The Physicians of Myddfai

This stone at my breast has great virtue;

A medic from Myddfai would do as well

so wrote the 14th century Welsh bard Iorwerth ab y Cyriog in thanks for a gift of a healing stone set in a brooch. The reference attests to the widespread fame of the Physicians of Myddfai even beyond the area and the time in which they practised – Iorwerth was from North Wales rather than the South-West where Myddfai is located and his poem pre-dates the manuscript sources identifying the physicians.

These are to be found at  the beginning of the section of medieval medical manuscripts contained in The Red Book of Hergest in the following ascription: “This is who has written them down: Rhiwallon and his sons, namely, Cadwgan and Gruffudd and Einion, because those men were the best and the chief physicians in their time and in the time of Rhys Gryg, their lord and the lord of Dinefwr at that time …”.

The Physicians of Myddfai, as these men were known, are also the subject of a folktale which must have also been known, but which is recorded in written form only much later as the story of the Otherworld woman of Llyn y Fan Fach who comes out of the lake, marries Rhiwallon, and returns to the lake after bearing three sons, but returns to visit and pass on herblore to her children to enable them to become great physicians. The names of the father and the three sons in the tale are exactly those of the historical record of the physicians of Rhys Gryg ( d. 1234 ) whose domains included the area around Myddfai, a village near the lake in question.

Such overlaps between folklore and legendary history are not uncommon. Consider the tale of Taliesin, recorded by Elis Gruffudd in written form in the 16th century but reported by him to be widely known throughout Wales. This story has parallels in the poems in The Book of Taliesin and the earlier identification of Taliesin as a sixth century bard. Where does mythology fade into folkore and legend grow out of historical events? In the case of the Physicians of Myddfai there does seem to have been physicians with these names attached to the court of Rhys Gryg, and the area around Myddfai was known as a centre of medical practice for some time afterwards, with several houses in the area having historical names identifying them with this practice. The story of the Otherworld woman from the lake has various analogues in stories of lakes as portals to the Otherworld and interactions between otherworld beings and humans through lakes, springs or holy wells. So it may be that, as is common in folklore, different stories were brought together to make a composite which endured to be recorded in written form. The idea that herblore and knowledge of the uses of herbs for medicine, or for magical means, came from divine or otherworld sources might suggest the reason for the two stories being brought together.

But it has also been suggested that there might always have been a link between the lake story and the Physicians, as the white cattle which the Otherworld woman brought with her from the lake have an analogue in the white cattle which traditionally graze the Dinefwr estate, and they have been identified with a type of cattle which were kept by Iron Age tribes in the area. (*) Whether the tale was originally an integrated whole or a linkage of two tales, and if the latter, whether one came about to explain the other, and if so, which came first, is now difficult to tell. Certainly the site of the lake is also the site of Bronze Age ritual remains as I indicated HERE. But folklore is not a static medium and stories morph into other stories or are woven together to create fresh identities so that a story for one time becomes a different story for another time. Like the eroded standing stones near the lake, their remains capture the imagination and engage it in fresh assignations with otherness, while yet retaining something of their original resonance. 

Will a magic stone do as well as a herbal remedy as Iorwerth ab y Cyriog suggests? 

Well, if the story that comes with it is right.


(*) Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales entry p.369  _ see also :

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/famous-white-cattle-camarthenshires-dinefwr-8437523

and John Rhŷs Celtic Folklore  (ch.1)

Background information about the source manuscripts taken from: Medieval Welsh Medical Texts ed. DIANA LUFT (UWP, 2020)

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