Celtic Folklore: The Lady of the Fan Lake

Just as there are mermaids in the sea there are ladies of the lakes in Celtic folklore. Vivienne, the famous Lady of the Lake from the legends of King Arthur, is one, here is another almost as famous:

A young man was walking along the side of a lake when he saw out upon the water a beautiful woman. She was not swimming but walking on the water. With a smile on her face she came toward the young man, who had no idea what to say to her. In his hand he had a piece of bread left over from his lunch, and he raised his hand as if to offer it to her. She looked at the bread and said, “Hard baked bread will never win me." Then she turned and dove into the lake.

The young man returned home to his mother and told her the story of the beautiful lady and her strange remark. Obviously, he was already in love with her and his mother offered him some advice, “When you go to the lake tomorrow, bring a piece of unbaked bread with you, and offer it to her." As far as I know, bread has does not have any magical properties or special meanings in Celtic folklore. The next day the man set off with the unbaked bread and looked for the lady all day. Finally, at sunset, he saw her and offered her the bread. "Unbaked bread will never win me," she said, and again disappeared into the lake.

On the third day, the man came again to the lake but the lady did not appear. The next day he looked for her as well but was unsuccessful. On the day after that he saw her again, and this time he offered her bread that had been soft-baked. She accepted his gift and they sat down to a nice little chat. Notice again the magical significance of the number 3 in Celtic folklore. Overcome with her beauty he asked for her hand in marriage. At first she demurred, but in the end agreed on one condition: if he were ever to strike her three times without cause she would leave him forever. The young man accepted. Bargains such as this with magical beings are common in Celtic folklore.

Turning from him, she vanished into the lake. The young man was in turmoil and looked all over for her. A sound from the water caused him to look out over the lake where he saw an old man standing calmly. The old man walked up to him and spoke. "You wish to marry my daughter, and I will agree to the wedding if you can pass this test." He waved his hand, and two women appeared on the surface of the lake. They were identical, both appearing exactly like his beloved. The old man said, “You must pick which one is your bride. If you choose correctly, you may marry her. If you do not you will never see her again." In this type of Celtic folklore, called a Wonder Tale, the hero is always tested in some way.

The young man studied both women carefully. The were exactly alike in all ways. The same face, the same clothes, the same blond hair. He had no idea which to choose, when one put her foot slightly forward. The young man noticed that their shoes were tied in slightly different ways. He had noticed his beloved's beautiful feet, and the way she tied her shoes, and picked her out instantly from the pair. "You have chosen well,” said the old man. "She will be your wife." As a wedding gift the old man gave the young couple several herds of cattle, sheep and goats. Like mermaids in Celtic folklore, lake ladies usually come from well-to-do families.

The man took his new wife home and they lived happily together for several years when, one day, they were to go to a christening. The origins of Celtic folklore are pagan but the stories exist side by side with Christianity. The lake lady acted very strange and obviously did not want to go. She said it was too far to walk. The young man said she could ride a horse. "Very well, but please fetch my gloves from the house,” she said. When the man returned the lake lady had still not moved. "Come on,” he said. "Let's go!" And he hit her playfully with the gloves. She reminded him of his promise to never strike her, and of the consequences if he did so.

Some time later, the couple were invited to a wedding. The lake lady cried all through the ceremony and annoyed everyone. "What is the problem?” the young man asked. She explained,” When one gets married one is entering into troubles." He slapped her lightly on the back and told her not to be so pessimistic. "Your troubles are also just beginning. You have struck me twice, do not do it again." In Celtic folklore, as in real life, marriage is not easy.

Many years later, after all their children had grown, the now elderly couple were at a funeral. There the lake lady laughed and was obviously quite joyful. "What are you doing?” the man asked, touching her shoulder. "I am happy because when people die they leave all their troubles." Then she stood and said,” The last blow has been struck. I must leave you now." The lake lady left the church and walked to the lake. Behind her the herds of cattle, sheep and goats followed. All vanished into a mist that floated above the waters of the lake.

The fate of the lake lady's husband has been lost to history, but Celtic folklore says that she appeared many times to her children. She imparted to them great medical knowledge and they became famous physicians.