On the North Wales Pilgrims' Way east of Gwytherin


The Weighing of Souls from the rood screen at Llanelian-yn-Rhos

Llaneilian is most famous for its cursing well. The well is a little to the north of Llanelian village, on a farm called Cefn-y-ffynnon, the Well Ridge. There is no public access but a footpath runs nearby.

Ffynnon Elian, St Elian’s Well, was until the middle of the eighteenth century a healing well. Pilgrims tried to empty the well three times. They would offer a groat (4d in old money, a little less than 2p) or its value in bread in order to obtain a cure for a sick child. The ritual - the triple emptying of the well and the food offering - is probably Celtic in origin.

But by the end of the eighteenth century the well briefly acquired a more sinister reputation for the power to curse and even to kill. The cursing ritual is described in detail in Francis Jones’s Holy Wells of Wales. Initially, the old woman who guarded the well emptied the well then threw in a pin in the intended victim’s name and wrote the name in a book, in return for a fee. A later custodian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, had more complex rituals which he seems to have borrowed from a highly eclectic range of sources. Names were written on parchment or scratched on slate and dropped in the well, effigies were made and stuck with pins, to the accompaniment of passages from the Bible or the Apocrypha. The person who wished to obtain the curse was thrice given water from the well, to drink and to pour over his head. Water could also be carried away for use in cursing. The victim would suffer illness or repeated misfortune.

For a higher fee, the curse could be lifted. This also involved complicated rituals including triple readings from the Bible and walking three times round the well before the tablet with the name on it was taken from the well and ritually destroyed. The threat of cursing at the well (and of the expense of getting the curse lifted) became a terror to the countryside. It was not confined to the ignorant or uneducated: a Nonconformist minister who believed himself to have been cursed at the well took to his bed and became seriously ill. Local magistrates tried repeatedly to suppress the cursing rituals. Jac Ffynnon Elian was twice gaoled before he abandoned his career as custodian of the well and admitted that his activities had been fraudulent. Even after this, people continued to frequent the well, and when it was closed up they used other springs from the same source. By 1871, belief in its destructive powers was said to be waning but it was still in use.

Llaneilian also has an old parish church with some remarkable medieval painted wooden panels. These were once part of the rood screen but have now been placed on the north wall of the nave. They are heavily restored and overpainted, but they give a good idea of the decoration of a medieval church.

On the central panel is the Last Judgement with Christ sitting in the red robes of a judge surrounded by angels. Below his feet the dead come up out of their graves. In the panels to the left, the Archangel Michael is weighing souls. The soul on the left is being pulled down by the Devil and is turning into a little demon. To the right, the Virgin Mary is placing her rosary on the balance beam of the scales to weigh it down on the side of salvation. The soul in the pan next to her is pop-eyed with terror and clutching on to her skirts.

The panels to the right depict the story of St Hubert, a young man who was inordinately fond of hunting - so much so that he went hunting on Good Friday. He followed a white stag over hill and dale until he had left all his companions behind. Then the stag turned and he realised it had a crucifix between its antlers. He repented and became a hermit: eventualy he was made bishop of Liège.

The very faded paintings on the wooden canopy over the altar tell the medieval legend of the life of the Virgin Mary. On the south side, you can just see a drawing of her with her mother, St Anne, who is teaching Mary to read. On the north side, you may be able to make out the nativity and the visit of the Three Wise Men.

Places to llanelian-yn-rhos


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