Folk-Lore/Volume 4/Sacred Wells in Wales

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Folk-Lore, Volume 4  (1893) 
Sacred Wells in Wales,
by John Rhŷs and T. E. Morris

SACRED WELLS IN WALES.[1]




WHEN I suggested, some time ago, that I did not know that the habit of tying rags and bits of clothing to the branches of a tree growing near a holy well existed in Wales, I was, as I have discovered since, talking in an ignorance for which I can now find no adequate excuse. For I have since then obtained information to the contrary; the first item being a communication received last June from Mr. J. H. Davies of Lincoln College, Oxford, relating to a Glamorganshire holy well, situated near the pathway leading from Coychurch to Bridgend. It is the custom there, he states, for people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and to bathe the affected part of the body, the rag being then placed on a tree close to the well. When Mr. Davies passed that way, some three years previously, there were, he adds, hundreds of such shreds on the tree, some of which distinctly presented the appearance of having been placed there very recently. The well is called Ffynnon Cae Moch; and a later communication from Mr. Davies embodies his notes of a conversation which he had about the well, on the 16th of December, 1892, with Mr. J. T. Howell of Pencoed, near Bridgend, which notes run thus:—"Ffynnon Cae Moch, between Coychurch and Bridgend, is one mile from Coychurch, 1¼ from Bridgend, near Tremains. It is within twelve or fifteen yards of the high road, just where the pathway begins. People suffering from rheumatism go there. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted, but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags."

My next informant is Mr. D. J. Jones of Jesus College, Oxford, a native of the Rhondda Valley, in the same county of Glamorgan. His information is to the effect that he knows of three interesting wells in the county. The first is situated within two miles of his home, and is known as Ffynnon Pen Rhys, or the Well of Pen Rhys. The custom there is that the person who wishes his health to be benefited should wash in the water of the well, and throw a pin into it afterwards. He next mentions a well at Llancarvan, some five or six miles from Cowbridge, where the custom prevails of tying rags to the branches of a tree growing close at hand. Lastly, he calls my attention to a passage in Hanes Morgamug, 'The History of Glamorgan', written by Mr. D. W. Jones, known in Wales as Dafydd Morgan wg. In that work the author speaks of Ffynnon Marcros, 'the Well of Marcros,' to the following effect:—"It is the custom for those who are healed in it to tie a shred of linen or cotton to the branches of a tree that stands close by; and there the shreds are, almost as numerous as the leaves." Marcros is, I may say, near Nash Point, and looks on the map as if it were about eight miles distant from Bridgend; and let me here make it clear that I have been speaking of four different wells, three of which are severally distinguished by the presence of a tree adorned with rags left on it by those who seek health in the waters close by; but they are all three, as you will have doubtless noticed, in the same district, namely, that part of Glamorganshire near to—north or south of—the G.W.R. as you travel towards Milford Haven.[2]

There is no reason, however, to think that the custom of tying rags to a well-tree was peculiar to that part of the Principality. I came lately, in looking through some old notes of mine, across an entry bearing the date of the 7th day of August 1887, when I was spending a few days with my friend Canon Silvan Evans, at Llanwrin Rectory, near Machynlleth. Mrs. Evans was then alive and well, and took a keen interest in Welsh antiquities and folk-lore. Among other things, she related to me how she had, some twenty years before, visited a well in the parish of Llandrillo yn Rhos, namely, Ffynnon Eilian, or Elian's Well, near Abergele in Denbighshire, when her attention was directed to some bushes near the well, which had once been covered with bits of rags left by those who frequented the well. This was told Mrs. Evans by an old woman of seventy, who, on being questioned by Mrs. Evans concerning the history of the well, informed her that the rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool. She was explicit on the point that wool had to be used for the purpose, and that even woollen yarn would not do: it had to be wool in its natural state. The old woman remembered this to have been the rule ever since she was a child. Mrs. Evans noticed corks with pins stuck in them, floating in the well, and her informant remembered many more in years gone by; for Elian's Well was once in great repute as a ffynnon reibio, or a well to which people resorted for the kindly purpose of bewitching those whom they hated. I infer, however, from what Mrs. Evans was told of the rags, that Elian's Well was visited, not only by the malicious, but also by the sick and suffering. My note is not clear on the point whether there were any rags on the bushes by the well when Mrs. Evans visited the spot, or whether she was only told of them by her informant. Even in the latter case it seems evident that this habit of tying rags on trees or bushes near sacred wells has only ceased in that part of Denbighshire within this century. It is very possible that it continued in North Wales more recently than this instance would lead one to suppose; indeed, I should not be in the least surprised to learn that it is still practised in out-of-the-way places in Gwynedd, just as it is in Glamorgan. We want more facts.

I cannot say whether it was customary in any of the cases to which I have called your attention, not only to tie rags to the well-tree, but also to throw pins or other small objects into the well; but I cannot help adhering to my view that the distinction was probably an ancient one between two orders of things. In other words, I am still inclined to believe that the rag was regarded as the vehicle of the disease of which the ailing visitor to the well wished to be rid, and that the bead, button, or coin deposited by him in the well, or in a receptacle near the well, alone formed the offering. When I suggested this in connection with certain wells in the Isle of Man, the President of the Folk-lore Society remarked as follows (Folk-Lore, iii, 89):—"There is some evidence against that, from the fact that in the case of some wells, especially in Scotland at one time, the whole garment was put down as an offering. Gradually these offerings of clothes became less and less, till they came down to rags. Also, in other parts, the geographical distribution of rag-offerings coincides with the existence of monoliths and dolmens." As to the monoliths and dolmens, I am too little conversant with the facts to feel sure that I understand the President's reference; so perhaps he would not mind amplifying this remark at some opportune moment. But as to his suggestion that the rag originally meant the whole garment, that will suit my hypothesis admirably; in other words, the whole garment was, as I take it, the vehicle of the disease: the whole garment was accursed, and not merely a part of it. The President has returned to the question in his excellent address; and I must at once admit that he has succeeded in proving that a certain amount of confusion is made between things which I regard as belonging originally to distinct categories: witness the inimitable Irish instance which he quoted: — "To St. Columbkill I offer up this button, a bit o' the waistband o' my own breeches, an' a taste o' my wife's petticoat, in remimbrance of us havin' made this holy station; an' may they rise up in glory to prove it for us in the last day." Here not only the button is treated as an offering, but also the bits of clothing; but the confusion of ideas I should explain as being, at least in part, one of the natural results of substituting a portion of a garment for the entire garment; for thereby a button or a pin becomes a part of the dress, and capable of being interpreted in two senses. After all, however, the ordinary practices have not, I believe, resulted in effacing the distinction altogether: the rag is not left in the well; nor is the bead, button, or pin suspended to a branch of the tree. So, on the whole, it seems to me easier to explain the facts, taken all together, on the supposition that originally the rag was regarded as the vehicle of the disease, and the bead, button, or coin as the offering. But on this point I wish to ask whether the disease is ever regarded as attaching to a bead, button, or coin, as it is to the rag on the tree? I ask this for my own information; and I may make the same remark with regard to the whole question: I raise it chiefly with a view to promote its further discussion. Some of our journalistic friends seem to imagine, that, when once one makes a suggestion, one feels bound to fight for it tooth and nail; but this is entirely to misunderstand, I take it, the whole spirit of modern research: at any rate, I should be very sorry to have to maintain all the positions I have taken. But, on the other hand, the conjectures of some men who are seldom quite right have perhaps done more to advance science than the facts of some other men who have never grievously blundered in their lives.

The great majority of the Welsh wells of which I have heard seem simply to have pins thrown into them, mostly in order to get rid of warts from the patients' hands. So I will only mention one or two of them as being to some extent relevant to the question to which your attention has just been called. Ffynnon Gwynwy, or the Well of Gwynwy, near Llangelynin, on the river Conwy, appears to be of this sort; for it formerly used to be well stocked with crooked pins, which nobody would touch lest he might get from them the warts supposed to attach to them. There was a well of some repute at Cae Garvv, in the parish of Pistyll, near the foot of Carnguwch, in Lleyn or West Carnarvonshire. The water possessed virtues to cure one of rheumatism and warts; but, in order to be rid of the latter, it was requisite to throw a pin into the well for each individual wart. For these two items of information, and several more to be mentioned presently, I have to thank Mr. John Jones, better known in Wales by his bardic name of Myrddin Fardd, and as an enthusiastic collector of Welsh antiquities, whether MSS. or unwritten folk-lore. On the second day of this year I paid him a visit at Chwilog, on the Carnarvon and Avon Wen Railway, and asked him many questions, which he not only answered with the utmost willingness, but also showed me the unpublished materials that he had collected. To leave him for a moment, I come to the competition on the folk-lore of North Wales at the London Eisteddfod in 1887, in which, as one of the adjudicators, I observed that several of the writers in that competition mentioned the prevalent belief that every well with healing properties must have its outlet towards the south. According to one of the writers, if you wished to get rid of warts, you should, on your way to the well, look for wool which the sheep had lost. When you had found enough wool you should prick each wart with a pin, and then rub the wart well with the wool. The next thing was to bend the pin and throw it into the well. Then you should place the wool on the first whitethorn you could find, and as the wind scattered the wool, the warts would disappear. There was a well of the kind, the writer goes on to say, near his home; and he, with three or four other boys, went from school one day to the well to charm their warts away. For he had twenty-three on one of his hands; so that he always tried to hide it, as it was the belief that if one counted the warts they would double their number. He forgets what became of the other boys' warts, but his own disappeared soon afterwards; and his grandfather used to maintain that it was owing to the virtue of the well. Such were the words of this writer, whose name is unknown to me; but I guess him to have been a native ot Carnarvonshire, or else of one of the neighbouring districts of Denbighshire or Merionethshire. To return to Myrddin Fardd, he mentioned Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or the Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Lleyn. In the case of this well it is necessary, when going to it and coming from it, to be careful not to utter a word to anybody, or to turn to look back. What one has to do at the well is to bathe the warts with a rag or clout which has grease on it. When that is done, the clout with the grease has to be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well. This brings to my mind the fact that I have, more than once, years ago, noticed rags underneath stones in the water flowing from wells in Wales, and sometimes thrust into holes in the walls of wells, but I had no notion how they came there.

In the cliffs at the west end of Lleyn is a wishing-well called Ffynnon Fair, or St. Mary's Well; where, to obtain your wish, you have to descend the steps to the well and walk up again to the top with your mouth full of the water. Viewing the position of the well from the sea, I should be disposed to think that the realisation of one's wish at that price could not be regarded as altogether cheap. Myrddin Fardd also told me that there used to be a well near Criccieth Church, in Eifionydd, West Carnarvonshire. It was known as Ffynnon y Saint, or the Saints' Well, and it was the custom to throw keys or pins into it on the morning of Easter Sunday, in order to propitiate St. Catherine, who was the patron of the well. I should be glad to know what this exactly means. Lastly, a few of the wells in that part of Gwynedd may be grouped together and described as oracular. One of these, the big well in the parish of Llanbedrog in Lleyn, as I learn from Myrddin Fardd, required the devotee to kneel by it and avow his faith in it. After this was duly done, he might proceed in this wise: to ascertain the name of the thief who had stolen from him, he had to throw a bit of bread into the well and name the person whom he suspected. At the name of the thief the bread would sink; so the inquirer went on naming all the persons he could think of until the bit of bread sank: then the thief was identified. Another well of the same kind was Ffynnon Saethon, in Llanfihangel Bachellaeth parish, also in Lleyn. Here it was customary, as he had it in writing, for lovers to throw pins (pinnau) into the well; but these pins appear to have been the points of the blackthorn. At any rate, they cannot well have been of any kind of metal, as we are told that, if they sank in the water, one concluded that one's lover was not sincere in his or her love. Ffynnon Gybi, or St. Cybi's Well, in the parish of Llangybi, was the scene of a somewhat similar practice; for there the girls who wished to know their lovers' intentions would spread their pocket-handkerchiefs on the water of the well, and, if the water pushed the handkerchiefs to the south—in Welsh i'r dé—they knew that everything was right—in Welsh o ddê—and that their lovers were honest and honourable in their intentions; but, if the water shifted the handkerchiefs northwards, they concluded the contrary. A reference to this is made in severe terms by a modern Welsh poet, as follows:—


Ambell ddyn, gwaelddyn, a gyrch
I bant goris Moel Bentyrch,
Alewn gobaith mai hen Gybi
Glodfawr sydd yn llvyddaw'r lli.


 Some folks, worthless folks, visit
 A hollow below Moel Bentyrch,
 In hopes that ancient Kybi
 Of noble fame blesses the flood.


The spot is not far from where Myrddin Fardd lives; and he mentioned that adjoining the well is a building which was probably intended for the person in charge of the well. However that may be, it has been tenanted within his memory. A well, bearing the remarkable name of Ffyunon Gwynedd, or the Well of Gwynedd, is situated near Mynydd Mawr, in the parish of Abererch, and it used to be consulted in the same way for a different purpose. When it was desired to discover whether an ailing person would recover, a garment of his would be thrown into the well, and according to the side on which it sunk it was known whether he would live or die. All these items are based on Myrddin Fardd's answers to my questions, or on the notes which he gave me to peruse.

The next class of wells to claim our attention consists of what I may call magic wells, of which few are mentioned in connection with Wales; but the legends about them are very curious. One of them is in Myrddin Fardd's neighbourhood, and I questioned him a good deal on the subject: it is called Ffyunon Grassi, or Grace's Well, and it occupies, according to him, a few square feet—he has measured it himself—of the south-east corner of the Lake of Glasfryn Uchaf, in the parish of Llangybi. It appears that it was walled in, and that the stone forming its eastern side has several holes in it, which were intended to let water enter the well and not issue from it. It had a door or cover on its surface; and it was necessary to keep the door always shut, except when water was being drawn. Through somebody's negligence, however, it was once on a time left open: the consequence was that the water of the well flowed out and formed the Glasfryn pool, which is so considerable as to be navigable for small boats. Grassi is supposed in the locality to have been the name of the owner of the well, or at any rate of a woman who had something to do with it. Grassi, or Grace, however, can only be a name which a modern version of the legend has introduced. It probably stands for an older name given to the person in charge of the well, the one, in fact, who neglected to shut the door; but though this name must be comparatively modern, the story, as a whole, does not appear to be at all modern, but very decidedly the contrary.

For the next legend of this kind I have to thank the Rev. J. Fisher, Curate of Llanllwchaiarn, Newtown, Mont., who, in spite of his name, is a genuine Welshman, and—what is more—a Welsh scholar. The following are his words: —"Llyn Llech Owen (the last word is locally sounded w-en, like oo-en in English, as is also the personal name Owen) is on Mynydd Mawr, in the ecclesiastical parish of Gors Las, and the civil parish of Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire. It is a small lake, forming the source of the Gwendraeth Fawr. I have heard the tradition about its origin told by several persons, and by all, until quite recently, pretty much in the same form. In 1884 I took it down from my grandfather, Mr. Rees Thomas (b. 1809, d. 1892), of Cil Coll, Llandebïe—a very intelligent man, with a good fund of old-world Welsh lore—who had lived all his life in the neighbouring parishes of Llandeilo Fawr and Llandebïe.

"The following is the version of the story (translated) as I had it from him:—There was once a man of the name of Owen living on Mynydd Mawr, and he had a well ('ffynnon'). Over this well he kept a large flag ('fflagen neu lech fawr': 'fflagen' is the word in common use now in these parts for a large flat stone), which he was always careful to replace over its mouth after he had satisfied himself or his beast with water. It happened, however, that one day he went on horseback to the well to water his horse, and forgot to put the flag back in its place. He rode off leisurely in the direction of his home; but, after he had gone some distance, he casually looked back, and, to his great astonishment, saw that the well had burst out and was overflowing the whole place. He suddenly bethought him that he should ride back and encompass the overflow of the water as fast as he could; and it was the horse's track in galloping round the water that put a stop to its further overflowing. It is fully believed that, had he not galloped round the flood in the way he did, the well would have been sure to inundate the whole district and drown all. Hence the lake was called the Lake of Owen's Flag ('Llyn Llech Owen').

"I have always felt interested in this story, as it resembled that about the formation of Lough Neagh, etc.; and, happening to meet the Rev. D. Harwood Hughes, B.A., the Vicar of Gors Las (St. Lleian's), last August (1892), I asked him to tell me the legend as he had heard it in his parish. He said that he had been told it, but in a form different from mine, where the 'Owen' was said to have been Owen Glyndwr. This is the substance of the legend as he had heard it:—Owen Glyndwr, when once passing through these parts, arrived here of an evening. He came across a well, and, having watered his horse, placed a stone over it in order to find it again next morning. He then went to lodge for the night at Dyllgoed Farm, close by. In the morning, before proceeding on his journey, he took his horse to the well to give him water, but found to his surprise that the well had become a lake."

Mr. Fisher goes on to mention the later history of the lake: how, some eighty years ago, its banks were the resort on Sunday afternoons of the young people of the neighbourhood, and how a Baptist preacher put an end to their amusements and various kinds of games by preaching at them. However, the lake-side appears to be still a favourite spot for picnics and Sunday-school gatherings.

Mr. Fisher was quite right in appending to his own version that of his friend; but, from the point of view of folk-lore, I must confess that I can make nothing of the latter: it differs from the genuine one as much as chalk does from cheese. It would be naturally gratifying to the pride of local topography to be able to connect with the pool the name of the greatest Owen known to Welsh history; but it is worthy of note that the highly respectable attempt to rationalise the legend wholly fails, as it does not explain why there is now a lake where there was once but a well. In other words, the euhemerised version is itself evidence corroborative of Mr. Fisher's older version. This, in the form in which he got it from his grandfather, provokes comparison, as he suggests, with the Irish legend of the formation of Loch Ree and Lough Neagh in the story of the Death of Eochaid McMaireda.[3] In that story also there is a horse, but it is a magic horse, who forms the well which eventually overflows and becomes the large body of water known as Lough Neagh. For the magic well was placed in the charge of a woman called Liban; she one day left the cover of the well open, and the catastrophe took place—the water issuing forth and overflowing the country. Liban herself, however, was not drowned, but only changed into a salmon—a form which she retained for three centuries. In my Arthurian Legend, p. 361, I have attempted to show that the name Liban may have its Welsh equivalent in that of Llion, occurring in the name of Llyn Llion, or Llion's Lake, the bursting of which is described in the latest series of Triads (iii, 13, 97) as causing a sort of deluge. I am not certain as to the nature of the relationship between those names, but it seems evident that the stories have a common substratum, though it is to be noticed that no well, magic or otherwise, figures in the Llyn Llion legend, which makes the presence of the monster called the Avanc the cause of the waters bursting forth. So Hu the Mighty, with his team of famous oxen, is made to drag the monster out of the lake. There is, however, another Welsh legend concerning a great overflow in which a well does figure: I allude to that of Cantre'r Gwaelod, or the Bottom Hundred, a fine spacious country supposed to be submerged in Cardigan Bay. Modern euhemerism treats it as defended by embankments and sluices, which, we are told, were in the charge of the prince of the country, named Seithennin, who, being one day in his cups, forgot to shut the sluices, and thus brought about the inundation, which was the end of his fertile realm. This, however, is not the old legend; which speaks of a well, and lays the blame on a woman—a pretty sure sign of antiquity, as you may judge from other old stories which will readily occur to you. The Welsh legend to which I allude is a short poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen,[4] consisting of eight triplets, to which is added a triplet from the Englynion of the Graves (also found on fo. 33a of the B. B.).

The following is a tentative translation of it: —

Seithenhin sawde allan.

ac edrẏchuirde varanres mor.
maes guitnev rẏtoes.

  Seithennin, stand thou forth
  And see the vanguard of the main—
  Gwyðno's plain has it covered.

Boed emendiceid ẏ morvin
aehellẏgaut guẏdi cvin.
finaun wenestir mor terruin.

  Accursed be the maiden
  Who after supping let it loose—
  The well-servant of the high sea.

Boed emendiceid ẏ vachteith.
ae. golligaut guẏdi gueith.
finaun wenestir mor diffeith.

  Accursed be the spinster
  Who after battle let it loose—
  The well-servant of the main. Diaspad vererid ẏ ar vann caer.
hid ar duu ẏ dodir,
gnaud guẏdi traha trangc hir.

  Mererid's cry from a city's height
  Even to God is it sent aloft:
  After pride comes long death.

Diaspad mererid . ẏ ar van kaer hetiv.
hid ar duu ẏ dadoluch.
gnaud guydi traha attreguch.

  Mererid's cry from a city's height to-day
  Even to God her expiation:
  After pride comes reflection.

Diaspad mererid am gorchuit heno.
ac nimhaut gorlluit.
gnaud guẏdi traha tramguit.

  Mererid's cry fills me to-night,
  Nor can I readily prosper:
  After pride comes a downfall.

Diaspad mererid ẏ ar gwinev kadir
kedaul duv ae gorev.
gnaud guẏdi gormot eissev.

  Mererid's cry over generous wines:
  The bountiful man is God's creation:
  After excess comes privation.

Diaspad mererid . am kẏmhell heno
 ẏ urth uẏistauell.
gnaud guẏdi traha trangc pell.

  Mererid's cry forces me to-night
  Away from my chamber:
  After insolence comes long death.

Bet seithenhin sẏnhuir vann
Rug kaer kenedir a glan.
mor maurhidic a kinran.

  The grave of Seithennin of the feeble understanding
  (Is) between Kenedyr's Fort and the shore,
  (With that of) Môr the Grand and Kynran.

The names in these lines present great difficulties: first comes that of Mererid, which is no other word than Margarita, 'a pearl', borrowed; but what does it here mean? Margarita, besides meaning a pearl, was used in Welsh, e.g., under the form Marereda,[5] as the proper name written in English Margaret. That is probably how it is to be taken here, namely, as the name given to the negligent guardian of the magic well. It cannot very well be, however, the name occurring in the original form of the legend; but we have the parallel case of Ffynnon Grassi or Grace's Well. The woman in question plays the rôle of Liban in the Irish story, and one of Liban's names was Muirgen, which would in Welsh be Morien, the earliest known form of which is Morgen, 'sea-born'. I conjecture accordingly that the respectable Christian name Margarita was substituted for an original Morgen, partly because perhaps Morgen was used as the name of a man, namely, of the person known to ecclesiastical history as Pelagins, which makes an appropriate translation of Morgen or Morien. I may point out that the modern name Morgan, standing as it does for an older Morcant, is an utterly different name, although Article IX in the Welsh version of the English Book of Common Prayer gives its sanction to the ignorance which makes the Pelagians of the original into Morganiaid. This accounts probably for what I used to hear when I was a boy, namely, that families bearing the name of Morgan were of a mysteriously uncanny descent. What was laid to their charge I could never discover; but it was probably the sin of heresy of the ancient Morgen or Morien—the name, as some of you know, selected as s ffugenw by the Arch-dderwydd, or the soi-disant chief of the Druids of Wales at the present day, whose proper surname is Morgan. But to return to the Bottom Hundred, nobody has been able to identify Caer Kencdyr, and I have nothing to say as to Mor Maurhidic, except that a person of that name is mentioned in another of the Englynion of the Graves. It runs thus (i). B. B. fo. 33a):

Bet mor maurhidic diessic unben.
 post kinhen kinteic.
mab peredur penwetic.

  The Grave of Mor the Grand, the Déisi's prince,
  Pillar of the foremost (?) conflict,
  The son of Peredur of Penweddig.

It is a mere conjecture of mine that diessic is an adjective referring to the people called in Irish Déisi, who invaded Dyfed, and founded there a dynasty represented by King Triphun and his Sons at the time of St. David's birth; later, we find Elen, wife of Howel Dda, to be one of that family. The mention of Peredur of Penweddig raises other questions; but let it suffice here to say that Penweddig was a Cantred consisting of North Cardiganshire, which brings us to the vicinity of Cantre'r Gwaelod. The last name in the final triplet of the poem which I have attempted to translate is Kinran, which is quite inexplicable as a Welsh name; but I am inclined to identify it with that of one of the three who escaped the catastrophe in the Irish legend. The name there is Curnan, which was borne by the idiot of the family, who, like many later idiots, was at the same time a prophet. For he is represented as always prophesying that the waters were going to burst forth, and advising his friends to prepare boats. So he may be set, after a fashion, over against our Seithenhin synwyr wan, 'S. of the feeble mind'. But you will perhaps ask why I do not point out an equivalent in Irish for the Welsh Seithennin, The fact is that no such equivalent occurs in the Irish story in question, nor, so far as I know, in any other.

That is what I wrote when penning these notes; but it has occurred to me since then that there is an Irish name, an important Irish name, which is possibly related to Seithenhin, and that is Setanta, the first name of the Irish hero Cúchulainn. If we put this name back into what may be surmised to have been its early form, we arrive at Settṇtḭas or Settṇtḭos, while Seithennin or Seithenhin — both spellings occur in the Black Book — admits of being restored to Seithṇtinos, The nt in Setanta, on the other hand, makes one suspect that it is a name of Brythonic origin in Irish ; and I have been in the habit of associating it with that of the people of the Setantii[6], placed by Ptolemy on the coast-land of Lancashire. The two theories are possibly compatible ; but in that case one would have to consider both Setanta and Setantii as Brythonic names, handed down in forms more or less Goidelicised. Whether any legend has ever been current about a country submerged on the coast of Lancashire I cannot say, but I should be very glad to be informed of it if any such is known. I remember, however, reading somewhere as to the Plain of Muirthemhne, of which Cúchulainn, our Setanta, had special charge, that it was so called because it had once been covered by the sea : but that is just the converse of Seithennin's country being continuously submerged. The latter is beneath Cardigan Bay, while the other fringed the opposite side of the Irish Sea, consisting as it did of the level portion of county Louth. And on the whole I am not altogether indisposed to believe that we have in these names traces of an ancient legend of a wider scope than is represented by the Black Book triplets which I have essayed to translate. I think that I am right in recognising that legend in the Mabinogi of Branwen, daughter of Llyr. There we read that, when Bran and his men crossed from Wales to Ireland, the intervening sea consisted merely of two navigable rivers called Lli and Archan. The story-teller adds words, grievously mistranslated by Lady Charlotte Guest in her Mabinogion, iii, 117, to the effect that it is only since then that the sea has multiplied his realms between Ireland and the Isle of the Mighty, as he calls this country.

These are not all the questions which such stories suggest to me ; for Seithennin is represented in later Welsh literature as the son of one Seithyn Saidi, King of Dyfed. Saidi is obscure : a Mab Saidi, 'Saidi's Son', is mentioned in the Story of Kulhwch and Olwen : see the Red Book Mabinogion, pp. 106, 110; and as to Seithyn, or Seithin, a person so called is alluded to in an obscure passage in the Book of Taliessin : see Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales, ii, 21O. I now shift to the coast of Brittany, as to which I learn from a short paper by the late M. Le Men, in the Revue Archéologique, xxiii, 52, that the Ile de Sein is called in Breton Enez-Sun, in which Sun is a dialectic shortening of Sizun, which is also met with as Seidhun. That being so, one can have but little hesitation in regarding Sizun as nearly related to our Seithyn. That is not all : the tradition reminds one of the Welsh legend : M. Le Men not only referred to the Vie du P. Maunoir by Boschet (Paris, 1697), but added that, in his own time, the road ending on the Pointe du Raz opposite the Isle of Sein "passe pour être l'ancien chemin qui conduisait à la ville d'Is (Kaer-a-Is, la ville de la partie basse)." It is my own experience that nobody can go about much in Brittany without hearing over and over again about the submerged city of Is. When pondering over the collective significance of these stories, I had my attention directed to quite another order of facts by a naturalist who informed me that a well-known botanist ranks as Iberian a certain percentage — a very considerable percentage, I understood him to say — of the flora of our south-western peninsulas, such as Cornwall and Kerry. The question suggests itself at once : Can our British and Breton legends of submergence have come down to us from so remote a past as the time when the land extended unbroken from the north of Spain to the south of Ireland ? I cannot say that such a view seems to me admissible, but the question may prove worth putting.

To return to magic wells, I have to confess that I cannot decide what may be precisely the meaning of the notion of a well with a woman set carefully to see that the door of the well is kept shut. It will occur, however, to every- body to compare the well which Undine wished to have kept shut, on account of its affording a ready access from her subterranean country to the castle of her refractory knight. And in the case of the Glasfryn Lake, the walling and cover that were to keep the spring from overflowing were, according to the story, not water-tight, seeing that there were holes in one of the stones. This suggests the idea that the cover was to prevent the passage of some such full-grown fairies as those with which legend seems to have once peopled all the pools and tarns of Wales. But, in the next place, is the maiden in charge of the well to be regarded as priestess of the well ? This idea of a priesthood is not wholly unknown in connection with wells in Wales.

In another context (p. 57, above) I have alluded to Ffynnon Eilian, or St. Elian's Well ; and I wish now briefly to show the bearing of its history on this question. We read as follows, s. v. Llandrillo, in Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Wales, edition 1833: "Fynnon Eilian, which, even in the present age, is annually visited by hundreds of people, for the reprehensible purpose of invoking curses upon the heads of those who have grievously offended them. The ceremony is performed by the applicant standing upon a certain spot near the well, whilst the owner of it reads a few passages of the sacred scriptures, and then, taking a small quantity of water, gives it to the former to drink, and throws the residue over his head, which is repeated three times, the party continuing to mutter imprecations in whatever terms his vengeance may dictate." Rice Rees, in his Essay on Welsh Saints (London, 1836), p. 267, speaks of St. Elian as follows : "Miraculous cures were lately supposed to be performed at his shrine at Llanelian, Anglesey ; and near the church of Llanelian, Denbighshire, is a well called Ffynnon Elian, which is thought by the peasantry of the neighbourhood to be endued with miraculous powers even at present." Foulkes, s.v. Elian, in his Enwogion Cymru, published in 1870, expresses the opinion that the visits of the superstitious to the well had ceased for some time. The last man supposed to have had charge of the well was a certain John Evans ; but some of the most amusing stories of the shrewdness of the person looking after the well refer to a woman who had charge of it before Evans' time. A series of articles on Ffynnon Eilian appeared in 1861 in a Welsh periodical called Y Nofelydd, printed by Aubrey at Llanerch y Medd in Anglesey. The articles in question were afterwards published, I believe, as a shilling book, which I have not seen, and they dealt with the superstition, with the history of John Evans, and his confession and conversion. I have searched in vain for any account in Welsh of the ritual followed at the well.

Lewis calls the person who took the charge of the well the owner ; and I have always understood that, whether owner or not, the person in question received gifts of money, not only for placing in the well the names of men who were to be cursed, but also from those men for taking their names out again, so as to relieve them from the malediction. In fact, the trade in curses seems to have been a very thriving one : its influence was powerful and wide-spread.

Here there is, I think, very little doubt that the owner or guardian of the well was, so to say, the representative of an ancient priesthood of the well. His function as a pagan — for such we must reckon him, in spite of his employing in his ritual some verses from the Bible — was analogous to that of a parson or preacher who lets for rent the sittings in his church. We have, however, no sufficient data in this case to show how the right to the priesthood of a sacred well was acquired, whether by inheritance or otherwise ; but we know that a woman might have charge of St. Elian's Well.

Let me cite another instance, which I suddenly discovered last summer in the course of a ramble in quest of old inscriptions. Among other places which I visited was Llandeilo Llwydarth, near Maen Clochog, in the northern part of Pembrokeshire. This is one of the many churches bearing the name of St. Teilo in South Wales : the building is in ruins, but the churchyard is still used, and contains two of the most ancient non-Roman inscriptions in the Principality. If you ask now for "Llandeilo" in this district, you will be understood to be inquiring after the farm-house of that name, close to the old church ; and I learnt from the landlady that her family has been there for many generations, though they have not very long been the proprietors of the land. She also told me of St. Teilo's Well, a little above the house ; adding that it was considered to have the property of curing the whooping-cough. I asked if there was any rite or ceremony necessary to be performed in order to derive benefit from the water. Certainly, I was told ; the water must be lifted out of the well and given to the patient to drink by some member of the family : to be more accurate, I ought to say that this must be done by somebody born in the house. One of her sons, however, had told me previously, when I was busy with the inscriptions, that the water must be given to the patient by the heir, not by anybody else. Then came my question how the water was lifted, or out of what the patient had to drink, to which I was answered that it was out of the skull. "What skull ?" said I. "St. Teilo's skull", was the answer. "Where do you get the saint's skull ?" I asked. "Here it is", was the answer, and I was given it to handle and examine. I know next to nothing about skulls ; but it struck me that it was a thick, strong skull, and it called to my mind the story of the three churches which contended for the saint's corpse. You all know it, probably : the contest became so keen that it had to be settled by prayer and fasting. So, in the morning, lo and behold ! there were three corpses of St. Teilo — not simply one — and so like were they in features and stature that nobody could tell which were the corpses made to order and which the old one. I should have guessed that the skull which I saw belonged to the former description, as not having been very much worn by its owner ; but this I am forbidden to do by the fact that, according to the legend, this particular Llandeilo was not one of the three contending churches which bore away in triumph a dead Teilo each. Another view, however, is possible : namely, that the story has been edited in such a way as to reduce a larger number of Teilos into three, in order to gratify the Welsh fondness for triads.

Since my visit to the neighbourhood I have been favoured with an account of the well as it is now current there. My informant is Mr. Benjamin Gibby of Llangolman Mill, who writes (in Welsh) mentioning, among other things, that the people around call the well Ffynnon yr Ychen, or the Oxen's Well, and that the family owning and occupying the farm-house of Llandeilo have been there for centuries. Their name, which is Melchior (pronounced Melshor), is by no means a common one in the Principality, so far as I know ; but, whatever may be its history in Wales, the bearers of it are excellent Kymry. Mr. Gibby informs me that the current story solves the difficulty as to the saint's skull as follows : — The saint had a favourite maid-servant from the Pembrokeshire Llandeilo : she was a beautiful woman, and had the privilege of attending on the saint when he was on his death-bed. As his death was approaching, he gave his maid a strict and solemn command that at the end of a year's time from the day of his burial at Llandeilo Fawr she was to take his skull to the other Llandeilo, and to leave it there to be a blessing to coming generations of men, who, when ailing, would have their health restored by drinking water out of it. So the belief has been that to drink out of the skull some of the water of Teilo's well ensures health, especially against the whooping-cough. The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it, as he says, with their health wonderfully improved ; and he mentions a story related to him by an old neighbour, Stephen I fan, who has been dead for some years, to the effect that a carriage, drawn by four horses, came once, more than half a century ago, to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids coming from Pen Clawdd, in Gower, Glamorganshire, to try the water of the well. They returned, however, no better than they came, for though they had drunk of the well, they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody, and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, as we are told, they did the right thing, and departed in excellent health.

Such are the contents of Mr. Gibby's letter ; and I would now only point out that we have here an instance of a well which was probably sacred before the time of St. Teilo : in fact, one would possibly be right in supposing that the sanctity of the well and its immediate surroundings was one of the causes of the site being chosen by a Christian missionary. But consider for a moment what has happened : the well-paganism has annexed the saint, and established a belief ascribing to him the skull used in the well-ritual. The landlady and her family, it is true, do not believe in the efficacy of the well, or take gifts from those who visit the well ; but they continue, out of kindness, to hand the skull full of water to those who persevere in their belief in it. In other words, the faith in the well continues in a measure intact, when the walls of the church have fallen into utter decay. Such is the great persistence of some ancient beliefs ; and in this particular instance we have a succession which seems to point unmistakably to an ancient priesthood of this spring of water.

John Rhys.


In the discussion which followed this paper, interesting particulars were mentioned by Mr. T. E. Morris, of Portmadoc ; and in response to an appeal by the author of the paper, Mr. Morris has been good enough to write out his remarks, as follows : —

"Professor Rhys has referred in his interesting paper to three sacred wells which have come within my knowledge.

"I remember being at Llancarvan in July 1887, seeing the church, and visiting two old farmhouses with ecclesiastical traditions, Llanveithin and Garn Lwyd. I was then told that there was a Ffynnon Ddyfrig (St. Dubricius' Well), or a well with a similar name, about a mile off, if I remember rightly, the waters of which possessed healing properties. Unfortunately, my time was limited, and so I was unable to go and see it.

"I have seen Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary's Well), on Uwch Fynydd, near Aberdaron. It occupies a hollow in the cliff, a little to the left of the site of Eglwys Fair, facing Bardsey Island. It lies a short distance down the cliff, and is easily approached. The person who could drink a mouthful of its waters, then ascend the hill, and go round the ruins of the chapel once or thrice (I am not sure on this point), without swallowing or parting with it, would have his fondest wish gratified. I recollect remarking at the time to a friend who was with me, that the feat would be a somewhat difficult one to perform ; and I fear we felt no desire, under the circumstances, to wish.

"I was also at Llangybi, in Carnarvonshire, about two years ago, and saw Ffynnon Gybi (St. Cybi's Well), which lies in a small dale near the parish church, and had been walled in and flagged. It is a large square well, and was formerly very much resorted to by persons suffering from rheumatism and other complaints. To effect a cure it was necessary to bathe in the well ; and the building adjoining, the ruins of which remain, was possibly used by the sufferers.

"Reference was made to the custom of dropping pins into sacred wells in Wales as oft'erings. I have also heard that it was customary to drop coins ; but cannot speak definitely of any well where the custom prevailed. I think I have been told that copper coins were thrown into the well known as Ffynnon Faglan (St. Baglan's Well), in the parish of Llanfaglan, Carnarvonshire ; but such does not appear to have been the case. The well is situated in an open field to the right of the road leading towards the church, and close to it. The church and churchyard form an enclosure in the middle of the same field. Mrs. Roberts, of Cefn-y-coed, near Carnarvon, has kindly supplied me with the following information : —

"'The old people who would be likely to know anything about Ffynnon Faglan have all died. The two oldest inhabitants, who have always lived in this parish (Llanfaglan), remember the well being used for healing purposes. One told me his mother used to take him to it, when he was a child, for sore eyes, bathe them with the water, and then drop in a pin. The other man, when he was young, bathed in it for rheumatism ; and until quite lately people used to fetch away the water for medicinal purposes. The latter, who lives near the well, at Tan-y-graig, said that he remembered it being cleaned out about fifty years ago, when two basins-full of pins were taken out, but no coin of any kind. The pins were all bent, and I conclude the intention was to exorcise the evil spirit supposed to afflict the person who dropped them in, or, as the Welsh say, dadwitsio. No doubt some ominous words were also used. The well is at present nearly dry, the field where it lies having been drained some years ago, and the water in consequence withdrawn from it. It was much used for the cure of warts. The wart was washed, then pricked with a pin, which, after being bent, was thrown into the well.

"'There is a very large and well known well of the kind at Clynnog, Ffynnon Beuno[7] (St. Beuno's Well), which was considered to have miraculous healing powers ; and even yet, I believe, some people have faith in it. Ffynnon Faglan is in its construction an imitation, on a smaller scale, of St. Beuno's Well at Clynnog.'"

T. E. Morris.

2, Brick Court, Temple, E.C.


  1. Read before a joint meeting of the Cymmrodorion and Folk-lore Societies, held in the Cymmrodorion Library, Lonsdale Chambers Chancery Lane, W.C, on Wednesday, January 11th, 1S93.
  2. On hese four wells cf. Folk-Lore, iii, 380-1
  3. The story may now be consulted in O'Grady's Silva Gadeltca, i, 233-7; translated in ii, 265-9. On turning over the leaves of this splendid collection of Irish lore, I chanced on an allusion to a well which, when uncovered, was about to drown the whole locality, but for a miracle performed by St. Patrick to arrest the flow of its waters. See op. cit., i, 174; ii, 196.
  4. See Evans's autotype edition of the Black Book, fos. 53b, 54a.
  5. See Y Cynnnrodor, viii, 88, No. XXIX, where a Marereda is mentioned as a daughter of Madog ap Meredydd ap Rhys Gryg.
  6. There is another reading which would make them into Segantii, and render it irrelevant to mention them here.
  7. This is the local pronunciation ; but we should expect to find Ffynnon Feuno. So Ffynnon Gwynwy (p. 59, above) might mean either 'Gwynwy's' or 'Cwynwy's Well'.