Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 13
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Article ID: 11389
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Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: February 11th. 2007
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In the last few installments, we explored a few God and Goddess forms that may have been truly old, who were revered in one form or another right up to present times. Others passed away into history. Yet others, I believe, were only sleeping, and have been awakened by worshippers in the revival of Pagan religions. These Gods and Goddesses included Herne, Cernunnos, Hecate, Holda, Danu and Brighid.
In this installment, we'll look at another form of Goddess worship, which is believed to be ancient and surviving in its original form to the current day. Goddesses associated with water can be found worldwide, but they had a special place in the British Isles.
The Goddess of the Sacred Wellsprings:
Water wells or natural springs have been revered as holy places in Europe for thousands of years. Many of these have survived into the present day. Several sacred wells are merely a pile of tumbledown rocks surrounding a trickle of stream, or exist in rather obscure locations, or have been lost all together. Yet there are hundreds of holy wells still in existence throughout the British Isles. Many of them are still used, not only for a source of water but as a place of religious reverence. Some have elaborate fountains or buildings placed over the pool. England alone has over 300 sites identified as free-flowing water springs, many of which were once dedicated to a goddess, spirit, fairy, water nymph or other magical entity. In the 1800s, Scotland boasted over 600 holy wells on a topical map. Hundreds of sacred springs can be found in Wales and Ireland. There are Queen’s Wells, Lady Wells, Maiden Wells, Mother Wells, Crone Wells and Granny Wells, which may have been named after a specific individual, or which might originally have been dedicated to aspects of the Goddess.
Some sacred wells are believed to have originated with a Christian religious figure, such as the Virgin Mary. Others may have initially been associated with a Pagan deity, then were rededicated in the name of a Catholic saint. Many of the holy wells currently bear the name of a male, such as St. Patrick or St. Nechtan. Others are attributed to the mother of an important male figure, such as St. Non’s Well. However, quite a few of the springs were named for a female saint or holy woman who was, at one time, likely worshipped as a goddess. Other sacred waters were, and remain, shamelessly Pagan.
Several of the holy wells of the U.K. are quite famous. Ireland’s font dedicated to St. Bridget at Kildare attracts thousands of tourists, pilgrims, and worshippers from around the world each year. As previously mentioned, this well has two breast-shaped fountains that distribute water. Objects of reverence, including prayer cards and Brighid’s crosses are frequently left at the site. An evergreen clootie tree stands sentinel nearby, its branches thick with ribbons and prayer rags. There are several other Bridget’s Wells, Brighid’s Wells and Brideswells found throughout the U.K., which at one time were believed to be dedicated to the Goddess Brighid or St. Bridget. Some of them fully acknowledge their pre-Christian history. Many of them are covered in votive offerings which may have both Christian and Pagan connotations. The well at Kildare also boasts a set of five small Neolithic standing stones believed to represent virtues, which exist right alongside the Stations of the Cross.
In the course of my research, I found that several of the other saints who had wells dedicated to them very likely pre-dated Christianity. Some were never actually beatified by the Catholic Church at all. Others were originally Pagan heroines, spirits, or Goddesses, who were later canonized. These figures are called “ahistorical saints”, or saints without a history in the Church. Among them is St. Domnu of Cornwall, whose holy well water is believed to cure rickets in children. It is debatable whether St. Domnu was actually male or female; however, there is an Irish deity called Domnu who was a goddess of the sea. The name is similar enough to Danu or Donn to conclude that St. Domnu might once have been a version of this goddess. St. Madron has no actual history within the Catholic Church, and often the saints Madron, Modron, Madrone or Mabyn are given both genders. Yet the name is similar to the Madron or “mother” in the Welsh Mabinogion. At St. Madron’s well in Penzance, Cornwall, women’s undergarments are sometimes left as clooties (prayer cloths) , and the water is said to enhance female fertility. St. Winifred of Wales has a holy well which was believed to have sprung up from the earth as a result of sacred powers (or as revenge for an assault) . This wellspring was actually named after a woman called Gwenfyd, said to have magical abilities, who later became a saint. St. Alkelda, Kelda or Kilde of Scotland never existed at all, even though she has her own holy well. The name Alkelda very likely comes from a Saxon word for water spring. St. Keyne or Kane was never formally canonized. Her name may have come from the Welsh Cain or Ceinwen, which means shining white in old Welsh. She has wells in Wales and Cornwall which honor her. The well dedicated to St. Vivian likely predated her beatification, and her name may come from the Arthurian legend about the Lady of the Lake. Wells named for St. Anne may be honoring the Goddess Anu or Danu, as two of these springs pre-date the onset of Christianity in Britain.
There is considerable folklore surrounding the sacred wells of Great Britain, including their magical attributes. Many waters are believed to have esoteric powers including healing, prophecy, purification, and even cursing an enemy. During certain nights of the year, including Beltane, Midsummer and Samhain, several of the wells are used for communication with the dead. Some of the springs are places of divination or vision-questing, as memorialized in the epic Piers Plowman. Other waters are said to have the capability to alleviate diseases such as infertility, epilepsy, women’s troubles, blindness and insanity. To be healed, it was often required to drink from a sacred pool, bathe in its waters, or use a rag to wash the afflicted area. According to legend, rags must be torn, not cut, from a garment worn by the individual, and no iron may be used. The cloth was then tied to a nearby clootie tree, cloutie tree or raggy bush. As the cloth rotted, the symptoms were believed to dissipate. While this ritual is still practiced today at holy wells dedicated to saints, it is believed to have originally been a pre-Christian custom. The trees were often yews or hawthorns, believed to have magical properties. Clootie trees can be found throughout Great Britain and on the European continent, and also in India, China and Tibet.
The modern practice of tossing a coin into a wishing well or fountain may have come from the belief in the magical powers of sacred water. Ritually throwing a votive offering into a body of water is an older custom, and may have originally served the purpose of honoring the spirit of a wellspring, river, lake or ocean. Objects discovered within sacred wells by archeologists include clay or metal effigies, tablets, buttons, beads and of course coins, especially those made of silver. Related lore states that silver offered to a water-spirit promotes healing or grants a wish. Some of the ritual objects found in the wells had been deliberately broken, perhaps as a sacrifice. Many holy springs were found to contain sewing pins, often bent into a V-shape, which according to legend are intended to avert evil. In other locations, bent pins symbolize casting an evil spell on an enemy. This may be where the saying “see a pin, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck” got its start.
Some of the votive customs related to water are genuinely ancient. Bronze-age figurines cast in lead were found in one English spring. The sacred pools at Bath contained objects judged to be at least 7, 000 years old. Archeologists also found lead “curse tablets” written in Latin, probably left by Roman soldiers. Coins discovered in wells or fonts range in age from the Roman era, to English sovereigns, to shillings and pence pieces, to modern currency. Coventina’s well is thought to have received some of its offerings over 10, 000 years ago. White stones, especially moonstones, were also used as votive objects, perhaps because of their association with lunar deities. A more recent Irish custom is leaving a moonstone at a sacred well for a period of time, possibly to absorb energy, then later mailing the stone to a relative who’d emigrated. In recent times, worshippers leave items at sacred wells such as crutches or bandages, as a sign of faith that the individual expects to be healed. Photographs of loved ones are also placed at a holy well for a blessing.
Many ritualistic acts are associated with sacred wells, such as approaching a spring from the east, or timing a visit to coincide with dawn, dusk, or midnight. Some wells had to be approached at dark, and worshippers were required to leave before dawn, perhaps a remnant of the times of persecution. Circumnavigating a font, usually three times, usually deosil, was called “doing the rounds” in rural Derbyshire and Yorkshire, England. Healing wells, and springs used for divination or spirit communication, require visits only on certain days, including the holidays now known as the Wiccan sabbats. The waters’ magic is not believed to work at other times. Worshippers would often speak certain words, recite specific poems, or were bidden to keep totally silent. For prophecy or healing, the faithful would bathe a certain number of times, make a wish while facing away from the pool, or carry water away in a ceramic vessel. Dressing wells with rowan or hawthorn branches or flowers was a springtime custom, as was making lovely pictures from flowers pressed into clay tablets. Dancing around wells or lighting fires on nearby hilltops were rituals documented by numerous historians. These ceremonies were believed to activate the power of the well, or possibly to capture the water spirit’s attention. However, desecrating a holy spring would incite the wrath of the deity or fairy who lived in the water.
Some holy wells contain human-made symbols of the womb or female genitals, which I believe to be a clear association with the feminine divine. Many of the springs are enclosed in buildings which have doorways or grottoes that resemble a vulva or womb. Some were purposely designed to represent a woman’s genitalia. One shrine built over a sacred well has a Sheila-na-Gig carved over the entrance, her legs arched around the doorway. Visitors appear to be entering a vaginal opening. These pools often were believed to have the ability of helping to alleviate birth pain or to increase fertility. Other springs have natural features such as reddish water from iron deposits, and were thusly associated with menstruation or birth blood. One example is the famous Chalice Well of Glastonbury, whose rust-tinged water is sometimes called the Red Spring or Blood Spring. This sacred place, referred to in some modern Arthurian legends, has long held a place of magical significance. It later became the site of Christian worship, when a monastery was built nearby. Several other red springs exist in the British Islands, all of which have some history of being a site of reverence.
As was previously mentioned, one of the most famous “triple goddess” designs can be found at the Well of the Coventinas, which were re-discovered in 1876. The spring is near Hadrian’s Wall on the border of Scotland and England, not far from Chollerford. There is extensive evidence that this wellspring was used by Romans as a place to make votive offerings, including copper coins, altars, vases, rings and other jewelry. Inscribed tablets were also found within the pool, indicating that prayers were made to the goddess or spirit of the well called Coventina. She is not known to exist in any other pantheon, which leads scholars to believe she is a Latinizated version of a local entity. Her worship seems to have died out after the Roman occupations, although the well was used as a site of worship for over ten thousand years previous.
Another famous Romano-British water goddess was Sulis, or Sul Minerva, whose sacred pools are in Bath, Avon, England. Her name is only inscribed at this single location. Originally called Aquae Sulis, these hot springs average 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and were used as a communal bathing facility as well as a temple of worship. Objects found in the springs include lead “curse tablets” asking the deity for revenge against enemies. There are Latin inscriptions made by Roman and German soldiers on altar stones nearby and on pillars which originally supported the buildings. Historians speculate that Sulis may have originally been a Germanic goddess or water nymph, who was later equated with the Roman goddess Minerva. She may have been brought to Britain by German soldiers conscripted into the Roman armies. Artwork at the shrine shows both Celtic and Roman influences, including a monument to Sul Minerva with an elaborate coiffure, and statues representing the goddess Diana. The spring was believed to have been used for over 7, 000 years, although the buildings caved in after the Roman withdrawal.
Although the worship of Coventina and Sulis petered out after the Saxon invasions of England, the customs of reverence and the practice of magic at sacred wellsprings survived throughout western Europe. In the fifth century, Saint Augustine proscribed worshipping water or using sacred wells for healing and cleansing rituals. Some historians theorize that the custom was then transferred to the practice of Catholicism and the reverence for saints. During the Protestant Reformation, the use of holy wells was forbidden as a Papist religious practice, and thus many of the grottoes were pulled down and the wells were capped off. Some of the springs naturally dried out or became marsh land. Some were filled in as a precaution against typhoid fever. Others were co-opted as town fountains for a community source of drinking water. Modern Perrier and Evian bottled waters are named for these cities, where sacred wells were once revered. In Germany, the town of Baden-Baden, which means bath, was once called Aquae Aurelia for a Pagan deity. One wellspring survives in the middle of a London public building. Others have been paved over, yet still run underground. But many sacred waters still survive, intact.
Nobody knows for certain how or why certain wellsprings or bodies of water came to become sacred in Europe. A reverence for water is more understandable in locations where it’s a scarce commodity, and thus more precious to humans. Although water is quite plentiful throughout the British Isles, it is still an object of veneration. Parallel customs include the religious rituals practiced at the River Ganges in India, the cleansing Mikvah bath practiced by Jews, and of course the Christian rite of baptism. All of these traditions may have arisen from a reverence for the water itself. Perhaps they came into being because the waters were the site of some miraculous event. Or they could have become sacred purely as a symbol of a particular deity.
Other holy water sites exist in Europe besides the sacred wells, including many rivers named for goddesses such as the Shannon, Marne, Don, Danube, Boyne, and Tyne Rivers. In the late Neolithic to Bronze Age, offerings were thrown into rivers and lakes, including weapons, helmets, coins, statues and the human remains. The Severn in Wales is believed to have represented the entity called Sabrina, while the Seinne in France was likely named after the goddess Sequana, for whom the Sequani calendar is also named. Considerable folklore also exists about various water deities or spirits. Breaking a bottle of wine over the helm of a boat was originally considered a sacrifice to Taltha, a Scots river goddess. Lakes and wells are often believed to be entrances to otherworld. Besides female spirits, well guardians include fish, snakes, birds and deer. In Ireland, the elderly “Washer at the Ford” was dangerous omen for warriors, including Cu Cullain. Seeing the Washer laundering her bloody linen was believed to foretell a death. Mermaids or morwen; fairies; water sprites or nixies; and selchies, roan, or seal-women are all mystical beings associated with water. The customs of throwing wreaths into the sea at Beltane, garlanding ships’ prows with flowers, calling boats “she” and giving them female figureheads, and the Scots tradition of making a bargain over running water such as a stream, all likely came from the religious veneration of sacred water or its related holy women and goddesses. Some of these practices endure into the present day.
Like the custom of hoodening links prehistoric hunt ceremonies to the modern Pagan worship of Cernnunos, my conclusion is that the sacred wellsprings also connect the past to the present. I believe that the practice of leaving tokens at a pool dedicated to a saint, goddess or spirit, and performing magical rites using holy water, is the “missing link” between ancient religious traditions and the contemporary worship of the Goddess. Although some water rites have a thin veneer of Christianity, I believe that many of these rituals survived intact, right up to the present day. Many of the holy wells of yesteryear are now being renovated, and their attendant rituals are undergoing a revival. Yet some of them were used continually from ancient times until today.
Next time, we'll take a look at Diana, her origins, her customs, and her (possible) surviving worship and revivals. After that, we'll check out the Green Man. Stay tuned!
For more information and pictures on the topic of Goddess traditions worldwide, including those of the British Islands, I strongly encourage you to check out Max Dashu’s “Suppressed History Archives”. This feminist independent scholar and artist has compiled a fascinating look at women’s culture and history, goddess spirituality, the witch trials of Europe, and Pagan folk religions. Google everyything I've written; try "sacred well" and the names of the various goddesses mentioned above. Try looking up ahistorical saints, including those on Catholic websites. Look at many of the lovely pictures of Well-Dressing, still practiced in England. Some will be adamant that they're Pagan, others just insistant that the custom is Christian.
And if you want to commune with Goddess for yourself, She may have some interesting things to tell you!
Copyright: Copy Left 2006 A.C. Aldag. The nice people here at Witchvox request that you not reprint stuff til it's off their front page. Please give credit where credit is due.
A.C. Fisher Aldag
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