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HOLY WELLS, OR WATER-VENERATION.
BY THE REV, ELIAS OWEN, F.S, A.
(Read at the Holywell Meeting, August 20th, 1890.)
THE reverence once paid in Wales to sacred or holy wells has in our practical days all but disappeared. Formerly living water was supposed to possess virtues of a supernatural kind. Faith in the efficacy of sacred wells to cure disease was, perhaps, a development of a possibly ancient idea, that all objects were animate, and consequently that water was a living being, and as such had power which it usually exercised beneficently; but occasionally this power assumed an inimical form, and was destructive of human property and prosperity. Thus would water, streams, rivers, fountains, waterfalls, and wells, become objects of veneration and worship, and propitiatory offerings would be made to them either from fear or from some other motive.
Water-worship was common to ancient paganism, and possibly at this present moment, in various parts of the world, water is an object of veneration. The Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, etc., had their deities of fountain and stream. The early inhabitants of Gaul, Switzerland, and central Europe, worshipped lakes, and regarded them as sacred. The beautiful bracelets which have been discovered in the Swiss lakes have been supposed to have been votive offerings to the water-god. Classical writers, such as Tacitus, Pliny, and Virgil, also allude to sacred lakes. Traces of a similar superstition with regard to water may still be found in Scotland and Ireland, and possibly in Wales. The Ganges, Nile, and Dee are or were thought to be sacred rivers. The step from worship to veneration, and from veneration to regard, consequent upon cures at certain wells, is natural.
But I must confine my remarks to Wales, or this
paper will extend to an unreasonable length. Many parishes in Wales still have their holy wells, but they are uncared for and overgrown with weeds, and the walls that at one time surrounded them have fallen down; in some instances the wells have been filled up, and the water drained off, and undoubtedly their glory has departed. Once though, and that at no distant time, the cost of keeping the parish holy well in order was an item in the annual expenses of the parish; and I have seen in parish accounts that a shilling was paid yearly out of the mize, or rates, towards keeping the holy well clean.
These holy wells in Wales date from ancient times, even from pre-Christian ages. The Celtic people evinced great veneration for sacred wells, which in Gaul degenerated into idolatry; and if Gildas, who is supposed to have lived in the sixth century, is correct, it would seem that even in Wales divine honour was paid to them. His words are: "Neque nominatim inclamitans montes ipsos, aut fontes vel colles, aut fluvios olim exitiabiles, nunc vero humanis usibus utiles, quibus divinus honor a cæco tunc populo cumulabatur." (Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which are now subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.) This species of idolatry was interdicted by the Council of Tours, A.D. 567, and by other laws, but such commands are seldom entirely obeyed.
It would seem that the early British missionaries. perceiving the people's attachment to ancient forms, consecrated or selected particular wells, already in high esteem, for the purposes of holy baptism; and thus even in the present century the water for the font, and even for washing the church, was procured in many parishes from the well dedicated to the patron Saint of that church rather than from some other well in closer proximity to the church.
1 Gildas, paragraph 4.
There is reason to believe that the sites of many churches were selected because of the holy wells which existed in their neighbourhoods, and which were much frequented and greatly venerated by the Celtic people who inhabited those parts. There were wells even within churches; but these in modern times have been drained. When Llanelian Church was being restored, a well of spring water was discovered beneath the floor, and there was some difficulty in diverting the spring. In many churchyards there were wells roofed over, from which water for baptism was obtained, and which were resorted to for bodily health. By transferring thus to sacred purposes these ancient and venerated wells, they continued in Christian times to be greatly esteemed by the people.
These wells were not alike in virtue. To some were attributed healing powers, to others cursing powers, whilst some again were supposed to possess prophetic powers, and some were used as wishing wells. They were frequented by the sick in body and the sick in mind, and anxious mothers carried in their arms their weak babies to them to obtain health. There were some wells used as a remedy for one kind of ailment, and others were thought to afford help in some other bodily disease. Thus one well, by the performance of certain rites, removed warts; others, again, were frequented by those afflicted with cancer; whilst others were good for the eyes; weak-limbed people received strength from bathing in some, and bruises were healed in others; fits even were cured by the waters of one well, and others were capable of healing the whoopingcough. Various were the ailments, far more in number than those enumerated, which were removed by the waters of these sacred wells. Undoubtedly some of these possessed medicinal properties, and hence their virtue.
From the preceding enumeration it will be seen that there were wells that could affect for good or ill their votaries; but there was one that could give to horses
health. This was in the parish of St. George, near Abergele. Distempered animals were brought there, sprinkled with the water, and this blessing pronounced over them :
"Rhad Duw a Sant Sior arnat."
(The blessing of God and St. George be on thee.)
But there was still another use to which holy wells could be put, which is very suggestive. A person who wished to unchristianise himself, so as to become an expert in the black art, filled his mouth three times with water from the well, ejecting it each time with apparent loathing, and after the third performance he was open to contract with the Evil One. There is a well of this description in the upper part of Llanelidan parish, called "Ffynnon y Pasc.
In certain parts of Wales lads and lasses, on Trinity Sunday, were in the habit of going to their holy well, and putting therein sugar, and then they all drank the water. This is, or was, a custom not confined to Wales. It was once customary not only to leave crutches and walking-sticks, but also the clouts used by the diseased at the wells where the sick had been cured, and even the harness of cattle was left behind, not only as offerings, but as a proof of the complete cure bestowed by the healing virtues of the waters.
Wells with a south aspect were supposed to be the best.
But it is time to proceed to a description of a few of the many holy wells once of more than local fame in Wales. It will be seen from what I have already said that many superstitious cluster round these spots, and religious ideas of ancient times have through them lingered on to our days.
One of the most baneful as well as one of the best known wells was St. Elian's, or, as it is called, "Ffynnon Elian." Ffynnon Elian was a cursing well. It is situated in the parish of Llanelian, about two miles from the modern town of Colwyn Bay. It was under the
protection of St. Elian, a most popular Welsh Saint, who had, according to Pennant, "a great concourse of devotees who implored his assistance to relieve them from a variety of disorders." But I will give Pennant's description of the Well. He states that "the Well of St. Elian has been in great repute for the cures of all diseases, by means of the intercession of the Saint, who was first invoked by earnest prayers in the neighbouring church. He was also applied to on less worthy occasions, and made the instrument of discovering thieves, and of recovering stolen goods. Some repair to him to imprecate their neighbours, and to request the Saint to afflict with sudden death, or with some great misfortune, any person who may have offended them. The belief in this is still strong, for three years have not elapsed since I was threatened by a fellow (who imagined I had injured him) with the vengeance of St. Elian, and a journey to his Well to curse me with effect."
Thus wrote Pennant in 1773. The efficacy of the Well is believed in even in our days. I went to it in 1888. A woman who lives close by told me that people now visit it.
The manner of proceeding in order to curse any one was to go to the Well and drop into it a pebble with the initials of the doomed party written thereon. This technically was called putting such an one into the Well. People from all parts of Wales went to Llanelian to put those they had a spite against into the Well; and the dread of such a proceeding was great beyond belief. But happily a person could take himself out of the Well, and then he would return to his normal state of health; but as long as his name remained in the water, so long would the wished-for afflictions of his enemy last.
There was a custodian of St. Elian's Well. The last was John Evans. It was his work to search for the pebbles of those who had been placed therein, and take them out, and advise what should be done to counteract the curse.