Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus


WELLS IN DEPTH –  Tristan Gray Hulse

Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus  Outside the Medieval legends, almost all of what is otherwise known of Ffynnon Ddeier is conveniently summarised by the authors of The Lives of the British Saints.

Edward Lhuyd, in his Itinerary, 1699, after stating that the Gwyl Mabsant, or Wake (i.e., the patronal festival), was observed on St Stephen’s Day [Bodfari church is presently dedicated to Stephen], goes on to say of the well:

‘It is a Custom for ye poorest person in the parish to offer Chickens after going [with them] nine times round ye well. A Cockrell for a boy, & a Pullet for a girl. The child is dipt up to his neck at three of ye corners of ye Well. This is to prevent their crying in ye night.’

(this particular text is printed in the Parochialia: Lhuyd 1909, p.70).

Bishop Maddox (1736-43), in MS. Z, in the Episcopal Library at St Asaph, says:

‘About 300 yards from [the church] there is Diers or Deifers Well, to w’ch they go in procession on Acs[ension] Day and read the Litany, 10 Com[mandments], Ep[ist]le, and Gospel.’

The well no longer exists; it has been drained to supply the village with water (Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, p.342). See note [5].

The ritual recorded by Edward Lhuyd had a close parallel in that recorded for another North Welsh holy well, commemorating St Caffo.

‘Near Llangaffo [Anglesey] was his holy well, called Crochan or Ffynnon Gaffo, ‘at which it was customary to offer young cocks to the saint to prevent children from crying (or being peevish). The family derived no benefit by the offering unless the priest ate the sacrifice’. It was called Crochan, or Cauldron, from the bubbling of its water.’

(Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, p.50, with the references there cited. Jones 1954, pp.142, 105, merely repeats this).

Of the Bodfari ritual, Archdeacon Thomas sniffily noted:

‘[The] well long continued famous, not only for its annual processional service on Ascension Day, but also for a less laudable custom derived, there need be little doubt, from the heathen rites with which the Roman soldiers worshipped Æsculapius, their god of health.’

(Thomas 1911, p.2).

Sounding almost as prim, Francis Jones, writing of the curative ritual at Ffynnon Degla, only a few miles from Bodfari, in Denbighshire, where fowls were offered for the cure of epilepsy, suggested that ‘it is clear that at Ffynnon Degla we are in the presence of stark paganism’ (Jones 1954, p.104; also pp.72, 95, 101, 173; the majority of texts relevant to Ffynnon Degla are assembled in Baring-Gould and Fisher 1913, pp.219-23; at this well too Archdeacon Thomas detected ‘a Romano-pre-Christian origin and the worship of Æsculapius’). Jones, and many others, have made far too much of the ritual offering of fowls at Ffynhonnau Ddeier, Degla, and Gaffo, and of parallel usages elsewhere in North Wales, suggesting that these ‘sacrifices’ at the wells were somehow a direct survival from pre-Christian religious practice (e.g. Hartwell Jones 1912, pp.394-5: ‘survival of a pagan custom under Christian auspices’; Bord 1986, p.55 – here, with specific reference to the horse-’sacrifice’ at St George’s Well – ‘sounds like a pagan rather than a Christian procedure’). Such an idea, with specific respect to these examples at least, is untenable. To begin with, the earliest record of such a practice is comparatively very late (as already indicated, the Medieval notice of Ffynnon Ddeier, in Robert of Shrewsbury, makes no mention of the offering of fowls, nor for that matter of the cure specifically of children at the well, and there are no surviving pre-Reformation notices of the other wells; however, it should be noticed that the circumambulation of the well does argue for a much earlier origin of at least parts of the rite, as this was a widespread ritual practice of Celtic Christians throughout the middle ages – cf., however briefly, Gray Hulse 1998, pp.8-9, for a notice of this particular Celtic cultic practice), being found in the Parochialia, circa 1698 (Bodfari: Lhuyd 1909, p.70; Llandegla: Ibid. p.146; Lhuyd is also our only witness to the occasional ‘offering’ of a horse at Ffynnon San Siôr from among the horses taken there for cure, but as the offering is specifically described as being made to the parson, offrymu kyffyle ag hevyd un i’r person – Ibid. p.46 -we can be certain that this refers to payment rather than to sacrifice). Secondly – and though we can be cynically certain that the birds ended up in the pot, as priests’ or sextons’ perks (though Lhuyd’s mention of ‘ye poorest person in the Parish’ of Bodfari offering the fowls on behalf of the sufferers perhaps suggests an original eleemosynary element) – it is clear that the birds were not sacrificed, indeed, that their continuing alive at the time of offering was essential to the rite. As Lhuyd’s correspondent wrote of Llandegla, where circumambulation of the saint’s well and of the church itself always preceded the nocturnal sleep beneath the altar:

‘A man has always a cock with him under ye Altar [a form of sacred incubation or sleep was practised as an essential part of the Llandegla rite], a woman a hen, a boy a cockrel & a girl a Pullet. These are given the Clerk who says yt ye flesh appears black, and that sometimes…these Fowls, if ye Party recover, catch ye Disease viz. The falling sickness.’

(Lhuyd 1909, p.146).

Jones noted that ‘about 1850 a man said he had seen cocks ‘staggering’ about after such a visitation’ (Jones 1954, p.104). It is perfectly clear that here we have to do, not with ‘sacrifice’, but with a rite calculated to effect the ‘transferrence of evil’, a folk-religious performance which in itself is morally neutral, without specific reference to any one particular religious system; that is, a ritual which can occur among the practitioners of any religion (with or without the explicit or implicit sanction of the formal representatives or professional élite of that religion), without detriment to their formal faith, and without the necessity of cross-religious contamination, simply as an expression of what may loosely be termed the folk mentality (space unfortunately precludes a more detailed examination of these concepts and their implications for our reading of the evidence for such folk-religious behaviour).

Lastly, Jones noted the widespread and age-old association of the cock with epilepsy (Jones 1954, p.104 – this would in any case fail to account for the bird’s cultic use at Ffynhonnau Ddeier and Gaffo). The identity of the Welsh saint Tegla was so far forgotten at Llandegla by the high middle ages that she was apparently identified, at least liturgically, with the possibly apocryphal but certainly far more famous first-century saint Thecla of Iconium (that a dark age Welsh woman should bear her name is testimony to the early and widespread nature of her cultus). Thecla was renowned for the cure of epilepsy, among other illnesses, and birds of all sorts were offered at her sanctuary at Seleucia, where they lived out their lives in a kind of sacred aviary, in association with the practice of sacred incubation and the cultic use of her holy well (cf. Delehaye 1925, pp.49-57; Hamilton 1906, pp.135-8 – for a further notice of sacred incubation in Wales, see below). The Seleucian cult was fully articulated centuries before the time of St Tegla; and even assuming an undemonstrable occurrence of fowl-offerings at Llandegla in the pre-Reformation period, and noticing that Celtic Christians had received the cult of saints from the older Churches already fully formed, it is inherently more probable that the Llandegla cult was modelled, either deliberately or unconsciously, upon the antecedent cult of the Seleucian saint, than that it represents a survival of Classical paganism in a North Wales which exhibits singularly little evidence of any such. All in all, and in view of the nature of the actual evidence, it has to be wildly unsound for anyone to cite the offering of poultry at Ffynnon Ddeier or at any other Welsh holy well (in total, only three – all in North Wales) as evidence for the long-term survival of ‘pagan’ theory and practice.



Ffynnon Ddeier: legend

Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus



How do wells become holy?



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