamorgan were not overly troubled by the hidden folk. They were wary, certainly. For such creatures are known to play tricks on good Christian folk. The people kept well clear of the rings where the fair folk danced; where their music could be heard playing at night. For any mortal who ventures within a fairy ring immediately becomes vulnerable to otherworldly charms...
The Curse of Pantannas is drawn from The Welsh Fairy Book (1907), written by folklorist W. Jenkyn Thomas. Thomas was a lecturer, classicist and schoolmaster in South Wales, who is said to have composed this collection when he discovered that his own students lacked knowledge of their native Welsh folklore, despite being familiar with many fairy tales from around the world.
The story is set at Pantannas Farm in the historic Welsh county of Glamorganshire. Glamorgan was once an early medieval kingdom called Glywysing until it was taken over as a territory by the Norman lords. Glamorgan was a rural and pastoral region, but it became a flashpoint for political conflict that led to its being fortified with many castles. To the south of Pantannas Farm lies Caerphilly Castle, reputed to be haunted by Alice of Angouleme (the Green Ghost of Caerphilly) and a winged banshee that inhabits the surrounding marshes. Glamorgan would fall under English control in the 16th century and later became an important centre for the industrial revolution.
The Welsh Fairy Book included 83 different tales, which illustrate many of the common beliefs and and story motifs that attached to fairies, many of which are found in The Curse of Pantannas. The fairy or elf kind inhabit the rural landscape, living in hollow hills and caves, and are associated with ‘greenswards’ or ‘elf rings’ - rings of lush dark grass where mushrooms grow persistently; the taboo against interfering with said rings or angering the hidden folk, and the dire consequences that result; fairy music which exerts a magical and hypnotic power over human beings; the asynchronous passage of time between the human and fairy realm and the resulting displacement of a human visitor; and the crumbling away of said visitor into dust upon his return to his own world.
Seb: In this episode I talk about the old Scottish custom of the Goodman's Croft, for which I owe my knowledge to my friend Graeme Cooke and his penchant for making elaborate folklore analogies. Graeme runs his own folklore podcast called Tales of the British Isles, which you can check out here: Tales of the British Isles (Soundcloud).
The events related in The Curse of Pantannas directly reflect folk customs and practice that were taken seriously by farming communities. The belief that some plots of land were claimed either by fairies or the devil persisted over long periods of time, and often it was only through the legal imposition of Church authorities that these practices were overturned. There are historical accounts of farmers resolving to destroy these crofts which resemble the story of the Pantannas farm:
At Killiesmont, in the parish of Keith, there was a croft which measured about two hundred yards by twelve. The farmer, James Scott, resolved to bring it under cultivation, but the moment the plough touched the soil one of the oxen fell dead, killed by a fairy dart, or as the folk put it, the animal was "shot a dead." A century later Robert Watt decided to cultivate the dreaded plot. Three women, Maggie Barber, Jane Turner, and Janet McConnachie, sat by and watched the foolhardy farmer, expecting any moment to see him shot by the fatal bolt. But nothing untoward occurred.
— Sources in T.D. Davison, 'The Untilled Field' (See below)
The tale of Pantannas combines stories about these marked plots of land with beliefs about the origins and nature of 'fairy rings' - the crescent shaped colonies of mushrooms that mark the landscape.
THE LORE OF FAIRY OR ELF RINGS
In European folklore, mushroom rings may be associated with dances of fairies, elves, witches or even the devil, often under the full moon. The distinctive pattern of the ring and the mushroom growth are often said to be ‘burned’ into the ground by these dances. In one part of Austria, they are said to be formed by the fiery tails of flying dragons. In folklore describing fairies as diminutive, the mushrooms are sometimes said to be fairy tables, parasols, houses, or chimneys and growths from underground fairy villages.
Many traditions describe dire punishments for stepping into or otherwise disturbing a fairy ring: in France, you would be cursed by the bug-eyed toad who guarded the circle; you might lose an eye; you may gain sight of the fairies and fall under their spell; or you may be cursed to die young.
In fact, fairy or elf rings are formations of mycelium - the vegetable part of fungal bacterial colonies - which absorb nutrients from the soil. Around 60 different mushroom species can grow in fairy rings - they can grow to up to 600 metres in diameter, and can be many hundreds of years old. The distinctive ring or arc is thought to be formed after the nutrients in the centre of the colony are exhausted, and the mycelium move outward from the centre.
Elf rings can cause areas of grass to die when the mycelium deplete the soil nutrients or smother the roots of other plants; other fungi can produce chemicals that produce rapid plant growth, leading to the lush dark green grass visible in some rings. Fairy rings in woods often live in symbiosis with nearby trees and are known as tethered rings, while those growing in meadows are called free rings. Rabbits often promote the distinctiveness of the mushrooms by eating the surrounding grass but leaving the mushrooms intact. Rabbit droppings may also replenish the nutrients at the centre of the ring, leading to secondary rings growing inside.
"Glamorgan." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Jun. 2019. Web. 4 Jul. 2019.
'Weird and Wonderful Wales' on www.landoflegends.wales
Davidson, T. D. (1955). "The Untilled Field" (PDF). Agricultural History Review.