Category Archives: Pagan gods
Deep in the woods is one of Surrey’s forgotten springs, a site possibly a holy well, probably a pagan spring, so nearly a spa. In Fields, Paths and Green Lanes being county walks, chiefly in Surrey and Sussex , Louise Jennings in 1878 notes:
“Mr. Urban’s correspondent is among the very few writers who have made any mention of ” Mag’s Well,” a spot which the compilers of all the local guide-books have passed by without a word. It is the charmed spring of the district, and lies not far from the village of Coldharbour.”
However, Mag’s Well was noted at length by William Thorne’s The Garden of Surrey:
“MAG’S WELL This is a mineral spring rising on a farm called Meriden about three miles from Dorking and forming the source of the stream called Pipbrook which runs past Dorking town Instances of extraordinary cures in cutaneous and scrofulous diseases are related of it and it is said to have derived the name of Mag’s Well from a poor woman of the name of Margery who first experienced its healing effects in the cure of a scorbutic disorder.”
John Aubreys’ 1719 Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey is the first to note it and gives its origin as
“The reason it was called Mag well was because a poor wench, whose name was Meg, that was troubled with the itch, and lived thereabout, first cured herself with washing”
Cures for all – even the animals
John Timbs in A picturesque promenade round Dorking, in which he quotes the Gazette of Health thus speaks of the water
“The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia and iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate of magnesia or the sulphate of soda.”
The account continues noting its possible use for animals as well:
“ equally efficacious there being as 1 understand not only a convenient place of bathing for bipeds but a species of bath for quadrupeds which are frequently brought from a distance to be cured of various distempers by immersion in Mag’s Well which in summer it is said is colder and in winter warmer than the water of other springs”
Timbs again continues:
“Taken internally the water was long believed to be at once strongly cathartic and emetic That opinion has probably been less prevalent since the publication of Manning’s Surrey in which these alleged properties are strongly controverted although in that work it is said to be detergent.”
Timbs decides to examine at first hand the site:
“ however that many of the country people continue to put great faith in the virtue of Mag’s Wells 1 resolved personally to examine what is esteemed one of the curiosities of Surrey The farm on which the well is situated belongs to the College Guildford and is in the tenantry of George Dewdney esq banker remote from any public road and embosomed in woods A pedestrian excursion to the vale in which the spring rises appeared the only mode by which I could obtain my object the obscurity in which the well is hidden rendering it inaccessible to a carriage and almost to a horse for nearly the last mile of approach.”
It was perhaps its remoteness that preventing any commercial venture, that notwithstanding he notes that:
“The bath or well is comprehended within a building the sides and ends of which are joined into right angles but there is no roof Immediately opposite the entrance of the building is the door way to the bath into which there is a descent of five steps the bath is in length about seven feet and in width and in depth between four and five feet The water enters at an aperture on the right and the surplus when the bath is full discharges itself over a lip on the left the whole can be readily run off through a vent at the bottom and at the left hand corner by drawing a plug The whole structure has apparently been for sometime much neglected The entrance and the exit of the water being imperfect the bath was nearly empty the depth not being more than three or four inches.”
Of the water he gives the lengthy discourse:
“Although the day was extremely cold there did not appear any extraordinary sensation of coldness on immersing the hand in the well and the mercury of a thermometer the bulb of which was immersed for ten minutes did not descend much below fifty A taste differing from ordinary spring water was not positively to be discriminated certainly not the slightest perception of saline particles could be distinguished The only taste I could fancy I detected was that of iron but in so slight a degree as to preclude all positive assertion of the fact In order however to ascertain if the powers imputed to the water of the spring are or are not fallacious a scientific examination of its properties would undoubtedly be satisfactory factory to the public I have therefore directed a quantity of water to be taken from the well and sent to you sufficient I conceive for analysis in the hope that you may not deem it unworthy of your notice Dorking December 1817 JM The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia And iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate magnesia or the sulphate of soda”
Mag’s well still survives although it is difficult to gauge which is the source as the neglect has continued since Timb’s day. There is a well structure covered by a decaying wooden lid and nearby a larger pool, perhaps the aforementioned bath.
An ancient well?
Some historians have attempted to produce evidence for a pre-Christian origin of the site, some suggesting the name Mag may refer to a pre-Christian deity. More convincing was its location in an area called Cold Harbour. For many years this was the accepted view given by Basil Barham of the East Herts Archæological Society, Author of “Changing Place Names,” in the Times:
“The origin of the name Cold Harbour has been discussed several times. It is a Saxon place name, and means exactly what it says, viz., a “cold,” as distinct from an inhabited refuge. The Cold Harbours are all in the vicinity of one or other of the great Neolithic or Roman roads, and were originally the remains of partially destroyed Roman or Romano-British dwellings, or settlements. Travellers used them as being more or less secure places in which to spend a night. As the places became known, traders gathered there to distribute goods and do business, and eventually the places once more became villages, but retained the old generic name.”
However, despite the convenience of this view point it is now generally discredited. Of course as the majority of England’s road are based on Roman ones it is statistically likely they would be found with them! Indeed half of the populated places in England are 3.5 km or less from a Roman road This and research that showed the name Coldharbour was popular in the 17th century seems to suggest otherwise!”
Notwithstanding there is sometime otherworldly about this well and whatever its origin it survives, slightly forgotten, in its woodland setting.
“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”
John Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:
|“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,
When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus
Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
And move with vigorous feet.”
Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However, as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.
The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.
Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous
Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .
However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed! Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!
The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.
Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!
Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.
In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure. The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.
Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.
It was in the Bord’s trailblazing Mysterious Britain that I first saw a picture of Dupath Well. It looked very mysterious shrouded in undergrowth, peering from the woods like a Cornish Anker Wat. Seeing the illustration reproduced above in Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells similarly whetted my appetite.
Hope’s description did however add to the mystery:
“Dupath Well is a pellucid spring, once the resort of pilgrims and still held in esteem. It overflows a trough, and entering the open archway of a small chapel, spreads itself over the floor and passes out below a window at the opposite end. The little chapel, 12 feet long by 11 ½ wide, is a complete specimen of the baptisteries anciently so common in Cornwall. It has a most venerable appearance, and is built of granite, which is gray and worn by age. The roof is constructed of enormously long blocks of granite, hung with fern, and supported in the interior by an arch, dividing the nave and chancel. The doorway faces west; at the east end is a square-headed window of two lights, and two openings in the sides. The building is crowned by an ornamental bell-cote.”
The Quiller- Couch’s in their 1894 Holy Wells of Cornwall note:
“A portion of the front is overrun with ivy ; grass and weeds grow in clumps from the chinks of the roof…… The spot has a deserted look, and breathes of solitude and gloom .”
They added that despite being overgrown was then in a much better state that previous:
“It was found several years since by the Rev. H. M. Rice, Rector of South-hill and Callington (an ardent antiquary, in the line of ecclesiology especially), in a very dilapidated condition. He carefully picked out the ruins lying around; and, with the carefulness of one trying to put together a dissected puzzle, succeeded in restoring the well.”
The site certainly was of considerable interest. I finally succeeding in making the pilgrimage in the early 1990s. Despite English Heritage’s considerable tidying up of the site and Hope’s widely over ambitious sizing, the site was and is one of the most impressive holy wells in the county.
Hope (1893) notes that:
“The well is famed for the combat between Sir Colam and Gotlieb for the love of a lady; Gotlieb was killed, and Sir Colam died of his wounds.”
Parochial History of Cornwall the tradition connected with this well was as follows :
“ A duel was fought here between two Saxons, named Gotlieb and Sir Colan, as rival candidates for a young lady. Gotlieb was a private gentleman of considerable wealth; while Sir Colan, though a knight, was poor. The father of the lady wished her to marry Gotlieb, on account of his wealth ; but she preferred Sir Colan, whom she had known from childhood. Sir Colan received the first wound, but ultimately overcame Gotlieb and killed him. The contest was long and desperate ; Sir Colan’s wound would have healed but for his impatience, to which he fell a victim.”
Quiller-Couch note that:
“There are several versions of this romantic story, the names differing in some cases, and usually the victorious one is described as surviving the effects of the duel, and building Dupath Well as an act of atonement for his sin and a witness of his repentance.”
Now Quiller Couch questioned veracity of the legend:
“This well has suffered greatly from being made the peg on which to hang modern-antique fable. The country people know nothing of Siward and Githa , who are purely the creation of individual fancy. Mr. Kempthorne, long a resident of Callington, has inquired among the eld, and can find no trace of such a story ; and Mrs. Rice, the widow of the restorer of the well, says that her husband would most assuredly have embodied in his paper any reputed mystic qualities or local traditional tales had any such existed.”
However, followers of this blog will see some familiarity with this story and that related by Guest Blogger Frank Earp in his post on Newark’s St Catherine’s Well, which I recommend readers to read and compare with this story. In short Frank considers that the story hides an older story perhaps emphasizing the battle between the summer and the winter. Does the story relate ome folk memory of the sites importance in pre-Christian ritual remembered here. It is interesting to note that the Newark legend is also said to be made up story! One also wonders whether the Cornish name Fenton Hynsladron, spring of the robber’s path hides a link possibility to this story.
Of its history and tradition the English Heritage website tells us that:
“The small chapel-like building was probably built in about 1510 by the Augustinian canons of the nearby priory of St Germans, to whom the site belonged. It was dedicated to St Ethelred.
The little building may have been a worthwhile financial investment for the canons of St Germans, since visitors to the spring would have left offerings, much as they do at wishing wells today. We know from monastic records that such sources of income were jealously guarded by religious houses.”
They note that the well’s water was used for whopping cough and may have been for baptism, possibly bowsenning – ie curing madness.
Today people still visit the well and perhaps take the waters, although it lacks the paraphernalia that attracts wells in the west of the county. A delightful if slightly sanitised well a record of what many other wells would have looked like if they had not let the rigors of time and zealots rob us of them!
“Every morning, before six o’clock, a throng of men and women make their way to the edge of the ancient city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia. They are among many from across Ethiopia who have risen early to attend a holy spring in search of healing for their physical, spiritual and mental disorders. Some have walked for days from the remote countryside having heard of the power of this water at Ba’ata church. Others come from Gondar itself. Still more have taken the bus from the capital, Addis Ababa, 400km (250 miles) to the south. They believe that the cure they will find here will be more complete than any offered in the government hospitals in the city.”
Ethiopia: Washing away the demons Rachel Chambers 1999
Ethiopia is well endowed with notable springs. Many of them are simple springs such as Burkito where hundreds each day bath in the hot waters of the volcanic spring whereas others are developed into spas. Indeed the hot springs of Wondo Genet, Yirga Alem, where in 1964 it was developed by Haille Selassie by establishing a swimming pool and hotel
These springs are said to cure a wide range of medical issues. The list includes prevention of musculo-skeletal disorders (such as arthritis), chronic diseases of respiratory system (such as bronchitis, asthma), Chronic diseases of the digestive system, metabolic diseases (such as obesity, diabetes) and dermal diseases and allergies (such as atopic eczema, acne). Many claim these properties as spas other have a more spiritual sites such do the sacred springs of Gondar. Which at the break of dawn each day is a scene of religious reading, blessings, prayer, baptism and exorcism!
Unlike some other holy springs, the site is restricted site. The site, a walled around spring head is only accessible to the Ba’ata church’s priests who distribute the water, often sprinkling it to the pilgrims. Chambers (1999) notes that when she visited:
“An elderly woman is assisted by her two daughters. A young peasant girl stands to explain to those around her that she is poor and has travelled far. A few onlookers drop cents into her cup to help her pay for the treatment she will receive here. An elder from the community prays from a well-thumbed book of prayers and disturbs the flies with his horse-hair whisk. And a woman soothes the disabled child she is carrying on her back in a leather harness decorated with shells.”
The site is sacred to a tribal group called the Qemant who despite adopting Christianity still have pagan traditions. Gary R. Garner in his 2009 Sacred Wells states that:
“the Qemant are descendents of the Agaw and they continue many of the Agaw traditions including worshiping a sky god, and recognising personal spirits: genii loci, and sky spirits…the Qemant continue to annually sacrifice a white bull or sheep to the geni loci that are residing in…holy geographic places.”
These the author suggests are springs. Indeed, Lake Bishoftu remains a site of annual sacrifice by the country’s Muslim and Christian groups.
At the sacred spring of Gondor. During the ceremony the water is said to be purified by retelling a hagiographical story of the Life of Saint Teklahaymanot. A saint said to have stood on one leg for so long in prayer that it went gangrenous and was cut off. By retelling the story it is said that the demons are driven away! Once done the water can be utilised. Chambers states that once the reading was done:
“The old priest is now at liberty to offer his blessing to the people who are already clamouring for his attention. A young woman seeks a blessing for her first pregnancy, another brings her sick child to be touched by the priest’s iron cross. A man with gastric problems has his stomach rubbed with the cross and is recommended to take the holy water for seven days. Another man reports difficulty in walking and duly has his legs massaged with the cross. The reading continues for over an hour and is only interrupted when a small child swallows a cent and needs a hefty thwack on the back to bring it flying out, to the immense relief of his mother.”
There are two types of pilgrim to this water. Some come to receive baptism. Many unclothe. This is undertaken by a priest who holds a cross upon the supplicant whilst the other hand holds a hose which douses the person with baptism water. The other group seek its purging affects and ask for water to fill cans and bottles. The deacons present dutifully fill these cans with holy water and each attendee pays 50 cents, a recommended price for seven days of treatment. The water is potent stuff. It is recorded that once the water is collected the pilgrims disperse to various rocks to drink it. Why? It is because the water has strong purging effects – rapid diarrhoea or vomiting will result! This is good because it will cleanse the body of the evil spirits within or whatever is calling the disease. These evil spirits are drawn out by the priest, the water causing them to be shouted out. It is said that the priests makes a plea with the demon to remove themselves over the seven day treatment.
Perhaps the most noted Ethiopian ceremony associated with water is orthodox Timkat, itself meaning baptism being as it does on the 19th January celebrate Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan. Recorded by Author Donald N. Levin in his 1974 Greater Ethiopia: the evolution of multi-ethnic society it is noted that the day starts with the divine liturgy is celebrated near a stream or pool early in the morning around 2 am, this nearby body of water is then blessed and its water sprinkled on those present in a form of symbolic renewal of baptismal vows. Many jump into 17th-century Fasiladas’ Bath on the third day after the priest enters the pool at 7 am, praying and dipping his cross in pool.
Ethiopia has a rich water heritage to explore
Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
An abecedary of sacred springs of the world: (United States) of America: The sacred springs of Seattle
This year’s running theme is to look at global holy wells and healing springs. So for the next twelve months I will doing an abecedary so this months, a bit of a cheat I report back on a site I visited last year. My aim to is to at the similarities between them and many British sites. To start with is a typical spring which is very similar being a religious site later converted to a spa.
Mention Seattle you’ll get Sky Tower, Monorail, Grunge scene perhaps, healing springs are generally not on the list. However, in the suburbs can be found a number of springs which survive in pockets of undeveloped land. One such area is Licton Springs, a small park, located in North Seattle between Interstate 5 and Aurora Avenue, which protects its titular spring.
A red spring sacred to the First Nation
Licton Springs had a spiritual and ritual significance for possibly thousands of years (the area was populated after the last glacial period c10,000 years ago) to the local Duwamish, the tribe who incidentally under Chief Seattle signed the 1855 Port Elliott Treaty at Mukilteo which gave the world Seattle of course!
Like the more well-known Chalice Well, the significance of the spring was in the providing of its red paint, called Lee’kteed, pronounced liq’ted. The word liq’ted being a dialect word for the reddish mud made from the red ochre deposited. Here this red-ochre pigment would be harvested for spiritual celebration. This red pigment being itself considered sacred and used in the marital ceremonies between the High Borns, the hereditary nobility who married outside of the tribe to other coastal Salish. As a consequence, it was here at the springs they would annually gather to gather the pigment which would only be found in this region. The red-ochre was used to paint their faces, cover their longhouses and other objects of spiritual significance.
Around the spring the tribe built a wu Xted (WUKH-Tud) a sweat lodge where those visiting the spring could cleanse and revitalise. Herbs and the red paint would be applied to the skin to heal.
The coming of the Europeans colonisers
After purchasing Licton springs in 1870, Seattle pioneer David Denny had the water of two springs in the area tested in 1883 and the results were favourable – one being Iron (the surviving Licton Springs) and the other Sulphur Magnesia. So begun the spa history of the springs. Indeed, the impact of the well was personal, Denny’s own daughter Emily Inez was cured so it was recorded from an incurable disease by drinking the waters. Denny himself only built a cabin but still thousands visited. It was not until 1903 when Calhoun, Denny and Ewing when landscapers Olmstead brothers were to build rustic shelters over the two spring basins and they became a favourite resort for Seattle being a health resort. The rustic shelters never happened but photos from the 1910s show a circular stone surround around the springhead. However, it was not until 1935, an Edward A. Jensen provided thermal baths at a newly developed spa. A sign proclaimed:
“Before travelling to distant resorts in search of health, investigate the merits of the Spa Licton Springs thermal bath.”
The sign proclaimed it would give:
“Relief of neuritis, arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, tired arches, nervous depositions.”
He also bottled the water and sold it. It is unclear how successful the scheme was but by 1960 the park was purchased by the city. Sadly, the spa building and shed over the iron spring were demolished. However, the iron spring was enclosed by a concrete ring which remains today.
Despite being enclosed in a park, the spring still has a significant role for the Duwamish. Like many wells modernisation is still a threat as the quote from the Matt Remle’s Sacred sites, sacred rites: Saving Licton Springs on the Last Real Indians website notes:
“ Elders from the Duwamish and other tribes have voiced concerns about damage to or the loss of Licton Springs. I recently spoke with one of my Elders who, as a child, was taken to le’qtid (“Licton Springs”) by her father. She expressed concerns that the demolition of Wilson-Pacific School (Indian Heritage High School) and the construction of the new Mega-School may damage the subterranean water table, disrupting the flow of the mineral waters from the sacred site.
This Elder told me that she had visited le’qtid last Fall to prepare for the Winter Ceremonials, as is our tradition since time immemorial. She pointed out that the rate of flow from le’qtid was substantially reduced, compared to her first visit those many years ago.
Le’qtid cannot be re-created, replaced, or re-located. Its importance is beyond measure and description, and its value is beyond price. The Duwamish People are the stewards of le’qtid, other holy places and the natural endowment that dókwibuA (Creator) bestowed upon our ‘ál’altid (Ancestral Homeland).
At the beginning of time, le’qtid (“Licton Springs”) was given to us by dókwibuA (Creator) in perpetuity. It is an inalienable part of our Patrimony, a legacy from our Ancestors, and the Cultural Heritage of the dxdew’abS (People-of-the-Inside), Chief Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe.”
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
For the last twelve months I have been cataloguing some of the rich sacred spring heritage of Sardinia. For the final post, perhaps the most fascinating sacred spring site has been saved until last!
For buried beneath a fairly ordinary Sardinian church is a unique marvel – an incredible relic of ancient times and a testament to the continuation of tradition and spirituality. For 1000s of years, generations of Sardinians – whether Nuraghic, Roman, Punic, Islamic or Christian have worship here at the sacred spring.
The site is in a remote place – remote in every sense – geographically, culturally and of course historically.
The village of San Salvatore is a typical example of a temporary religious centre, such as we discussed at Santa Christina. A village of 130 houses which apart from one house the village is completely deserted centred around its church of Jesus the Saviour. So deserted in fact that I feared that the church would only be open at specific times, as my guide book suggested, but I found it was. When the church is certainly open and the village comes alive in the first Saturday of September. It is then that the village swarms with attendees of the naked foot race. This race called the Corsa degli Scalzi or Barefoot Race is said to commemorate an 1506 Arab pirate attack that forced nearby town of Cabras to run to San Salvatore to hide their Saviour’s statue. The local faithful still run this dirt track in their white tunics and stone torn feet.
It is very tempting and indeed it is likely that this ritual arose from some ancient practice at the site. This is especially considering the autumnal date of the custom which would tie in with harvest festivities which certainly were celebrated by ancient civilisations. Essentially considering the name Saviour is the same as Sin Salvatore’s church. Is this some ancient processional ceremony to celebrate the harvest?
The site today
Arriving at the church, it is a fairly typical whitewashed Italian church. Not remarkable but pleasing to the eye, a simple two aisles divided by pillars. The only clue to anything unusual is that it is arranged in an unusual orientation. This is a clue to what lies within as its arrangement was presumably done to enclosure the original sanctuary.
It is this sanctuary that we have come here to see. A rectangular hatch in the floor opens up to reveal a step set of stone steps into a dug out chamber, made of sandstone and brick faced with cement – a hypogeum – not the only one in Sardinia but unique in what we find within.
The steps lead us to three separate chambers set off a central room in essence a cross arrangement. The shapes of the chambers with their dome roofs suggest partly a Roman origin. However, it is thought that the construction of the church may have removed any firm evidence.
The central chamber is dominated by a large square well, now dry. Originally this well’s water was obtainable from the church above by an aperture now closed up. The furthest chamber is the most interesting and looks like the most significant religiously. Here is found a small table altar, a semi-circular drainage hole and circular well shaft. It is this well which is believed to be the original nuraghic site, although the evidence is scant. There is certainly no lack of evidence for its usage. This evidence being on the amazingly preserved drawings or graffitos on the walls around the chamber. The wells were dry in August but that is probably significant I could not confirm it but I would reckon that the spring was flowing in September at the time of the festival.
The site was probably a baptistery, and the dedication of the church to Jesus may well suggest this, but it is also possible that the hypogeum was the shrine of some saint. There is support for this for in Mamertina prison, a healing well was said to have used by Saints Peter and Paul, the water of which came from the catacombs of St Elena. Early baptisteries were incorporated into church and it was only after the risk of persecution was lifted that they became separate buildings.
Father Aleu, in his Successos Generales de laisla de SardeIra” (Avvenimenti generali della isola di Sardegna), sud- isla de SardeIra (Events General of the island of Sardinia) is one of the first to describe in the 1684:
“San Salvador, whose church remains until now, and has an underground until now, and has an underground chapel in the form of sanctuary, and in the area above the ground you can see the ruins of brick and cloisters, which document the existence of a Monastery.”
“Vi era un altro insediamento-scrive Fra Alèu nel 1684-non lonta- This monastery is thought to date from 1070 and suggests an importance to the settlement long since past. However, dig beneath the surface and this history is indeed very ancient. Near the village itself are Roman remains. It is en route to the city of Tharros and along the Sinis lagoon are Neolithic towns. The presence of Neolithic towns along the banks of the lagoon Sinis have left not only obsidian tools and more significantly a Mother Goddess. Clearly a very significant location.
Once in the chamber one is struck by the otherworldly nature. Sardinia has many great relics. Indeed its domus tombs are amongst the most awe inspiring. However, there is something more atmospheric about this site. Part of this is due to the artwork and inscriptions – graffiti – from over the ages on the walls.
These inscriptions span the centuries from 16th century back to Roman. Drawn in charcoal for the most part, although some have traces of colour, probably ochre, they are Arabic, Latin and Greek in origin. Inscriptions some of scripture, some harder to decipher, animals, deities and various scenes, laying upon each other in a confused manner, even modern graffiti. Like many places more recent visitors have made themselves known such as a Fin Salvatore in 1920 which is on the central well. These modern inscriptions sit with older Latin writings from the fourth and fifth century AD although deciphering them is now difficult. It is possible that these and the Greek letters represent some sacred alphabet perhaps a magical incarnation or spell. This may explain the appearance of RF written eight times on the walls. One interpretation maybe that this is someones’s name – Rufus – another that it may derive from a Semitic prayer barb-pe-aleph (ip ‘), meaning ‘heal, save, give health.’ And may have been associated with the use of the well water.
Those who visit churches will be familiar with bosses, poppyheads and misericords showing strange animals often personifying human evils. It is probable that some of these images fulfil the same function. For on the walls are geese, dogs, and large cats. More interesting and again emphasising its classical origin there is a winged horse probably Pegasus and fish. Fish of course represent a secret code for Christians and their presence on the wall must be seen as significant. It emphasises the chambers use as a secret place of worship. Although one might question why did these early Christians not remove the signs of pagans – perhaps like in many other places they were attempting to assimilate not destroy signs of earlier worship.
Another possible link with the well is the presence of ships. Some of these are of local, fassoni reed boars, and possible ancient origin. Others are three mast ships, a feature which does not belong to the ancient world, but is rather typical of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. So why are they here?
It is probable that the ships were part of some long held ritual here. Boat images are quite regularly found in the nuraghic settlements as votive offerings and it is tempting to think that these drawings are part of a continuation of this. Particularly as one shows a human figure with their arms raised to the sky presumably as prayer. Were these drawings part of a long lost tradition of going votives to a sea deity perhaps linked to the waters of the well, which may have due to the proximity of the lagoons be saline? What is also interesting is that tradition may have connections to the Greek graffiti here – the Island of Delos – where God was born and ships shipwrecked. The fact that this tradition survived possibly from prehistoric times is remarkable.
Greek iconography is very evident in the shrine. Two particular deities are present – Hercules strangling the Nemean lion. This image is particularly interesting considering the role the cult of Hercules had in the late period of the Roman empire when he vied for religious dominance against Christianity, Mithrasm and other cults. However again, Hercules was adopted by the early Christians as a metaphor. His many labours recognised as a divine struggle akin to that central to the story of Jesus and indeed he was often called Soter – the Savior. The dedication of the current church may possibly be a link to another association preserved from ancient times.
The most remarkable graffiti is that of two female figures standalone, with corona radiata on their head: identifying them as a deity. Over their heads of the figures they are painted their names: VENVS and MVRS – Venus and Mars. Above them is a winged cupid with AMOR. As a result the interpretation of this scene is the love affair of Venus and Mars. One which was particularly significant in the political and religious life of Rome: The city founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to be the children of Mars and descendent from Aeneas, a descendent of Venus. What is interesting again is the context Venus was another cult, popular at the times of emergent Christianity, and its survival here like Hercules is perhaps an attempt to adopt it perhaps as Mary.
However, there is something more significant in line with the spring arising here. The appearance of the Venus is akin to that of a water spirit and indeed, Venus was a Goddess associated with water – being associated with the waves and the morning dew.
Move forward the centuries to the Arabic inscription in the third room, which reads translated as:
“In the name of God the merciful and gracious. There is no God except Allah …. and that Muhammad. It testifies that heaven actually exists and Hell really exists.”
This may date from 1509 a time when the Sardinian coast was subject to many Arab incursions and a landing occurred not far away at Cabras. The presence of the inscription may be due to the site being used as refuge or maybe a prison!
There is so much to observe in these four small chambers remote from the outside world. However what is clear that they remain a rare relic from an ancient time and a fascinating testament to how the faiths through the millennia had one central theme – the sanctity of water.