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St Teilo's Church

Christianised Site


Just to the north east of the church, at ~SN101270 (there's a public footpath to it from the road) is/was St Teilo's Well. As Kammer's added the area of the church, I won't feel too guilty adding this. It is very long, and I have cut it down somewhat - but it's such a popularly cited case (what with the alleged Celtic Head symbolism) that I thought it good to have the original account.
[The landlady of Llandeilo farm-house] told me of St. Teilo's Well.. adding that it was considered to have the property of curing the whooping-cough. I asked her if there was any rite or ceremony necessary to be performed in order to derive benefit from the water. Certainly, I was told; the water must be lifted out of the well and given to the patient to drink by some member of the family: to be more accurate, I ought to say that this must be done by somebody born in the house. One of her sons, however, had told me previously, when I was busy with the inscriptions [at the church], that the water must be given to the patient by the heir, not by anybody else.

Then came my question how the water was lifted, or out of what the patient had to drink, to which I was answered that it was out of the skull. "What skull?" said I. "St. Teilo's skull," was the answer. "Where do you get the saint's skull?" I asked. "Here it is", was the answer, and I was given it to handle and examine.

I know next to nothing about skulls; but it struck me that it was a thick, strong skull*, and it called to my mind the story of the three churches which contended for the saint's corpse. You all know it, probably: the contest became so keen that it had to be settled by prayer and fasting. So, in the morning, lo and behold! there were three corpses of St. Teilo - not simply one - and so like were they in features and stature that nobody could tell which were the corpses made to order and which the old one.

I should have guessed that the skull which I saw belonged to the former description, as not having been very much worn by its owner; but this I am forbidden to do by the fact that, according to the legend, this particular Llandeilo was not one of the three contending churches which bore away in triumpth a dead Teilo each. Another view, however, is possible: namely, that the story has been edited in such a way as to reduce a larger number of Teilos into three, in order to gratify the Welsh fondness for triads.

Since my visit to the neighbourhood I have been favoured with an account of the well as it is now current there [..] that the people around call the well Ffynnon yr Ychen, or the Oxen's Well [..and] that the current story solves the difficulty as to the saint's skull as follows:- The saint had a favourite maid-servant from the Pembrokeshire Llandeilo: she was a beautiful woman, and had the privilege of attending on the saint when he was on his death-bed. As his death was approaching, he gave his maid a strict and solemn command that at the end of a year's time she was to take his skull to the other Llandeilo, and to leave it there to be a blessing to coming generations of men, who, when ailing, would have their health restored by drinking water out of it [..]

I would now only point out that we have here an instance of a well which was probably sacred before the time of St. Teilo: in fact, one would possibly be right in supposing that the sanctity of the well and its immediate surroundings was one of the causes of the site being chosen by a Christian missionary. But consider for a moment what has happened: the well-paganism has annexed the saint, and established a belief ascribing to him the skull used in the well-ritual. The landlady and her family, it is true, do not believe in the efficacy of the well, or take gifts from those who visit the well; but they continue, out of kindness, to hand the skull full of water to those who persevere in their belief in it.

In other words, the faith in the well continues in a measure intact, when the walls of the church have fallen into utter decay. Such is the great persistence of ancient beliefs; and in this particular instance we have a succession which seems to point unmistakeably to an ancient priesthood of this spring of water.
p75-77 of
Sacred Wells in Wales
John Rhys; T. E. Morris
Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Mar., 1893), pp. 55-79.

*In his Celtic Folklore, Welsh And Manx [1901] he says it was the 'upper portion' of the skull.

Some more details in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1892-3)l
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
26th March 2007ce
Edited 11th March 2014ce

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