This is the 101th post and I’ve picked a famous sacred well association the head cult. Much has been commented on the connection between sacred springs and heads, in particular. The term ‘head cult’ often being applied to a number of wells, but in reality there is little to prove the existence of anything concrete as a cult or continued worship. Such is the most famed site associated with a skull: St. Teilo’s Well or Ffynonn Deilo in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, a noted holy man who has given his name to many wells and churches. This well itself is nothing particularly impressive nor archaeologically significant, consisting of shallow square chamber and fills a series of ponds. However, the legend is quite remarkable. Asaph Dar’s Wales and the Welsh notes:
“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 wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in 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, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.”
Skulls (and heads) have a long and possibly confused association with sacred springs. Yet how did a piece of this saint’s skull end up being separated from the body and be associated with a holy well. Tradition asserts that when Llandaff Cathedral was stormed in the 15th century by Owen Glyndwr, a local man, Sir David Mathew paid for its restoration and was given the skull as a gift by the grateful Bishop. This was then set into a reliquary.
For seven generations, the Mathew family owned this private relic, until it handed over to the Melchoir family who owned Llandeilo farm in the 17th century. By then probably as a result in changing Christian views concerning relics, the skull was stripped of its reliquary, although its then use a drinking cup goes against this view, unless there was a period when the relic was disregarded followed by a period when the family either realised a possible income source or became more ‘Catholic’. Whatever, this is how the skull became associated with a holy well for own the farm as the name suggests is a site associated with the saint.
The Melchoir family, where the water would be lifted from the well using the skull and according to Sir John Rhys, quoted in Bailey (2003) that it had to be an heir of Llandeilo. Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales notes that a man in 1906 stated that a boy and two other lads were cured of an illness by drinking out of the skull early in the morning and that he reported that the waters were botted by the family.
However, the use of the skull to drink from would have stopped around….when the skull disappeared only to be returned by the last of the family to Llandaff Cathedral in 1993 where it now remains. The search for the skull makes an interesting read, especially the lack of publicity wanted for it by its ‘owners’ and can be read in Bailey’s excellent volume.
What is interesting is that the cult of head worship should develop so late in this story. This suggests perhaps the widespread survival of such beliefs into the 1600s, unless there was a local well already using the skull independently? Much has been said about the possibility of the Melchoir families being some sort of well guardians preserving a cult, although this is unlikely and more wishful thinking by new age antiquarians. More likely is that the family identified the coinage in developing the ‘worship’. An interesting postscript is for an examination of the skull in the Office of Works volume on ancient and historical buildings in Pembrokeshire records of the skull:
“the cranium is very old, and is polished from constant handling. A part of one superciliary ridge remains, and this is of such slight elevation as to make it almost certain that this skull is that of a female, while the open sutures point to the same conclusion.”
Well there you go! Clearly, the combination of faith and the water worked more directly than anything is ‘relic’ could add if this analysis was indeed correct. Yet whatever the facts the use of a skull in such activities is an interesting form of water veneration.
I’ve posted this on the 8th as the first posts were on the 8th October.
Not sure it is wise describing the remains of people as objects…although some would argue many museums do…indeed, the display of such objects has caused some controversy and that one of these bog relics has understandably now been removed from exhibit.
A mistaken murder
On the 13th May 1983, commercial peat cutters on Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, Cheshire made a grim discovery, parts of a human skull with hair! Bizarrely, overhearing this discovery was Peter Reyn-Barn, who had long be suspected of murdering his wife in the 1950s but no evidence was ever found. He thought that the ‘jig was up’ and confessed, stating that he had buried her in his back garden which backed onto the bog! The remains were later to be dated to 250AD. He was charged even though this evidence was revealed before the trial, he had confessed after all. Significant perhaps over a year later 1st August 1984, these peat cutters found an even grimmer discovery: the remains of another body, strangled, throat cut and head beaten in. Again not Beyn-Fern wife, her body was never found, but a man of his mid 20s, the most complete bog person found in the UK. The evidence of two bodies in this area of peat bog was strong evidence of a ritual significance to the peoples in the area over 2000 years ago.
Why peat bogs?
Compared to springs, peat bogs and marshes provide an interesting contrast. They provide water but it would have been generally inaccessible to prehistoric peoples as a source of drinking water, yet they emphasized the very mystery of watery areas; the giving of water by the mother earth. Thus it is perhaps understandable that ritual activities would focus here where the water was less utile but still as unwordly.
Why was he sacrificed?
Sadly although the majority of authorities agree these are the remains of sacrifices, little supporting evidence survives beyond them. Was he a significant member of the group This is more due to the fragmentary nature of such cultural survivals. One view is that it may be linked to the Celtic head cult, a cult I shall return to again in this blog. Date wise this would be concurrent with the Celtic period when this was undertaken. Who they were sacrificed to is unclear. Anne Ross quoted in Joy’s 2009 book on Lindow Man suggests that the three forms of execution, may suggest different offerings to different gods. Glob (1969) in The Bog People notes:
“the rope nooses which several of the bog people carry round their necks, and which caused their deaths, are a further sign of sacrifice to the goddess Nerthus. They are perhaps replicas of the twisted neck-rings which are the mark of honour of the goddess, and a sign of consecration to her. The neck-ring is expressly the sign of the fertility goddesses of the period.”
It was Roman Tacitus who recorded that she was celebrated by remote Suebi tribes in Germania. Nerthus was an Anglo-Norse Goddess of fertility which it would be likely transferred to England in the early pagan period of the colonisation, but evidence is scant I believe. Some have suggested it was an opportunist murder. But of course we really may never know. Joy notes:
“The jury really is still out on these bodies, whether they were aristocrats, priests, criminals, outsiders, whether they went willingly to their deaths or whether they were executed – but Lindow was a very remote place in those days, an unlikely place for an ambush or a murder.”
However, again as Glob (1969) notes murder and ritual sacrifice are not so far apart: often murderers would be sacrificed to atone for their guilt and again Tacitus notes:
“cowards, poor fighters and notorious evillivers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.”
Dieck (1963) in The Problem with Bog People has recorded 690 bog bodies, the majority in North-western Europe, the stronghold of the Celts. Glob (1969) in The Bog People records 41 bodies recovered across England and Wales. 15 Scotland, as well as 19 Ireland in bogs, although few are as well preserved as Lindow Man found after his work of course. Less well known is the fact that over 20 years early in August 1958, a severed head was found. This again was thought be a recent murder but primitive chemical tests and X rays suggested at least 100 years. Post Lindow analysis showed him too to show evidence of a ritual killing with remains of a garrotte, although some believed it to be a necklace, from the late Iron Age-Romano British period and was again around 20-30 years old. The English remains which exist from a window of 1st to 4th centuries is interesting. Indeed The 150 years between the death of Lindow and Worsley man, is a period spanning the late Iron-Age to Roman occupation. What is interesting is that pre-Roman rituals were still clearly being undertaken in a period of occupation, after of course the Romans had outlawed it. It gives support to the survival of any pre-Christian ritual into Christianized times perhaps. What is fascinating about the Lindow Man and his other ‘bog people’ is that they provide a real tangible link to ancient water worship even if we never find out the true reasons for his murder.