The story of the Shepherd of Myddfai tells of the origins of the Physicians of Myddfai, whose herbal guide is recorded in the Red Book of Hergest, though the following tale does not appear in that manuscript. The version I am posting is a composit of Joseph Jacobs' and Alan Dix's versions which draw upon oral literature, though Jacobs' version is based on the preface to the Physician's herbal in the Red Book. (And anyway, I'm doing the editing, so it's still my own creation, in a way.)
War raged over the land of Wales for many centuries before the English finally gained total control. As with all wars there were heroes and villains, victims and those left mourning. One such was the widow of Blaensawdde near Llanddeusant in Carmarthenshire. The loss was especially cruel, she could already feel the movements of her baby within her when the news of her husband's death came - their first child whom he would never see.
However, her sorrow for the dead could not hold her forever as she had to look to the living. Her son was born as the first flowers broke through the mountain snows and his cries broke the frosty spring air as if he could already tell the joy and pain his life would bring. The widow worked hard and prospered and her son grew into a strong, generous and handsome man. All that she felt she needed was to see him married so that there would be grandchildren to continue her lost husband's name. However, years passed and he found no woman to whom he felt he could give his heart and life, for the farmer of Blaensawdde, like his mother, would give his heart once and for life.
Up in the Black Mountains in Caermarthenshire lies the lake known as Lyn y Fan Fach. To the margin of this lake the shepherd of Myddfai once led his lambs, and lay there whilst they sought pasture. Suddenly, from the dark waters of the lake, he saw three maidens rise. Shaking the bright drops from their hair and gliding to the shore, they wandered about amongst his flock. They had more than mortal beauty, and he was filled with love for her that came nearest to him. He offered her the bread he had with him, and she took it and tried it, but then sang to him:
Hard-baked is thy bread,
'Tis not easy to catch me,
and then ran off laughing to the lake.
Next day he took with him bread not so well done, and watched for the maidens. When they came ashore he offered his bread as before, and the maiden tasted it and sang:
Unbaked is thy bread,
I will not have thee,
Loath to lose her again he started to go to her, but as he stepped in the water there was a splash as his foot slipped on a stone. He looked down at his feet to steady himself and as his eyes followed the ripples out across the surface of the lake he found no rock and no maiden.
He returned home distraught. Her final words seemed clear and her smiles were perhaps simply mockery that a simple farmer should dare to love one of the fair folk. However, his mother knew more of a woman's ways than he and advised him "if she came a second time, she may yet come a third, here take some part-baked bread and be away with you to watch again".
A third time did the shepherd of Myddfai try to attract the maiden. This time he didn't wait for morning and climbed to Llyn y Fan before even the first shades of dawn were glowing in the east. Slow, slow was the rising of the sun that frosty morning. Grey night burnt into vivid red as the first light broke and as the sun rose in a clear blue spring morning. no ripple broke the surface of the silent lake. Long, long he waited as morning gave to noon, the day cooled as the sun dropped in the western sky and the last glimmers of light shone on the surface of the lake and were gone. One-by-one the stars appeared mirrored on the lake as they shone in the heavens. Cold as the night was, all he could feel was his despair inside.
At last he looked out over the lake and with a sigh threw the bread out towards its centre. "I have no gold, silver or riches to offer thee, just the bread grown by my own hands from the rich earth. It is all I have to offer, save myself which is yours for ever." He turned to go, and as he turned the loaf hit the water and with that the moon rose over the mountain tops and laid a cold light over the broken waters. One last time he looked back as he started on his way, and there, standing on the lakeside was the lady of Llyn y Fan laughing gaily.
She promised to become his wife on two conditions: "Truly I will have you for you offer as much as any true man may. But, beware, if you strike me three causeless blows, no matter how gentle, I will return to the lake and never more be with you." The second was if he was able to pick her out from among her sisters on the following day. When the time came the shepherd knew his love by the strap of her sandal. Then she told him she would be as good a wife to him as any earthly maiden could be unless he should strike her three times without cause. Of course he deemed that this could never be; and she, summoning from the lake three cows, two oxen, and a bull, as her marriage portion, was led homeward by him as his bride. To ease life for his mother and to let the world see his new bride they all moved down the mountain to Esgair Llaethdy near Myddfai, some six miles from Llyn y Fan.
Spring turned to spring and their first child was born. As the sap quickened in the birch woods their son gave his first cries just as his father had done before him and without doubt all their fathers since the beginning of things. While their baby was still tiny the farmer's cousin had a girl child and in the heat of midsummer the christening was held. No matter how often they set out to leave for the church there was always something his wife needed for the baby. As the time drew on he grew impatient. "Come now or we will be late," and, ever so gently, he patted her on the back to encourage her to the door. A cloud came over the sun. Sadly she looked at him. "You know not what I see, but if we had left a moment earlier our baby would have died of the heat. Now the clouds have hidden the sun and he shall be well, but beware this was thy first causeless blow."
Chastened at how easily he had done what he swore he would never do, the farmer and his lady went to the christening and soon all was forgotten in his love for her and the gaiety and swift smiles with which she gladdened his heart.
Spring came again and the lady was again heavy with child. Through the hot dry months of May and June she laboured and in midsummer a second son was born. While this child was yet tiny another cousin was to be married and the farmer and his lady were invited to the ceremony. The chill and damp of autumn had set in, so this time they left the two infants with his widowed mother, and they were timely at the wedding. All was well until, in the middle of the ceremony, the lady of Llyn y Fan began to softly weep. The farmer tried to quieten his wife, afraid that she would disrupt the ceremony. Ever so gently he tapped her on her forearm. The sunlight shone through the coloured glass windows casting a red glow on her arm like blood. Sadly she looked at him. "You know not what I see, but I cry for the sorrow they do not yet know. But beware this was thy second causeless blow, let there be no other."
As the lady foresaw, in the depths of winter the new bride slipped on the ice and died in her husband's arms. Double was his sorrow as their baby had just begun to quicken within his wife when she died. However, life goes on and the following autumn the farmer and his lady had a third son just as the trees cast the last of their summer mantle.
Some months later, in the dark time after Yuletide is over, but before the year breaks with new life, the same cousin who married and lost his wife the previous year also fell sick and, stranded in his farm by late February snows, he died of a wasting sickness. It was a sad affair as the family gathered for the funeral. Barely a year before he had wept over the coffin of his own wife and now they gathered for his burial. The farmer looked with sadness at the face of his cousin and friend and his widowed mother played quietly with the three young sons. Then, in the silence and grief a bright laugh rang out, first gently, then gaily and then hysterically the lady laughed and shook with her laughter until tears fell from her eyes. No words would hush her and mindful of the offence she would cause and afraid in her hysterical state she would hurt herself, he first remonstrated with her and then slapped her once, with no malice, on her cheek.
Outside the rain began to fall and the sun through the rain cast a dismal grey light upon her face. "You know not what I see, but I laugh that his sorrow is over. This life was harsh on him yet now he finds joy in a better place. And my laughter is tinged with sorrow. This was the third blow. I may not love quite as you do and I may not sorrow as you do, but my sorrow in parting will not die through all the ages of the earth for I know no death and no end to my joys or pain."
With these words she stepped out into the now fast falling rain. The last of the snows melted and added themselves to the water which now ran from every hillside. Small springs became streams and mountain streams broke into waterfalls beautiful in their cruel strength. The farmer leapt streams and struggled through torrents, but no matter how fast he followed he could never quite catch up with her. Past their farm at Esgair Llaethdy he followed her, past his birthplace at Blaensawdde, up the mountainside towards Llyn y Fan. And there, on the lakeshore where he first saw her, she was lost from sight amongst the sheets of rain which harried the troubled surface of the lake.
Then she, looking round upon her home, called to the cattle she had brought with her:
Brindle cow, white speckled,
Spotted cow, bold freckled,
Old white face, and gray Geringer,
And the white bull from the king's coast,
Grey ox, and black calf,
All, all, follow me home,
Now the black calf had just been slaughtered, and was hanging on the hook; but it got off the hook alive and well and followed her; and the oxen, though they were ploughing, trailed the plough with them and did her bidding. So she fled to the lake again, they following her, and with them plunged into the dark waters. And to this day is the furrow seen which the plough left as it was dragged across the mountains to the tarn.
For many hours the shepherd of Myddfai waded and swam in the freezing waters at the edge of the Llyn y Fan, but no sign was there of the rock or of his lady, and at last, exhausted, he fell down at the water's edge and wept.
However, his sorrow for the lost could not hold him for ever as he had to look to the living. His three sons grew strong and wise and it was as if the fairy blood still flowed through their veins for they succeeded in all that they turned their hands to. It is said that had they chosen they could have become the richest and most powerful men in all Wales, but they had other purposes and turned instead to healing. It was said that their mother came to them and taught them the lore of the herbs. They were the first of a long line of physicians and the widow was glad to see her dead husband's name known for healing although he had died in war, and the farmer was glad to see the kind smile when they treated patients as it reminded him of another smile he had known once long ago.
IT was this way in which they won the name of Meddygon Myddfai, the physicians of Myddfai.
The fairy woman is a water spirit, a Lady of the Lake. She is like the mermaid, who can only stay with her husband under certain conditions, which are always broken.
There is an alternate ending I've seen, which goes like this:
Gwyn’s heart was broken. He followed his wife to the lake, crushed with woe, and put an end to his misery by plunging into the depths of the cold water. The three sons distracted with grief, almost followed their father’s example, and spent most of their days wandering about the lake in the hope of seeing their lost mother once more. Their love was at last rewarded, for one day Nelferch appeared suddenly to them.
She told them that their mission on earth was to relieve the pain and misery of mankind. She took them to a place which is still called the Physician’s Dingle (Pant y Meddygon), where she showed them the virtues of the plants and herbs which grew there, and taught them the art of healing.
Profiting by their mother’s instruction, they became the most skilful physicians in the land. Rhys Grug, Lord of Llandovery and Dynevor Castles, gave them rank, lands and privileges at Myddfai for their maintenance in the practice of their art and for the healing and benefit of those who should seek their help. The fame of the Physicians of Myddfai was established’ over the whole of Wales, and continued for centuries among their descendants.