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Magical stories about Patupaiarehe and Tylwyth Teg


Peter Stevenson author of Boggarts, Trolls and Tylwyth Teg tells the magical stories of the hidden people and lost lands in Wales.

On the 15 January 2020, shortly before travel became a dream, I sat sketching an 800 year old Rimu tree at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, close to Wellington, New Zealand. The tree was alive when Māori first travelled from Hawaiki, when the mythical giant eagle Pouakai flew through its branches to hunt the now extinct flightless moa, and over 500 years before Europeans brought plagues, possums and Hokey Pokey ice cream. Around a campfire at its roots sat the Patupaiarehe, a tribe of fair skinned, yellow or red-haired people who lived nocturnally in the forests and on the mountains, where they played flutes, sang haunting songs, and spoke a language understood by Māori. Yet there is no archaeological record of early humans in Aotearoa. Patupaiarehe exist only in Māori oral folk tales.

The historian and journalist James Cowan was brought up speaking Te Aro Māori on a farm in Kihikihi, and in 1925 he recorded the tales of these hidden people in the romantically titled Fairy Folk Tales of the Māori [1]

Te Kanawa, a chief of Waikato, was hunting kiwi on Mount Pukemoremore when darkness fell. He lit a fire, and slept beneath the roots of a Rimu tree, until he was woken by voices and sounds of children playing. The Patupaiarehe approached and surrounded him, singing and chanting. Te Kanawa was unsure whether they were greeting him or about to eat him, so he blew on the fire till it blazed brightly, and the Patupaiarehe retreated, but when it burnt low, back they came. So he jabbed a stick into the ground, and hung his necklace from it, along with his greenstone-earrings and a shark-tooth ring, which he offered as gifts. The Patupaiarehe stopped singing and carefully stretched out their hands towards the stick, then took hold of the shadows cast by the fire, and ran into the bush, leaving behind the necklace, ear-rings and shark-tooth. The Patupaiarehe lived hidden in the shadows.

In Wales there is a tale from over 100 years ago of Plant Rhys Ddwfn, the Children of Rhys the Deep, who lived in a utopian land of rivers and forests in Cardigan Bay, not below the water, but hidden by a thick hedge from the prying eyes of the mainlanders. The story comes from Pen Llŷn where the name Plant Rhys Ddwfn is a colloquial term for the fairies.

Back in the late 1800s, Griffith Griffith, a chapel man from Edern, also on Pen Llŷn, was crossing the heather below Tre'r Ceiri, the Giants’ Town, when he saw a crowd of little people walking towards him, speaking a language he didn’t understand. He wasn't afraid, so he stood by the ditch to let them pass. He called them Tylwyth Teg. Another name for the fairies.

Elis Bach, farmer’s son from Tŷ Canol in nearby Nant Gwrtheyrn was thought to be a changeling child, because his legs were so short his body almost touched the ground. One day he and his dog Meg saw some men stealing sheep, so he jumped out on them, did a weird dance, and chased them off. Elis was no supernatural creature, he was born in the village and spoke Welsh. He was Tylwyth Teg because he was perceived as different, like those visitors who treated Welsh speakers as if they were from another planet. [2]

A few years ago, after I’d been telling stories of the Tylwyth Teg in a village hall in deepest rural Ceredigion, a colourfully dressed lady excitedly told me that the fairies lived by the stream at the bottom of her garden and they weren’t human-sized like those in my stories, but were small and had wings like in the picture books. A tall elderly and elegant farmer stood nearby listening intently, and when the lady left, he approached and spoke quietly: ‘They have visited my farm since I was a child. They are as you described, but I can say no more in case they never come again.’

Here were two encounters with the Tylwyth Teg from the same landscape, one from the old Ceredigion farming community and the other from the new age people who arrived in the 1960s. Stories migrate with people and put roots down wherever they settle, and it only takes one storyteller to plant a tale.

These thoughts were going through my mind when I encountered the Patupaiarehe. I’d been invited by storyteller and writer Moira Wairama to tell tales of the Tylwyth Teg in her marae (meeting place) in Stokes Valley shortly after Christmas 2019. We were joined by Moira’s partner, storyteller, poet and actor Tony Hopkins, whose roots lie in his own Black Cherokee tradition of the little people, the Yunwi Tsunsdi. So there we were, three storytellers from three continents with tales of three tribes of little people. Mischief was in the air.

We arrived at the marae to be told a funeral (tangi) was taking place in the wharenui, the communal house, next door. Māori tangi take around three days to allow time to remember the ancestors and prepare for the transition between worlds in a culture where life expectancy is considerably lower than amongst the pākehā (people of mainly European ancestry). Death is not hidden away behind a crematorium curtain or a cardboard eco-coffin as it is back home, but celebrated as part of life.

We offered to cancel our storytelling out of sympathy, but the bereaved family gave us permission to go ahead if we paid our respects to their loved one. So we left our shoes on the wooden porch where children were noisily playing cricket, and entered a great hall with carved wooden walls painted with characters from the myths of the tribal ancestors. The family lay on cushions around the open casket, and were introduced to us through spontaneous singing and oral storytelling in te reo, the Māori language, while Moira translated quietly in our ears. Her nephew Simon replied on behalf of the strangers, voices ebbed and flowed like the tide, and time was no longer linear. After a while, half an hour, maybe an hour, we gathered round the casket, rubbed noses, kissed cheeks, and the mood transformed into one of party. We left a koha, a monetary offering, and returned to the meeting room next door, where an audience were waiting. The stories I planned to tell felt wrong in the heightened atmosphere, so I asked Simon about the lady in the casket, and he explained he knew little about her, other than she lived alone in the hills above Upper Hutt. So I told a tale which I hoped would be company on the journey to the otherworld.

On the beach at Cei Bach, in the no-man’s land between the cliffs and the high tide mark stood an igam-ogam (higgledy piggledy) old cottage. Its windows were covered in sacking, smoke steamed through the gaps in the thinly thatched roof, and in the doorway sat an old woman with a pipe in her mouth, clogs on her feet, and a trilby hat held in place by a red and yellow spotted handkerchief. This was Siani Pob Man. Siani earned a penny or two by telling fortunes. And if anyone laughed or dared to suggest she couldn’t tell fortunes, she flew into a rage, picked up pebbles from the beach and chased them away. But not until she sold them postcards of herself posing outside her home.

Siani kept chickens and they all had names; Bidi, Ledi, Kit, Ruth, Charlotte, Cynddalyn, and Jonathan the cockerel. She wandered from door to door selling their eggs. Everyone bought them, but no one liked them as they taste of seaweed. So she dyed them with strong tea to make them a more attractive brown, but they still tasted of seaweed.

Siani told stories and sang songs. She said she was born illegitimate, fled the workhouse, was poorly treated in love, ran away with the gypsies, and never married. In fact, she was born Jane Leonard in 1834 at Fferm Bannau Duon near Llanarth, and looked after her mother in Aberaeron until 1883, when she went to live on the beach at Cae Bach, the no man’s land between the water and the cliffs, where she paid rent to no man.

People asked if she was lonely, but she said, no, she had Mr Morgan for company. There was no Mr Morgan. She pointed her pipe at the seaY Môr. Mr Morgan has no respect for her boundaries, he flowed in through her front door without asking. So she simply climbed the ladder into the crog lloft (a traditional single storey dwelling with a lofted space) and slept there with her chickens until he left.

Siani Pob Man died in 1917 with £120 in a box beneath her bed, bequeathed to the children in the Infirmary at Aberaeron Workhouse. Her cottage is long gone, though Mr Morgan still visits twice a day with the ebb and flow of the tide. There were no boundaries in Siani’s world.[3]

These stories are memories of the true tales and dreams of the hidden people who lived in the small cultures and landscapes where they grew roots. They are a folk history of a lost world, shrouded by international corporations who write their own creation myths to advertise their goods to people who are increasingly forgetting their own stories.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask that Rimu tree who has seen it all.

By Peter Stevenson

[1] Cowan, James, Fairy Folk Tales of the Māori (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1925)

[2] Rhys, Sir John, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Vol 1, (Oxford: Henry Frowde, 1891)

[3] Stevenson, Peter, Ceredigion Folk Tales (Stroud, History Press, 2014)

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