Sacred Water, Severed Heads and Holy Wells

Synopsis:

Among the Celtic peoples water held a sacred quality. Rivers, lakes, pools and perhaps more importantly Springs and Wells that sprung from deep underground held a mystical, supernatural quality.........



Among the Celtic peoples water held a sacred quality. Rivers, lakes, pools and perhaps more importantly Springs and Wells that sprung from deep underground held a mystical, supernatural quality. It was believed that these places formed a connection between the mortal world the Otherworld, and votive offerings were often made in the form of weapons, jewellery, cauldrons and sometimes even sacrifices. Often white quartz stones, that had their own sanctity, were thrown into a Well as an offering at times of drought to ensure a continued supply of water.

Just as importantly, Springs and Wells were thought to have healing

properties, and each one was protected by a local deity or spirit. Indeed, this pagan veneration of sacred Wells could not be stamped out by Christianity, and many of the pagan practices were adopted by the Church in a ‘if you can't beat them, join them' attitude.

The human head was also revered by the Celts. They believed that the head, not the heart housed the soul of a person. In battle, heads of slain enemy warriors were severed and avidly collected as reported by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (60-30BC) "...they cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The heads of the most distinguished enemies they embalm  in cedar oil and display with pride to strangers..." This practice is frequently referred to in Celtic mythology. After his first battle, Cuchhulainn had 3 heads attached to his chariot, 9 heads in one hand and 10 in the other. Don't mess with Cuchhulainn!

Celtic belief also held that the severed head could continue to live, eat, talk and even sing independently of the body. It was thought that they could foretell the future or recall the past. Again mythology gives us the story of Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, whose head was cut from his poisoned body and carried to and island off the coast of Wales, where it continued to speak prophetically for 87 years. It was eventually buried at the White Mount or Hill in London.

The association of severed human heads and skulls with sacred Wells and Springs, especially those with healing properties, was very ancient and common to the early Celtic world in general. It was believed that the power of the head would increase the power of the water and visa versa. Later, when head lopping was not so fashionable, the cult of the head remained important and heads carved in stone or metal would often act as a substitute for human skulls.

Christian myths also grew up around the creation of sacred Springs and Wells. Often a Well would be created after a Saint or other famous person had been decapitated there, the waters gushing forth where the blood or severed head fell. Often the Saint would pick up his or her head and wander off with it firmly tucked under the arm. In other stories it is the head of a virgin, decapitated by a would-be seducer, that causes the waters to flow. She is often restored to life by the local Saint, who probably manages to keep his head. And she her virginity of course!

Folklore and custom ensured that the ancient ways were remembered well into the 19th century. Young girls would perform rituals that might identify future husbands or calm a troublesome marriage.  Even today sacred Springs and Wells are thought to cure all manner of diseases such as warts, eye complaints, rheumatism, skin allergies and epilepsy. Many are believed to be ‘miraculous' in the events they might achieve. On the darker side, some Wells were used for cursing, their waters thought to be poisonous. Typically it cost the sum of one shilling and a bent silver pin to lay a curse, and 10 shillings to lift it!

Wales would seem to be a land filled with sacred Springs and Holy Wells, and many still exist today. From ancient maps it has been estimated that that least 1000 or more Wells once existed, generally marked as ‘ffynon' and usually dedicated to a local Saint. Many have fascinating rituals attached to them, which although ‘Christianised' have definite roots in pagan heritage. Sadly today many have been lost, destroyed, dried up or are very difficult to find. However, for the determined seeker they remain in abundance, each one having its own special significance, many emanating a definite feeling of peace and sacredness. I urge you to find these places, perform a simple ceremony there and treat the Guardian Spirit to the respect it deserves.

I am privileged to live in a small Welsh village (Llandegla in Denbighshire), dedicated to St Tegla, a female Saint originating in 4th century Turkey. The village boasts it's very own sacred Well, certainly a bonus for any Druid! It is located in an area named ‘Gwern Degla' or ‘Tegla's Alders', and surely Alder trees are in abundance at this spot by the banks of the River Alyn.

The well seems to draw together the ancient rituals, folklore and customs as discussed above. I invite you to visit St Tegla's Well, and should you do so, please come and visit my home, the kettle is always on!
 
TEGLA'S WELL

 

   

 

The well itself is situated in boggy ground that slopes down towards the river Alyn. It is stone lined, and about 7ft X 5ft. The well is supplied by a spring from beneath a large flat stone.

The well was excavated in 1935, and found beneath the first layer of mud were coins, pins and small fragments of pottery dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Beneath this layer was found dozens of white quartz pebbles, many of which were water worn.  An inscription was found on a stone close to the well that spelled either AGOE:G or AGAT:G. The origins of these letters are unknown.

The Well has been associated with healing for possibly millennia, and is reputed to be the second oldest in Britain (source unknown). It is believed to have been there since Roman times, and that it was dedicated to the worship of Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing.

Later it was believed that it could cure epilepsy or the ‘falling sickness', known locally as Clwyf Tecla (Tecla's illness). The water has a very high calcium content, and drovers were said to have watered their cattle in the well to take advantage of the healing powers of the water to put their animals in good shape for the long journey ahead. During the severe drought of 1921, the well never failed to supply fresh water (perhaps the origin of the quartz pebbles).

The Cure:

To be cured of epilepsy the sufferer had to arrive at the Well after sunset on Friday, carrying a cockerel (man) or a  hen (woman). The bird was pricked with a pin (not nice), which was then thrown into the water (the pin...the bird would probably flown away!). An offering of one groat (4 pence) was made, which was thrown into the water, and the sufferer's feet and face would be washed in Well water.

The epileptic then had to carry the bird around the Well 3 times reciting the Lord's prayer. After completing this task, they would go to the Church and circle it three times, again reciting the Lord's Prayer. They would then enter the Church with the bird and sleep under the altar, using the bible as a pillow, and the communion cloth as a blanket. At daybreak the beak of the bird was placed in the sufferer's mouth, who blew into it, supposedly transferring the disease. Before leaving, an offering of silver was left in the poor box.

The bird was left in the church until the sufferer returned to the Well the following night to perform the same ritual. If the bird died, the sufferer would be cured.

Many years ago six stone heads were found in the close vicinity of the Well, and it may be assumed that they played some part in the Well/head cult. Each head measured about 11", and until fairly recently they stood in the porch of the farmhouse at Rhosddigra. Unfortunately their current whereabouts is unknown, and although I am keen to trace them, the trail has disappeared.

Andy Harrop-Smith,

OBOD


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Sacred Water, Severed Heads, Holy Wells, St. Tecla, St. Tagla
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Oak King's picture

Re: Sacred Water, Severed Heads and Holy Wells

Thank you for this very interesting and informative article, Andy. I myself have over the last couple of years become more and more interested in the sacred wells of Wales and their folklore. Quite recently, when I had to go to Pwllheli I just grabbed the chance to 'well-hunting' in just one small part of the Llyn peninsula and in one single afternoon found five wells alone, among them a wishing well (Ffynnon Arian) and one with a resident serpent which in the past a fair number of people claim to have seen (Ffynnonn Sarff). Needless to say I will be searching (and hopefully finding!) for more wells in the future - there are reputedly up to 50 holy wells on the peninsula altogether. 

It's just such a fascinating subject - what a privilage to live in an area so rich in traditions, that of wells and otherwise!

Blessings to all wells,

Holger