Monthly Archives: July 2014

The veneration of water in 12 objects…number seven Votive weapons

“If I throw thys ryche swerde in the water, thereof shall never com good, but harme and losse.’ And then sir Bedwere hyd Excalyber undir a tre… But King Arthur repremands him and sends him back.

So Bedevere went to the watirs syde. And there he bounde the gyrdyll aboute the hyltis, and threw the swerde as farre into the watir as he myght. And there cam an arme and an honde above the watir, and toke hit and cleyght hit, and shoke hit thryse and braundysshed, and than vanysshed with the swerde into the watir.”

So retells one of the most famed scenes recorded in Arthurian romance: the Lady in the Lake taking the mighty Excalibur back. A scene which may remember folk memory of Celtic and possibly pre-Celtic traditions of depositing sword votive offerings such as those held in the British Museum. A number of sites have revealed sword and other weapon deposits as far apart as Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire) to Carlingwark (Scotland). In some places there are considerable amounts. An intriguing window into the Celtic world and the ritual significance of water has been revealed for example at Llyn Cerrig Bach. Here 150 objects dating from second century B.C to the first century A.D have been extracted. Many of these objects show damage before their deposition, i.e rendering them useless although some were quite servicable, a common theme it appears.

One particular location which too has been clearly significant is the river Thames. This received a wide range of weaponry and other military equipment over at least a millennium, such as early Iron Age spearhead daggers still in their sheaths, at Chelsea, Wandsworth, Barn Elms and even a bronze helmet with bulls horns found era near Waterloo Bridge.

A bronze shield found in 1985 in a gravel pit near the River Thames at Chertsey with a pair of double-headed snakes beside the handle suggesting a higher level of working then would usual.

The Battersea Shield Source Wikipedia

However, most famed of these votive river offerings is the Battersea Shield, a rare relic from the Iron Age. It is delightfully decorated being highlighted by 27 framed studs of red enamel associated with three roundels, with a high domed boss in the middle of the central one with a large stud in its centre. A reprousse technique having been used with engraving and stippling being used. Its rich decoration with polished bronze and red glass as well as the thinness of its iron suggests that it could never have been used for defence and clearly was purely ceremonial or made for depositing as a sacrifice for appease some deity. The Battersea shield is remarkable in being made of metal as many shields found in burial sites are wood and had very few metal parts. It is probable that the Battersea shield was only the front part of the shield and there is evidence of rivets on it.

But why leave something like this? Did it prepare the giver for the afterlife? Was there a god or goddess for war associated with water? Perhaps we shall never really know.   Certainly, there is evidence in the currency of giving something very valuable to appease a deity. What is interesting is despite consideration that this an Iron Age custom, there is evidence that such depositions continued into the fourteenth century and as such gives greater evidence for folklorists suggesting that customs and ceremonies can survive from prehistoric times perhaps!

Sacred springs of Islam

Like the other eastern monotheist religions, Islam has incorporated ‘well worship’ into their cannon of faith and indeed there are many parallels. Most significantly perhaps is the way in which this worship, like Christianity, has fallen out of favour. Indeed, the Quran strictly forbids the worship of such sites for the virtues alone which is interesting and has meant these sites, which doubtless in some cases have a pre-Islamic history, have been firmly associated with the founders of this faith.


The Zam Zam Well perhaps the most sacred in Islam

Islam states that no one can own water, as understandably, it was seen as a sacred gift, similarly the Quran states any who pollute should be severely punished. These views were understandable considering the faith’s distribution in the dry and arid parts of the Middle East. The greatest example of this of course being the ZamZam Well, in the holiest city of all Mecca, associated with Prophet Abraham’s wife and son, Haijar and Ishmael. Tradition accounts that whilst looking for water for her son and dying of thirst, she ran seven times between the hills to find it. Finally they were saved when a spring miraculously flowed from the desert sand. Abraham discovering their survival travelled to Mecca and he and Ishmael built or rebuilt the Kaaba to celebrate the miracle.  Modern pilgrims remember this search in the Hage.

The worship of springs became in the 10th and 11th century interwoven into the celebration of Islamic saint worship. Some interesting parallels can be seen between European Christian springs and those of Islam. An example being the Auliya spring, which means holy in the local language of Bashkira is said to have arisen after locals buried three local Islamic missionaries on Mount Aushtau mountain. Even more interesting is the fact that the spring is more powerful in May, the 15th, a date possibly significantly close to old May Day, with pilgrimages akin somehow to Spaw Sunday and others descended perhaps from the ancient Beltaine. Indeed, the water is said to flow only for 30 days.

The placing of rags is also present at Islamic sites. The hanging of rags on trees associated with springs abound in Iran according to Ilʹi͡a Pavlovich Petrushevskiĭ (1985) Islam in Iran. Pilgrims in the Turkish village of Telekioi, would after filling a keg of water from a spring that rises near a saint’s grave or Tekke would hang a piece of cloth on a thorn tree over it. These vestiges of tradition clearly predate their present affiliations, explaining why some sections of the faith ignore or actively discourage. Yet like the well worship of the Christians – such activities run deep.

An indication of the ancient origin of the springs of Islam can be indicated by cross pollination with older religions in the regions Islam colonised, akin to that seen in Christian areas. More often the support of such traditions would be in line with Sufism, a more moderate form of Islam, which accepts the recognition of saints and by doing so appears to have incorporated pre-Islamic forms of worship. One clear example is that of Alexander the Great who is reported found a spring created by God behind Mount Qaf, Chishmah-i-Ayyub, Well of Life. Its water was said to have been able to grant eternal life to those who drank it and was whiter than milk, colder than ice, sweeter than honey, softer than butter and sweeter smelling than musk.   The spring lay in a land called the Land of Darkness and it is reported that one of Alexander’s men, Khidr led his army into it and found the spring. He bathed in the water, drank it and duly became immortal. However, when he attempted to show Alexander the spring he failed to find it and it has not been found since! Another version states that Khidr became immortal as the Green Man as he fell into the well and appears to Sufi adepts.

Returning to the ZamZam well it is interesting that Abd Al-Muttalib, grandfather of Mohammed (pbuh), cleaned the well and found two golden gazelles and a number of swords. It is also thought that by bathing in the spring a woman can break with heathen gods, but an impure person dare not approach the spring.  Baptism is of course a significant use of springs, although that term is of course a Christian one. It is worth noting that in the Yezidi faith which has Sufi elements has the use of the Kānīyā Spī or the White Spring for Mor kirin and that on the 23rd September a tree trunk would be immersed into the spring head.

It is interesting to end of the following quote referring to the Chak Chak Spring, (images here) a site sacred to Iranian Zoroastrians, but clearly of significance to the country’s Muslim community:

“A 32-year-old Muslim came here as a last resort when he was dying from leukaemia, I was not sure we should let a Muslim in but he insisted and spent the night here,” said Goshtasb Belivani, a priest of Iran’s ancient pre-Islamic religion.During the night he was visited by a beautiful woman dressed in green who gave him sherbet to drink….. For the last three months, since being given the all clear from his doctor, the young man has been a regular visitor to the shrine.”

Jamkaran is a modern shrine including a holy well in a tradition akin to Marian shrines of Catholicism. Here a well behind the mosque is said to hide Imam Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam and that since the mid 1990s, pilgrims tie small strings in a knot around the grids covering the holy well which they hope will be received by him. The site in Iran is a clear example of an increase in the popularity of such worship again paralleling that occurring in many Christianised parts of the globe.

Water worship despite the prohibitions appears still to have some significance in these regions and I would welcome any more information on them.


A Leicestershire field trip

Below is brief selection of sites in an understudied County, Leicestershire. Extracted from the forthcoming volume


Ab Kettleby Holy Well, note the grill over the following water.

In a lane close by the church, is a conical so called Holy Well (SK 724 229) although any history concerning the site is unclear. The spring is still very active although access to the water is not possible as the basin has been removed and placed on top of this truncated pyramidical yellow stone structure and the chamber is now grated. The water is said to be good for rheumatism, but beyond this little is known.


St Anne’s Well, chalybeate staining at the springhead.

St Anne’s Well, the pool filled by the springhead

St Anne’s Well (SP 728 938) of which Nichols (1795-1815) notes:

“About a quarter of a mile North of the church, near the public road leading towards Staunton Wyvile, is an excellent well, or spring, called St Anne’s or Saddington’s Well, which in dry seasons has frequently been found highly serviceable… At the time of the inclosure, this spring was carefully preserved.”

Easily found and still marked on the appropriate OS map, the spring is found just by the roadside in a small copse but now directly flowing onto it. The water arises in a small bricked area and flows into a large pool. The water appears to be mildly chalybeate, as there is some sign of iron-red staining.


The Holwell spring head.

 Nichols (1795–1815) notes that the parish had:

“a famous chalybeate spring, or spa, called Holwell Mouth (SK 738 236), which is considered as serviceable in many distempers; whence it obtained the name of Holy-well.”

 Despite this it is probably derived from O.E hol for ‘hollow’. It is reported that at some time the area was improved and a stone table was set up there. This may be connected with the fact that the land was called Well Dole and was granted to Vicarage 1403 and paid 10s p/a paid in 1790s for its upkeep. Was the table used to provide a dole? Otherwise would it not be a stone seat? The site was much frequented until the landowner discouraged its use and the site is still on private land but visible, more so in winter, from the footpath. However the spring currently is very overgrown but the spring head still gushes out at some speed among the foliage but quickly forms a boggy morass just off a footpath.


Ratby Holy Well note some ancient walling?

The Holy Well (SK 502 056) is first noted by Nichols (1795-1815) notes in reference to Bury Camp above the site:

“Not far from the encampment is a place called Holywell; the water antiscorbutic.”

Its association with Bury Camp suggests it may have had some significance, possibly ritual, but certainly function although the inhabitants would have had a long walk down! Richardson (1931) describes it as:

“a good spring, “never been known to freeze”…has been piped into a now well-kept pond in the grounds of Holy Well House.”

The spring is tapped at its source, but still fills a wall lined pool to the left hand side of the house. The wall is appears to be made from local slate and may be of some age, but it is difficult to date. The water then flows into a brook. Sadly, no one was in when I visited. I made a couple of photos and left a reply yet.


 used by kind permission of, Bob Trubshaw, from his Interactive Little-known Leicestershire and Rutland CD-ROM.

King Charles Well, used by kind permission of, Bob Trubshaw, from his Interactive Little-known Leicestershire and Rutland CD-ROM.

In the middle of a field is the interestingly named King Charles’s Well or Carles Trough (SP 722 949). This appears first noted by Nichols (1795-1810). The spring fills a large trough as the name implies and appears to be chalybeate in nature. Local legend tells how Charles I watered horse here after Naseby. John Wilsons (1870-72) in his Imperial Gazetteer noted:

“Charles I., in his flight from the battle of Naseby, watered his horse here, at a place still called King Charles’ Well.”

However, it is more probable that this is a back derivation as it appears to be a back derivation from ceorl. The well is easily found along a footpath from the village.