Holy Wells and the Power of Water

Michael Berman

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Wells have long been believed to possess the power to heal, if not cure, illnesses of various kinds. After some background information on the subject, three of the many that can be found in the west of England will be presented in this article.

Wells have a long tradition of marking sacred places. The Waters have been described as the reservoir of all the potentialities of existence because they not only precede every form but they also serve to sustain every creation. Immersion is equivalent to dissolution of form, in other words death, whereas emergence repeats the cosmogonic act of formal manifestation, in other words re-birth (see Eliade, 1952, p.151). And, following on from this, the surface of water can be defined as “the meeting place and doorway from one realm to another: from that which is revealed to that which is hidden, from conscious to unconscious” (Shaw & Francis, 2008, p.13).

A large number [of wells], having been hijacked and “sainted” by the early Church, became places of pilgrimage connected with the cult of a local saint, such as the famous well of St Winifred at Holywell in North Wales which in the Middle Ages was one of the important pilgrimage centres in England and Wales. Many wells and springs had suitably Christian legends attached to them during the 7th – 9th centuries, during the main centuries of the struggle between the Christianity (especially of the Celtic variety) and paganism, usually to “account” for their discovery or origins. … At St Ludgvan’s well in Cornwall, [for example,] local legend has it that the waters appeared in response to the hermit saint’s prayers for something wondrous which would draw the heathen locals to his ministry. [And] both Gwynllyw’s Well in Glamorgan and Illtud’s well on the Gower peninsula … originated when their respective saints stuck their staffs in the ground and fresh water sprang forth.

At many of the healing wells, rituals had to be performed in order to “activate” the power of the water. This usually involved visiting the place only on certain acknowledged days. The Christianised or “sainted” wells almost always had to be visited on the appropriate saint’s day or on such dates as Easter Sunday or Whit Sunday, while the commonest dates for the more pagan wells included all four of the traditional festivals – Imbolc, Samhain, Beltane and Lammas. The Summer Solstice and Midsummer’s Eve (St John’s Night, i.e. 24th June) were also extremely popular.

Further, for many wells the appropriate or most efficacious time of day for the visit was specified, with dawn or just before sunrise being the most usual, as was the direction of approach to the well and the direction and number of times of circumnambulation. One of the commonest stipulations was the need for silence, if not for the entire duration of the ritual or visit to the well then at least for a substantial part of it. 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 deiseal 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 he had to have finished his 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 subsequently hung on a nearby tree to rot.

At Aconbury in Herefordshire lie both St Ann’s Well and Lady Well; the former is reputed to cure eye troubles, the most effective cures being effected by the first water drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. This water, which is said to bubble out of the ground, is called the “Cream of the Well” and supposedly gives off a blue smoke. So highly regarded was it that until a generation or so ago local women competed for that first bucketful after midnight4. In Wales, meanwhile, there was a belief that water drawn from a well between 11pm and midnight on New Year’s Eve would turn to wine!

McNeill has left us a number of eyewitness accounts of rituals used in the early part of this century at various wells in Scotland which provide a record of practices now lost.

At the Holy Pool of St Fillan in Perthshire, [for example,] which was used for curing insanity, the patient “was led thrice sunwise around the pool, first in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son and lastly in the name of the Holy Spirit. He was then immersed in the pool in the name of the Holy Trinity ….”

River pools were also considered to have curative powers, especially if the water were taken from a spot over which the dead and living pass, i.e. from under a bridge over which the dead were carried for burial. McNeill records one instance in which water was taken from such a spot for curing the Evil Eye.

“It had to be carried home in complete silence, and particular care was taken that the vessel should not touch the ground – ie, there must be no contact between earth and water. A wooden ladle containing a piece of silver was dipped in and the victim given three sips of the “silvered water”.

The remainder was then sprinkled over and around him.

It was customary to pay for one’s renewed health by leaving an offering for the spirit of the well or spring, which traditionally consisted of a piece of clothing tied to a nearby tree 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 rotted so the disease or illness withered until it had gone – so no instant cures were presumably expected.

The practice of making offerings at (or to) bodies of water appears to be a very ancient one. There is considerable evidence dating from the early Bronze Age that items such as swords, helmets, shields and other pieces of metalwork (along with human beings) were consigned to rivers and bogs in considerable quantities. A number of very fine specimens of Bronze Age and Celtic weaponry and armour have been found at river sites throughout Britain and Europe, as well as considerable metal and human deposits in bogs in Denmark and north Germany. Two particular items whose photographs have long graced books on matters Celtic were found in mud in the River Thames during low water – a bronze horned helmet and a bronze shield decorated with inlays and spirals, while within Mercia itself various votive offerings have been found deposited at several points in the River Severn.

Wells and springs were reputed in folklore to be the entrances to the Other Worlds and, like thresholds the world over, many of them had guardians – usually in the form of one or more fish. In the waters of Ffynnon Gybi (Gwyneth, North Wales) there dwelt an eel whose coiling (or not, as the case may be) around the legs of the patient indicated the success or otherwise of the healing petition, while in the Golden Well at Peterchurch (Golden Valley, Herefordshire) lived a trout with a chain around its neck (1,4). The trout’s portrait, complete with chain, can still be seen high up on the wall inside mediaeval St Peter’s Church in the valley. … At Acton Burnell in Shropshire the Frog Well was inhabited by (surprise!) frogs while serpents were said to have guarded Ffynnon Sarff near Caerrnarvon and Grinston Well in Pembrokeshire (a winged serpent in this case). [M]ore bizarrely, a fly (believed to be immortal) guarded St Michael’s Well in Banffshire and Ffynnon Ddigwg in Caernarvonshire was believed by local people to be inhabited by “strange creatures resembling hedgehogs without their spikes”.


1. Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland – Janet & Colin Bord (ISBN: 0-246-12036-3)
2. Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall – M & L Quiller-Couch (Tamara Publications, Liskeard, Cornwall: ISBN: 9-780951-282250)
3. The Holy Wells of Wales – Francis Jones (University of Wales Press, Cardiff: ISBN: 0-7083-11450-8)
4. The Healing Wells of Herefordshire – Jonathan Sant (Moondial Books. ISBN: 9-780952-499008)
5. The Herbal Remedies of the Physicians of Myddfai (Llanerch)
6. The Silver Bough – F Marian McNeill (Canongate Classics, Edinburgh. ISBN: 0-86241-23105)
7. Tales of Wild Edric by Richard “Mogsy” Walker (published in White Dragon at Beltane 1995)

The above notes were taken from ‘The Folklore of British Holy Wells’ By Rowan First published at Lughnasa 1996
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The Well of St Keyne

 

Well of St Keyne

ST KEYNE came to this well about five hundred years before the Norman Conquest, and imparted a strange virtue to its waters–namely, that whichever of a newly-married couple should first drink thereof, was to enjoy the sweetness of domestic sovereignty ever after.

Situated in a thickly-wooded district, the well of St Keyne presents a singularly picturesque appearance. “Four trees of divers kinds” grow over the well, imparting a delightful shade, and its clear waters spread an emerald luxuriance around. Once, and once only, have I paid a visit to this sacred spot. Then and there I found a lady drinking of the waters from her thimble, and eagerly contending with her husband that the right to rule was hers. The man, however, mildly insisted upon it that he had had the first drink, as he had rushed before his wife, and dipping his fingers into the water had sucked them. This, the lady contended, was not drinking, and she, I have no doubt, through life had the best of the argument.

Tonkin says, in his “History of Cornwall,” “Did it retain this wondrous quality, as it does to this day the shape, I believe there would be to it a greater resort of both sexes than either to Bath or Tunbridge; for who would not be fond of attaining this longed for sovereignty?” He then adds, “Since the writing of this, the. trees were blown down by a violent storm, and in their place Mr Rashleigh, in whose land it is, has planted two oaks, an ash, and an elm, which thrive well; but the wonderful arch is destroyed.” The author can add to this that (as he supposes, owing to the alteration made in the trees) the sovereign virtues of the waters have perished.

Southey’s ballad will be remembered by most readers…

“A well there is in the west country,
And a clearer one never was seen;
There is not a wife in the west country
But has heard of the Well of St Keyne.

“An oak and an elm-tree stand beside,
And behind doth an ash-tree grow,
And a willow from the bank above
Droops to the water below.”

Taken from ‘Popular Romances of the West of England: The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall’. Collected and edited by Robert Hunt 3d ed. London, Chatto and Windus, 1903. Scanned and redacted by Phillip Brown. Additional formatting and proofing at sacred-texts.com by John B. Hare. Second revision, May 2004. This text is in the public domain. This file may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact.

It is said that sitting in St Michael’s Chair, on the tower of the church of St Michael’s Mount, has the same virtue as the waters of this well, and that this remarkable power was the gift of the same St Keyne who imparted such wonderful properties to this well.


Maddern or Madron Well

“Plunge thy right hand in St Maciron’s spring,
If true to its troth be the palm you bring;
But if a false digit thy fingers bear,
Lay them at once on the burning share.”

Madron Well

OF the holy well at St Maddern, Carne [a] writes

“It has been contended that a virgin was the patroness of this church–that she was buried at Minster–and that many miracles were performed at her grave. A learned commentator, however, is satisfied that it was St Motran, who was one of the large company that came from Ireland with St Buriana, and he was slain at the mouth of the Hayle; the body was begged, and afterwards buried here. Nearby was the miraculous Well of St Maddern, over which a chapel was built, so sacred was it held, (This chapel was destroyed by the fanaticism of Major Ceely in the days of Cromwell.) It stood at no great distance on the moor, and the soil around it was black and boggy, mingled with a gray moorstone. . . .

“The votaries bent awfully and tremblingly over its sedgy bank, and gazed on its clear bosom for a few minutes ere they proved the fatal ordeal; then an imploring look was cast towards the figure of St Motran, many a crossing was repeated, and at last the pin or pebble held aloof was dropped into the depth beneath. Often did the rustic beauty fix her eye intently on the bubbles that rose, and broke, and disappeared; for in that moment the lover was lost, or the faithful husband gained. It was only on particular days, however, according to the increase or decrease of the moon, that the hidden virtues of the well were consulted.” [b]

Of this well we have the following notice by William Scawen, Esq., Vice-Warden of the Stannaries. The paper from which we extract it was first printed by Davies Gilbert, Esq., F.R.S., as an appendix to his “Parochial History of Cornwall.” Its complete title is, “Observations on an Ancient Manuscript, entitled ‘Passio Christo,” written in the Cornish Language, and now preserved in the Bodleian Library; with an Account of the Language, Manners, and Customs of the People of Cornwall, (from a Manuscript in the Library of Thomas Artle, Esq., 1777)”…

“Of St Mardren’s Well (which is a parish west to the Mount), a fresh true story of two persons, both of them lame and decrepit, thus recovered from their infirmity. These two persons, after they had applied themselves to divers physicians and chirurgeons, for cure, and finding no success by them, they resorted to St Mardren’s Well, and according to the ancient custom which they had heard of, the same which was once in a year–to wit, on Corpus Christi evening–to lay some small offering on the altar there, and to lie on the ground all night, drink of the water there, and in the morning after to take a good draught more, and to take and carry away some of the water, each of them in a bottle, at their departure. This course these two men followed, and within three weeks they found the effect of it, and, by degrees their strength increasing, were able to move themselves on crutches. The year following they took the same course again, after which they were able to go with the help of a stick; and at length one of them, John Thomas, being a fisherman, was, and is at this day, able to follow his fishing craft. The other, whose name was William Cork, was a soldier under the command of my kinsman, Colonel William Godolphin (as he has often told me), was able to perform his duty, and died in the service of his majesty King Charles. But herewith take also this :–

 “One Mr Hutchens, a person well known in those parts, and now lately dead, being parson of Ludgvan, a near neighbouring parish to St Mardren’s Well, he observed that many of his parishioners often frequented, this well superstitiously, for which he reproved them privately, and sometimes publicly, in his sermons; but afterwards he, the said Mr Hutchens, meeting with a woman coming from the well with a bottle in her hand, desired her earnestly that he might drink thereof, being then troubled with colical pains, which accordingly he did, and was eased of his infirmity. The latter story is a full confutation of the former; for, if the taking the water accidentally thus prevailed upon the party to his cure, as it is likely it did, then the miracle which was intended to be by the ceremony of lying on the ground and offering is wholly fled, and it leaves the virtue of the water to be the true cause of the cure. And we have here, as in many places of the land, great variety of salutary springs, which have diversity of operations, which by natural reason have been found to be productive of good effects, and not by miracle, as the vain fancies of monks and friars have been exercised in heretofore.”

Bishop Hale, of Exeter, in his “Great Mystery of Godliness,” says

“Of which kind was that noe less than miraculous cure, which, at St Maddern’s Well, in Cornwall, was wrought upon a poore cripple; whereof, besides the attestation of many hundreds of the neighbours, I tooke a strict and impartial examination in my last triennial visitation there. This man, for sixteen years, was forced to walke upon his hands, by reason of the sinews of his Ieggs were soe contracted that he cold not goe or walke on his feet, who upon monition in a dream to wash in that well, which accordingly he did, was suddainly restored to the use of his limbs; and I sasve him both able to walk and gett his owne maintenance. I found here was neither art nor collusion,–the cure done, the author our invisible God,” &c.

In Madron Well–and, I have no doubt, in many others–may be found frequently the pins which have been dropped by maidens desirous of knowing “when they were to be married.” I once witnessed the whole ceremony performed by a group of beautiful girls, who had walked on a May morning from Penzance. Two pieces of straw, about an inch long each, were crossed and the pin run through them. This cross was then dropped into the water, and the rising bubbles carefully counted, as they marked the number of years which would pass ere the arrlval of the happy day. This practice also prevailed amongst the visitors to the well at the foot of Monacuddle Grove, near St Austell.

 On approaching the Waters, each visitor is expected to throw in a crooked pin; and, if you are lucky, you may possibly see the other pins rising from the bottom to meet the most recent offering.

 

[a] “Tales of the West,” by the author of “Letters from the East,”

[b] The tale of “The Legend of Pacorra.”

Taken from ‘Popular Romances of the West of England: The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall’. Collected and edited by Robert Hunt 3d ed. London, Chatto and Windus, 1903. Scanned and redacted by Phillip Brown. Additional formatting and proofing at sacred-texts.com by John B. Hare. Second revision, May 2004. This text is in the public domain. This file may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact.

 

The Well at Altar-Nun

 

Well at Altar-Nun

AMONGST the numerous holy wells which exist in Cornwall, that of Alternosi, or Altar-Nun, is the only one, as far as I can learn, which possessed the virtue of curing the insane.

We are told that Saint Nunne or Nuanita was the daughter of an Earl of Cornwall, and the mother of St David; that the holy well, which is situated about a mile from the cathedral of St David, was dedicated to her; and that she bestowed on the waters of the Cornish well those remarkable powers, which were not given to the Welsh one, from her fondness for the county of her birth.

Carew, in his “Survey of Cornwall,” thus describes the practice…

“The water running from St Nun’s well fell into a square and enclosed walled plot, which might be filled at what depth they listed. Upon this wall was the frantic person put to stand, his back towards the pool, and from thence, with a sudden blow in the breast, tumbled headlong into the pond; where a strong fellow, provided for the nonce, took him, and tossed him up and down, amongst and athwart the water, till the patient, by foregoing his’ strength, had somewhat forgot his fury. Then was he conveyed to the church, and certain masses said over him; upon which handling, if his right wits returned, St Nun had the thanks; but if there appeared small amendment, he was bowssened again and again, while there remained in him any hope of life or recovery.”

The 2d of March is dedicated to St Nun, and the influence of the water is greatly exalted on that day.

Although St Nun’s well has been long famous, and the celebrity of its waters extended far, yet there was a belief prevailing amidst the uneducated, that the sudden shock produced by suddenly plunging an insane person into water was most effective in producing a return to reason.

On one occasion, a woman of weak mind, who was suffering under the influence of a religious monomania, consulted me on the benefit she might hope to receive from electricity. The burden of her ever-melancholy tale was, that “she had lost her God; “and she told me, with a strange mixture of incoherence and reason, that her conviction was, that a sudden shock would cure her. She had herself proposed to her husband and friends that they should take her to a certain rock on St Michael’s Mount, stand her on it, with her back to the sea, when “the waters were the strongest, at the flowing of the tide;” and after having prayed with her, give her the necessary blow on the chest, and thus plunge her into the waters below. I know not that the experiment was ever made in the case of this poor woman, but I have heard of several instances where this sudden plunge had been tried as a cure for insanity.

According to the narrative given by Mr Bond in his “History of Looe,” the sacred protection given must have been limited in time, as the following story will prove.

“KIPPISCOMBE LANE, Probably so called from a consecrated well on the right hand side of the road. The titular saint of this well is supposed to have been St Cuby, now corrupted into Keby’s Well. The spring flows Into a circular basin or reservoir of granite, or of some stone like it, two feet four inches at its extreme diameter at top, and about two feet high. It appears to have been neatly carved and ornamented in its lower part with the figure of a griffin, and round the edge with dolphins, now much defaced. The water was formerly carried off by a drain or hole at the bottom, like those usually seen in fonts and piscinas. This basin (which I take to be an old font) was formerly much respected by the neighbours, who conceived some great misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it from where it stood, and that it required immense power to remove it. A daring fellow, however (says a story), once went with a team of oxen for the express purpose of removing it. On his arrival at the spot, one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the fellow that he desisted from the attempt he was about to make. There are several loose stones scattered round this basin or reservoir, perhaps the remains of some building which formerly enclosed it–a small chapel likely.”

Taken from ‘Popular Romances of the West of England: The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall’. Collected and edited by Robert Hunt 3d ed. London, Chatto and Windus, 1903. Scanned and redacted by Phillip Brown. Additional formatting and proofing at sacred-texts.com by John B. Hare. Second revision, May 2004. This text is in the public domain. This file may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact.

 

References

Eliade, M. (1991) Images and Symbols, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (The original edition is copyright Librairie Gallimard 1952).

Shaw, S. & Francis, A. (eds.) (2008) Deep Blue: Critical reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

 

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Michael Berman

Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, Journeys Outside Time for Pendraig Publishing, and Tales of Power for Lear Books. ELT titles include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom, In a Faraway Land (a resource book for teachers on storytelling), On Business and for Pleasure (a self-study workbook). and ELT Matters.  For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk

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