Category Archives: Pagan gods
This chalybeate spring called alternatively by Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) as Holy Well, whilst Walters (1928) calls it Holy Red Well (SO 848 153) arises incongruously now on the edge of a dry sky slope in a field called Red Well field.
“The Red Well at Matson consists of a 3ft. square limestone trough at the road-side, fed from a chalybeate spring in the field a few yards above it. The interior of the trough is 2ft. square by 1ft. deep, and its overflow is fed through a gargoyle into a semi-circular basin on the east side. Nearby are the remains of stones, which, if placed round the well, would give it the form of a Maltese cross. The spring belonged to the Canons of Llanthony, and its history dates from 1066, when Ralph de Mattesdon gave the church of Mattesdon to St. Peter’s Abbey Gloucester.”
records that it was also known as Edith’s Spring according to H. Y Taylor in 1866 who immortalised it in the Saint Harold the martyr – the Red Well at Matson or Edith’s Spring two local legends. He tells an interesting and possibly unique legend to describe its origin. Edith was an 18 year Saxon old local noblewoman from Upton St Leonard. She married an Earl, giving him a son, but soon after he was killed fighting King Harold. Fear what repercussions may occur as a result from the invading Normans she climbed Matson Hill. Here she decided to kill herself and son and as she dug a grave. As she dug, so arose the red spring water. She saw this as a sign and as a result dedicated herself to a holy living, she and her son becoming anchorites. The well belonged to the Canons of Llanthony Priory, whose lands fell to the Selwyn family during the Reformation, whose coat of arms resembled a cross itself.
Embrey (1918–20) states that:
“the presence of iron salts is considered as conferring tonic properties.”
and its water being very ferruginous was said to be “good for the eyesight” or a cure for tired eyes. Another alternative name was the Rag Well and as such it was one of only two such sites in the county and certainly the most well-known. It is still overshadowed by a thorn tree, upon which tradition asserts clothes may have been left as a form of offering. However, the tradition has not continues or been revived.
Enclosed in square railings, a reason perhaps why the well is no longer treated as a rag well. The spring itself arises in a square limestone trough of two feet by two feet and one foot deep inside and three feet deep outside. Another small receptacle, or basin a semi-circular one of Oolite stone is found on the east side. It then flows into a roadside trough. Walters (1928) notes that some slabs were located around this spring, which could be arranged to form a Maltese cross
Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site. Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.
Is it a holy well?
Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.
Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.
Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!
There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.
Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?
In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:
“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”
This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.
Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.
An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.
Is the Hawkswell evidence?
Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.
There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.
So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.
One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:
“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”
So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:
“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”
Over a hundred years later, John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:
“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”
Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall
“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”
Cures for children
Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states
“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.”
Further details are given by John Cardell Oliver
“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”
“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”
Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?
One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.
This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.
Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001
Despite the thundering sounds of motorways nearby, the industry of Aylesford and the urban sprawl of Maidstone and Rochester not far away the triangle of area trapped between this modernisation clinging to the edges of the ancient pilgrim’s way still has a feel of something ancient and mysterious. Many people visit the area to see its megalithic remains – Kit’s Coty, lower Kit’s Coty and the White horse stone, but in this area are a number of springs which tantalisingly may suggest a similar ancient ritual use.
Many years ago I picked up a delightfully named volume A Tramp in Kentish Pilgrim Land by Coles Finch. A 1925 book whose research and details are of much interest. One of the sites he discusses is the Pilgrim’s Spring, (TQ 731 614) in the old community of Tottington, which he describes a pool surrounded by sarsens believed to be of ancient origin:
“Spread around this beautiful spring head in plenteous disorder is a large number of huge stones, some thrown into the bed of the stream, others supporting its margins. Some half buried and peep through the ground. With Cromlech and altar thrown down and heaped around the spring, it is left to our imagination to picture this site of ancient water worship in the dim and distant past. The stone circle appears to have completely encircled the principal spring; hence there are reasonable grounds for concluding that too was devoted to water worship.”
Earlier in 1872 a James Fergusson visited the area and noted:
…nearer the village [Aylesford] exists or existed, a line of great stones, extending from a place called Spring Farm, in a north-easterly direction, for a distance of three quarters of a mile, to another spot known as Hale Farm passing through Tollington [sic], where the greater number of the stones are now found. In front of the line near the centre at Tollington lie two obelisks, known to the country people as the coffin stones – probably from their shape. They are 12 feet long by 4 to 6 broad, and about 2 to 3 feet thick. They appear to be partially hewn, or at least shaped, so as to resemble one another.
Of course, the description is perhaps tainted by the ‘Druid’ obsession of Victorian antiquarians, so perhaps the stones are natural, although close to recognised ancient monuments, they are still to be found in area some up righted by the farmer The springs still exist too, but the number of sarsens associated with them appears to have been reduced, and one would suggest that a number have been dragged from their position and placed on the Coffin Stone.
Another similar site is a Spring (TQ 745 599) which is also situated by the Pilgrims way, and was probably associated with the nearby lost chapel of St. Michael, Alfred John Dunkin in his 1846 History of the County of Kent describes it as a Druidical pool:
“East of the Medway at Cossington, at the base of the hill on which Kits Coty House stands, water of the spring is intensely cold in summer and very warm in the winter.” He records that stones and similar objects placed in the water become coated in a red tinge, which undoubtedly created deep superstition regarding their powers.”
He also notes that around the spring head:
“still lie many of the massive boulders of their temple in a well preserved semicircular form.”
Dr. Thorpe’s work of 1788 cited in Hasted (1797-1811) History of Kent describes Cossington’s spring as:
“At the bottom issue several springs, which are so cold and sharp that the water is said to cramp and kill ducks, and the flints that lie in it are tinged red as blood, and to try the experiment stones have been marked and put in, which, in less than a year’s time, were of the same colour.”
Finch (1925) believes that these properties were exaggerated, and were certainly not considered when the water company took charge of the water; he describes the stream as now only flowing at a meagre flow and only feeding some pools by the ruins of Cossington Manor. Sadly, the site was been taken over by the waterworks and consequently at the spring head there is nothing of interest. Near Cossington farm, there are the ruins of the ancient manor and beneath this a rag stone pool, built to grow watercress. Yet, these are the only artefacts of interest, as the spring head itself is of no longer interest.
Below Boxley’s All Saint’s Church, Finch (1925) recorded a Pilgrim’s Pool (TQ 775 589) where the pilgrims would have presumably refreshed themselves or bathed. This pool has become over grown and rubbish strewn, compared to Finch’s (1925) time. The railings that lined the pool as shown in Finch’s photo are now bent, buckled and rusty. Overall, the pool is largely forgotten, and not even mentioned by the church guide. Hasted (1797-1811) notes two Petrifying Springs in the vicinity, and these are presumably the ones which arise inaccessibly in a small copse near the ruins of Boxley Abbey and the old vicarage garden (TQ 766 591, and TQ 774 589).
All of these sites potentially suggest the location of the Haly Well of Haley Garden. This has caused a fair amount of confusion from Kent historians being some discussion has occurred regarding its exact location, although Hale Farm may have taken its name from it. Harris (1719) in his work on Kent Topography notes that a well, that had many virtues, in particular cleansing sin:
“Under Boreham (Burham, Burgham) formerly there was a fountain in this Parish (South Philipot) at a place called Haly or Holy Garden, which was accounted mighty sacred by common people, and had very uncommon virtues ascribed to it, and in the 17th year of King Richard II, The Friars Carmelites of Aylesford obtained a grant by letters Pateill to bring the water from to their monastery.”
The nearby Friars at Aylesford are also said to have built an aqueduct from the site. Finch (1925) believes that the well lay eleven hundred yards due west of the Kewland Wheel Well house. Although, he also states that other authorities believed that this wheel well itself was the site. This belief was discredited, however, when its well shaft was explored: no chambers or tunnels were found to lead off of from it. Sadly, there is no evidence of Great Kewland house, although some house debris down a nearby wooded quarry can be located, although being tightly fenced in, one is unable to find any remains of a well or local knowledge.
Another possible site is a Roman or Ancient Draw Well, (TQ 741 809) According to Finch (1925), there is a legend connecting the well with another that of Kewland by a secret tunnel. Finch (1925) notes that there is:
“…an elm tree and some stones of various sizes, beneath which is a well only some two feet in diameter, but tested to be 113 feet deep. This doubtlessly was sunk for a water supply for the Roman occupants hereabouts.”
Finch (1925) expected that this well was a local myth but was fortunate to find a sixty year old man, who as a boy, used to drop flints down it. He notes that:
“The elm tree is bowed over with age and its sinuous roots have all but closed the entrance to the well, leaving but a tiny aperture through which one could see the rough coping stones. With a little dexterity, one could drop a stone, time its fall, and hear the thus as it fell upon the accumulated debris on the bottom no casual visitor could find the well, even though accurately marked upon a plan, without a guide.”
Certainly, it is unmarked on the present maps, and attempting to uncover its location I was hindered by considerable ivy cover and rubbish. I did locate a large amount of brick and stone debris at one site and possibly remains of a dead elm, but conclusively. Its location and indeed the location and meaning of the springs remains a mystery. Much of my field and archival research was done in the 1990s and detailed in Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent but even with the power of the internet these sites have not revealed themselves.
Spurting out sometimes 2 metres into the air, in the Semuliki National Park can be found the remarkable Sempaya Hot Springs. Boiling at up to 103 degrees Celsius; the indigenous Bamaga clan have a legend to explain it.
The male and female springs
The Bamaga clan, state that a hot spring arose after the tribe’s womenfolk saw a hairy man dressed in bark holding a spear with his dog moving in a zig zag fashion, whist collecting wood. Quickly returning to the men, the men then decided invite him to their village and find him a wife called Nyansimbi. However, the man who became known as Biteete disappeared once hunting and after searching they came to the hot spring where they found him and found no traces of both the man nor dog at the site, only their spear. They cried out Bilente meaning ‘Oh he has gone’ and thus the spring was so named. On returning to the village they told his wife and who also ran into the forest and was never seen again. When they looked for her they found at another hot spring her clothes. As a result they named the springs Male and Female, giving them the name Bilente and Nyansimbi respectively.
They believe the springs to be where their ancestors reside, Consequently, over the generations, the Bamaga tribe would perform rituals over the springs yearly, throwing in coins and making animal sacrifices. At Nyansimbi pregnant women would visit and pray for a safe pregnancy and delivery whilst other women visit to improve their fertility. Whilst others visit the waters believing the water, which are rich in salts, can cure skin problems. These extremely hot waters still continue to spurt out of the water producing a remarkable spectacle for all he see it.
Sweden boasts a number of sacred springs or källa. Many of these are what are called in English sacrifice springs where objects of wealth of deposited. One of the commonest dedications is to St Olof and so we shall explore two of these first.
Who was Sankt Olof ?
Born in 995 in Norway, Olav, Olov or Olof II Haraldsson as the King of Norway, Christianised the country and many miracles were associated with him after his death in 1015. That he was elevated to saints was due to the miracles that were said to have happened after his death. The saint fame spread throughout the Nordic countries and St. Olof’s day, the July 29 is celebrated widely. In the folklore, Olav appears as a patron saint against the pagan evil powers.
St Olof’s well Vasterlanda
The spring may have been a pre-Christian site of sacrifice with the saint’s name being applied to Christianise it in the 1100s. Its water was considered good for eyes being recorded as such in 1693 to cure eye diseases.
The site was a popular pilgrimage site with people coming on the saint’s day, although the church was uncomfortable with the mix of sacredness and drinking. People came to leave money at the spring and poorer people left meat meaning that the spring was often covered with a layer of fat
Famous scientist Carl Linnaeus writes in his Skåne journey:
“The most beautiful party is St. Olof’s day, when the people here storm to a great extent from distant places to interrogate the sermon and to sacrifice.”
St Olof’s Spring, Hallaröd
The information at the site neatly describes it. Its states:
“In the Middle Ages, about 1050-1500 AD, the source cult received a boost and many and special rites were created through the direct involvement of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, in 1536, the saint’s cult was considered superstitious and primitive. The church was now trying to eradicate it in various ways, but the interest in the sources lived partly, sometimes until the end of the 19th century. It mainly concerned the custom of sacrificing money and drinking and washing in the health-care source water. At the end of the 17th century, the art of healing also began to be interested in health sources and surpluses. The biggest holiday day was of course the day of the holidays on July 29.One offered money or perhaps food and asked for health, prosperity and about the daily bread. Olof also kept beasts, snakes and trolls away from the creature and he protected and blessed the annual growth. The journey to Hallaröd’s sacrificial source was usually concluded with a visit to the market which was held near the church. By the middle of the 18th century, the market was moved to Hörby.”
The Hammarby Kalla
Considered to have considerable healing powers was this source just northwest of the church at Lake Fysingen in Uppland . To secure a cure one would drink seven sips on a triple evening , which is seven days after the Pentecost .Hence the spring was called a triple well. The site was restored in 2011 and re-blessed on Sunday 4th September. People can be baptised and married at the well in the summer.
At the Fagertofta burial ground there is a site where coins were left at Midsummer Spring . It is two meters in diameter and 3 decimeters deep and surrounded by a wooden fence. According to the saying, you drank or washed here during the midsummer night to stay healthy. This is one of the source of sacrifice or Osterkalla were objects of value such as coins would be added. These were often associated with midsummer and youths.
This sacrifice spring was one of the most famed. As the source flowed north it was thought to make the water more magical and healthy and on certain times it had extra healing powers. In “Witchcraft, disbelief and house cures in Danderyd and Lidingö at the year 1783” noted:
A source flowing to the north has wholehearted waters, than the one that flows to other directions […] Near Landsnora Qvarn is such a source, running out of the halle mountain, from there water is collected for the cure of numerous diseases, especially for sick eyes.
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!
At the source of the Oṣun Riveri is the Osun Shrine on the outskirts of Osogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Along the river are sculptures and sanctuaries in the last of the Yoruba’s sacred forests a site now identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The shrine is a major African pilgrimage site. The Osun/Osogbo grove is where the Osun goddess, also known as Yeye Osun or Oshun Kole resides. It is believed that the river arose when a frightened women turned into a river. The river is so named from Osun or Oshun a Orisha. Osun is a river goddess who was one of the wives of Sango who was the Yoruba God of Thunder noted for being able to give barren babies
The Oshun goddess
Described as the most complex of the Yoruba-Lukumí pantheon deities. It is believes that Oshun embodies the very substance of the water we drink with her fan abebe (deriving from the verb ‘to beg).Oshun Kole is described as:
“the gifted, beautiful, affectionate, sensual goddess of luxury, and pleasure, ruler of oceans and fresh waters…she is called the giver of life, mother of orishas, and possessor of feminine virtues; she guards women during pregnancy. Oshun walks many paths: she is given to industrious intuitions, manages finances, and loves music and dancing. As Kole Kole, Oshun represents children and the poor and needy. She typifies the ‘sensuous saint’ and controls the knowledge and art of sexuality and lovemaking in human pleasure and marriage. Legend has it that Oshun used her charm to lure Oggun out of his wild forest life into the city. She seduces other male Orisha lovers although her main consort is Shango. Ogun loves everything yellow and her ornaments and elekes (necklaces) reveal expensive tastes.”
Her association with fertility allows her to be described as the mother of many children and that barren women would visit the shrine. Due to the dispora from Nigeria travelling across the world the deity is recognised globally often associated with the Virgin Mary as in Cuba manifesting itself with their patron saint. Therefore pilgrims come from as far as Peru, USA, Brazil, Germany and the UK.
The development of the shrine
The shrine sits on the banks and is comprised of wooden deities who stare out from the inner sanctumUNESCO record that:
“A century ago there were many sacred groves in Yorubaland: every town had one. Most of these groves have now been abandoned or have shrunk to quite small areas. Osun-Osogbo, in the heart of Osogbo, the capital of Osun State, founded some 400 years ago in southwest Nigeria, at a distance of 250 km from Lagos is the largest sacred grove to have survived and one that is still revered.
The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove is some of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria. Through the forest meanders the river Osun, the spiritual abode of the river goddess Osun. Set within the forest sanctuary are forty shrines, sculptures and art works erected in honour of Osun and other Yoruba deities, many created in the past forty years, two palaces, five sacred places and nine worship points strung along the river banks with designated priests and priestesses.
The new art installed in the grove has also differentiated it from other groves: Osogbo is now unique in having a large component of 20th century sculpture created to reinforce the links between people and the Yoruba pantheon, and the way in which Yoruba towns linked their establishment and growth to the spirits of the forest.
The restoration of the grove by artists has given the grove a new importance: it has become a sacred place “
The Nigerian Bulletin records its origins:
“The origin and story of Osun festival started over 700 years ago when a group of settlers led by one great hunter, Olutimehin settled on the bank of the river to escape the famine in their former dwelling place. Osun, the water goddess was said to have appeared to Olutimehin and requested him and his group to move up some bit to higher ground – the present Osogbo town. Osun pledged to protect the group and make their women fruitful if they would offer an annual sacrifice to her in return. The group agreed, vowing to sacrifice annually to the goddess trusting that she would honour her promise. Today, the annual sacrifice has gone past just offering sacrifices to a river goddess, it has become an international celebration of cultural events attracting people from all over the world.”
Account in https://www.legit.ng/830694-the-mysterious-river-dreaded-goddess-and-all-the-unbelievable-myths-about-the-osunosogbo-shrine.html describes the ritual upon reaching the shrine:
“Before our entrance to the courtyard, the Chief priestess was seen appeasing the gods of the river.”Yeye ooo, Omi ooo,” she said in Yoruba, meaning “My mother, water” just as a way of reverencing the goddess that resides in the water. On entering the courtyard, we were made to put away our shoes as it nobody was allowed to wear shoes inside the sacred grove, as our cameras were barred from entering the Osun shrine where sacrifices and requests are being made.”
The account records that:
“During our visit, a woman and her husband were seen with the chief priestess, going towards the river to appease the goddess of many children. And after whatever sacrifice that is made to appease the goddess of the river, our correspondents gathered that nobody is allowed to look back as anyone who does will live with whatever consequences that follows”
The shrine and its waters is therefore still an important site indicating the importance of Sacred pre-Christian waters to the modern often Catholic African and South American population. It was probable that originally the shrine demands a real watery sacrifice at times and that the association with August conveniently near the feast of Mary allowed a more convenient personal sacrifice to be given. Today despite slight modernisations it is a powerful place of faith.
This year I am returning to my abdecary of holy wells and healings springs of the world I started in 2017. As Friar Diego de Landa observed in 1566 after visiting Chichen Itza:
“Into this well they have had, and then had, the custom of throwing men alive as a sacrifice to the gods, in times of draught, and they believed that they did not die though they never saw them again. They also threw into it a great many other things, like precious stones and things which they prized. And so, if this country had possessed gold, it would be this well that would have the great part of it.”
Alfred M. Tozzer (trans.), ed. Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan
On the Yucatan peninsula, the limestone worn by millennia of the elements has created remarkable sink holes or cenotes that at Chichen Itza is known as the Cenote Sagrada, the sacred cenote or more disturbingly the Well of Sacrifice; an eerie and mysterious place but how true is it?
Site of sacrifice
Local tradition both Mayan and Spanish claim that before the Spanish settlements the Maya would sacrifice objects and human beings to placate Chaac the rain god. Ever keen to reveal the truth it was Edward Herbert Thompson who between 1904 to 1910 decided to dredge the bottom and revealed some interesting objects. Thompson was working through unstable times during the Mexican revolution and understandably perhaps some of the objects went missing before they were catalogued. His house was also burnt down during his time there consequently resulting in him losing notes.
Thompson is said to have bought the site and used a pulley system with a bucket. Although much of the early work involved clearing debris such as trees which hampered the procedure. The buckets would be removed and local people sifted through the water to find artefacts and categorise them accordingly. These objects according to Clemency Chase Coggins 1984 Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichen Itz were obsidian, wood, shells, bone cloth, rubber, pottery an flints as well as gold, jadeite, copal. Some of these materials were not native to the Yucatan peninsular suggesting that perhaps pilgrimages were made to the site and that it was an important cultural centre. Was there also evidence that some of the materials were purposely damaged before being thrown into it a common activity throughout the world to ‘kill’ the object before sacrificing it. What is interesting is the organic matter which was remarkably preserved particularly the wooden ones which indicated what weapons they sacrificed.
Thompson also decided to dive in 1909 into the Cenote but what with its unstable rocky bottom, loose trees and murky water, it was both hazardous and difficult to see. He was very produce that he was the last person to tread on the bottom of the Cenote adding:
“full of long narrow cracks, radiating from centers as if the glass bottom of a dish had been broken by a pointed instrument. We found down in the cracks and holes a grayish mud in which were imbedded the heavier gold objects, jades, and copper bells in numbers.”
Other excavations were subsequently less successful, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) director William Folan in 1961 did find wooden ear flares with jade and turquoise mosac, a large chert knife, a gold sheathed bone with a wooden handle. The subsequent exploration of Norman Scott and Roman Pina-Chan in 1967-8 tried emptying the cenote and trying to clear the water. However, only 13 feet or so of water could be removed and it did not really clear.
What about the human sacrifice?
What of course interests archaeologists is the human sacrificial remains. The bones found in the site had marks that concurred with wounds associated with sacrifice These sacrifices consisted of both male and females, children and infants Guillermo de Anda (2007) Sacrifice and Ritual Body Mutilation in Postclassical Maya Society: Taphonomy of the Human Remains from Chichén Itzá’s Cenote Sagrado”. In Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina (eds.). New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society.of the University of Yucatán, states that Mayan mythology emphasises that children 6 to 12 were often male being captured or purchased. Those kidnaped were collected whilst parents toiled fields, or via battle. They were more often than not killed prior to being thrown and what made this site special that it was a sacrificial one as others were used for domestic supplies. Perhaps the last person to witness this was Franciscan leader Diego de Landa as he claimed to have witnessed live sacrifices:
“ the custom of throwing men alive as a sacrifice to the gods, in times of draught, and they believed that they did not die though they never saw them again.”
I am very pleased as a bit of festive gift to welcome another post from Janet Bord one of the great contributors to the field….Merry Christmas, happy Yuletide and Happy 2019
100 years ago many homes in Britain did not have a mains water supply, with water having to be fetched from nearby wells and springs. Domestic wells were a fact of life for many even in the mid 20th century, whereas today we turn on taps in the comfort of our homes without a second thought. The intricacies of water supply in Herefordshire on the Welsh border in earlier times are shown in a detailed survey by Linsdall Richardson which was published in 1935: Wells and Springs of Herefordshire (HMSO, London, 1935). In addition to the most well-known holy wells of the county, he also describes many more named wells, some holy, many used for healing purposes. I have no idea how many of them can still be identified, but they are worth recording, and so here is a run-through of the most interesting examples, with quotations from Richardson’s book. Remember that references to the present-day within the quotes will mean the early 1930s! I have given map references for those wells I have visited. Many of them are also described in Jonathan Sant’s useful 1994 book The Healing Wells of Herefordshire, sadly no longer easily available.
Cae Thomas (or St Thomas’s) Well, Llanveynoe (p.40)
‘This very attractive and copious spring issues from the rock in a steep bank two-fifths of a mile up stream from Ford and courses down the bank into the Olchon Brook…. [It] has long had a local reputation for its medicinal properties…’ At the time of writing in 1935, the owner planned to market the water as Glen Olchon Water, but he died and so the plan was thankfully never carried out. The commercialisation of this spring doesn’t bear thinking about, and luckily it remains unspoilt, tucked away in the remote borderland, needing persistence to discover but well worth the effort.
St Clodock’s or St Clydog’s Well, Clodock (p.41) SO326273
‘… a dip-well fed by a spring from rock close to the R. Monnow. In times of flood the Monnow invades the well.’ The spring can still be located on the river bank under a low stone slab among the grass. Clodock was a 6th-century Border king who was murdered and whose body was taken away by ox-cart until it broke, so he was buried at that spot, and a church was built there. His well is only a few minutes walk away along the riverside footpath.
St Peter’s Wells, Peterchurch (p.43) SO353388
There were three springs originally, the two highest being good for eye troubles; pins were thrown into them. ‘The water of the larger [lower] well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers of rheumatism.’ The well has been restored so that the water still flows, or did in 2009 when I saw it, through the stone head. The site of the pool below is now overgrown.
St Mary’s Well, Peterchurch (p.43)
‘A small spring called St. Mary’s Well, but known locally as Sore Eyes’ Well, issues from rock in the steep side of the dingle in Park Wood… A small basin-like hollow appears to have been made in the rock and the spring is still resorted to by many in search of relief for eye afflictions.’
St Margaret’s Well, St Margarets (p.44)
‘This spring is on Green Court Farm, three-tenths of a mile south of Urishay. The spring issues from beneath a prominent rock band and discharges direct into the stream… The only information that could be obtained locally was that it was believed that there used to be a bathing pool here.’
Heavenly Well, Vowchurch (p.45)
‘This is a dip-well fed by a small spring from cornstone close to the track’ one mile from Vowchurch church. No information is given as to the well’s use, but its name alone meant I had to include it in this listing.
Golden Well, Dorstone (p.49)
‘This is a shallow-seated spring issuing from loamy soil just within the western boundary of Bell Alders, half a mile north-west-by-west of St. Mary’s church, Dorstone. According to the legend: “In this well, once upon a time, a fisherman caught a fish with a gold chain round its neck. In commemoration a sculptured representation of the fish in stone, with its chain, was placed in the church [at Peterchurch], where it may still be seen.”’ [Quotation from The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, p.12]
St Peter’s Well, Whitney (p.50)
‘This is a “spout spring” issuing from the steep bank between the railway and the road north-east of SS. Peter and Paul Church.’
St Ann’s Well, Aconbury (p.51)
‘For a long time it was the local belief that water taken from this spring after twelve o’clock on Twelfth Night possessed great curative properties and was especially good for eye troubles.’
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith (p.59) SO604406
‘This is a copious spring, probably an overflow spring from the Downton Castle Sandstone, emerging near the church and below the churchyard and by which the memorial trough on the Hereford—Ledbury road was supplied. The well is called after St Edith, daughter of King Edgar, who at the age of fifteen was made Abbess of Wilton. She died in her twenty-third year, on September 16th, 984. According to a legend the spring issued in answer to her prayer for water which was needed for mixing the mortar required for a church. For many years the villagers believed that those who bathed in its water were cured of various ailments, and to stop the bathing, bars were at length placed in front of the well.’ That sounds like a most vindictive, unsympathetic course of action to take, at a time when the villagers would have had little or no access to medical care.
Holy Well, Luston (p.84)
‘At the northern end of Luston village, at the turning to Eye, is a Holy Well the water of which is now collected in a concrete tank from which it emerges through a pipe.’
Holy Well, Adforton (p.87)
‘This spring, which is on government property and said to have “a pretty constant make,” emerges in Wenlock Shale ground at a point 960 yds. from Adforton Church in a south-westerly direction. There are said to be seven springs which locally are reputed to have medicinal properties.’
Laugh Lady Well, Brampton Bryan (p.89)
‘A cairn has been erected over this spring the yield of which is now small since the bulk is taken for the Park and village supply. The legend attached to this well is that if a pin be dropped in and bubbles arise from it, the wish then made will be granted.’
Cawdor Well, Ross Rural (p.99)
‘This well, on the northern boundary of the Ross Urban District, was fed by five weak springs from sandstone, but has now been filled up with earth. For long its water was held in high esteem for curing rheumatism, etc.’
Holy Well, Garway (p.105) SO455224
‘In the churchyard of St. Michael’s Church is a Holy Well. The water comes through a spout in the churchyard wall, but it is the overflow of a stone tank (in a hollow at the back) into which a spring from sandstone runs…. The occurrence of this spring caused the Knights Templars to select the site for one of their preceptories.’
Holy Well, Holywell, Blakemere (p.108)
‘At Holywell, the Holy Well is a perennial spring of good water, issuing from a gravel bed in a field at the back of the school, from which all the people in the hamlet fetch their supplies.’
The Dragon’s Well, Brinsop (p.109)
‘”The church…is dedicated to St. George…The Dragon’s Well is in Duck Pool meadow, on the south side of the church, while on the other side is a field called ‘Lower Stanks’…where St. George slew the Dragon.”’ [quoted from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, p.11]
Eye Well, Mansell Gamage (p.110)
‘There is an Eye Well in Eye Well Field on the top of the hill.’
Eye Well, Bromyard (pp.114-15)
‘This spring (about half a mile south-west-by-south of Bromyard Church) is on land…by the side of the Hereford road…The water had for long the reputation of being “good for the eyes” and was used for bathing them up to about twenty years ago [i.e. c. 1915]. “Eye Well” has now become erroneously “High-well” and a house built near by bears this name.’
Crooked Well, Kington (p.115)
‘This spring – the source of the town’s supply – according to tradition was “good for the eyes.” By some it is said to be so called because a crooked pin was necessary as an offering; but Mr. G. Marshall suggests that the name comes from the old word “crooked” (crokyd), which was equivalent to lame or crippled.’
St Ethelbert’s Well, Castle Hill, Hereford (p.127) SO511396
‘According to tradition a spring “is said to have sprung up on the spot where St. Ethelbert’s body touched the ground on its removal from Marden [to Hereford Cathedral] in 793. A mutilated sculptured head of St. Ethelbert, part of an effigy which formerly stood at the west end of the Cathedral, is fixed above the well. A circular stone within the garden of Mr. Custos Eckett’s house marks the exact position of the spring.” “Some years ago, when the well was cleaned out, a quantity of pins were found in it. The water was held especially good for ulcers and sores.”’ [First quotation from Trans. Woolhope Nat. F.C. for 1918; second quote from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, pp.11,12]