Holy well

Holy well

A Holy Well is a spring or other body of water, revered equally in a pagan or Christian context, often both, as holy wells were Christianized. The term 'Holy Well' is commonly employed to refer to any water source of limited size (i.e., not a lake or river, but including pools and natural springs and seeps, which has some significance in the folklore of the area where it is located, whether in the form of a particular name, an associated legend, the attribution of healing qualities to the water through the numinous presence of its guardian spirit or Christian saint, or a ceremony or ritual centred on the well site. In Christian legend, the water is often said to have been made to flow by the action of a saint, a familiar theme especially in the hagiography of Celtic saints.

Nomenclature and etymology

The term "haeligewielle" is in origin an Anglo-Saxon toponym attached to specific springs in the landscape [J. Harte, ‘Holy Wells and other Holy Places’, "Living Spring Journal", 1, 2000.] ; its current use has arisen through folklore scholars, antiquarians, and other writers generalising from those actual 'Holy Wells' which survived into the modern era. The term ‘holy-hole' is sometimes employed. [A. Ross, "Pagan Celtic Britain" (London: RKP), 1967, 107; William Worcestre, "Itinerary", ed. J. Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon), 1981, 290-91.] The terms 'hole' and 'holy' are etymons.

Culture and representation

'Holy Wells' in different forms occur in such a wide variety of cultures, religious environments, and historical periods that it is usually held that it is a universal human instinct to revere sources of water [e.g. J. & C. Bord, "Sacred Waters" (London: Granada), 1985, 1-3.] . However, the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and the historical differences among cultures and nations, make it very hard to generalize. While there are a few national studies of holy well lore and history, mainly concentrating on the British Isles, there is a need for more work examining other regions.

The earliest work specifically devoted to 'holy wells' is Philip Dixon Hardy's "Holy Wells of Ireland" (1836), a Protestant attack on Catholic observances at Irish wells bearing the names of Christian saints, or otherwise considered sacred. By the later 19th century, the term had acquired its current usage: Robert Charles Hope's "The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England" (1893), the first general survey of its kind, included a number of named wells which were not dedicated to saints (as well as some rivers and lakes with associated folklore, as Hope mentioned in his subtitle).


In England, there are examples of reverence for wells and springs at a variety of historical periods. The medieval traveller William of Worcester saw a ‘holy-hole, or well’ within the cave at Wookey (Somerset), a site of human habitation in the Palaeolithic era and the source of a river which had been the site of ritual activity. [A. Ross, "Pagan Celtic Britain" (London: RKP), 1967, 107; William Worcestre, "Itinerary", ed. J. Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon), 1981, 290-91.] The proximity of named springs to Neolithic or Iron Age monuments, such as the Swallowhead Springs, close to Silbury Hill (Wiltshire) or the Holy Well near Tadmarton Hill (Oxfordshire), suggests that reverence for such sites continued without a break. There is abundant evidence for the importance of wells and springs in the Roman and sub-Roman period, not just at temple complexes such as Bath (Somerset), Chedworth (Gloucestershire) ["Living Spring Journal" 2, 2002.] , and Blunsdon Ridge (Wiltshire) [ [http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind9905&L=wells-and-spas&T=0&F=&S=&P=4844 Wells and Spas Archives - May 1999 (#46) ] ] which have medicinal springs at their centre, but a variety of smaller sites, and at wells and ritual shafts used for superstitious and sub-religious rituals. [R. Merrifield, "The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic" (London: Batsford), 1987, 23-50] Christianity strongly affected the development of holy wells in Europe and the Middle East. Aside from the spring that issued from Moses' staff and the Well of Beersheba, there were already a number of sites mentioned in Jewish and Christian folklore, including Moses’ well near Mount Nebo, visited by the fourth-century nun Egeria and many other pilgrims. St Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, written about 356-62, mentions the well created by the desert hermit Antony, clearly based on the precedent set by the Moses legend, and this seems to have been the original for many of the traditions associating saints with wells in Europe [T. Gray-Hulse, ‘Smiting Water from the Rock: Notes on the possible origins of a motif in Christian hagiography’, unpublished paper, 2006.] . It is very unclear how many Christian holy wells there may have been, as records are very fragmentary and often a well appears only once, making it impossible to tell when reverence for it began and when it ceased, but by the Reformation England, for instance, probably possessed some hundreds. As they were closely linked with the cults of the saints, many wells in countries that converted to Protestant forms of Christianity fell into disuse and were lost, the Holy Well at Walsingham (Norfolk) being a good example, which, having been an integral element of the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in the village, vanished completely. Visiting of wells for therapeutic and entertainment purposes did not completely die out, however, as spas became fashionable in the 17th century and later. Eventually antiquarians (from the 17th century) and folklorists (from the 19th) began to take notice of holy wells and record their surviving traditions [J. Rattue, "The Living Stream" (Woodbridge: Boydell), 1995, chapters 7, 8, and 9.] .

Historiographical controversies

The reformers of the 16th century assumed that medieval Catholic practices often embodied lingering remains of paganism, and thought of holy wells in that way. This affected the outlook of those who came to study holy well traditions later. The pioneers of folklore study took what in retrospect was a rather naïve view that the customs and legends they were recording were debased versions of pagan rites and myths. Thus it became standard to begin any account of holy wells with the statement that the Christian church had adopted them from the pagans and replaced the heathen gods with Christian saints, in order to win people over to the new religion more smoothly. Among the earliest enthusiasts for holy wells in modern times was the neo-pagan movement for whom wells formed part of 'earth mysteries' study along with ley lines and other ancient sites; the view that the Christians had ‘stolen’ holy wells from the pagan religions fitted in well with their position. [J. Rattue, "The Living Stream" (Woodbridge: Boydell), 1995, Chapter 9.] The magazines "Wood and Water" and "Meyn Mamvro", among others, helped shape this approach. During the early- and mid-1990s this viewpoint was under increasing attack crowned by the publication of Ronald Hutton’s "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles" (1991) which argued that the evidence for what constituted pre-Christian British religion, certainly outside Romano-British times, was next to nil. As far as wells themselves were concerned, the controversy emerged in the pages of "Source", the holy wells journal edited by Roy Fry and former Benedictine monk Tristan Gray-Hulse. A number of articles in the journal exploded long-standing myths about holy well history, and the editors published an exchange between them and Cheryl Straffon, editor of Cornish earth mysteries magazine "Meyn Mamvro", about the evidence for a particular Cornish well’s supposed association with the Irish goddess Brid. The eco-pagan movement has largely accepted the new historiographical approach, but occasionally rather more old-fashioned accounts of holy wells are published, for instance Gary Varner’s "Sacred Springs" (2002).

A linked argument was over the nature of the influence of the Celtic races on the well-cult. The late Francine Nicholson, an independent student of Celtica, argued forcefully and controversially that the Celts had a unique sensitivity to sacred wells, but never elaborated this in any published work. [ [http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind0301&L=WELLS-AND-SPAS&D=0&I=-3&P=2193 WELLS-AND-SPAS Archives - January 2003 (#23) ] ]

More recently, radically-minded scholars have begun questioning the unity of concepts imposed by the term ‘holy well’. In a paper in the "Living Spring Journal", Jeremy Harte distinguishes between early Anglo-Saxon ‘holy wells’ and those Christianised in the late Middle Ages, and argues ‘apart from being venerated and being wet, they have little in common’; Harte has also stressed that limited evidence may mean that scholars are considerably overestimating the number of holy wells which were active at any one time. [Harte, op.cit.; http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind0703&L=WELLS-AND-SPAS&P=R924&D=0&H=0&I=-3&O=T&T=0&m=2725]

Revival of modern interest

In a sense, the restoration of holy wells began almost as soon as they were in decline, as a number became the subject of antiquarian interest and some were turned into garden features and so on. However, in more modern times wells have been restored as an expression of interest in the past, sometimes from romantic or religious motives, but mostly as a statement of continuity with the history of a particular community. A good example is St Osyth’s Well at West Bierton (Buckinghamshire), ‘restored’ (and in the process rebuilt completely) by the Parish Council as part of a project marking Millennium Year in 2000. [J. Rattue, "Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire" (High Wycombe: Umbra), 2003, 31-2.] The most active holy wells in Britain are those linked to Christian pilgrimages, at Walsingham, Fernyhalgh (Lancashire) and Holywell (Wales), or popular tourist sites (Bath, Somerset). The Chalice Well at Glastonbury (Somerset) is at the centre of a pagan-orientated spirituality and retreat centre. Other wells, however, are often visited on an informal basis for religious or sightseeing reasons. New forms of holy well reverence continue to emerge now and again, notoriously the so-called Well of the Triple Goddess at Minster-in-Sheppey (Kent) [ [http://www.cassandraeason.co.uk/sacred_waters.htm Sacred waters ] ] . In 2001 Channel 4’s Time Team were responsible for exposing the infamous archaeological fraud of Llygadwy, a site which included an alleged holy well. [ [http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/T/timeteam/archive/2001llyg.html Channel 4 – Time Team ] ]

Historiographically, the publication of Janet and Colin Bord’s "Sacred Waters" ( [985) was crucial in reviving interest in the history and folklore of holy wells in Britain. The same year saw the foundation of the journal "Source" by Mark Valentine. Attempts to maintain a regular journal for the study of holy wells have been erratic ("Source" enjoyed two runs from 1985-89 and 1994-98, and the web-based Living Spring has only had two issues to date) but postings on websites such as The Megalithic Portal show that there is still much interest in this category of ancient site.

Interest has been further broadened by the recent publication of Colin Macpherson's book, "The Holy Well" [C. Macpherson, "The Holy Well" (Queensland: Mopoke Publishing), (2007)] . Although a work of fiction, the narrative creates a compelling late Bronze Age milieu and explanation about how a particular natural spring in the Highlands of Scotland becomes sacred. The parallel story - told in alternating chapters - is set in contemporary times, and describes how a young teacher discovers this same, but now almost forgotten, site. The novel's underlying theme is about connections: connections between people and their distant forebears, and between people and the land - particularly certain 'artifacts' of the land. This theme is further expanded, through the thoughts of the protagonists, to a wider philosophy about the nature of life and the universe. Inspired by the author's association with an actual holy well [ [http://www.mopoke.com.au/THWaboutUNew.htm THE HOLY WELL : What's it about? ] ] - the location of which he purposely obfuscates in the story - this book has already caused some readers, who would otherwise be oblivious to their existence, to take an interest in holy wells in general, and to alert them to, among other things, issues of preservation.

Case Study: the necessity of vigilance in preservation of heritage

Often unmarked on maps and undistinguished by archaeological features, holy wells are a uniquely vulnerable category of ancient site. They continue to be lost to farming, drainage work, development or neglect. A recent instance is the desecration of St Bridget’s Well at Rosepark, Balrothery (County Dublin, Ireland), destroyed by building work in 2003 despite being a protected monument. [P. Skyvova, "Fingallian Holy Wells" (Swords, Dublin: Fingal County Libraries), 2005, 62-3.]


ee also

*Well of Wyrd


External links

* [http://www.megalithic.co.uk/ The Megalithic Portal]
* [http://www.bath.ac.uk/lispring/journal/home.html/ "The Living Spring Journal"]
* [http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/WELLS-AND-SPAS.html/ Water Talk, the online discussion list for wells and spas]
* [http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/front.htm/ "Source" Magazine online archive ]
* [http://www.nwi.skyphos.co.uk/ The National Wells Index, dedicated to promoting information about and preservation of holy wells]
* [http://www.mopoke.com.au/ Homepage of the publisher of "The Holy Well"]

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