St Teilo & the Head Cult

by Tristan Gray Hulse

A group of monks transporting the bones of a dark age Welsh saint from one shrine to another stopped for the night at a house along the way. ‘They heard a man in some remote part of the house pitifully to groane, and often cry out through the painefullnes of his sicknes. Wherefore the good Priour… tooke a little water and blessed it, putting therinto a little of the earth which he found in [the saint’s] head, & caused the party to drinke it; which was no sooner passed downe into the sicke mans stomack, but he fell soundly asleepe, and when he awaked, found himselfe of his daungerous and painefull infirmity perfectly recovered’.

Kemmis Buckley’s article, ‘The Well and the Skull’, for all its genial tone, packs a powerful punch. It controverts a great deal that has been written about the skull-and-well cult at Llandeilo Llwydiarth over the past 100 years, and undermines two elaborate theories which in large part depend for their plausibility on a explanation of the cult which is now shown to be untenable. One theory concerns an aspect of what is known as the ‘head cult’, the use of severed human heads for cultic purposes, most firmly associated (though not exclusively) with pre-Christian ‘Celtic’ religions. One expression of this cult was the offering of heads at sacred springs (an oft-cited British example is the skull found in Coventina’s Well – but see ‘Well Read’ in this issue), and the subsequent drinking of the well water from the skulls. And the theory in question potrays the Llandeilo cult as a more or less direct survival of this particular expression of the head cult from the pre-Christian period.

The other theory concentrates on the Melchiors, seeing in the ‘hereditary keepership’ of the Penglog Teilo the last lingering traces of a pagan well-keeping priesthood. The two theories are of course inter-related.

The most succinct and restrained expression of the head cult survival theory in relation to the well and skull of St. Teilo is that of Janet and Colin Bord.

‘A most important aspect of Celtic religion was the head cult. There is strong evidence showing a close association of this cult with sacred springs and pools, some of it having survived even to the present day, albeit in fragmentary form and lacking the power of the original Celtic stimulus. The Celts were head-hunters… To the Celts the head was the most important part of the body, symbolizing the divine power, and they venerated the head as the source of all the attributes they most admired… The Celtic traditions became so deep-seated that many of them were perpetuated down the centuries, surviving almost to the present day, and this is certainly true of the head cult and its water associations. The Roman historian Livy (59 B.C. – 17 A.D.) described how Celtic warriors decorated skulls with gold and used them as cups for offerings to the gods, a custom continued in the use of skulls to drink the water at certain holy wells until recent times. The most famous of these was St. Teilo’s Well at Llandeilo Llwydarth…where the water was renowned for its ability to cure whooping cough and other ills, but only if drunk out of the remains of St. Teilo’s skull…

Penglog Teilo is the longest surviving Welsh skull used for healing purposes, though there were others. Water was drunk from a human skull at Ffynnon Llandyfaen (Carmarthen) [cf. Jones 1954, 115-116], and around the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries the skull of a Welsh nobleman, Gruffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd, killed at Dogellau, was used in the same way, to cure whooping cough and other ailments… Francis Jones [op. et loc. cit]… suggests that water was drunk from human skulls in order to acquire the desirable qualities of the skull’s original owner, and also the custom indicated a head cult involving kings, heroes and ancestors. Drinking from skulls at holy wells seems to have been most widespread in Wales. Although we have also found references to it from Scotland and Ireland, so far we have located none in England…’ (Bord 1986, 16-18).

Both theories were first propounded by Sir John Thys in a paper published in 1893, in which Rhys cited the examples of Ffynnon Elian (Denbighs.) and Ffynnon Deilo as places where an originally pagan caste of ‘priestly’ well-keepers had survived in modern times. Francis Jones accepted the Llandeilo Llwydiarth cult as a component of the evidence for the long-term survival of the head cult in Wales (Jones 1954, 115-116); but scathingly rejected the idea of priestly survival at Ffynnon Elian (and thus, implicitly, at Ffynnon Deilo):

Sir John Rhys has erred, when, describing a woman living near Ffynnon Elian, he wrote, ‘here there is, I think, very little doubt that the owner or guardian of the well was, so to say, the representative of an ancient priesthood of the well’ [Rhys 1901, 397]. This very tentative remark was sufficient to inspire Gould and Fisher to say of the same well, that it ‘always had a recognised priest, or guardian, or owner, who lived near it, and no doubt represented the ancient pre-Christian priesthood’ [Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, 441 – anyone who has ever read his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages will recognise Baring-Gould’s touch here: he was a great survivalist!]. There is, of course, no justification whatsoever for such a conclusion and they are guilty of reading in normal or accidental phenomena some ‘evidence’ to support a preconceived theory. Old women living in cottages near wells, in modern times, were usually very poor people who were only too ready to accept ‘tips’ from tourists in search of the picturesque, or ‘fees’ from others who visited the well to carry out customary rites. They cannot be regarded as ‘representatives’ of a priestess, pagan or Christian. The modern association is accidental, not traditional… Plummer’s caveat may be cited [Plummer 1910, clxxxviii], ‘Again it should be borne in mind that many of the customs and modes of thought… are in themselves neither pagan nor Christian, but simply human. The heathen rite or formula preceded, and in some places influenced, the corresponding Christian observance or expression. But the attempt to discover heathenism everywhere in Christianity has been carried in some quarters to very uncritical lengths’ (Jones 1954, 127-8).

(Plummer’s warning is the more important, in that the Introduction to his book, quoted by Jones, notes many such pagan ‘influences’ upon Christianity.)

Regrettably, this ‘uncriticism’ is not yet extinct, and one still encounters mention of the crypto-pagan priesthood at Ffynnon Deilo, represented by the staunchly-Nonconformist Melchiors!

In recent times, while no scholar has bothered to dignify the ‘priesthood’ theory with a discussion, the subject of the ‘head cult’ among Celtic peoples has received considerable attention. It is discussed in detail, for instance, by Anne Ross (Ross 1967 [chap. 2,, ‘The Cult of the Head’: § ‘Heads and sacred waters’], 105-113). The evidence seemed considerable and incontrovertible; and it was only when this body of evidence was somehow linked with isolated and atypical instances of ritual behaviour in more recent times, such as the cult of Penglog Teilo at Llandeilo Llwydiarth, to provide ‘evidence’ of the survival of the head cult into modern times (either within or without an explicitly Christian context), that one might have questioned the conclusions. Few did. The belief in the survival of the head cult into the modern period has taken deep root. Thus Dr. Ross, in her influential study of pagan Celtic religious, wrote of the well cult that:

‘This is one of the most interesting pagan cults from the point of view of continuity, for the Christian Church, rather than banning the worship of wells, converted the cult to its own ends, and made the well the centre of the cult of the local saint rather than the local deity. It is consequently of especial interest to find that the severed head of the Celts is brought into association with the veneration of wells in a variety of ways… This aspect of the Celtic cult of the head, allied as it is to the veneration of wells and springs, is one of the most convincing features of native cults, where an unbroken continuity can be adequately demonstrated’ (Ross 1967, 105, 113).

But from the carefully expressed speculation sof specialists like Dr. Ross (who did not discuss the Llandeilo cult), scholars in other disciplines have accepted the proposition without reserve. Thus Dr. Patrick Thomas, and Anglican priest and popular writer on ‘Celtic’ spirituality, had no qualms in writing:

‘Those who first drank from ‘Penglog Teilo’ centuries before the saint was born presumably hoped to acquire some special quality associated with the person to whom it had belonged. This may have been linked from the very beginning with an additional belief in the healing virtues of the well. Later, when the cult had been absorbed into Christianity and linked with the saint who had founded the little church nearby, the skull was seen as the vehicle of Teilo’s miraculous healing powers’ (Thomas 1993, 90).

The head cult theory having thus acquired a certain ubiquity, it is ironic that the very community which first brought the theory to prominence and respectability – archaeologists and historians – is the one which is now beginning to question the evidence upon which the theory was built. For example, Dr. Miranda Green has written:

‘There is no doubt that the head was considered the most important part of the human body – the emphasis on head-hunting demonstrates this – and the stress on the head in Celtic art is incontestable. Yet I believe it is a mistake to think in terms of a specific head-cult’ (Green 1986, 216).

And in his brilliant overview of contemporary scholarship on the subject of pre-Christian British religions, Dr. Ronald Hutton writes as follows:

‘Both the Graeco-Roman and the early Irish writers agreed that the Celts enthusiastically collected the heads of defeated enemies. Those stuck on gates and ramparts may have been dedicated to deities as well. Those found in pits ought, much more clearly, to have been ritually deposited. But were the initially trophies as well, or did they belong to human sacrifices, or to especially beloved members of a family or tribe, or to social outcasts not given normal burial, or to individuals who needed special help to get free of their bodies after death? We cannot tell, but it can now be said that there is no firm evidence of a ‘cult of the human head’ in the Iron Age British Isles, as was once asserted, and this plays no part in any of the possible explanations for the displayed or interred heads given above. As said earlier, no stone heads survive which can firmly be dated to the period. The frequency with which human heads appear upon Celtic metalwork proved nothing more than that they were a favourite decorative motif, among several, and one just as popular among non-Celtic peoples. And the story of the Welsh king Bran, whose severed head retained life long after his death, may be no more than a story about a semi-divine individual. As a working concept, the idea of such a cult should now perhaps be set aside’ (Hutton 1991, 194-5).

All the scholars and writers cited above, and many of those who have followed them, have honestly and conscientiously assessed the available evidence; but ifit is seen that the whole idea of a ‘head cult’ can be called into question, how much more questionable becomes the concept of the ‘survival’ of aspects of the cult to present times. And now we are presented with the evidence which completely destroys what has hitherto been perhaps the most important witness to this ‘survival’. Interesting in itself – and doubly so here, because it concerns the cultus at a British holy well – Major Buckley’s article is a timely reinforcement of Plummer’s caveat. The quotation at the head of this note is from the c1140 Life of St. Winifred by Robert of Shrewsbury (F[alconer] 1635, 251-2), and is an eye-witness account of something which happened in 1138. The context of the anecdote is fully known; but if it was known only out of context, from a ms fragment perhaps, or as a localised oral tradition, we would no doubt have been long ago presented with yet another ‘evidence’ of head cult survival. No-one doubts that subtle and persistent influence which the cult practices of earlier religions may have exercised upon developing Christian cults, but much of the evidence for the ‘survival’ of pre-Christian religious practices at British wells was first presented either by anti-Catholic polemicists or by 19th-cent. Folklorists (often relying on the already slanted evidence provided by the former group) employing a Darwinian/Frazerian model of religious ‘evolution’, and has never since been reevaluated, even though the model itself has long since been rejected. Major Buckley’s elegant essay crucially demonstrated that such a re-evaluation is long overdue.



Baring-Gould, S. & Fisher, J., The lives of the British Saints, vol.ii, London 1908.

Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin (London) 1986.

F[alconer], J[ohn], The Admirable Life of Saint Wenefriede… by Robert, Monke and Priour of Shrewsbury, St.Omer 1635.

Green, Miranda, The Gods of the Celts, Gloucester 1986.

Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Oxford 1991

Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff 1954.

Plummer, C. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, vol. I, Oxford 1910.

Rhys, John, Celtic Folklore, Oxford 1901.

Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, London 1967.

Thomas, Patrick, A Candle in the Darkness, Gomer (Llandysul) 1993.


Ffynnon & Penglog Teilo: a Bibliography

For anyone interested in reading the accounts of the cult at Llandeilo Llwydiarth, and in witnessing the growth of a legend, the major printed sources are listed below. The development of the idea of ‘pagan survival’ is only one of the interesting aspects of such a survey; equally curious is the way that texts reveal the luxuriant and surprising development of the tale told to account for the presence of the skull at Llandeilo.

1. Carlisle, Nicholas, Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, London1811: art. ‘Llan Deilo’ (this is the first surviving reference to the skull at Llandeilo).
2. Dugdale, Thomas, England and Wales Delineated, vol. vii, London 1845, p. 1093.
3. Allen, J. Romilly, ‘Recent Discoveries of Inscribed Stones in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire’, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1889 (pp.304-310), p. 308.
4. Rhys, John, ‘Sacred Wells in Wales’, Trans. Hon. Soc. Cymmrodorian 1892-3, pp. 24-25.
5. L[aws], E[dward], ‘St Teilo’s Well’, Pembrokeshire Antiquities, Solva 1897, p. 75.
6. ‘Llandeilo’, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1898, pp. 276-9 (report of the Cambrian Archaeological Association’s visit to Llandeilo Llwydiarth in 1897).
7. Rhys, John, Celtic Folklore, Oxford 1901, pp. 397-400 (this appears in chapter 6, ‘The Folklore of Wells’, which first appeared as a separate article in 1893: see 4).
8. Baring-Gould, Sabine, A Book of South Wales, London 1905, pp. 88-9.
9. Davies, Jonathan Ceredig, Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales, Aberystwyth 1911 (Llanerch facsimile reprint 1992), pp. 299-300.
10. Baring-Gould, Sabine, and Fisher, John, The Lives of the British Saints, vol. iv, London 1913 (pp. 226-242: ‘S. Teilo, Abbot, Bishop, Confessor’), pp. 239-40 (the description of the skull given here is verbatim that given in 8).
11. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. 7: County of Pembroke, London 1925, § 434, p. 157 (includes a photograph of the skull).
12. Spence, Lewis, The Mysteries of Britain, 3rd ed., London n.d., p. 155.
13. Doble, G.H., Saint Teilo (Welsh Saints 3), Lampeter 1942 (reprinted in Doble, G.H., Evans, D. Simon, ed., Lives of the Welsh Saints, Cardiff 1971: discussion of the question of Teilo’s relics, pp. 191-2; of Ffynnon Deilo and the skull, pp. 200-201.
14. Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff 1954.
15. Coxe, Antony D. Hippisley, Haunted Britain, London 1973, p. 148.
16. Bord, Janet and Colin, Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland, London 1985 (republished, Paladin, London 1986, p. 17).
17. Henken, Elissa R., Traditions of the Welsh Saints, Cambridge 1987 (pp. 128-43: ’10. Teilo’, pp. 142-3.
18. Dearden, Linda, ‘St Teilo and two wells in West Wales’, Source, 1st series no. 9, n.d. [1988], pp.25-7.
19. Baines, Michael E., ‘An Unrecorded Early Christian Stone at Llandeilo, Pembrokeshire’, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1989, pp. 10-11 (includes a contemporary oral account of the legend and cult, recorded locally).
20. Thomas, Patrick, A Candle in the Darkness: Celtic Spirituality from Wales, Gomer (Llandysul) 1993, pp. 89-90.

To all of which should be added, for completeness, 2 letters by Major Kemmis Buckley to the Editor of the Carmarthenshire Antiquary, XXVIII, 1992, pp. 103-4, and XXIX, 1993 (but written 10 Feb. 1994), p. 129: the first outlining the evidence presented in full above, the second noting the relics return to Llandaff.




Text  © Tristan Gray Hulse (1994)

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