From Hope’s Legendary Lore
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
From Hope’s Legendary Lore
“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
From Hope’s Legendary Lore
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?”
“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.