Healing Springs and wells

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 affection. 

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 Wells
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 times. 

Brighid’s Well
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. 

Jennifer Emick


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