The practise of visiting a well to ask for a blessing is a centuries old tradition in Wales. Cursing one’s mortal enemy, however, is a much more recent practise.
The veneration of saints and their holy wells has a long tradition across Wales. The wells around Holyhead are no different. Their former use and importance reflects centuries old traditions and changes in attitudes towards life and folk beliefs.
Lying just to the west below Holyhead Mountain are the ruins of Capel Lochwydd, labelled ‘Capel Yloughwid’ on John Speed’s map of Anglesey from 1610. Having been ruined now for well over a century, not much more than the wall foundations can still be seen here. Dedicated to an unknown saint, its well used to flow from a cleft in the rocks nearby, but has since dried up. According to local legend, the well was popular with visitors who wanted to divine their future spouse. Taking a mouthful of water from the well and with gravel in each hand, the devotee would walk back to the church and deposit all on the altar stone of the little church without spilling anything. If successful, they were to marry their intended within a year.
According to folk belief, wells that overflowed to the south carried cursing powers. At nearby village Penrhos, locals visited a well that was supposed to have restorative as well as cursing powers. It was said that the water was able to cure cancer if the patient bathed in the water. Alternatively, by uttering curses and dropping pins around the well, visitors could afflict their enemies with cancer. By the mid-nineteenth century, the well was in such great demand that repeated damage to the surrounding property caused the farmer on whose land it was situated to destroy the well by draining it.
Further east near Llaneilian, Anglesey, Ffynnon Elian also served as a cursing well. The person seeking revenge would deposit silver pennies in the nail-studded alms chest (cyff Elian) located in the nearby church. Excavations of the well in 1925 discovered a small slate to which a wax effigy had been pinned. As was common with small cursing tablets, various letters had been scratched into the surface of the slate, wishing misfortune on ‘RF’.
In Wales, the practise of visiting wells for their restorative, healing powers had been in place for centuries. Using wells to cast curses only developed in the second half of the eighteenth century and only lasted for about one hundred years.
- Jenkins, Geraint, ‘Popular Beliefs in Wales from the Restoration to Methodism’, ed. by Wales University of, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 27 (1977)
- Owen, Edward, ‘The Antiquities of Holyhead and District’, Wales: A National Magazine for the English Speaking Parts of Wales, 2.9 (1895), 5–8 https://journals.library.wales/view/2187889/2188308/4
- Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Anglesey: An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in the County (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office) https://rcahmw.gov.uk/publication/anglesey-an-inventory-of-the-ancient-monuments-in-the-county-ebook-2/
- Speed, John and Jodocus Hondius, ‘Anglesey: Antiently Called Mona. Described 1610’, ed. by Jodocus Hondius (London]: John and Henry Overton, London, 1710)
- Stanley, Hon W O, ‘Folk Lore: Superstition in Anglesey’, Notes and Queries, s4-IX.222 (1872), 255–57 https://doi.org/10.1093/nq/s4-IX.222.255b
- Storiel (Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery, Bangor), ‘Wax Effigy on a Piece of Slate, Found in Ffynnon Eilian, Anglesey, 1925’, ed. by Casglu’r Tlysau / Gathering The Jewels (Aberystwyth: Casgliad y Werin Cymru / People’s Collection Wales, 2009), This object was found in Ffynnon Eilian (Eilian’s https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/1238
- Suggett, Richard, A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, ed. by Gareth Williams, The History of Wales (Stroud: The History Press, 2008)
Curses and Blessings at the Holy Wells of Anglesey by Rita Singer. The story was originally published on Ports, Past and Present on 26 May 2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.