You are undoubtedly familiar with the concept of the holy well, with its reputation for curing all manner of ailments and its close cousin the wishing well, where a coin or two cast into the depths is the price of granting your heart's desire.

Wells have long been seen as sacred sites and a medium for communication with your deity of choice. The Celts considered wells and springs as links to the 'Otherworld' and the natural location should one wish to communicate with the gods and beg for their intervention in the mortal world. Naturally such intervention came at a price, and ritual offerings were expected to accompany your request. (The Celts in particular were found of offering the skulls of their defeated enemies, which they regarded as items of great value.)

Of course human nature being what it is, it is only to be expected that such entreaties included not only requests for a long life, a good harvest and many sons, but also pleas for death and destruction to rain down upon your enemies and a plague of boils to disfigure the slightly prettier girl in the next village.

Such are the origins of the Cursing Well.

Roman Cursing Wells

The first references to the practice of the cursing well was in the chapter 'Religion and Society' in Peter Salway's Roman Britain. As it happens we know a certain amount about the Roman habit of using wells to cast curses for the simple reason that they inscribed their curses on lead tablets which were thrown into the well or spring. Around 1,500 of these tablets have since been recovered, around 250 of which have been found in Britain, mostly from Aquae Sulis, that is Bath, and the Temple of Mercury at Uley.

From these recovered tablets we can conclude that the Romano-British seemingly had four main targets for their curses, being;

  • thieves
  • opponents in law suits
  • love rivals
  • charioteers
Cursing thieves were a particular favourite whilst chariot-racing, being the most popular sport of the age was another popular subject, with rival charioteers and their horses being the target.

The best Roman curse I have come across is this one, quoted in Peter Salway's Roman Britain, and coming all the way from Roman Bath;

May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water; may she who so obscenely ate her lose the power of speech; whether the culprit be Velvinna, Exsupereus, Severinus, Augustalis, Comitanius, Catusminianus, Germinalla or Jovina

As Mr Salway remarks, "the range of sexual practices that may have prompted the deed is interesting". (And I presume that the phrase "ate her" means what I think it means; history as you can see has its diversions.)

Welsh cursing Wells

The Christian Church naturally frowned upon the whole idea of making offerings at wells, but rather than outlaw such entrenched pagan practices, it generally attempted to absorb them within the faith. Wells therefore became associated specifically with healing, and the offerings became more in the nature of alms, collected by the local church. Casting curses however, smacked of witchcraft and was actively discouraged by the Church and seems to have entirely died out in Britain.

Except in Wales, where the old practice of using wells to curse your enemies continued well after the arrival of the new faith. Although Wales was also full of healing wells, often dedicated to the cure of specific diseases, and some even dedicated to curing animals as well; casting curses upon your enemies remained a popular, if somewhat clandestine practice.

Typically, to be granted a wish one wound throw a pin into a well, whilst for a curse you would cast a bent pin into the waters, but often more complicated procedures were adopted.

At Ffynnon Gybi, the well of Saint Cybi, near Holyhead on the island of Anglesey, the names of the people to be cursed were written on paper which was hidden under one of the banks of the well. At Ffynnon Elian (the well of Saint Elian) near Llanelian, also on Anglesey, names were scrawled on a piece of slate in which a wax figure had been pinned. But they also used to drive a skewer through a live frog, place a cork at each end of the skewer and then drop the frog into the well. Apparently, ill-fortune would continue to dog the person being cursed for so long as the frog lived.

But the most famous Welsh cursing well of all was another Ffynnon Elian this one at Llanelian yn Rhos, near Colwyn Bay. This Ffynnon Elian was originally a healing well but sometime after 1723 became a cursing well. The reason for this change becomes apparent when one understands that in the early nineteenth century its owner, one Sarah Hughes was recorded as earning a profit over £300 a year from the well. Which was a formidably large amount of money for the time; clearly cursing paid better than healing.

She apparently charged one shilling to curse someone, and ten shillings was charged to lift a curse; in 1820 this was increased to five shillings and fifteen shillings respectively. So Ms Hughes and her successors gained every which way.

To be cursed was referred to as being ‘put in the well’ and there are a number of recorded examples of individuals whose lives were blighted by the curses that had been placed upon them. There is the example of the man cursed in his youth, who was advised that the curse would have no effect so long as he remained within the bounds of his own property. Presumably he couldn't afford to pay to have the curse lifted, or perhaps the curser paid extra to block this loophole. In any event, the gentleman in question never left his home until the day he was carried off in a coffin for burial.

Eventually the authorities took action against this ancient practice; a certain John Evans, known as 'Jac Ffynnon Elian' was imprisoned in 1854 for the crime of "taking money by means of deception," and the church authorities ensured that the well at Llanelian yn Rhos was drained and stopped to prevent the inhabitants from making use of it.

Although I do believe that if you creep around the back of the parish church at Llanelian yn Rhos you can still see the rather forlorn remains of the old well.

And yes, I realise that some will be disappointed that this write-up contains no advice on the best use of profanity. Such is life.


SOURCES

Peter Salway Roman Britain (OUP, 1991)
J. Gwynn Wiliams Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Flintshire Journal of the Flintshire Historical Society, 1973-1974, 26, p. 16-33 http://www.llgc.org.uk/drych/drych_s030.htm
Janet Bord Cursing Not Curing: The Darker Side of Holy Wells from SOURCE - the Holy Wells Journal at http://www.bath.ac.uk/lispring/sourcearchive/ns4/ns4jcb1.htm

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