Wales is one of the three countries in the world to feature a mythical creature as Dragon on its flag, and it is one of the most important objects in Welsh history.
The English word “dragon” and the Welsh “draig” are both derived from the ancient Greek word drakon, which basically means “large serpent”. This does not mean that there were no stories of dragons before the ancient Greeks, but that this particular word merely became common in many languages.
Generally Welsh dragon seems quite typical in its dragon-like appearance with four legs and wings, but in many cultures, what we call dragons were essentially large serpents, as iconography from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt suggests.
One legend recalls Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth-century, but it could be even older than that.
It is considered that the Welsh kings of Aberffraw first adopted the dragon in the early fifth century in order to symbolise their power and authority after the Romans withdrew from Britain. Later, around the seventh century, it became known as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, king of Gwynedd from 655 to 682.
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written between 1120 and 1129, links the dragon with the Arthurian legends, including Uther Pendragon the father of Arthur whose name translates as Dragon Head. Geoffrey’s account also tells of the prophecy of Myrddin (or Merlin) of a long fight between a red dragon and a white dragon, symbolising the historical struggle between the Welsh (red dragon) and the English (white dragon).
Red Dragon however is only one of a number of dragon-like beasts to prowl their way through Welsh folklore.
Few legendary superheroes like Peredur, King Arthur and even more ancient Hu Gadarn (Hugh the Mighty’) are all credited with destruction of a water monster called the Afanc.
Although it is generally referred to as the Afanc singular, each story may refer to a different creature. They are of indeterminate appearance and inhabited more than one lake. One thing they had in common: they were enormously powerful. Sometimes described as taking the form of a crocodile, giant beaver or dwarf, it is also said to be a demonic creature. The Afanc was said to attack and devour anyone who entered its waters.
In the oldest story, the Agfanc lurked in a now unidentified and possibly mythical lake called Llyn Lion, Its thrashing about in the water caused terrible floods which regularly drowned the country round about. Hi Gadarn employed the two gigantic oxen called the Ychen Bannog to drag out the fearsome monster, which he then killed. The strain of removing the Afanc caused one of the oxen to die, and the other wandered off, mournfully lowing for his fallen comrade. The bard Iolo Morganwg locates this adventure to the area around Llanddewi Brefi in Ceredigion.
In a later source, it is heroic King Arthur who drags the Afanc from its watery lair, in this case Llyn Barfog (Beared Lake), near Aderdyfi.
Those history and legends lovers who would like see that place may find some of our tips very useful.
This historical walk route takes in what remains today of Llyn Barfog and also a stone, the Carn March Arthur, which is said to be stone hoof imprint of Arthur’s trusty steed, Llamrai. Its battles with the Afanc were so arduous, so legend would have us believe, that as it dragged the Afanc from the nearby lake, it left an indelible mark on the nearby rockface.
How to get there: To see Llyn Barfog and Carn March Arthur, you should make your way to Cwm Maethlon or Happy Valley near Aberdyfi. From Glyn-yr-aur, take the A470 from Dolgellau and then travel on the A487 down towards Machynlleth. Just before reaching this town, turn right onto the A493,then take a right turn into Happy Valley soon after reaching the village of Pennal. Once on this country lane, travel for 10 minutes or so to a car park which is signposted for Llyn Barfog or the Bearded Lake.
It’s not quite known why the Llyn Barfog has the bearded epithet, but it’s thought it could either relate to the characteristics of the dreaded Afanc. Alternatively it’s said the lake may be known as bearded because of the fairly sizeable stretch of reed beds that border it. The lake is also thought to have been much larger in King Arthur’s day and is now presumed to be a shadow of its former self.
The beast has also been associated with Llangorse Lake (Llyn Syfaddon) near Brecon and Llyn yr Afanc near Betws y Coed. It should be noted, however, that afanc is the word for ‘beaver’ in modern Welsh and the afanc may simply be named after this harmless furry critter, which is Wales for centuries.
It is believed this mystical beast still lies sleeping in the depths of a lake, and could sleep for well over a hundred years. Not many people would ever go to swim in those lakes. Once an Afanc was disturbed supposedly, its unfortunate victims would be lucky to escape with their lives.
Photography © Gurcan Sarisoy
Legends and Folklore of Wales. / R.S. Holland
Mysterious Wales / Chris Barber
Wales Before 1066. Prehistoric and Celtic Wales: facing the Romans, Saxons and the Vikings / Donald Gregory