Ffynon Elian Cursing Well

Posted: 2011-02-07

Holy wells are a frequent feature of British history and oral tradition. The association of water with folk customs makes for fascinating study. While many wells were destinations for pilgrims in search of spiritual fulfilment, some were simply a place to offer prayers for healing from a disease. These healing wells pop up all over the British Isles, but until today I'd not heard of a well associated with curses.

That's right, the well at Ffynnon Elian, on the border between Denbighshire and Caernarfonshire, is not a holy well, but a 'cursing well', where people came to offer up invective against their enemies. According to an article by Heritage of Wales (a blog published out by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales), the well at Ffynnon Elian is part of a farm called Cefnyffynnon. Until 1775 the well, like many others, was said to have healing properties.

In the last quarter of the 18th century, however, the well gained a reputation as a place to right perceived injustice, where you could go to call down the wrath of heaven upon your enemies. Stories circulated of harm befalling enemies of those who gave offerings at the 'cursing well'. To impose a curse, visitors wrote the victim's name on a piece of slate, which was then placed into the well water, accompanied by appropriate invective.

The growing reputation of the well did no harm to the owners of Cefnyffynnon farm. The owner charged a fee to enact a curse, but could also be prevailed upon to withdraw a curse from the well - for a suitable fee of course. A story suggests that the well caretaker kept a supply of slate pieces with every possible permutation of initials drawn on them, so that anyone enquiring to see if they had been cursed could be shown proof that they had indeed. The 'curse' could then be removed at a suitable profit to the caretaker.

How many people used - or abused - the cursing well cannot be determined, but the number might have reached into the thousands before the members of the nearby Rehobeth Methodist Chapel destroyed the well in 1828. A neighbouring farmer was quick to seize the initiative, diverting the course of the water into his own garden and opening his own version of the cursing well, which he kept going as a source of profit for the next 30 years.

The story of the cursing well of Ffynnon Elian is told in A History of Witchcraft and Magic in Wales by Richard Suggett (2008).

For more details, read the full Heritage of Wales article. And for goodness sake, don't curse anyone!

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