Cursing Not Curing: The Darker Side of Holy Wells
by Janet Bord
Healing well, wishing well, cursing well…they are all variants on a theme: the supplicant visits the well in the hope that it will bring about his or her desire, be it for the cure of a disease, a successful outcome to a hoped-for romance, or the downfall of an enemy. As least as far back as Roman times people have resorted to water sources for these purposes, and still do today. Here I shall focus on just one aspect – the use of a holy well to curse another person, usually one who has wronged the supplicant in some way. Although he/she is actively trying to harm another, he/she feels justified in retaliating in this way because that person wronged them first, and for that reason he/she sees nothing wrong in using a holy place as a vehicle for harm. He/she presumably feels that the spirit or god of the well to whom he/she appeals for help will appreciate the wrong that has been done and will intercede on their behalf, wishing to see justice done. The well spirit or god was usually represented by the saint whose name it bore, once the wells became Christianised; in earlier times the supplicant would appeal to a god or goddess, such as Sulis (at Bath) or Mercury. Occasionally the spirit of the well was someone linked with the evil that was wrought there: in Somerset there was the Devil’s Whispering Well near Bishop’s Lydeard church, where curses could be whispered .
The practice of using wells to curse people goes back at least to Roman times. The evidence is in the form of inscribed lead tablets that were thrown into the water. There were certainly water-cults before the Romans, and it is possible that cursing wells also have their origins way back in prehistory. But in the absence of physical evidence, the details of pre-Roman cursing practices are now impossible to infer. Only because the Romans wrote their curses on tablets that they then threw into the water do we know what went on; and the existence of cursing wells in much more recent times is only known because the practices were written down. In the absence of written records we can only assume that the use of wells for cursing was much more widespread. According to R.S.O. Tomlin writing in Tabellae Sulis: Roman Inscribed Tablets of Tin and Lead from the Sacred Spring at Bath, more than 1500 curse tablets are now known, and two-thirds were written in Greek, the rest in Latin. Half of the latter were found in Britain, mostly in the Severn estuary area: the spring of Sulis at Bath, and the temple of Mercury at Uley. Roman-era curse tablets are also recorded from other places in England, suggesting the practice was once widespread.
Roman curse tablets show four major motives for the curse: theft of goods owned by the curser (usually cursing the thief, and sometimes asking for the return of the goods); a desire for successful outcome of a lawsuit (cursing the opponent); success in love (cursing a rival); and cursing charioteers and their horses. Almost all the British curses are to do with theft, and in Tabellae Sulis a large number of curse tablets discovered in the Bath excavations of 1979/80 are described in great detail. Roman curse tablets continue to be discovered wherever the Romans lived: in 1994 a cache of 50 lead tablets was found in a well at the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima in Israel . After the curse was inscribed on a thin sheet of soft lead, it would be rolled or folded before being thrown into the well or spring. They have to be opened with care, and damage sometimes means that the inscription is fragmentary. Some examples from Bath are:
May he who has stolen Vilbia from me become as liquid as water…
Docilianus…to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that…the goddess Sulis inflict death upon…and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.
To the goddess Sulis Minerva. I ask your most sacred majesty that you take vengeance on those who have done [me] wrong, that you permit them neither sleep…
Echoes of the Roman practices of 1500 years ago can be seen in the recorded use of holy wells as cursing wells in the last few hundred years, and presumably the practice, though unrecorded, was also followed in the intervening thousand years. At Ffynnon Gybi (St Cybi’s Well) near Holyhead (Anglesey), the names of the people to be cursed were written on paper which was hidden under one of the banks of the well . This well was also used for healing and divination, and other cursing wells likewise had the power to cure as well as to curse. The two were linked in a well at Penrhos, where a cancer could be cured by cursing it, while the sufferer washed in the well water, and dropped pins around the well . The use of pins in the cursing ritual was widespread: for example, people cursing their enemies at the holy well close to Llanllawer churchyard (Pembrokeshire) would throw bent pins into the water, while straight pins were used if the wishes were good ones. Pins were also offered by people cursing their enemies at Ffynnon y Gaer near Dolgellau (Merioneth) .
Evidence of a practice very close to the Romans’ use of curse tablets has been found at Ffynnon Elian near Llaneilian on Anglesey, in the form of a piece of slate on which letters (presumably initials) had been scratched. A wax figure had been pinned through the centre of the 2×3 ins slate, evoking the witchcraft practice of piercing wax representations of people to whom evil was intended. An even more horrible practice was recorded from Ff. Elian: a live frog was skewered, and a cork placed at each end of the skewer. The frog was then floated on the well, and for as long as it remained alive, the person being cursed would suffer ill-fortune .
Another Ffynnon Elian was much more famous (or notorious) as a cursing well, and that was the Ff. Elian at Llandrillo-yn-Rhos, near Colwyn Bay, Clwyd (formerly Denbighshire). It was said to have sprung up in the 6th century at the place where St Elian prayed for water when overcome by thirst while on a journey. He also prayed that whoever came to the well with faith would obtain his wish, but he certainly would not have intended the wishes to be evil ones. Ffynnon Elian was originally a healing well, but from the late 18th century it gained a wide reputation as a cursing well, and became a lucrative business for the people who ran it: in the early 19th century the owner was earning nearly £300 a year from both cursers and cursees. Various names of those who profited are on record, but the most famous was tailor John Evans, known as Jac Ffynnon Elian, who twice went to prison for his involvement in the cursing business in the early 19th century.
An involved ritual had to be performed when laying or lifting a curse at Ffynnon Elian. To lay a curse, the victim’s name was written in a book, and his/her initials scratched on a slate, or written on parchment which was folded in lead to which a piece of slate was tied, and then placed in the well while curses were uttered verbally. Alternatively a pin was thrown into the well while the victim was named. The well-guardian read some passages from the Bible, then handed the curser a cup of water, some of which was drunk and the rest thrown over the curser’s head. He/she spoke the curse which they wished for, while the ritual was repeated twice more. Sometimes a wax effigy with pins stuck into it was used, and the well-guardian would speak secret curses, the effigy being dipped three times and then left in the well. It would seem that there was no hard and fast ritual which must always be followed: the well-guardian may have varied the ritual according to his or her whim, or according to what the curser was able to pay. Whatever form the ritual took, it seems to have impressed both cursers and cursees, or else neither would have paid the large sums which they did. To curse someone cost one shilling, and ten shillings was charged to lift a curse; in 1820 five shillings was charged for a curse, and fifteen shillings to lift it. The rituals for lifting curses were equally involved, and included a reading of psalms and other Bible texts, walking three times round the well, and the emptying of the well by the guardian so that the lead and slate with his/her initials could be found and removed. Sometimes the slate was ground into dust, mixed with salt, and burned on the fire. The cursee also had to take some well water home and drink it while reading psalms.
Although we can see today that the whole performance of cursing was nothing but mumbo-jumbo, to the people who took part it was very serious indeed, and the use of biblical texts somehow set the seal of authenticity on it. There are reliable records of the effect on the cursee of being ‘put in the well’: they became ill, or began to behave in an irrational way. A woman from Dolanog (Montgomery) was bedridden for years after being cursed, only rising again when the person who cursed her was dead. The Reverend Elias Owen, a well-known collector of North Wales folklore, met this lady, and also wrote of another victim whom he met in the early 1870s when holding a funeral service at Trefeglwys (Montgomery). He was an old gentleman who had not left his home for years and years, after having been ‘put in the well’ as the result of a love affair when he was young. When he asked the well-guardian how the curse could be counteracted, he was told that it would not harm him so long as he remained within the bounds of his own property. Thus he lived, a bachelor all his life, and never left his home until he was carried a corpse to the churchyard .
Even people whom one would expect to know better fell victim to the curse, including a Nonconformist minister who took to his bed and became seriously ill when he believed he had been cursed at Ffynnon Elian. No doubt the well-guardians would still be doing a roaring trade today, had not strenuous efforts been made to put a stop to their evil activities. The well was closed and reopened more than once, but in the late 19th century its use as a cursing well finally ceased. The stone structure was demolished, and there is now no trace of any of the buildings that once made up the well complex. The well did not, however, disappear altogether: it survived as the water supply to the farm on whose land it stands.
The reaction of the victim to being ‘put’ into Ffynnon Elian was likely to have been the same as that experienced in Roman times by those ‘put’ into the sacred spring at Bath, and the belief in the efficacy of the ritual likewise was the same. The practice continued at Bath for at least two centuries, so obviously someone believed that it worked. The thief (as was usually the reason for a curse at Bath) would suspect that his victim might curse him at the spring, and if he suffered any illness following his crime he might believe that this was caused by a curse having been laid. As a result his illness would develop a psychosomatic component and not clear up, even though it had originally had a purely physical cause. In this way would the cursing procedure have worked – and this interpretation is equally valid for the curses laid at Ffynnon Elian 1500 years later. So although the two sets of rituals are not directly linked, the basic unchanging nature of the human psyche means that the two have many common factors. Cursing, with or without the use of wax effigies, was and still is a component part of black magic/witchcraft; and so-called ‘wishing wells’ are still very popular, the urge to make an offering to the ‘spirit of the water’ being unconsciously just as strong today as it has always been. There is no doubt that if anyone were to open up a cursing well today, there would be plenty willing to pay considerable sums of money to make use of it. Nothing changes, least of all people!
- Lead curse tablets at Bath: R.S.O. Tomlin, Tabellae Sulis: Roman Inscribed Tablets of Tin and Lead from the Sacred Spring at Bath, Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, Fascicule 1 of Monograph No. 16 (1988).
- Ffynnon Elian: Francis Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Press (1954 & 1993), pp. 119-123.
- Bryn R. Parry, ‘Ffynnon Elian’, in Trans. Denbigh Historical Society, 14 (1965), pp. 185-96.
|1.||R.L. Tongue, Somerset Folklore, The Folk-Lore Society (1965), p. 219.|
|2.||Kurt Kleiner, ‘Ancient curses dredged up from the underworld’, New Scientist, 19 November 1994, p. 6Tim Friend, ‘Spellbinding discovery made at King Herod’s palace’, USA Today, 28 October 1994.|
|3.||Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Publishing (1954), p. 118.|
|4.||Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, Sampson Low (1880), EP Publishing (1973), p. 356.|
|5.||Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Publishing (1973), pp. 118-19.|
|6.||E. Neil Baynes, ‘Ffynnon Elian’, in Trans. Anglesey Antiquarian Society (1925), pp. 115-16.|
|7.||Revd Elias Owen, ‘Folk-Lore, Superstitions, or What-Not, in Montgomeryshire’, in Collections Historical & Archaeological Relating to Montgomeryshire, vol. XV, Powysland Club (1882), pp. 132-3.|
Text © Janet Bord (1995) | Illustration © R. S. O. Tomlin (19##)
Designed by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99