The Oldest Animals

I mentioned Cors Fochno (Borth Bog) in my last post and responding to comments said I would say something about the Llyffant (Toad). Most people know the story of the 'Oldest Animals' as an episode in the tale Culhwch and Olwen (my blog on this here) where the animals help Arthur's men to find Mabon son of Modron. But the tale exists independently of Culhwch, both in Welsh and as an international folk tale motif, though the actual animals are different in different cultures.

An extant version in Welsh which mentions the Toad (not featured in the Culhwch episode)
is the account of Thomas Williams of Trefriw who recorded it in 1594. George Borrow repeated the story in his Wild Wales (1862) and claimed to have seen it "in an old, tattered Welsh story book". Here is my translation of a version printed in 1766 which seems to have been taken from the manuscript of Thomas Williams:

The Eagle of Gwernabwy and his wife had been married for a long time and they had lots of children together but now she was dead and he was alone. So he thought he would marry the Owl of Cwm Cowlwyd, but first he wanted to know how old she was to make sure of the lineage of any children he had with her.

So he went first to the Stag of Rhedynfre, and found him lying by an old withered oak tree, and asked him how old the owl was. The Stag said “I knew this oak as an acorn which is now lying without leaf or bark upon it, and there has been no wear on it at all except that I rub myself against it every day, but I never saw the Owl either older or younger than she is today. But there is one that’s older than me: the Salmon of Glyn Llifon.

The Eagle went to him and asked the age of the Owl. He said “ I know I am a year old for every scale on my skin and for every speck in my belly and I never saw the Owl except as she is now. But there is one older than me, and that is the Blackbird of Cilgwri.”

The Eagle went and found the blackbird sitting on a small stone and asked the age of the Owl. The Blackbird said “Do you see this stone under me? It is no bigger than a man could hold in one hand, but I have seen it when it was as heavy as a hundred oxen could pull. There has been no wear on it at all except that I have dried my beak on it each night and struck my wings against it as I arose each morning. And I have never known the Owl older or younger than she is today. But there is one older than me, and that is the Toad of Cors Fochno. If he doesn’t know the age of the Owl, no-one does.

The Eagle went to the Toad and asked the Owl’s age. His answer was “I’ve never eaten anything but what I could get from the earth, and I never got enough of that. Do you see the two large hills by the Bog? I saw that land when it was flat. And nothing has made them except the little that I have excreted. And I have never known the Owl except as an old witch singing ‘tw hw, tw hw’ and frightening children as she does today.”

Therefore, the Eagle of Gwernaby, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Salmon of Glyn Llifon, the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Toad of Cors Fochno, and the Owl of Cwm Cowlwyd are the oldest animals in the world.

Borth Bog is a fitting place for one of the oldest animals to live. It is not an easy place to traverse. But I often skirt the edges of it, its dykes and ditches, and sometimes venture out onto its open spaces or into its alder carrs or willow thickets.Then I think of the Toad in the sphagnum moss and the owl in the woods of the surrounding hills and the witch who is said to have haunted the bog in the past. As for the hills, there are, for sure, two small islands of green rising out of the flat land, below the mountains that rise to the east and stretch inland.


There is a discussion (in Welsh) by Thomas Jones of the manuscript sources referred to above in The National Library of Wales Journal VII (1951)


dreamguardian said...

All is revealed, diolch.

John Toffee said...

Hi, I loved your translation of Thomas Williams account of the Oldest Animals, and your description of Borth Bog. Thank you for that.