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“The worm shot down the middle stream
Like a flash of living light,
And the waters kindled round his path
In rainbow colours bright.
But when he saw the armed knight
He gathered all his pride,
And, coiled in many a radiant spire,
Rode buoyant o’er the tide.
When he darted at length his dragon Strength
An earthquake shook the rock
And the fire-flakes bright fell round the knight
As unmoved he met the shock.
Though his heart was stout it quailed, no doubt
His very life-blood ran cold
As round and round the wild worm wound
In many a grappling fold.”
So write a local Poet of perhaps the most famous British dragon legend. The story dates from the 14th century, where the heir to Lambton Hall instead of attending Mass would fish. One particularly Sunday he said to have secured a fine fish. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells accounts:
“he exerted all his skill and strength to bring his prey to land. But what were his horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only caught a worm of most unsightly appearance! He hastily tore the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which is still known by the name of the Worm Well.”
A stranger is said to have remarked that he had never seen such a creature and said it was like an eft, only it had nine holes on each side of its mouth and that he had caught the Devil himself. However, the worm remained forgotten in its well until one day it emerged, having outgrown the well and moved to the river where it lay during the day around a rock and by night around a hill, causing it to become stepped as a result of its twining. The hill remains called Worm Hill.
Such a beast then terrorised the area, eating lambs, chasing cattle and suckling cows’ milk. When it reached Lambton Hall, where the household was terrified, the young son was no-where to be seen and so the steward rose to the occasion. He ordered that a trough should be filled with milk and every day the beast would drink the milk and cause no harm returning to their resting places. This happened every year for seven years until the son and heir returned. He was a wiser and more mature man and seeing his land’s desolate took to a local wise woman to ask what to do. She at first scolded him for his wasteful life and bring the beast to the parish, but realising that he was repentant, told him to wear a suit of thickly studded with spears. He stood on the rock in the river with his sword and he was warned that should he fail – nine generations of the manor would not die in their beds! A tireless fight ensued between the worm and the heir in which a number of blows did not stop the beast but finally as the beast wrapped around him he made a body blow severing the beast in two. These two sections were separated and floated down the river…never to be united.
Not far away, is Long Witton’s Thruston Wells which were guarded by dragon, a winged serpent who valiantly fought Guy, Earl of Warwick too, but each time he was wounded the creature would dip his tail into one of the wells and was healed. Soon Guy realised this and leapt before the well and speared it through the heart blocking the beast’s ability to reach the well.
There are many other such serpent and well stories. Why? From a biological background the description of the Lambton Worm is interesting…it sounds like a Lamprey, and perhaps as this was a Royal fish, so peasantry did not often see it. Mix this with discovery of fossils – often found exposed near water perhaps – and the imaginary of Pagan vs Christian and you have the Dragon.
The clootie tree at St Euny’s Well
Cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
Sancreed Holy Well
St Credan’s Well, Sancreed
As a final instalment of my exploration of Abecedary of healing and holy springs I will cover Y and Z the last countries – as there is not a country beginning with X!
In the dry arid environment of the Yemen spring are of considerable importance. In the mountainous regions of the country in the Damt area. Here the springs are visited by people to expel worms from their digestive system and suffering from rheumatism, arthritis and skin allergies. As a consequence of its usages and relative close proximity to the country’s major cities
New spas have been developed in the town of Damt and its surrounding areas, including Turkish baths, and swimming pools, with hotels developed with their own hot springs. Thus emphasising the commercial importance of such sites to the Yemeni community.
In Zimbabwe there are around 30 noted springs many which are hot springs and considerable medicinal. At Kariba, the elders of the community considered the water to be considered sacred and local people make wishes by throwing coins in the water. The water is thought to be so sacred that it is forbidden to wash or use soaps in the water as not to insult the ancestors.
This water is believed to heal a wide range of complaints. Its 90⁰C waters are used to heal sore backs and skin complaints and people travel to the site to swim in the water and cure it. Swollen legs and rheumatism are also said to be cured by its waters.
However, although the bubbling water includes a wide range of minerals such as sulphur giving it the bad egg smell,, sodium, silicates, potassium, chlorides, calcium and magnesium analysis of the water does not reveal any chemicals that confirm this belief.
Another noted site are the Chibwatata Hot springs near Binga sacred to the Ba Tonga tribe. The site was famed for various reasons but in particular it was associated with rainmaking. The only person who could visit the springhead being the Rainmaker who would have to stand in the scalding hot water otherwise they would be seen as an imposter! The spring water was also thought to give good luck or remove bad luck. This is especially for those thought to be controlled by demons who are advised to visit them and swim in them – further downstream from the springhead of course.
Water is taken away from the springs and sprinkled around their homes to ward off evil spirits or prevent mental illness. A view even adopted by the local Christian communities. Most families keep a supply of the spring water in their houses for boiling special herbs and for teething children due to its calcium levels. It is also drunk after large meals to help ease stomach pains and digestive disorders.
Even animals such as worms, insects, crabs and plants, growing near the springs are used for healing purposes, dried and mixed into the spring water, by virtue of their ability to survive near the water. An interesting use is related to the emergence of the spring it is reported that giving the dried materials to barren women mixed with the spring water and tiger fish bones can unblock a women’s womb just as the water jets out of the vents from the earth’s crust.
Interesting the survival of the site has been at risk. European settlers established communal baths near the sites and the expansion of a dam brought other groups to the spring. The Ba Tonga complain that their own tribal customs are being eroded by other groups who come to the spring to do rituals during the dark and washing directly in the spring. However, the cultural importance is being recognised and sites are now being fenced off and preserved as national monuments.