Tuesday, 9 February 2016

St Teilo's day / Dydd Sadwrn Teilo


The 9th of February marks St Teilo's Day.  The waters of  his well - now dried up -   near Maenchlochog,  in  West Wales, Pembrokeshire's rural heartland, where a church dedicated to him dating back to the 12th Century can be found. It was said  to cure whooping cough. Pilgrims came from far and wide  to drink it's spring water, which was said to cure paralysis and other ailments.
There was only one drawback; they  had to be slurped from Teilo's skull. This strange practice  continued into the 20th century using one of the saints three skulls!
Teilo was born  at Penally  in Dyfed , around AD 500 and was cousin of David the patron Saint of Wales. His original name was apparently Eliuid . He went on to become Bishop at Llandaf Cathedral in Cardiff, and died back  in Dyfed at Llandeilo Fawr. These three places all wanted his remains, so God was bought in to arbitrate. His solution was to clone the body so that each church had its own dead Teilo. A miracle, or perhaps just a dodgy excuse for a triple set of relics. The three churches, that were former centers of the Teilo cult,  are still standing. He was a very popular saint,- and by medieval times, there were over thirty churches and villages dedicated to him across Wales and Brittany. ( In Brittany he is known as the Saint of horses, and of fruit trees and is  sometimes  depicted riding a stag,) 
 During his time in Brittany , he is said to have saved people from a winged dragon  which he tamed and which he kept tied to a rock in the sea. In another a local Lord offered him all the land he could encircle between sunset and sunrise , Teilo chose to ride a stag to cover as much ground in the time available.
Down the centuries the saint's multiple relics went missing piece by piece,  but what is claimed to be one of Teilo's skulls recently reappeared  in Hong Kong of all places.  After protracted negotiations on February 8th 1994 there was a special service at Llandaff,  at which the skull was installed in its own niche  in  the cathedral's St Teilo chapel. The reinstated relic is now considered far too precious to be used as a cup.
The most succinct and restrained expression of the head cult survival theory in relation to the well and skull of St Teilo is that of Janet and Colin Bord. 'A most important aspect of Celtic religion was the head cult. There is strong evidence showing a close association of this cult with sacred springs and pools, some of it having survived even to the present day, albeit in fragmentary form and lacking the power of the original Celtic stimulus. The Celts were head-hunters… To the Celts the head was the most important part of the body, symbolizing the divine power, and they venerated the head as the source of all the attributes they most admired… The Celtic traditions became so deep-seated that many of them were perpetuated down the centuries, surviving almost to the present day, and this is certainly true of the head cult and its water associations. The Roman historian Livy (59 B.C. – 17 A.D.) described how Celtic warriors decorated skulls with gold and used them as cups for offerings to the gods, a custom continued in the use of skulls to drink the water at certain holy wells until recent times. The most famous of these was St. Teilo’s Well at Llandeilo Llwydarth…where the water was renowned for its ability to cure whooping cough and other ills, but only if drunk out of the remains of St. Teilo’s skull…
 Penglog Teilo is the longest surviving Welsh skull used for healing purposes, though there were others. Water was drunk from a human skull at Ffynnon Llandyfaen (Carmarthen) [cf. Jones 1954, 115-116], and around the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries the skull of a Welsh nobleman, Gruffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd, killed at Dogellau, was used in the same way, to cure whooping cough and other ailments… Francis Jones [op. et loc. cit]… suggests that water was drunk from human skulls in order to acquire the desirable qualities of the skull’s original owner, and also the custom indicated a head cult involving kings, heroes and ancestors. Drinking from skulls at holy wells seems to have been most widespread in Wales. Although we have also found references to it from Scotland and Ireland, so far we have located none in England…'.
Incidentally there are other ways of preventing whooping  cough without getting out of your skull. Pass the patient under a donkey nine times, or else persuade them to take a ride on the nearest bear. This particular brand of preventative medicine often kept a bear-keeper in sticky buns and honey. Or whatever bears eat.

Further Reading :- Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin (London) 1986.




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