"Running water is a holy thing" - Old Somerset saying.
The westernmost edge of Cornwall is a land of rugged sea-moors strewn with giant stone megaliths; but it was in one of this ancient land's more gentle and hidden folds that my companion and I came across a relic far less imposing than the great stones and yet as silently expressive of ancient sacred practices: the holy well of St.Madron.
We reached the well by a narrow muddy path through twisted trees, under which the last of the spring bluebells softly glowed in the early evening light, and came upon the well, which is an open pool overhung by thorn trees. Although the place had an air of deep silence and sanctity, evidence of much recent activity was to be seen in the great number of rags, feathers, and even pieces of torn plastic bags that hung from the branches - votive offerings from an ancient ritual that still exerts a pull on late 20th century pilgrims.
It is an extraordinary thing to consider that there are still literally thousands of holy wells in the British Isles. Most of these are natural springs; some open pools like St. Madron's, while others are contained by a stone edifice, often covered. The majority, however, are in ruins, overgrown and no longer visited. Some have been desecrated by cattle or human presence. And yet, many, like St. Madron's, still continue to be a center of pilgrimage as they were from pagan times.
People visited the wells for their traditional virtues of healing and divination. If a physical cure was sought, the believer would drink or sometimes bathe in the water. And in fact,the water of some holy wells have indeed been found to contain curative properties, mostly due to the presence of certain minerals. But the healing influence of the wells was due to more than their medicinal qualities.The well itself was viewed as a shrine dedicated to the miraculous emergence of living water, in all cultures a symbol of generation, purification, and the matrix of life itself. To quote Mircea Eliade, "...water symbolizes the whole of potentiality; it is fons et origo, the source of all possible existence."
Supernatural qualities automatically cluster about the manifestation of such a powerful archetype. The holy wells of the British Isles were, in fact, such popular places of worship in pagan times, that the early Roman Church took great pains to stamp them out. But, as is the way with an unsuppressable archetypal force, the form changed while the essential mystery continued unaltered: the well as pagan temple metamorphosed into a Christian shrine.
And the rituals continued down the centuries: country people would make pilgrimages to the holy wells to seek relief for a variety of ills from rheumatism to scurvy, broken bones to leprosy. A great many wells were supposed to cure eye problems, which scholars have traced to the magical perception of the well as the eye of a god. And the sympathetic link between water and fertility led, as one might expect, to a number of wells gaining a reputation for curing childlessness. In Oxford, for example, Child's Well "had vertue to make women that were barren to bring forth children," while St.Agnes Well at Whitestaunton in Somerset gained fame when Henrietta, the wife of King Charles I, was rumored to have wished for a child there, and became pregnant soon after.
At the well, the petitioner would leave a token piece of clothing, usually hung on a bush or a tree as at St.Madron's, so that the healing power of the well could act upon it. Such a custom led to Scottish healing wells becoming known as 'clootie wells' - 'clootie' meaning 'cloth.' The seeker would generally bring an offering to the well - usually a bent pin, which gave rise to the number of "pin wells" to be found in the British Isles. This humble gift was the successor of the great treasures discovered at the bottom of wells frequented in Celtic and Roman Britain: at Coventina's well in Carrowbaugh, Northumberland more than 14,000 coins, bronze figurines, jewelry, glass, pottery, and a human skull were discovered in the shaft.
The healing power of wells was also accessed through what appears to be a British equivalent of dream-incubation. The Asclepian temples at which this form of therapy was practised in the Classical world were situated at sacred wells and springs; here the sick would fast and take part in rituals designed to invoke a healing dream. In Roman Britain a dream-temple was built at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire over several springs, while records indicate St.Madron's Well was used for this purpose also: in the 17th century, a miraculous healing was attested to by none other than the local bishop. A severely crippled man, John Trelille, "upon three several admonitions in his dreams, washing in St.Madern's Well and sleeping afterwards in what was called St.Madern's bed, was suddenly and perfectly cured." The bed of St.Madern (or Madron) was a nearby stone seat which was customarily used for dream-incubation purposes, no doubt a cold and highly uncomfortable but perfect medium for the disturbed sleep necessary to give rise to vivid and easily remembered dreams.
Recent research has, moreover, verified this strange connection between wells and dreams: Earth Mysteries researcher Paul Devereux, in Earthmind, recounts incidences where people have become unaccountably drowsy and fallen asleep at the site of a holy well, a phenomenon he correlates with the mildly radioactive properties found at many of the well sites.
Dreaming at holy wells was also used as a method of foretelling the future, possibly an echo of pagan times when, it seems, a female oracle presided over the well.This ancient practice was preserved down the years, albeit in a humbler manner, by the custom of country girls who would seek to know their future husband at the well.
For example, a serving-maid of Selby could not decide which of her suitors to wed, and so sought help from the nearby "Fairy's Pin Well", which had a reputation for divination. She drank from its water and asked the faery of the well to give her a dream of the man she should marry, whereupon she promptly fell asleep and dreamed that one of her suitors, dressed in festive clothing, approached her bearing a wedding ring. In addition, the faeries took the maid to Elfland, which highlights another important feature of the holy wells: that along with other sacred features of the landscape such as certain megaliths, caves, trees and lakes, they stand as entrances to the world of spirit - the Otherworld.
This is particularly appropriate because in Celtic mythology the Well of Wisdom stands at the center of the Celtic Otherworld, the spiritual source of all, of which the holy wells of Britain and Ireland are mere tributaries. Early Irish literature tells us how this well gushes up as a fountain in the courtyard of the palace of Manannan mac Lir, the king of the faeries. Over the well hang nine magic hazel-trees that drop their purple nuts into the water. Salmon - the Celtic fish of knowledge and mystic inspiration - eat the nuts and send the husks floating down the five streams that flow down from the well. And "the sound of the falling of those streams was more melodious than any music that men sing". In the wisdom tale, Cormac's Adventures in the Land of Promise, Manannan Mac Lir explains that the streams are the five senses through which knowledge is obtained, "and no one will have knowledge who drinks not a draught of the fountain itself and out of the streams. The folk of many arts are those who drink of them both."
Hence it is the healing and wisdom of the Otherworld that has been sought by petitioners of the holy wells throughout the centuries. This connection was clearly acknowledged by the Celtic well-pilgrims who would drink the water in a special cup made from the skull of a severed head, thus creating a direct link with the dead who reside in the Otherworld. Interestingly enough, at the well of Llandeilo in Dyfed, Wales, this pagan tradition was carried on in Christian guise up to this century: in order for the water to be beneficial, it had to be drunk from the skull of the Celtic Saint Teilo, whose church stood in ruins about the well.
In some holy wells, the Salmon of Wisdom is recalled by the existence of sacred fish that are an essential part of the well's magical properties. In Wales, for example, at the turn of this century, the stock of two "sacred fish" was replenished in the well at Nant Peris, Llanberis. This well was frequented by large numbers of invalids in the 19th century, who would watch the movements of the fish anxiously: if a fish appeared out of the recesses when water was taken, cure was certain; otherwise the water lacked any potency at all. And in Ireland, where the thinly-disguised pagan ceremony of "paying Rounds" is still practised at holy wells, we hear of the the well of St. Monachan in Kerry, about which was said there was "not a better well in Munster to give Rounds at; sure there is a salmon and an eel in it, and whoever has the luck to get a look at them may be sure they have the benefit of the Rounds."
We know too, that in folk-tradition, the wells were only visited at special times of the year: May or at Midsummer were the most popular, two turning-points of the Celtic year when the gates of the Otherworld were open wide. At these times, too, those Otherworld denizens, the faeries or pixies, were frequently sighted at holy wells.
It is not surprising then that a guardian of the Otherworld is usually found overseeing the holy wells of the British Isles. Although since the Christianization of the wells this figure is generally a saint of either gender, the well-guardian was originally female.
Dealings with the Otherworld in the Celtic tradition are generally facilitated by a female spirit or goddess. This is particularly so when the Otherworld is located beneath the earth, which in pagan Britain and Ireland, as in most cultures worldwide, was always regarded as feminine.
The well, therefore, was viewed as leading into the womb of the earth- mother herself, a concept graphically illustrated by the presence of the sheela-na-gig in the vicinity of some holy wells in Ireland. This female "fertility figure", carved in stone, stands with legs wide apart, holding open her vagina: close by stands the well - it, too, being an orifice from which life springs forth.
The sacred well as a miraculous irruption of spiritual power or numen into the everyday world was also, it seems, viewed as the nourishing breast of the earth-mother. Some local legends show clearly that the well-water was special because it was milky or creamy, as if it actually came from the earth-mother's breast.
At the well of St.Illtyd near Swansea, Wales, for example, close to the magical midsummer time, milk was said to have flowed forth instead of water. Here, "many who were present testified that while they were looking at the milky stream carefully and with astonishment, they also saw among the gravel curds lying about in every direction, and all around the edge of the well a certain fatty substance floating about, such as is collected from milk, so that butter can be made from it."
The healing and nourishing effects of the holy well waters emanate from the breast of the earth-mother, so it follows naturally that the spirit of the well was feminine. At Bath, for example,the local native goddess Sul gave her name to the Roman hot springs, Aquae Sulis, while in Carrowbaugh a ruined temple lies over the well dedicated to Coventina, the Romanized name of another native deity. A votive tablet shows her floating on a water-lily leaf; while a relief depicts three of her female attendants bearing goblets; out of one pours a stream of water.
These last figures may be the "damsels of the wells" referred to in one of the medieval texts dealing with the Holy Grail, about whom a poignant tale is told that illustrates the demise of the holy well as a vital sacred center of British culture. The story describes how travelers in Logres,(the esoteric name of the "Inner Britain"), were served with food and drink by the damsels of the wells. But an evil king raped one of them and stole her golden cup and "thenceforth never did the damsel serve any more nor issue forth of that well for no man that might come thither to ask for victual." As a result, the wells dried up and the country was stricken with drought, causing it to become the Wasteland that could only be redeemed when the Holy Grail was found. "The Kingdom was turned to loss, the land was dead and desert as that it was scarce worth a couple of hazel-nuts. For they lost the voices of the wells and the damsels that were therein."
What were the voices of the wells? Were these "damsels" in fact oracles, mouthpieces of the wisdom of the Otherworld? The story can be read on more than one level: it might refer to an ancient priestess order at sacred wells and its subsequent desecration and appropriation by a male priesthood - Druidic or Christian. In Jungian terms, it seems to refer to the destructive force of an over-dominant masculine consciousness and the patriarchal logos principle that reached its apotheosis in the Middle Ages.
Another result of the desecration of the wells, so we are told, is that the court of the Rich Fisher, who showered the land with prosperity and joy, could no longer be found: in other words, the spiritual center of the culture vanished into the unconscious, where in a materialistic culture like ours, it can only be accessed through dreams and visions.
But this center is only hidden, not utterly gone; we still come across echoes of the "voices of the wells" even down to this day. Many Christian churches were constructed near pagan sacred wells, and the early Celtic church used them for baptism until the Roman church replaced them with the font inside the building. A number of old churches contain a crypt or grotto that opens into a subterranean spring. This place - close to earth and water - is the innermost sanctum, the hidden holy center of the sacred enclosure.
In Ireland, pilgrimages to holy wells are still an important part of the Christian year; and an inordinate number of these fall upon St.Brigid's day, the old Celtic festival of Imbolc on February 1st. Numerous holy wells are in fact dedicated to this saint, who was once a Celtic goddess, Brighde, giving rise to the many districts called "Bridewell" throughout the British Isles today. Another name common to holy wells and subsequently districts is "Ladywell", as wells once dedicated to pagan goddesses and their priestesses were rededicated to the Virgin Mary under Christianity. Such wells are often connected with sightings of a White Lady, a ghostly figure, perhaps of the displaced well spirit or priestess.
More traces of a well priestess tradition survived till quite late in Cornwall: at Gulval Well, the seventeenth century chronicler Hals described - with not a little contempt - the habits of the "credulous country people" who visited the well for healing and divination purposes. The well was tended by an old woman who kept the well-site neat and clean, and broadcast the "virtues and divine qualities of those waters", which she dispensed in return for a fee. She gave oracles to strangers, and revealed the whereabouts of lost and stolen objects, including local cattle. For miles around she was highly regarded as the "priestess of the well", an ancient calling, of which she was one of the last of her kind.
And even today in some English villages, the local well is still honored by being decorated at the annual well-dressing ceremony. This ancient ritual is still enthusiastically practised, and has in fact developed into an intricate local craft of which local families are most proud. To "dress" the well, a wooden framework is coated with clay into which flower petals, leaves, berries, moss, feathers, seeds and cones are pressed to form pictures. These are generally of biblical subjects and in some villages a service is held at the well - a latter-day form of well-worship, in truth!
For a strong instinctual feeling for the numinosity of sacred waters remains in the modern soul, even if it only prompts the casual toss of a coin into a "wishing-well" - or the tying of a rag to a tree. As we stood at St. Madron's Well last spring, two awkward visitors in a foreign church, my companion and I fumbled through pockets and finally retrieved a crumpled handkerchief. Half-embarrassed, and yet moved by a deeper sense of the rightness of the act, each of us silently tied the pieces to a hawthorn branch before walking back in the gathering dusk.