Water was held especially sacred to the Celts, a symbol of life and nurture and a source of wisdom, intuition, and magic. Water was the vehicle for rebirth and reincarnation and the domain of the gods of healing. Lakes, streams, rivers, and wells were all considered entrances to the Otherworld, and they were frequently used as depositories of sacrificial offerings to the gods.
Every body of water had its attendant gods and goddesses, nymphs, and
spirits. Water was often assigned to a particular deity based on its
aspect:bubbling streams and brooks may have belonged to the goddess Coventina or
other nymphs. Rivers were often under the provenance of a local goddess. Hot
springs were usually associated with solar deities, but they often had attendant
goddesses as well, as they were viewed as a marriage of sorts between the solar
deity and the goddess of the spring.
Water also figured in the Celtic cult of the head. Severed heads were among
the many offerings left at the bottoms of lakes and ponds, and scarcely a well
from ancient times does not contain a severed head or three. The heads seem to
have been intended to give the waters a healing benefit. In some cases, they may
have served an oracular purpose, as attested by the abundance of folk tales
involving severed heads that prophesy from magical wells. It is also possible
that a healing benefit was sought, as drinking from the skulls of one’s
ancestors was widely thought to be a curative.
Many of the deities of the Otherworld were originally associated with bodies
of water, and water was one of the most popular places to leave offerings for
them. Much evidence suggests that natural springs, waterfalls, and even many
lakes were the domain of the gods of healing; these were very popular with
pilgrims, who left many offerings at these sacred sites. During the period of
Roman occupation, these offerings expanded to include “curse tablets,” tiny
strips of engraved lead containing entreaties to the gods to exact all manner of
vengeance on enemies, thieves, straying lovers, or indifferent objects of
Offerings tossed in wells for their attendant “lady” almost certainly derive
from these ancient sacrificial practices. When you throw a coin into a fountain
for Lady Luck, you are following a very ancient tradition.
Aquae Sulis: The Springs at Bath
The three hot springs of Bath, England, were considered magical by the Celtic
Britons, who dedicated the largest to the water goddess Sulis. When the Romans
invaded Britain in 43 C.E., they recognized the site as sacred. They identified
Sulis with the Roman goddess Minerva, and she was there-after referred to as
Sulis-Minerva. They built a great complex bathhouse around the site, with many
elaborate temples and buildings. Both the Celts and the Roman occupiers revered
the baths for their healing qualities, and the site became a tourist Mecca.
Dressing the Wells
A possible remnant of the veneration of well goddesses is the practice of
well dressing, a tradition of rural England that was first recorded in the
fourteenth century and has been continued in one form or another until the
present day. The modern ritual begins with the creation of a wooden frame that
is covered with a soft clay, into which is incised a design, usually with a
religious theme. The design is then filled and colored with flowers, foliage,
and berries, after which the frame is erected over the well.
Well dressing is connected to May Day practices and is similar to the Roman
festival of the Fontinalia, in which the guardian nymphs of wells were honored
with garlands of flowers. The well dressing ritual seems to have similar pagan
origins. Curiously, many of the towns associated with the rite are home to hot
springs or other water features.
Cloughtie (or Clootie) wells are named for the strips of rag (“cloots”) hung
on nearby trees as votive offerings left by petitioners in need of healing. The
rags are dipped in the well, often in conjunction with prayers, incantations,
and ritual circumambulation. Sometimes, they are touched to an afflicted body
part or made from clothing worn by the afflicted. They are then hung from the
tree in hopes that as the rag disintegrates, so will the illness.
One such well is the Knockanare Well, whose history betrays its pagan
origins. The well, located on the grounds of Blackwater Castle in County Cork,
figures in a story of Fionn mac Cumhaill, wherein the hero was cured after
receiving a mortal wound. The site contained a stone Sheela-na-gig until recent
Numerous wells throughout Ireland are associated with St. Brighid, but the
main one is, of course, the well located at Kildare Abbey. Like other sacred
wells, Brighid’s well features a cloughtie tree and is popular with pilgrims
seeking healing or an answer to a prayer. The small chapel adjacent to the well
is strikingly similar to descriptions of ancient sacred wells. The narrow
chamber is crowded with statuary and literally crammed with offerings — prayers,
photos, rosary beads and religious objects, prayers, and other items.