St Non’s Well, Pembrokeshire
by Monica Sjõõ
I have been living here in Pembrokeshire (now Dyfed) nearly five years, and find its countryside both rugged and gentle, abounding with the magic of innumerable Neolithic and Celtic sacred sites. Not far from us are the Prescelli mountains from which stones were taken for Stonehenge: off the Cardigan road is Pentre Ifan, called in ancient times ‘The Womb of Cerridwen’, an earthmound of which little remains: by the River Nevern, one finds the graveyard of St Brynach’s church, renowned for its 12 foot high Celtic cross and the thousand year old ‘Bleeding Yew’.
And, by the Irish Sea, stands the city of St David’s. When I first moved here I knew little about the area and I was astonished to find the enormous and dramatic St David’s Cathedral, and the ruins of the Bishops’ Palace, in this tiny seaside place. But in fact St David’s was one of the earliest Christian centres in Britain, dating from the 6th century, and many early missionaries travelled from here to Ireland and Brittany.
I felt from the first that this place, and the whole coastline, had a wild and poetic aura of the Pagan Goddess about it, and that there was something else to this place than we have been told. Its original name was Menevia, meaning ‘Way of the Moon’, or ‘The Lunar Paradise’. I also kept finding references to a certain St Non, supposedly the ‘mother’ of St David.
One day, as I was walking, with one of my sons, along the stunningly beautiful coastal path of St Bride’s Bay, near St David’s, we stumbled across St Non’s Well. It so happens that it is clearly signposted from the city, and is a healing well, and a place of pilgrimage. We knew, however, nothing of this and to me it felt miraculous to find this magic well on this wonderful and wild coast. Since then I have become convinced that it is this well that anciently gave this whole area its sanctity and power. In 1811 it was written that ‘the fame this consecrated spring has obtained is incredible and it is still resorted to for many complaints’. It was thought to cure illnesses of the eyes and sick children were submerged into its waters. It was restored in 1951 by the Catholic Church, who have a retreat here, and in the same year they also built the shrine to ‘Our Blessed Lady’ adjacent to the well, in the grounds of the retreat, using stones taken from ancient buildings all around. The present barrel vaulting covering the well replaced the ruins of a more extensive medieval structure in the 18th century.
Since this first discovery, I have visited St Non’s Well again and again at different seasons and lunar phases, bringing, many of my friends to be blessed and healed by Her. There have been many wonderful and strange moments at the well…a few years back, there had been a storm and pouring rain for two days, but on the evening when we went, there was suddenly an absolutely clear sky, stillness and a radiant Full Moon…another time, a visit with a friend who submerged herself, nude, in the waters, to re-emerge ecstatic and shuddering, and for a split second appeared like the very spirit of the well…or, slithering down muddy paths in the rain of a thunderous night, after a visit to the pub, and being given the eerie vision of the marble-white statue of the Virgin, in Her niche near the well, flashing out at me like the White Goddess, in the beam of my torch-light…friends going into peaceful meditation whilst looking into the waters.
Naturally, I spent some time trying to figure out who St Non really was and what was her connection with the well. The official version goes that St Non was the daughter of Cynys, chieftain of Menevia. She was a holy woman who was ‘violated’ by Sanctus, king of Ceredigion. Barbara Walker (in The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths & Secrets, Harper & Row, USA, 1983) equates her with the same ‘temple-maiden who gave birth to nearly every ancient god’. She also says that ‘Nun’ was the Egyptian word for primal ocean. It is interesting to note that St David was originally a Welsh sea god worshipped as Dewi, his symbol being the Great Red Serpent, which became the Red Dragon of Wales. As applied to a religious woman, ‘Nun’ descended from ‘nonne’, a nurse, because in antiquity priestesses were practitioners of the healing arts.
Nothing was written about ‘St David’ until 1090 (more than 500 years after his supposed birth), when a ‘Life of St David’ was written by a Rhygyfarch for contemporary political and ecclesiastical reasons.
According to legend, St Non, or Nonnita, in the last stages of pregnancy, found herself out in a stormy night on the wild coast, when she went into labour. Where the child, David, was born, a spring emerged, and this became St Non’s Well. To relieve the agony of her labour pains, Non supported herself on a stone that lay near her, and that retained the print of her fingers. When St Non’s chapel was built here the stone was introduced as an altar table. The birth is said to have taken place on 1st March 500 AD, and to have been accompanied by a golden light from the heavens, which surrounded mother and child.
Somehow it didn’t quite ring true with me that this saintly daughter of a prince should find herself in such a place on such a night, totally alone, when about to give birth. Only much later did it strike me that of course the reason she was here is because this is a healing birth-well, a woman’s-only-sanctuary where women giving birth could be cared for by priestesses who were healers, oracles and midwives. At Kildare in Ireland there was such an enclosure dedicated to Brigid (later St Brigid ) where a well and a perpetual flame were tended by 19 priestesses (later nuns). Non herself may have been a priestess in a similar temple.
I have myself experienced the strange powers of the well, in my own paintings. During a whole year my work unconsciously included images of embryos and young life, and I feel that these must come from the well. I have found that the effects of the well water on the body give a pulling sensation, helpful in childbirth, and the stone that Non gripped may have had its own powers.
It is said that shortly after the birth of David, St Non went to Brittany, where there are many wells and chapels named after her. Dirion, of which she is the matron Saint, has such a well and a chapel that contains her tomb. This is one of the historic monuments of Brittany. It is also said that David grew up in her residence ‘The White House’, and was educated in Old Menevia. Hilary Llewellyn-Williams (in Wood & Water magazine, vol. 2, no. 5, 1982) wrote that there are many wells in Brittany dedicated to Our Lady and St Anne (mother of Mary), that are famed for their healing and divinatory powers. St Anne is a derivation of Ana/Inanna, universal Goddess of Cosmic Waters, and of childbirth. I think that she is the particularly mysterious Dark Mother/Black Madonna found in sacred birth-caves containing miraculous wells in mountains and mounds across Europe. St Non’s mother was Anna, daughter of Uther Pendragon!
In the field by St Non’s Well are the ruins of an extremely ancient well chapel, thought to be the oldest religious structure in Wales. It is probably originally Pagan since it is not oriented in the usual Christian fashion, but lies north/south. The chapel was abandoned before 1557, and its walls are of two if not three periods. The foundations are of unknown age. In the field surrounding it are five standing stones that are possibly the remains of a stone circle but appear to have been placed to indicate the four directions with the chapel at the centre. On a stone which according to the official blurb ‘dates from the 7-9th century and was at one time built into the east wall’ there is carved an equiarmed encircled cross which is locally called ‘St Non’s Cross’. This was originally a Neolithic universal symbol of the Goddess as the still centre of the world, and of all movement.
Clearly St Non’s Well and the area around it were an ancient sacred Goddess site long before the Christian centre of St David’s and were the original place of pilgrimage. Even now the cathedral has a legend of the Old Religion; it is said if one cuts out a turf from the ground nearby and stands on it, one will ‘see’ the normally invisible Fairy Islands out at sea, the Blessed Isles of the immortal shining women…
The rituals and beliefs associated with wells in the religion of the Mother Goddess are mysterious to us. They were considered to be the source of all life, and healing, and in Germanic languages the words for ‘well’ and ‘origin’ are the same. ‘Holy’ and ‘heal’ originate in Hel or Frau Holle, Goddess of the Underworld. The Norns of the Norse religion were Fate or the Triple Goddesses who were the guardians of the triple miraculous well at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Odin/Woden gained knowledge by drinking from this in return for one eye. In the Celtic world, sacred wells belonged to the triple Mothers, the Mas, or Matronae, and were and resided over by lunar priestesses. Many sacred sites of the ancients are situated by wells, springs or rivers and are encircled by serpentine underground water formations that fluctuate according to the lunar phases and are particularly healing and holy on certain nights of the year.
I found that in Denmark a great many wells were considered to be miraculously healing on Midsummer’s Eve and also on the Eve of Beltane, when it was thought the waters of the well ‘boiled’ during an hour after midnight. The waters, if drunk within this hour, would cure, if taken with uttermost silence and reverence, however large the crowds that were present; and everything had to be done in threes.
I have thought that St Non’s Well might have been a Well of Brigid’s, considering there are many Bride Wells all over Britain. Bride or Brigid was the great Celtic Goddess of Fire and Waters, childbirth and midwifery, cattle and plants, poetry and smithcraft. She is the young maiden who reappears from her Hag/Death Goddess aspect at Imbolc in the emerging spring, bringing hope and new beginnings.
I have also thought that St Non is derived from Rhian/non, the great white, lunar and sea, Mare Goddess of Wales. Perhaps Non is one of a triplicity, an aspect of the White Goddess.
My most recent experience at the well was going there with women from the Peace Camp at U.S. Brawdy near Newgale sands. The presence of the U.S. base here endangers the whole of Dyfed and its function is to spy on Soviet nuclear submarines.
We encircled the well, sang, meditated and danced around it three times before drinking of the waters…it was wonderful, especially because some of the women were ‘Greenham women’. St Non’s Well has become to me a source of healing and hope, while the ‘Bleeding Yew’ at Nevern is the Mother of the Underworld and magical Death…together they represent birth, death and rebirth to me.