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Wishing Wells and Healing Waters

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It is but little appreciated that the holiness of waters is probably one of the very earliest expressions of magico-religious belief that the annals of mankind reveal. In Egypt we are on fairly sure ground in concluding that the divine powers ascribed to water synchronised with the dawn of her pre-dynastic civilization. Civilization means agriculture, and in Egypt agriculture meant the Nile, whose life-giving flood became embodied in the person of Osiris. The evidence therefore points to the precedence of water-worship over sun-worship, which does not appear in full blaze until the Fifth Dynasty and its line of solar kings. It certainly preceded the cults of stones and trees and other natural objects which were evolved from the cult of the dead. Holy water appears to have been among the first objects of worship to occupy the thoughts of experimenting man in that strange mingling of biology, magic, passion for life, and the instinct for self-preservation which is the key to early religion. Just as the cult of water springs from this primordial source, so it became universally adopted among the religions of all nations. By Mexican spring or Scottish loch the celebrants practised the- same rites of sprinklings and washings, of lustration, baptism, libation and purification, and persuaded themselves that they obtained, to their satisfaction, the same concrete or mystical results.

There are holy wells and sacred springs, pools and rivers, wishing, healing and divining waters distributed all over Britain, though they are found more particularly in those regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall where the Iberians and their successors established their mega-lithic cults. Even in London there are survivals of sacred wells. St. Bride's Weil survives in Bridewell, now covered by a pump, and there were wells at Kilburn, as a stone inscription in the High Road indicates, while the site of Holywell Street recalls a spring venerated by the Canterbury pilgrims.

In approaching all the innumerable legends, superstitions and traditions associated with the holy wells and sacred waters of the British Isles, we have to drill down into strata reaching far below the record of early Christendom with which the worship of the waters is chiefly identified. This we know not merely by the survival of a vast and confused crop of beliefs which have a purely pagan origin, but by the substitution of saints and early missionaries for the spirits, goddesses, pixies, boggarts, kelpies, boggles, demon water-steeds and water-bulls, mer maids, web-footed banshees, dragons, giants and witches connected with wells whom they dispossessed. The axiom of the continuity of sacred sites is paralleled by the transference of attributes from water-sprite to water-saint, from mother goddess to Virgin Mary. The saints, like the witches, possessed the power of allaying storms, and St. Tegla at her well in Wales had a black cock sacrificed to her, as had the goddess who reigned before her. The fairies donned the hood of the holy man; the chapel by the well was built of the stones of the magic circle that went before it; the flood of beliefs rolled on from paganism to Christianity, barely losing a bucketful of its sacred contents.

One of the distinguishing marks of archaic religion is tree-and-stone worship. I hyphenate them because they were to all intents interchangeable. In Crete and the ancient East both tree and betylic (Bethel) stone were the abodes of divinity. Now the holy well or spring goes inseparably with tree and stone. Osiris was at once the Nile and the sycamore; in Arabia, well and stone had a dual divinity; in Palestine, the pillar by the well the Lord of the Covenant; and in Persia the reanimating Soma Tree was planted by the Well of Life. In the New World the stone or cypress tree was related to the spring or fountain as the right hand is to the left. Among the Celts, and in Scandinavia, Brittany, Spain and Britain, menhirs, dolmens arid other megaliths were raised beside rivers and linked in holiness with waters. The Celts prayed for rain to the menhirs beside springs, wells and fords. Both in geography and in tradition this association is found all over Britain, so that beside the crumbling stones of some Cornish holy well, with its mating tree or stone, we visualise the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil (the ash), with its three fountains under its three roots, and the Tree of Life in Paradise, where four streams issued at the fountain of life. As in Revelation the Tree of Life and the Water of Life go together in a kinship as close as heart with blood.

The older folklorists saw in this association the male principle (the tree-home of the sky-being) in unity with the female principle (the water-tent of the earth-goddess), but it is best to see them both more generally as the dual conductors and representatives of the life principle.

As late as 1018 the worship of stones, trees and wells in combination had to be prohibited, of course in vain. For centuries afterwards the sick gathered nine stones from the Holy Pool of Strath-fillan, in Perthshire, the Scottish Bethesda, three times circled three cairns hard by, and deposited a stone at each for an offering. Here is a remarkable illustration of the intercommunion between the cults of the sun, of the dead, of stones and the life-giving water. Sufferers were healed at Three-Tree Well, near Glasgow; the stone in St. Martin's Well, Liskeard, assisted childbirth, as did Hathor, the Divine Cow, in Egypt, while at well after well in Cornwall the charm stones in the water had curative powers. Millstones represented Thor, and to this day rags are hung (once a universal custom all over the world) on the thorn of Madron Well, in Cornwall -a survival and more humane form of human sacrifice. Tree offerings of tin and iron were hung beside St. Thomas's Well, near Glasgow, as representatives of the parts of the body healed by it, and some springs possessed the power of petrifying erring human beings, as the megaliths of the ancient mariners were in themselves stone-forms of the resurrected dead. Thus closely is the cult of the well linked with that of the megalith builders, who were among the colonisers of early Britain.

In Northumberland, Staffordshire and other counties we find holy wells bound geographically to earthworks, and the well cult tied traditionally to the high places. At the dawn of English civilization, when the Neolithic people discovered Britain, our southern downs became cult centres like the mound of Heliopolis, Mount Meru in Nubia, Sinai and Mount Juktas in Crete. The divine power that gave a new life to the ailing who bathed in the sacred pool was likewise manifested on the heights. It is important to bear in mind that the medicinal qualities of so many healing wells scattered over the country had originally nothing whatever to do with their mineral properties. The waters were a nostrum for all diseases not because of their salts, but their divinity, and they were divine because they were life-giving, while the ritual accompanying both doctoring and purification or baptism was the same - the entering, literally and spiritually, upon a new life. Healing wells were not physicians but miracle-workers, and this we can also see from their greater potency, their fuller measure of life-giving, on days of pagan festival and Christian celebration - Easter, May (the time of new life), Lammas and All Hallows.

It was during these festivals, particularly on the first three Wednesdays of May, that visits to holy, wishing, divining and healing wells were made with pomp, ceremony and rejoicing. May was the-chosen time of baptism, and the baptismal water was taken from the sacred well to the font.

At the May Day rites by the Giant's Cave Well in Cumberland, miracle plays were performed, and many of the Cornish wells (Zennor, St. Neot's, Chapel Uny, Madron, etc.) betray relics of ancient sacrificial customs derived from the rituals of regeneration and resurrection in May, when a king was sacrificed as the god of the New Year, and afterwards a human substitute for the king, and afterwards an animal. Finally, fruits and flowers were offered, a traditional feast still surviving in "well-dressing." So in some counties the maypole and Morris dancing was performed at holy wells. The original meaning of these ceremonies and revels was to re-charge the waters with their life-giving powers.

The same thought is dimly manifest in the offerings made to sacred wells. Abraham set aside seven ewe lambs after digging a well, and Horace dedicated a kid with flowers to his Bandusian fount. But the archaic idea of renewing the vitality of the waters was gradually transformed and "rationalized," partly by a change in the nature of the offerings and partly by a narrowing of the functions of the waters themselves. Where once they were reservoirs of life they became tellers of fortunes, healers of skin diseases, granters of wishes, augurers of the future, and love-philtres. All manner of gifts, though each with a magical pedigree, were offered them - cheeses, wheaten cakes, coins, bent pins, clothing and "elf-bolts" - that is, prehistoric flint implements dropped into the water to cure cattle. The clothing reminds us of the hair and nail-parings of the sick which were offered in Scotland, and no doubt represented the living man himself. The dropping of coins into wells recalls Charon's fee for crossing the Styx, and the depositing of small pieces of money in dead men's mouths in China and elsewhere was a kind of life insurance for resurrection and rebirth. Still more significant was the substitution of quartz pebbles for pins at Lix Well, near Oban. The distribution of quartz as a life-giver and symbol of reanimation, and as the most cherished portion of the medicine-man's furniture, is absolutely world-wide.

Bothfestivals and votive offerings reveal innumerable clues to the ancient solar cult of these islands. The angel who troubled the waters at Bethesda was the Christianised embodiment of the older sun-god, and the practice of circling holy wells thrice or three times three, either against the sun (widdershins, a Scottish word derived from the Icelandic "vithra," against; "sins," movement) or with it (deissul), of dipping thrice at sunrise and other similar customs carry us back to the great solar religions of the ancient East. The symbolism of white and red, closely associated with well-worship in the same way, recalls the white and red of Egypt's dual crown. Lastly, the powers of wells in rain-making, of which there are many British examples, are identical with the similar powers of the divine Pharaohs, of the dragons which were always linked with water, of the deified chiefs of many a savage tribe, and of the antique solar "culture-heroes" - Merlin in England, Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, Hercules, Theseus, Cadmus and others on and around the Aegean coast.

We cannot, of course, be certain of the geographical source of the well-cult. All we can say is that it appears in Egypt before 4000 b.c. in the deification of the Nile, whose amenable flood taught the pre-dynastic Egyptians to irrigate their fields. But whatever the geographical origin of well-worship, we can be in no doubt as to the original signification of the sacred waters. They were regarded as the primeval source of life, the magical repositories of the life substance. He who bathed in or drank of them was not merely restored; he was reborn.

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