Reverence for flowing water as a sacred entity is found in all native cultures. As every community needs a dependable source of clean drinking water it is understandable that water was held in high regard. This regard has only been lost as we have become divorced from the source of the water; if it flows out of the tap looking clear and clean it must be good, right?
But there was more in previous ages, certain springs or wells were considered to have healing properties. The words 'well' and 'spring' are really interchangeable as 'well' derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'wella' meaning spring or flowing water (we still use the word upwelling). And on some level we still know this today.
Visit any holy well in Britain and you will most likely find a small piece of votive cloth hanging from an overhanging tree above the wellhead. Go into any convenience store in most parts of the world now and you will find bottled spring water for sale, and even though it costs so much more than water out of the faucet or tap in our kitchen millions of people are buying it. So we know the difference between dead water and live potent water.
What makes a spring or well holy or sacred? Why have they had such a long history of reverential usage? Do you believe that these holy wells proffered cures? Even for the logical mind there are good reasons to believe in the power of such places when you look at what is happening energetically beneath the water's surface. The earth has a huge crystalline iron core (that's what the scientists now tell us!) and its spinning within its own gravitational field. An electric generator is an iron rod that is spun within a ring of magnets and copper coils that conduct the energy away to be used. Within the earth underground watercourses take on the role of the copper coils and conduct the currents of electro-magnetism to the surface of the planet. There they emerge as springs and those that have passed through the strongest currents of energy become powerful and effective healing wells.
You park your car some distance away, for most sacred springs are off the beaten track and hidden within the secret folds of our Earthmother. Following the ancient path, sometimes overgrown, sometimes freshly trodden by modern pilgrims, there will be delicate wild flowers growing in profusion in season in the hedgerows offering you a visual and fragrant delight. If you're not in a hurry each step will help quiet your busy mind and you find there is a whole orchestra of birds perched in the treetops melodiously accompanying your footfalls. You are aware of the weather and nature all around you and you notice if you're really present or just a casual observer. This is an important moment, do you embrace it?
You come upon the wellhead, rather by surprise, for there is no fanfare or neon sign. You are already in an altered state from your walk here. Pause for a moment to ask permission to enter the site, the guardians are there and will be delighted if you talk with them. If you've allowed yourself to talk to the spirit of a sacred site then you will be open enough to hear their reply.
When you step down to the source of the spring itself your eyes readjust to the dark and you see the fluorescent green moss glowing brightly on the inside of the covering stones, a tiny leaf seemingly floating in the air in front of you and offerings of crystals and coins inserted between damp surfaces as close to the water's surface as a grateful hand could reach. A bubble ripples the surface of the magical liquid and circles radiate outwards to kiss the rocky walls. You reach down and oh so reverently allow your fingers to slip into the water. Time has no measure here. You are with source, you are. You are. You may remember to ask the question you came to ask but it really doesn't matter for your heart is wide open and no words are needed. The hole within that is always crying out to be filled is not just full it is healed. Tears gently flow, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou. You step out into the light feeling transformed and healed.
Why would generation after generation for thousands of years go to wells seeking healing, advise or to have the future foretold? Presumably because it worked and people got some satisfactory resolution to their problems. These practices have persisted in Britain to within living memory and are now undergoing a revival of interest by modern 'pagans'.
What did people go to the springs for? Some of the wells and springs were used for divination, some for healing illnesses, for promoting fertility or for seeking blessings upon oneself and one's family:
Divination - To seek answers about prospective partners, future families, the harvest etc - all the major issues that affected people's lives. They would consult the spring because that was where the goddess resided; they felt the Spirit of Place and knew the water is her lifeblood. They were consulting one aspect of the triple goddess, in this case the wise crone.
Healing - The mother aspect of the goddess was called upon to effect healings particularly for children's diseases such as rickets, paralysis (presumably polio) and whooping cough. Cures for a wide range of common adult ailments, most popularly eye problems, were also sought. The eyesight remedy is interesting in relation to the divination practice as both are seeking clearer vision.
Fertility - The stories tell of women visiting the wells for all matters relating to their fertility. Here the blessings of the fertile maiden aspect of the triple goddess were beseeched in all manner of ways.
F Marian McNeill in The Silver Bough gives a particularly full account of a fertility ritual recorded of an unnamed well at Willie's Muir in Scotland which was visited by childless women, led by an older woman, during midsummer's week. The women had to take off their boots and kneel by the water and "rolled up their skirts and petticoats till their wames (wombs) were bare. The auld wife gave them the sign to step around her and away they went, one after the other, wi' the sun, round the spring, each one holding up her coats like she was holding herself to the sun. As each one came anent her, the auld wife took up the water in her hands and threw it on their wames. Never a one cried out at the cold o' the water and never a word was spoken. Three times round they went. The auld wife made a sign to them. They dropped their coats to their feet again, synt (then) they opend their dress frae the neck and skipped it off their shoulders so that their paps (breasts) sprang out. The auld wife gave them another sign. They doun on their knees afore her, across the spring; and she took up the water in her hands, skirpit (splashed it) on their paps, three times three. Then the auld wife rose and the three barren women rose. They put on their claes (clothes) again and drew their shawls about their faces and left the hollow without a word spoken and scattered across the muir for hame."
Virtually all of the healing wells had their rituals that had to be performed in order to 'activate' the power of the water. We now know from the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto that water responds to human thoughts, feelings and actions and so a respectful ceremony performed at the well would be more effective than one performed in a flippant fashion. One of the commonest stipulations was the need for silence.
Often the direction of approach to the well and the direction and number of times of circumambulation were rigidly defined. This could have been a half memory of a time when people followed the earth energy currents to the wellhead. At all power places where energy upwells a spiral pattern is dowsable and it would be most efficacious to walk around the spring with the flow of the energy.
Local lore stipulated certain acknowledged days as being the most potent ones to perform your ritual at the spring. At St Euny's well in the parish of Sancreed in Penwith, it was recorded at the end of the nineteenth century that in order to benefit from the healing powers of the well, one had to visit and wash in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May. This sounds like a half memory of the power and strength of energy of Beltane at the beginning of May.
Also the most appropriate time of day for the visit was specified, with dawn or just before sunrise being the most usual, and at full moon this is a particularly potent time. The currents of earth energies have seasonal, 'moonthly' and daily tides just like the ocean and, like a surfer, the visitor to the healing energy field of the well would want to 'catch the wave'.
Thus to obtain the healing of a particular well 'the patient may have to visit at dawn on Beltane morning, approach from the east and walk three times sunwise around the well in silence before speaking the required words of prayer, drinking the water from the specified vessel and finally making the specified offerings. At wells where the patient had to arrive before or at dawn, it was almost universal that they had to have finished their business and be out of sight of the well before actual sunrise. Sometimes the patient had to wipe the afflicted part of the body with a rag dipped in the water, or arrive at the site with a rag bound round the relevant part of the body and the rag was subsquently hung on a nearby tree to rot'.
From our modern 'logical' perspective this sounds like a load of superstitious rubbish whereas from the perspective of acknowledging the invisible energy present everywhere in the world, every aspect of this visit makes perfect sense.
One paid for one's renewed health by leaving an offering for the spirit of the well or spring. Today there is a tendency to toss coins into the water, a practice that was very common in Roman times. This appears rather commercial but it is the intent that matters and if the offering is made in the spirit of leaving something that you value then it should be just as effective as anything else. Traditionally one left either a piece of clothing tied to a nearby tree or a lock of hair or some other evidence of the cure anticipated. The tying of rags is the most common of these practices and is still in widespread use today, such wells being generally known as 'rag' or 'cloutie' wells; the idea being that as the rag rots so the disease or illness leaves the body.
At some wells it was the practice to prick your finger with a pin to draw blood and then to throw the pin into the water as an offering, or to leave a button or bead. Alternatively, in some places, the practice was to hammer a coin or nail into a nearby tree, though at least one sacred tree has been killed by this dubious kindness and devotion. The Romans had a rather perverted practice of scratching the name of someone they wanted to curse onto a piece of lead and tossing that into the well. Modern practice tends to favour the burning of incense, the lighting of a candle or the laying onto the water of a small posy of wildflowers tied with grass.
Today we are just starting to remember the vital importance of living water. Our town water supplies may be fine for washing and bathing but both our tastebuds and electron-microscopy photography are telling us that the water is dead and provides us with none of the vibrant life force that we need. The huge increase in sales of bottled mineral spring water reflects our awakening. (Dasani and Aquavita are filtered tap water and NOT spring water). Also shipping spring water in plastic bottles all around the world makes no Earthsense.
In Britain around the millennium the Sacred Land Trust did a great job of encouraging and supporting local groups and communities to re-sanctify their local sacred sites. Springs were among some of the projects they supported.
by Glenn Broughton
The following were useful sources of information for this article:
Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland - Janet & Colin Bord (ISBN:0-246-12036-3)