Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of Saint Telga’s Well – Part One

Healing wells four dupathFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

Healing Wells

For our traditional Sunday brunch, Melissa and I have decided on the Queen’s Lane Coffee House instead of the Vaults, so as not to be too much like sticks in the mud.

The coffee house deserves our attention, serving the public since 1654. It claims to be the oldest coffee house in all of Europe.

Melissa and I have seated ourselves right next to the long bank of small-pane windows looking out on High Street, lending the narrow room much light. The décor is simple and cheerful.

From of the menu, I order the Full English Breakfast. Melissa chooses the Niçoise Salad.

“I’ve started a new project,” Melissa announces. “A magical guide book for UK tourists.”

“That sounds like fun,” I remark. “Where does one start on such a thing?”

“Well, I want to feature the unusual, not the known tourist haunts. I decided to start with healing wells.”

“Really? How is that going?”

Melissa’s enthusiasm fades a little. “Most of them are gone, or at best not accessible to the public. Oh, there are still hundreds, but there had once been thousands. For my purposes, healing wells and springs that tourists can visit are down to a handful. With a few exceptions, I’ll confess, there is not a whole lot to see.”

“With that in mind, what attracts you to them?” I say as our food arrives.

“Their stories of course. For example, in my research I came across a Welsh tale, The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well.”

A farmer and his wife had an only son, but one given to unexplained fits. At the time he turned twelve there followed signs his parents took as predicting his imminent death.

It started with one apple tree blooming before its time. The old cock began crowing at midnight, and the wife dreamt of a wedding, which prognosticates a funeral. One night a bird flapped its wings against their window. They knew it must be the featherless Corpse Bird, meaning death will soon visit the home.

The culminating event came when the farmer was returning home one night and saw Cyhiraeth, the black-toothed, skin-and-bones Hag of the Mist, splashing her long, withered hands in the river, moaning, “My son. My son,” before she vanished.

This is followed by the poor man seeing the Corpse Candle floating before him as he travels. The candle is small and red flamed. Were the flame white, it would indicate his wife might die. The flame being red might indicate that he himself who would die. But the Corpse Candle being small meant his son’s death was coming.

I lose my appetite for the sausage I am digging into. Melissa is unaffected, sampling her salad.

The next day, the farmer goes to a wise man for advice. The wise man tells the farmer what his son must do.

The boy goes to Saint Tegla’s Well in Denbighshire after sunset. He walks around the well three times, uttering the Lord’s Prayer, and carrying a cock in a basket. Then he walks around the nearby church three times in the same manner.

Entering the church, he crawls under the altar and sleeps there until daybreak, a Bible for his pillow and the altar cloth as his blanket. Placing six pence on the altar and leaving the bird in the church, he goes home. The bird dies in a few days taking the youth’s illness with it, leaving the lad to live to a ripe old age.

My appetite returns and I eye the eggs.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of  Saint Tegla’s Well – Part Two

Healing wells twoFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

A Clootie

“Down near Penzance in Cornwall is Saint Madron’s Well,” Melissa continues her monologue. “It’s a clootie well, one which I must visit. I know that’s a bit of a drive, but it is one of the better-known wells.”

“Clootie well?” I ask.

“Clootie is Scottish for cloth.”

“So?” I say, attacking my beans with a fork.

Melissa grins. “At a clootie well a strip of cloth is dipped into the water and used to wash the diseased area of a person who is ill. Then the cloth is tied to a nearby tree limb, preferably one of a white thorn or an ash. As the cloth rots and disintegrates, the disease dissipates.”

“Ah,” I say, “sympathetic magic.”

“Quite. And then there are the pin wells, where a bent pin needs to be sacrificed into the well.”

“Hmmm,” I muse, reaching for a rasher of bacon, “an iron talisman?”

“Maybe, but the pin wells had a darker side. A piece of paper with someone’s name on it could be pierced with a pin and thrown into the well achieving the opposite effect of healing.”

“That’s a little nasty,” I say.

“There is always a dark side.” Melissa stares off into the distance.

“Do the supplicants ever get around to drinking the water?” I ask while finishing off the toast.

“Oh, yes. Both drinking and bathing. Often these wells and springs have high mineral content, which does not hurt. The Chalice Well at Glastonbury—very pretty, set in a garden—has so much ferrous oxide it’s also called the Red Spring.

“Drinking the water of a healing well had its own particular ritual. The cup usually needed to be made from the skull of a decapitated head. In the case of Saint Teilo’s well, it is the saint’s skull from which one needs to drink for the water’s healing to be effective.”

My appetite slips a little. Melissa finishes her salad.

“Besides healing, the wells were for fortune telling too,” Melissa continues, sitting back on her chair. “Some of the wells were attended by old women with an oracular bent. The future could also be divined out by drinking the water and sleeping at the well to receive a revealing dream.

“Celtic mythology speaks of the Well of Wisdom in the courtyard of Manannan mac Lir, king of the fairies, around which grow hazelnut trees that feed the Salmon of Wisdom. We can be sure the healing wells are a reflection of that well.

“Oh, there is an Arthurian connection too. In one of the medieval texts, The Damsels of the Well, in a place called Logres, brought food and drink to all travelers until an evil king raped one of them and stole her golden cup. The damsels never appeared again, the well dried up, and the place became The Wasteland, not to recover until the Holy Grail was found.”

A thought strikes me. “Do these wells have anything to do with wishing wells?”

“Pretty much one and the same. A few of these places have been excavated by archaeologists who uncovered coins, jewelry, and trinkets; sacrifices to the spirits of the spring.”

“‘Spirits of the spring’ sounds very romantic if a little pagan,” I say, sipping my coffee.

“Oh, the church fixed that by rebranding a spring or a well with a saint’s name and building a church beside it,” Melissa chuckles.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well – Part Three

Healing wells six doninicksFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

A Visit

As we step out onto Queen’s Lane, Melissa stops and takes my hand in both of hers.

“Will you take me to visit the nixie?”

“The nixie? You should be afraid of the nixie.”

“Are you afraid of the nixie?”

“Yes.”

“And still you visit her.”

She has me there. And she knows I cannot deny her anything.

“We’ll have to make some popcorn,” I say.

On our return walk, my thoughts stray back to The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well.

“I’m not familiar with Saint Tegla. I assume it is not made up?”

“Not at all. Saint Tegla’s Church is in Wales. She was a disciple of Saint Paul. Assigning her name to the church and well, I am sure, was arbitrary, but significant in that it was a female saint chosen. The Celtic spirits of the wells were female.

“Saint Tegla’s Well had the speciality of healing epilepsy. I did some extra research on this one and found some things not mentioned in the story. Besides the supplicant bathing in the well—in this case a sunken stone trough—a pin was stuck into a chicken. In the case of girls and women a hen was used, cockerels for boys and men, and the pin thrown into the well. There was also something about putting the bird’s beak into the patient’s mouth.”

“That’s rather disturbing,” I say.

“Oh, but it doesn’t come up to the level of violence associated with Saint Winifred’s Well, also in Denbighshire.”

“Oh dear me, tell me about that.”

“Saint Winifred was the niece of Saint Beuno, both seventh-century Welsh saints. As a member of a royal Welsh family, she was pursued by Prince Caradog. She refused his advances, wanting to be a nun. The prince then tried to take her by force. She escaped him, but in his rage at her rejection he caught up with her and cut off her head.

“It rolled down the hillside, and where it came to rest, up rose a spring. Prince Caradog, in short order, fell down dead and the earth swallowed him up. Winifred’s uncle rejoined the head to the body and with prayers restored her to life.”

“Well,” I reflect, “if a bit gory, it is a satisfying story.”

“And,” Melissa adds, “the well, known as Holywell, is now sheltered in Winifred’s Shrine, a structure worth seeing. It has been a pilgrimage site for thirteen centuries.”

“Admirable,” I say.

We soon arrive at my place and make some popcorn for the nixie. Thalia joins us briefly to consume a good bit of it before going off to her Brownie’s meeting.

Popcorn in bag, we head to the study and out the French doors toward the Magic Forest. When we get to the forest’s edge, Melissa stops again, and takes my hand once more.

“I want to visit the nixie alone.”

“Alone?” Dread flitters around the edges of that word.

“When last we visited the nixie’s pond, I spotted a spring along the path. I intend to bathe in it before I visit the nixie. That means I must be naked.”

For what disease? goes through my mind. My mouth says, “Won’t you need a towel?”

She laughs gently. “No, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll build up the fire in the hearth. You’ll be chilled till you come back.”

“I’ll appreciate that.” She kisses me on the forehead, takes the popcorn, and turns. I watch the Magic Forest envelop her with its darkness.

Your thoughts.

 

 

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Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2016 Arthur in the Cave – Part One

King Arthur Tapestry (c. 1385)

A Reading

I attend Melissa’s first “Open Reading” at her bookstore. I thought it a nice idea. Participants are given ten minutes to read a favorite passage. I invited Augustus and Duckworth, who obligingly show up. Melissa, Thalia, and I, along with two old women make up our paltry crowd.

Melissa asks me to start us off. I read Arthur in the Cave from The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas.

A Welshman, having sold his cattle in London at a good price, tarries about the shops on London Bridge—a thing that was before the Great Fire—when a strange man approaches him asking, “Where did you cut your hazel staff?” the staff being any drover’s necessary possession.

The Welshman is reluctant to talk to the stranger, but the man persists, revealing there is wealth to be gained in the prospect. They travel to Craig y Dinas in Wales, to the spot where the drover cut his staff. They dig until they come to a large flat stone. Prying it up, they expose a stairway descending into depths below. The drover follows the man, whom he has decided is a sorcerer.

At the bottom, beyond a door, they come across a bell.

“Do not touch that bell,” says the sorcerer, “or it will be all over with us both.”

Beyond the bell lay King Arthur’s court, asleep. A thousand knights in armor, ready for combat. Around a table, slumbering, sit the nobles of the court and King Arthur himself, Excalibur at his side.

“Are they asleep?” the Welshman asks, a man not beyond stating the obvious.

“Yes, each and all of them,” answers the sorcerer, “but if you touch yonder bell, they will all awake.”

The sorcerer’s intent is to steal some of the wealth lying around the cave, which they do, but the drover desires to see the court beyond their sleep state and rings the bell.

The court stirs, but King Arthur realizes their time has not yet come.

“My warriors,” says King Arthur, “the day has not come when the black eagle and the golden eagle shall go to war. It is only a seeker after gold who has rung the bell. Sleep on, my warriors, the morn of Wales has not yet dawned.”

The two thieves escape with their wealth and their lives, but the Welshman can never again find the spot where he cut his staff, try though he does.

My friends nod, knowingly. The two old ladies are perplexed by my choice of something not literary. I take it they are easily scandalized.

My companions’ readings are literary, even Augustus’s. I don’t really listen. The two old ladies read from their favorite romance authors. Thalia reads The Singing Bones, which the old ladies accept coming from a child. I am proud of Thalia, holding her own in such company.

As our literary disaster is breaking up, Melissa whispers to me, “Can we meet with Mr. Thomas at our bench?”

I note the plural “our” and am pleased.

“I think so,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2016 Arthur in the Cave – Part Two

W Jenkyn ThomasW. Jenkyn Thomas, National Library of Wales

I notice Miss Cox’s tiger lilies are in full bloom, while those in my yard are putting forth their last efforts. Melissa sits, rather at attention, on the bench, her eyes directed toward the garden gate. I know she is still reckoning with her amazement at speaking with past authors.  Meeting Jenkyn

Mr. Thomas is prompt in arrival, his movements businesslike, with the air of a man intent on taking care of whatever question is at hand.

“Sir,” he addresses me. I, with a nod, defer to Melissa.

“Madam, whom have I the honor of addressing?”

“Melissa Serious, and I have perhaps a peculiar question concerning your inclusion of an Arthurian tale in a Welsh fairy-tale collection. I have always thought of Arthur as an English hero.”

“Oh, the book.” Jenkyn’s businesslike manner melts with a laugh. “I assumed you were a member of the School Committee Association come to raise me from my rest over some procedural issue. They were relentless.

“Arthur, you say. I included him because we Welshmen consider him one of us.”

Melissa’s smile encourages him to go on.

“I took my cue from the Mabinogion. There are a number of Arthurian tales in the Mabinogion, which is that revered collection of Welsh legends. Note too, if Arthur is buried at Glastonbury, it is only across Bristol Bay from Wales.

“The Breton, Welsh, and Celtic histories and cultures are intertwined.  Arthur, Pryderi, Rhiannon, and Branwen (not forgetting the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus) inhabit the pages of the Mabinogion.”

Jenkyn’s eyes take on a devilish glint. “Did you know pigs come from hell?”

“Pardon?” Melissa raises an eyebrow.

Jenkyn smiles. “According to the Mabinogion, King Arawn of Annwn, the underworld, gave to Pryderi, king of Dyfed, a new beast not known to them before. Unfortunately, it caused a war with the kingdom of Gwynedd when their king, Gwydyon, stole some of the swine.”

“Royal pig rustlers?” Melissa looks dubious.

“Something of a sport. The Celts were fond of stealing cattle from each other as well, and fighting to the death over it. Nor were they beyond stealing each other’s wives. A fun, if violent, bunch.”

“Is Arthur in the Cave also part of the Mabinogion?”

“No, not at all. I drew all the stories in The Welsh Fairy Book from dusty, scholarly tomes in which they were buried. I was only a few years into being headmaster at Hackney Downs when I noticed books of fairy tales were popular among the students. We were replacing them in our library with some frequency. But these books were, perforce, tales from other nations, Wales not having a handy collection of its own. I fixed that.”

Spotting the lemonade and glasses that Miss Cox has set out, I pour for the three of us. Handing Jenkyn his glass, I ask my own question.

“Our tale has Arthur and his court asleep in Wales at Craig y Dinas—The Rock of the Fortress—instead of Glastonbury?”

“Yes, it’s a limestone promontory near Neath, quite scenic, around which are a number of caves, one of them called Arthur’s Cave. Somewhere in its depth, Arthur and his thousand knights are sleeping, to be awakened when Britain needs to be saved.  An appropriate place for the king to stay, although I think there are a half dozen sites around the United Kingdom making the same claim.”

Jenkyn raises his glass in a salute and takes a sip.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2016 Arthur in the Cave – Part three

King Arthur death John Garrick John Garrick

Arthur’s Return

“Why would the Welsh want to have the British saved?” asks Melissa.

“It depends on one’s definition of Britain. The medieval Welsh felt Britain could be saved if the English and Normans were driven out,” says Jenkyns.

“Ahh, I see,” Melissa starts on her lemonade.

“Arthur was in that odd position of being claimed by the Celtic people, as well as the English and Norman royalty. Even the French Plantagenets made a bid for him.

“The belief in ‘Arthur’s Return,’” Jenkyn continues, “is not simply a Welsh thing. It is shared by Cornishmen, Bretons, and Scots, anyone with Celtic roots.”

“I take it then,” Melissa says between sips, “Arthur may be buried at Glastonbury, asleep at Craig y Dinas, or recovering on the Isle of Avalon.”

“Oh, it is worse than that. Besides the numerous British claims of a resting place, the Sicilians make a claim for Mount Etna. Avalon has been placed in the Mediterranean, somewhere near India, and even in the Otherworld.”

Jenkyn drains his glass and goes on.

“But Arthur does not own the ‘Sleeping Hero’ status. There are stories about our own Welsh king, Bran the Blessed, also slumbering beneath the earth, as well as Ireland’s Fin McCool, the renowned Finnian king. There are lots of other kings, including Frederick Barbarossa and Charlemagne; a good contingent of Roman emperors; and one or two saints, all slumbering and waiting.

“The first record of these sleeping heroes is an unnamed British deity mentioned in passing by Plutarch.”

“Plutarch? That puts the idea of the ‘Sleeping Hero’ into the first century,” Melissa notes.

“Yes,” says Jenkyn, “yet the folk tradition is not done with Arthur. It also has him not resting at all. In some parts of England he leads the “Wild Hunt.”

“The Wild Hunt?” I say. “I thought that the realm of the fairy folk.”

“Not exclusively. For example, in South Cadbury—not that far from Glastonbury—on stormy winter nights, the howling of the wind becomes the baying of Arthur’s hounds, or the sound of bugles, and only the glint of the horses’ silver shoes can be seen. They call it “Arthur’s Hunting Causeway.”

“Buried, resting, and riding,” Melissa muses.

“Oh, and still, tradition is not done with Arthur. It has transformed him into a bird.”

“Dear me,” I say.

“Sometimes Arthur is a crow, forever flying about, or sometimes a raven, in particular a Cornish Chough. Then, again, I have read reference to him as a puffin, and another time as a butterfly—that last not being a bird, of course.”

“There’s no end to it.” I shake my head.

Melissa slowly lifts a finger in the air. “Now that you have explained it, I think what I like about Arthur in the Cave is not the story so much as the lingering sense of hope for the Welsh that they have a hero who will be there when he is truly needed.”

“And that, my dear, is why the tale is in the book.”

Your thoughts?

PS. Miss Cox’s lemonade is especially good. You should try some.