Curious Cymru: The Death Omens of Wales

by JoHarrington

Gigantic white dogs, screeching hags taking to the air, rogue candles lighting the darkness and owls outside your window, all part of dying if you're Welsh.

It's easy to dismiss such stories as the ravings of the drunk and the feverishly ill. But I was only a child when I saw the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, and I was in perfect health.

The person sitting beside me couldn't see it. She watched me turn an ashen hue, as I flung myself back in my seat. Anything to get away from that window and the creature of pure evil gazing inside.

I didn't believe in pure evil until then. I thought everything came in shades of good and ill. What's great for one is antithesis for another. But now I do. That memory of a windowpane, and the sight it framed, taught me how to fear it.

The Ghostly Cwn Annwn: Pack Hounds After You

Gwyn ap Nudd is the Welsh God of the Underworld, and also leader of the Wild Hunt. His Otherworldly hounds are chasing after you.

The Cwn Annwn (pron. coon anoon) are massive, at least that's how I heard it. They will never be mistaken for any ordinary dog.

In Bunty Austin's Haunted Anglesey, the story is told of three men encountering a Ci Annwn, as they traipse across a field towards home.

To the youngest of them, the pure white hound was friendly, playful even, allowing him to attempt to stroke it. Though his hand passed through thin air. It wasn't his time.

To the eldest two, the situation was much different. They couldn't even see it until they tried to enter the doorway into their bunkhouse. Suddenly it was there, bearing its teeth and ready to pounce.

"As big as a calf!" One was heard to exclaim. "As big as a calf!" They both fell backwards in fright, cascading down the ladder in an injurious tumble to the lower level. The story doesn't record if they expired soon afterwards. Given the (super)nature of the sighting, we can assume that they did.

Cwn Annwn is the plural - ci meaning 'dog' in Welsh, with 'cwn' becoming the whole pack - for these Otherworldly harbingers of doom. In truth, they don't predict the death, they cause it.

They are the packhounds of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Underworld, whose task it is to gather up the errant souls of the Cymric dead, and escort them into Annwn. The latter being the Welsh equivalent to Heaven, Valhalla, Hades or, most specifically of all, Tír na nÓg.

The Cwn Annwn are pure white, with red glowing eyes, and their bark is heard way before they rush into view. In fact, the further they are away, the louder their raucous growls.

An alternative name for them is the Cwn Mamau - Hounds of the Mothers - as they were once viewed in a much gentler way, sent by the Mother Goddess to bring her recently deceased back to Her bosom. But the Christianization of Cymru brought a much darker tale. They were now the Hounds of Hell, and those encountering them would be forever denied entry into Heaven.

Reports of the Cwn Annwn continue around the sites of major Welsh disasters, shortly before the catastrophe occurs.

Books about the Cwn Annwn - Death Dogs of Wales

These books all include a story or three about sightings of the Cwn Annwn in Wales.

Tolaeth - Preternatural Sounds and Sights to Warn of a Death in Wales

By far the most commonly encountered Welsh death omens are the tolaeth. This wide collection of inexplicable noises and visions mean ill for someone.

There is no equivalent in English for the Welsh word tolaeth. It describes that body of phenomena that is more often heard than seen, but which invariably means that somebody is about to die.

Tolaeth (pron. tow-lay-eth) generally occur in very personal ways, hence there is not the scope here to highlight them all. But I can give some examples.

In 1904, in a workshop in Glamorgan, a carpenter was busy crafting furniture and other items. He was visited by an old man - Welsh, but recently returned from making his fortune in America - who simply wanted a chat.

The carpenter downed tools, poured them a nice cup of tea apiece, and obliged him for a while.

During the course of their conversation, the old man noticed a piece of timber propped up against the wall. He tapped it with his walking stick and said, "That's the stuff for my coffin."

Like many younger men confronted with morbid talk from the elderly, the carpenter dismissed the notion. Awkwardly, he shifted the discussion onto the plank itself, which was amongst many other similar pieces, arguing that it was nothing special. Plus there were plenty more here of much greater quality.

The old man was having none of it. "That's for my coffin right enough." He insisted, the tip of his stick touching a distinctive knot in the woodwork. "Just the stuff."

By and by, their brew supped, the gentleman left and the carpenter got on with his work. Days passed before he ever contemplated that timber again, and then it was only to fetch it for his workbench, in order to work it as part of a table.

But as soon as his plane touched the first rough edge, a loud knocking startled him into stopping.

Thinking it was someone at the front door requesting entrance, he called, "Come on with you. It's open." Nothing. "Come on." No-one. He checked outside, there was nobody even close by in the street. He attempted to work again. The knocking came as soon as he set tool to plank. It happened three times in all, before the carpenter noticed that knot in the timber and realized it was the old man's coffin wood.

Slightly spooked, he set it aside, out in the yard beyond the workshop. It wasn't like there was anything special about it. He just picked up the next plank for the table.

Within days, the news came along with a commission. The old man was dead, would he make the coffin?  The carpenter was saddened, but started immediately on the big job of making his friend's final resting place. He reached for some wood and realized with shock that the timber in his hand bore that same distinctive knotwork.

His apprentice had found the plank aside and, thinking it dropped or misplaced, he'd returned the plank to where it should be stored. It was therefore the topmost piece of timber, when the carpenter came to create the coffin.

Needless to say that this time there was no knocking, as the timber was used for the purpose bestowed by the man it was destined to keep.

The fact that it was knocking sounds wouldn't have surprised anyone much in Wales. That particular tolaeth phenomena is so prevalent that there's a saying connected with it - three knocks for Death, or death knocks three times.

Worst of all is when the knocking sounds in a mine. That's a surefire harbinger that a mining disaster will soon befall them. But that's the Coblynau (goblin-like creatures) causing rockfalls, not tolaeth, so we'll leave them be.

However, the smell of roses in a mine is a definite tolaeth warning of a catastrophe to come. The old Welsh miners would definitely move away, if they scented that. Even more so, if they spotted the Canwyll Corff in the same vicinity.

Canwyll Corff - Spooky Lights in Wales

If you're ever in the Welsh countryside and you spot an uncanny glow, follow it. It'll tell you who is about to die and where they'll be buried.

Canwyll Corff (pron. can-noo-will cor-f) are the famous Corpse Candles, or Death Candles, of Welsh legend. Today ghost-hunters all over the world tend to call them orbs.

They don't actually look like candles. They're more like glowing balls of light - usually blue - which hover above the ground. Nor are they confined to mines. More often, they'll be discovered in the countryside or lanes, sometimes gliding along the route that will ultimately be taken from a soon-to-be-deceased's home to his/her final grave.

One night in Pontfaen, a schoolmaster named Morris Griffith was walking home, when he spotted a Canwyll Corff. He followed it quite some way, until it reached the graveyard in Llanferch-Llawddog. There the uncanny light disappeared.

Next day, he was in his classroom teaching, when an almighty clatter from the attic above startled teacher and pupils alike.

Mr Griffith investigated, but there was nothing up there but planks of wood stored for drying by the village carpenter. None of it had fallen though, nor did anything else seem disturbed.

Yet with all this tolaeth going on, the schoolmaster was saddened but not greatly surprised, when the news soon followed that one of his boys had passed away.  Nevertheless, he did have to admit to some goosebumps when the carpenter - come to collect some timber for the coffin - accidentally knocked a stack and sent it flying.

The noise, when heard below, was exactly the same as that discerned some days before.

Toili - Welsh Phantom Funerals

You're lucky if you merely experience a bit of knocking and a pretty light. Those who bump into a toili get much more than that!

The phenomenon of a ghostly funeral is so common in Welsh folklore, that it has half a dozen different names attached to it.

I've opted for toili, but I could just as easily have named it teulu, toilu, anghladd or dychiolaeth, amongst others. They all describe precisely the same thing though - the sound of a funeral taking place, from start to finish, procession through to the service and the burial - without a single sight of the rites at hand.

Moreover, the toili (pron. to-ill-li) will happen before the named person is even dead. As you can imagine, that would be a particularly terrifying encounter for someone who didn't know that their demise was imminent.

Even for strangers, or those not personally being mourned, meeting the toili can be a dangerous thing. Though unseen, the ghost funeral can be felt, and those taking part in it will not move out of the way for you.

Edward Hamer, in his Parochial Account of Llanidloes, recounts one such risky occurrence, whereby a miner met a toili in the town's China Street. On this occasion, it could be seen but not heard (tolaeth often assault only one sense at the exclusion of the others), and the ghostly mourners were emerging from the home of a man known to be ill.

Instantly the miner turned his back on them and hurried in the opposite direction. But it was too fast for him. Suddenly he was surrounded by specters, none of them seeming to notice him at all, as they knocked him over, trampled, then dragged him along with them.

He eventually emerged, badly shaken and fainting, as the whole procession made its way down Longbridge Street, in Llanidloes. He made it home, but was bedridden himself for days afterwards.

Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales

Edward Hamer's book appears to be out of print, but Elias Owen retold the same toili story, along with others, in his collection of Welsh folklore.

View on Amazon

'Deryn Corff - Dread Bird Bringing Portents of Death

Birds are everywhere in the Welsh countryside, and they usually cause little comment. Unless, of course, it is a bird of Annwn.

In March 1890, a robin was found flying through the tunnels underground in Morfa Colliery, near to Port Talbot.

Coupled with the fact that roses had been scented down there, and people claimed to have seen both the Cwn Annwn and Canwyll Corff, a series of late night meetings were held to discuss it.

The owners dismissed the concerns of their Welsh miners with a lofty air. This was all pure superstition, and what did a robin have to do with the preternatural anyway?

On March 10th 1890, an explosion deep within Morfa Colliery killed eighty-six men.

That in itself is not the startling part. It's a tragic fact that mine disasters weren't all that uncommon in 19th century Wales.  What is especially unusual about this one is how much worse it could have been.

Despite the meetings (or because of them), with no heed apparently being made towards the plethora of death portents, many Welsh workers were so uneasy about it that they stayed home. It's estimated that on the morning of the pit explosion, only half of the Morfa Colliery shift turned up.

The rest were safely on the surface, ready to begin the rescue work, as soon as the alarm was raised. They'd all listened to the omens, and the robin really had been the last straw.

Robins were seen as specifically bad in mines. It was noted that one had nested inside the office at Senghenydd Colliery shortly before 86 men were killed there. Another found a home in the subterranean pump room at Llanbadrach Colliery, just before eight miners died in a shot fire induced gas explosion.

But elsewhere in Wales, it can be many different birds who take on the aspect of 'Deryn Corff (pron. dare-rin cor-f), though mainly owls and ravens.


In Llangefni, an uncle and nephew had been out on a day trip, when they returned to find a large screech owl had taken residence in a nearby tree.

It was shrieking with an unEarthly racket for hours on end, enough to cause one of the men to fire a shot into its vicinity to scare it away.

The owl did take to the air, but soon took up its perch again. Nor would it stop the screeching right through the evening and into the night.

In the hallway, the grandfather clock struck eleven. Eleven tolls sounded into the night, and just after the last one faded, the owl finally grew silent mid-scream. Next day, the uncle learned that his nephew had died in the night - at 11pm.

Others get a kinder experience with the 'Deryn Corff. People on their death-bed have reported birdsong, which may also be heard by those sitting with them.  Yet a look out of the window will find no bird close enough to be singing so loudly.

Usually it's an owl, as that is the bird associated with the goddess Arianrhod, or a raven, as that is very much related to death and/or the Dark Mother. Both are viewed as avian messengers from the Lady, come to call her Fated one home.

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Cyhyraeth - The Formless Screaming Welsh Banshee

Her mournful groaning will be heard three times, each one closer and quieter than the last, but none any the less sickening.

You don't see Cyhyraeth, you hear Her. Not that you particularly want to. In fact, Her lamenting moan is one of the worst sounds that will ever assault your ears.

Cyhyraeth (pron. cuh-her-ay-th) translates as flesh wraith, but that's mostly to mean that She's without muscle and tendon. She is an invisible death portent.

Like the Irish aspect of Morrighan known as the Washer at the Ford, Cyhyraeth has been frequently heard where water crosses the road. But She doesn't wash blood-stained clothes in the rivers and streams.

In-keeping with the water element, She's also known to frequent rivers in general - especially the River Tywi - and many an ocean shoreline too.

On each occasion, Her terrible moaning will sound much like someone expiring of dreadful injuries or sickening unto death. But a grand search will uncover no body. Not that anyone expects to find one, as Cyhyraeth's doleful groaning is very distinctive, and those searching will be Welsh.

If She is heard on a beach or coastal road, then the deaths will be occurring out at sea. She's known to turn up before a shipwreck.

The reason that it may be considered more dreadful to hear Cyhyraeth than any other tolaeth is because of the scope of things. She is more likely to turn up before major disasters resulting in multiple deaths, than the knockers and birds of other omens. Whole communities may end up lamenting right alongside Her.

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Gwrach-y-Rhibyn - The Shrieking Winged Hag of the Mists

And finally we get to HER.

Combine the screech of Cyhyraeth with the sheer deathly presence of Cwn Annwn. Add in the scope of tolaeth's Fateful phenomena and you haven't even come close to Gwrach-y-Rhibyn.

I used to think that only the Welsh, with our fatalistic pessimism forged from hard, slate-blackened mountains, could have come up with such a creature. But then I worked out that the Irish sent Her.

Gwrach-y-Rhibyn (pron. Gw-rach ee rhee-ban, with the 'ch' as in loch) is usually described as being akin to the Irish banshee. Perhaps even more so than Cyhyraeth, as She's visible. Very, very visible.

But that doesn't quite cover it. The banshee (Herself an aspect of Morrighan) will sound the alarm that death is imminent. Gwrach-y-Rhibyn will kill you.

The classic stories about Her tell of a hag taking to the night skies on black wings, leathery or feathered depending upon the eye-witness account. Her arms are long and withered, ending in fingers like talons. Her mismatched eyes pierce in staring. Her dark clothes are tattered in strips.

She flies above travelers, or up to bedroom windows, scratching on the panes for attention, or else She prowls into their pathway as they walk. And She cries.

As you may have suspected, I'm not talking about a few pretty tears here, nor even a bit of a sob. Her wail fills the air with grief, entering the ears to touch the very soul with loss. Nor it is all just a screeching lament. She calls out names, She's personal, She looks right at you and you know that She sees you.

"Fy mhlentyn, fy mhlentyn bach!" She bitterly screams, if it's a child. "My child! My child!" That's what She'd be saying, if She was English, and it is the anguished keening of a mother who has lost a son or daughter. Or else it may be a lover's emotional sinking upon discovering that they are widowed. "Fy ngŵr, fy ngŵr!" She might wail. "My husband! My husband!"

If it wasn't all so heart-breaking, and sounded it too, then you'd swear that Gwrach-y-Rhibyn was mocking that grief so terrible that it takes the legs from under you.

So far so banshee, but then there's more.

If Gwrach-y-Rhibyn targets you, then you don't have to be due to die. She'll sort that part out before She leaves.

Like Meurig ap Tomos, staggering home one night towards Caergwrle, who encountered Gwrach-y-Rhibyn on a high mountain road. "Come here, my lovely man!" The hag commanded, then She attacked.

Meurig was injured so badly - torn by teeth and talons - that he couldn't shift from his spot. He was found next morning, half-dead from blood loss and exposure, by fellows who'd learned that he'd never made it home.

Previously in the bloom of health, he died soon afterwards, but not before his story had been told.

Gwrach-y-Rhibyn will come three nights in succession, sobbing, grieving and crying out her portent of death. Or She'll merely do the job there and then Herself.

Discover More Grim Ghost Stories from Wales

The top row are true ghostly tales from Cymru, along with the legendary entities that populate them. The bottom row are fictional stories inspired by this rich folklore.

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Updated: 10/15/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


MBC on 03/06/2016

Ho frightening! And Creepy

JoHarrington on 09/25/2014

I can take you to any of those creepy places. :) I'm not really selling this, am I?

Ok, Ember, how would you like to go to a hotspot for Gwrach-y-Rhibyn? Who I'm mostly convinced was an aspect of Morrighan, left here by the Irish on a slave raid circa... well... could be any time prior to about the 8th or 9th century really. Minus the bit where Ireland went Catholic. Mmmm. Make it prior to about the 2nd or 3rd centuries.

She's now a preternatural death omen type, who'll rip you to shreds as soon as look at you.

I'll work on this...

and yeah, hence my obsession with Her.

Ember on 09/24/2014

Well this has been a creepy read.

I mean, the whole thing puts a new perspective on your fiction. But also so does the thought that you've seen Gwrach-y-Rhibyn. WHAT. You saw her and that was it?

JoHarrington on 09/01/2014

It sounds like you're my kind of person! Yes, things like this utterly fascinate me, so I love looking into them. The Cwn Annwn would be terrifying to meet, if you weren't ready to go.

RuthCox on 09/01/2014

I am fascinated by your experience with the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn sighting, oh my! I've not heard of this, but do enjoy folklore, legends, and such, so will definitely return for a more thorough read and check into the books you've shared. That Cwn Annwn dog postcard is haunting!

JoHarrington on 09/01/2014

I will check that out. Thank you.

frankbeswick on 09/01/2014

There was a petition, but it was not signed much. The story of the tea party was in the Independent, 1st September, 2014.

JoHarrington on 09/01/2014

No, I wasn't. But that sounds amazing. Perhaps we should start the petition if none exists.

frankbeswick on 09/01/2014

Were you at the Grand Witches Tea Party at Exeter? If there is a petition to exonerate the poor ladies executed in 1692 I will sign it.

JoHarrington on 09/01/2014

I can categorically confirm that Wiccans do not worship the Devil. He's not even part of our pantheon, unless it's a Christian Wiccan involved.

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