On a bright, clear morning some years ago, during the long, lovely days leading up to summer solstice, Wendy Froud and I drove through the lanes to the village of Callington in Cornwall (the county just to the west of Devon). We parked at the edge of a farmyard and followed what was then an overgrown footpath to Dupath Well (originally "Theu Path" Well)...a deeply magical place buried in the green of the Cornish countryside.
Like other holy wells in Devon and Cornwall, the spring that runs through Dupath Well is believed to have been a sacred site to Celtic peoples in the distant past, its older use now overlaid with a gloss of Christian legendry. At one time, this spring may have sat in a woodland grove of oak, rowan and thorn — trees sacred to the island's indigenous religions. In 1510, a group of Augustinian monks claimed the Dupath site for their own use, enclosing the spring in a small well house made out of rough-hewn granite. This was a common fate for many of the ancient pagan sites in the West Country. Unable to dissuade the local people from visiting their sacred places in nature, Christian authorities simply took them over, building churches where standing stones once stood and baptisteries over sacred springs, cutting down ceremonial groves and putting woodhenges to the torch. There are many, many wells like Dupath Well, scattered all over the West Country --- some of them covered and some still in use -- often named now for the Saints and associated with their miraculous lives. But scratch the surface of these legends and the palimpsests of older tales emerge: stories of fairies and piskies, the knights of King Arthur, and the old gods of the land.
Inside the tiny, chapel-like building erected over Dupath Well, the water pools in a shallow trough carved from a single granite slab. The air is thick, heavy with shadows, and with the ghosts, perhaps, of men and women drawn to this spot for many centuries. The stones are worn where they once knelt and prayed to the Virgin Mary, or to the Lady of the Waters. That day, on the bottom of the trough lay a handful of copper coins, a modern custom of making wishes that is not so very different from the older practice of throwing pins (associated with women's labor and magic) into a spring to ask for the water spirit's blessing. Wendy placed a small offering of wildflowers by the water -- which, too, is an ancient practice, recalling a time when it was the land itself our ancestors thanked for the gift of water, and of life itself.
Today, with clean water piped directly into our homes and largely taken for granted, it takes a leap of imagination to consider how precious water would have been to those who fetched it daily from the riverside or village well. Deeply dependent on good local water sources, it's only natural that our ancestors would have revered those places where pure, life-sustaining water emerged like magic from the depths of the earth. Water plays a central role in myth, folk tales, fairy lore, and sacred stories not only here in the rain-soaked British Isles but all around the globe -- particularly, of course, in arid lands where the gift of water is most precious.
Many cultures associate water with women: with the Goddess, or with several goddesses, or a variety of female nature spirits. The !Kung of Botswana, for example, attribute the mythic origin of water to women, granting all women special power over water in all its form. All-mother, in an Aboriginal myth from northern Australia, arrived from the sea in the form of a rainbow serpent with children (the Ancestors) inside her. It was All-mother who made water for the Ancestors by urinating on the land, creating lakes, rivers and water holes to quench their thirst. The "living water" (running water) of springs and natural fountains is particularly associated in ancient mythological systems with women, fertility and childbirth. Greek wells and fountains were sacred to various goddesses and had miraculous powers – such as the fountain at Kanathos, in which Hera regained her virginity each year. Greek springs were the haunts of water nymphs, elemental spirits shaped like lovely young girls. (The original meaning of the Greek word for spring was "nubile maiden.") In Teutonic myth, the wild wood-wife (a kind of forest fairy) who loves the hero Wolfdietrich is transformed into a human girl when she's baptized in a sacred fountain. The Norse god Odin seeks wisdom and cunning from the fountain of the nature spirit Mimir; he sacrifices one of his eyes in exchange for a few precious sips of the water. In Celtic legend, the salmon of knowledge swims in a sacred spring or pool under the shade of a hazel tree; the falling hazelnuts contain all the wisdom of the world, swallowed by the fish.
Ritual washing in water, or immersion in a pool, has been part of various religious systems since the dawn of time. The priests of ancient Egypt washed themselves in water twice each day and twice each night; in Siberia, ritual washing of the body — accompanied by certain chants and prayers — was (and still is) a vital part of shamanic practices. In Hindu, ghats are traditional sites for public ritual bathing, an act by which one achieves both physical and spiritual purification. In strict Jewish household, hands must be washed before saying prayers and before any meal including bread; in Islam, mosques provide water for the faithful to wash before each of the five daily prayers. In the Christian tradition, baptism is described by St. Paul as "a ritual death and rebirth which simulates the death and resurrection of Christ." According to mythologist Mircea Eliade, "Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence; and emerging from the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed."
The idea of regeneration through water is echoed in tales around the world about fountains and springs with miraculous powers. Indigenous stories in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hispaniola all described a magical Fountain of Youth, located somewhere in the lands to the north. So pervasive were these stories that in the 16th century the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon actually set out to find it once and for all, equipping three ships at his own expense. He found Florida instead.
One Native American story describes a Fountain of Youth created by two hawks in the nether-world between heaven and earth -- but this fountain brings grief as those who drink of it outlive their children and friends, and eventually it's destroyed. In Japanese legends, the white and yellow leaves of the wild chrysanthemum confer blessings from Kiku-Jido, the chrysanthemum boy who dwells by the Fountain of Youth. These leaves are ceremonially dipped in sake to assure good health and long life. In the Alexander Romances, Alexander sets off to find the fabled Fountain of Life in the Land of Darkness beyond the setting sun. The prophet Khizr is Alexander’s guide, but the two take separate forks in the road. It is Khizr, not his master, who finds the fountain, drinks the water, and obtains knowledge of god. Khizr is still venerated in modern India, in both Hindu and Muslim traditions. In Muslim practices, Khizr is honored by lighting lamps and setting them on little boats afloat on rivers and ponds.
In fairy tales, heroes are sent on long journeys to the Well at the End of the World, or to springs in the dark heart of the forest, ordered to retrieve a vial of the Water of Life, usually for a wicked fairy. A few drops from this water confers beauty, wisdom, fluency in the language of animals, and/or immortality. Sometimes the heroes partake of the water themselves, deliberately or accidently, and sometimes they bring the vial back intact. The fairy drinks, expecting to gain more power, and is cleansed of her wickedness instead. Other wells in fairy tales contain enchanted frogs, talking heads, imprisoned trolls, and fearsome looking snakes who turn out to be wise and good. But beware of old women who linger by the well, for they are usually fairies in disguise, and cranky. You've been warned.
To the ancient peoples of the West Country, certain waters were deemed to have healing properties and thus were under divine protection. The famous hot spring at Bath in Somerset (the county just to the east of Devon) was dedicated to a Celtic goddess local to the place. When the Romans took the hot springs over and built the temple complex we know today, Sulis was linked with their goddess Minvera to become Sulis Minerva. Chalice Well in Glastonbury, also in Someset, is reputed to be among the oldest of continually used holy wells in all of Europe; archaeological evidence suggests it has been a sacred site for at least two thousands years. Even the standing stones and circles of Britain are generally found near wells or running water.
As Christianity spread, more and more springs were built over with chapels and well houses, and the groves around them removed. Devon and Cornwall, in particular, were deemed to be troublesome bastions of paganism. In the 5th century, a canon issued by the Second Council of Arles stated: "If in the territory of a bishop infidels light torches or venerate trees, fountains, or stones, and he neglects to abolish this usage, he must know that he is guilty of sacrilege." Yet pagan beliefs proved harder to eradicate than the sites themselves, for in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries a stream of edicts were issued from church authorities denouncing the worship of "the sun or the moon, fire or flood, wells or stones or any kind of forest tree."
Over time, however, pagan and Christian practices slowly blended together, and holy wells all over Great Britain were celebrated with Christian festivals that fell on the old pagan holy days. On the Isle of Man, for example, holy wells are frequented on August 1st, a day sacred to the Celtic god Lugh. August 1st is Lammas in the Christian calendar, but the older name for the holiday, Lugnasad, was still in use on the island until late in the 19th century. In Scotland, the well at Loch Maree is dedicated to St. Malrubha but its annual rites -- involving the sacrifice of a bull, an offering of milk poured on the ground, and coins driven into the bark of a tree -- are pagan in origin. The custom of "well dressing" is another Christian rite with pagan roots. During these ceremonies (still practiced in Derbyshire and other parts of Britain), village wells are decorated with pictures made of flowers, leaves, seeds, feathers and other natural objects. In centuries past, the wells were "dressed" to thank the patron spirit of the well and request good water for the year to come; now the ceremonies generally take place on Ascension Day, and the pictures created to dress the wells are biblical in nature.
The Christian tales attached to springs and wells are often as magical as any to be found in Celtic lore. Wells were said to have sprung up where saints were beheaded or had fought off dragons, or where the Virgin Mary appeared and left small footprints pressed into the stone. Over the Channel in Brittany (which has linguistic and mythic connections to the West Country) "granny wells" dedicated to St. Anne (so called bcause Anne was the mother of Mary, and therefore the grandmother of Christ) were attributed with particular powers concerning fertility and childbirth. According to one old Breton legend, St. Anne settled there in her old age, where she was visited by Christ before she died. She asked him for a holy well to help the sick people of the region; he struck the ground three times, and the well of St. Anne-e-la-Palue was created.
Up until the 19th century, the holy wells of the West Country were still considered to have miraculous properties, and were visited by those seeking cures for disease, disability, or mental illness. Some wells were famous for offering prophetic information — generally determined through the movements of the water, or leaves floating upon the water, or fish swimming in the depths. At some wells, sacred water was drunk from circular cups carved out of animal bone (an echo of the cups carved out of human skulls by the ancient Celts). Pins (usually bent), coins, bits of metal, and flowers are common well offerings; and rags (called clouties) are tied to nearby trees, the cloth representing disease or misfortune left behind as one departs. (For more on cloutie trees, go here.)
Some wells, known as cursing wells, were rather less beneficent. The curses were made by dropping special cursing stones into the well, or the victim's name written on a piece of paper, or a wax effigy. At the famous cursing well of Ffynnon Elian, up in Wales, one could arrange for a curse by paying the well's guardian a fee to perform an elaborate cursing ritual. A curse could also be removed at this same well, for a somewhat larger fee.
In the mid-19th century, Thomas Quiller-Couch (father of Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch) became interested in the history of holy wells; he spent much of his life wandering the wilds of his native Cornwall seeking them out. Extensive notes on this project were discovered among his papers after his death, and in 1884 The Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall was published by the antiquarian's daughters, Mabel and Lillian. More recently, folklorist Paul Broadhurst re-visited the sites documented by Quiller Couch, and in 1991 he published Secret Shrines: In Search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, an informative guide to the many wells still to be found in the Cornish countryside.
In addition to sites dedicated to Celtic goddesses and Christian saints, Broadhurst discovered crumbling old wells half-buried in ivy, bracken and briars inhabited by spirits somewhat less exalted: the piskies (fairies) of Cornish folklore. Wells under the protection of the piskies are not wells to be trifled with, for the piskies will take their revenge on any who dare to disturb their homes. A farmer decided to move the stone basin at St. Nun's Well (also known as Piskey's Well), with the intention of using it as a water trough for his pigs. He chained the stone to two oxen and pulled it the top of a steep hill — whereupon the stone broke free of the chains, rolled downhill, made a sharp turn right, and settled back into its place. One of the ox died on the spot, and the farmer was struck lame.
All running water, not just spring water, can prove to be the haunt of fairies, for crossing over (or through) running water is one of the ways to enter their realm. Here in Devon and Cornwall, one still finds country folk who avoid running water by dusk or dark -- for the spirits who inhabit water can be troublesome, even deadly. The water spirit of the River Dart, for instance, is believed to demand sacrificial drownings, leading to the well-known local rhyme: "Dart, Dart, cruel Dart, every year she claims a heart." The water-wraithes up in Scotland are thin, ragged, and invariably dressed in green, haunting riversides by night to lead travelers to a watery death. In the Border Country between Scotland and England, the Washer by the Ford wails as she washes the grave clothes of those who are about to die -- similar to the dreaded Bean-Sidhe (Banshee) of Irish legends. The Bean-nighe, found in both Highland and Irish lore, is somewhat lesser known: a dangerous little fairy with ragged green clothes and webbed red feet. If you can get between the Bean-nighe and her water source, however, she is obliged to grant three wishes and refrain from doing harm. Jenny Greenteeth is a river hag also known as Peg Powler or a grindylow. She's an English fairy who specializes in dragging children ino stagnant pools. The Welsh water-leaper, called Llamhigyn Y Dwr, is a toad-like fairy who delights in tangling fishing lines and devouring any sheep who fall into the river. The fideal is a fairy who haunts lonely pools and hides herself in the grasses by the water; the glaistig, half-woman and half-goat, tends to lurk in the dark of caves behind waterfalls. Both are native to Scotland, but are known to roam as far south as Wales. The loireag of the Hebrides is a gentler breed of water fairy, although, as a connoisseur of music, even she can prove dangerous to those who dare to sing out of tune. In Ireland, the Lady of the Lake bestows blessings and good weather to those who seek her favor; in some towns she is still celebrated (or propitiated) at mid-summer festivals. Her name recalls the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian lore, who gave King Arthur his sword and now guards his body as he sleeps in Avalon.
Chalice Well in Glastonbury is one of several sites where the Holy Grail is reputed to be hidden. At the foot of ancient Glastonbury Tor is a lovely garden where one can drink the red-tinged water of well — colored, according to legend, by the blood of Christ carried in the Grail. Although the well's association with Arthur may be (as some Arthurian scholars suggest) a legend of recent vintage, archaeological excavations in the 1960s established the site's antiquity — and the place manages to retain a tranquil, mystical atmosphere despite now doing dual duty as a sacred site and a tourist attraction. One often finds small offerings in the circle around the well's heavy lid: flowers, feathers, stones, small bits of cloth tied to a near-by tree . . . the old pagan ways still quietly practiced by many people to this day.
In North America, numerous springs, wells, and pools are sacred to land's First Nations. In such holy places one also finds offerings similar to those by Chalice Well: feathers, flowers, stones, sage, tobacco, small carved animal forms, scraps of red cloth tied to trees, and other tokens of prayer. The Native American sweat-lodge ceremony uses water sprinkled over red-hot rocks to create the steam that is called the "breath of life"; the lodge itself is the womb of mother earth in which one is washed clean, purified and spiritually reborn. In Native American Church ceremonies, a pail of Morning Water is traditionally carried and prayed over by a woman before being sent sun-wise around the circle to be shared by all. Water is sacred through its absence in the four-day Sundance ceremony, or the ritual of Crying for a Vision; after four days without water (or food), the first drop on the tongue is a potent reminder to be thankful for this precious gift from mother earth.
Some years ago at the Mythic Journeys conference in Atlanta, Tom Blue Wolf of the Eastern Lower Muscogee Creek Nation spoke of the need to cherish the wild waters of our lands -- particularly now, as water tables world-wide diminish at alarming rates. “Once upon a time,” he said, “the Chattahoochee River was known to the people here as the source of life. Every morning we would go to the water and fill ourselves with gratitude, and thank the Creator for giving us this source of life. We would honor it throughout the day. At that time, water was known as the Long Man. It came from a place that has no beginning, and goes to a place that has no end. But now, for the first time in the history of our people, we can see the end of water.”
At the same conference, mythologist Michael Meade spoke of the ancient symbolism of water and its mythic role in our lives today. “Of the elements (which some people count as four, and others count as five), water is the element for reconciliation. Water is the element of flow. When water goes missing, flow goes missing. The ancient Irish used to say that there are two suns in the world. One you see rise in the morning. The other is very deep in the earth, and it’s called the black sun or inner sun. It’s a hot fire in there; no one knows how hot. The earth is roughly seventy per cent water because of that hidden sun inside. When the water goes down, the earth heats up too much – part of the global warming that’s happening everywhere. It happens inside people also, because people are like the earth. People are seventy per cent water like the earth, and people have a hidden sun – or else we wouldn’t be ninety-six degrees when its forty degrees outside. Everyone in the world is burning, and the water in the body keeps that burning from becoming a fever. What happens literally also happens emotionally and spiritually, so when people forget how to carry water and how to use water to reconcile, you get an increasing amount of heated conflict, as we’re seeing around the world today. …In many cultures it’s the elders who carry the water, because elders are the peace-bringers. When a culture can’t remember or imagine peace on its streets or how to negotiate peace, it means its elders have forgotten what to do, how to carry water.”
As an elder now myself, I try to remember these words and carry water with respect.
I'll give Margaret Atwood the last words today, from her mythic novel The Penelopiad. They are words that rustle like wind in my ears as Tilly and I follow the cold, clear stream winding through our own beloved piece of woods:
"Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
The paintings above are: Wendy Froud as "Lady of the Waters" by Brian Froud, "Circe Invidiosa" & "The Danaides" by John William Waterhouse, a water faery by Brian Froud, a Bean-nighe by Alan Lee, "Arthur in Avalon" & "The Last Sleep of King Arthur" by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and The River Teign (which flows through Chagford) by Brian Froud. The photographs of wells, springs, and baths above come from various British heritage sites. Please look in the picture captions for identifcation. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see the captions.) All rights reserved by the artists and photographers.
For more photographs of the wells of the West Country, go here. There's also a lovely post about The Well of St. John's in the Wilderness by the late and much-missed) folklorist Thomas Hine on the Westcountry Folklore site.
The text for this post has been adapted from three previous articles of mine published in: Folkroots, The Journal of Mythic Arts, and Masaru Emoto's anthology, The Healing Power of Water.