Category Archives: Votive
The Old Wife’s Well has been on my to visit list for quite a time. The well is not the easiest to find situated on afforested woodland on the edge of moorland. High above Pickering, but only a few miles, it seems to be 100s of years away. A snapshot of an older tradition. The spring arises in a rather simple square well chamber which is fairly non-descript bar the engraving on the top which is most interesting. The carving reads:
This has been translated as ‘Well of the spirits’; Fonten – meaning spring and Nattie meaning spirit. Is this the Old Wife one wonders? Old Wife is found in a number of sites across Yorkshire: Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Old Wife’s Neck which are standing stones on John Cross Rigg. Locally there is Wade’s causeway a long pavemented road which travels romantically across the desolate moorland. Wade was a local giant who is said to have built the causeway, which has been in the past said to be a Roman road, although opinion has changed over time. However, the wife in question is probably not a wife in the modern meaning but from the middle English word Wif which simply means ‘women’ which of course has survived in the term ‘midwife’ Thus the Old Wife simply means Old Women. Now this could refer to an old women who lived by the well, perhaps a local seer. Yet there is another explanation it could well remember the Cailleach, the old woman or hag, a deity of the Celtic population. Dr Anne Ross in her 1960 Pagan Celtic Britain described her as:
“At once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds.”
Certainly the Old Wife’s Well is situated in an ancient landscape being close to a Mesolithic flint mine which was still active in the Bronze age and it is likely that the population used the spring. Of course one most sometimes be wary of wells with inscriptions suggesting ancient gods which may suggest classically aware landowners.
This notwithstanding, the site is powerfully evocative laying in an opening in the afforested woodland surrounded by low laying mist. It certainly is a much visited site by local people who connect with it spiritually and has within the last 30 years become a rag well.
The most common are traditional ribbons some of which are of cotton and should rot. They are attached to the trees and to the wooden enclosure of the well.
Some of the rags are clearly decaying and covered with algae and moss, suggesting they have been there for sometime.
There are also dream catchers
An evocative site hopefully it will not get too over-adorned with rags and objects and retains its mystery!
The Holy Well in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – Fr Martin Warner. Source New Series No 4 Spring 1995:
We continue our series of articles on living cults at particular British holy wells with the following account of the Well of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It is written by Fr Martin Warner, the Administrator of the Anglican shrine of Walsingham. Those unfamiliar with the history of the Walsingham shrine are recommended to read J. C. Dickinson, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Cambridge 1956. The original medieval well, in the grounds of the ruined priory, and the holy well now enclosed within the modern pilgrimage church, are both described by Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Wates Paladin (London) 1986 pp 199-201. The Bords note that ‘this newly restored holy well can safely claim to be the most active holy well in England. Probably Britain.’
In the Spring/Summer 1929 edition of Our Lady’s Mirror, a quarterly paper for the newly formed Society of Our Lady of Walsingham, an article by G.S. Dunbar on holy wells was published, listing a number of sanctuaries linked with Holy Wells and Springs. Making reference to the already famous use of water at Lourdes and the miracles that had been recorded there, Dunbar continued, ‘such miracles were worked in the past at Glastonbury and Walsingham, to mention two places amongst very many, and at Walsingham, to mention two still survive, and pilgrimages are being resumed, while sufferers resorting there after Confession and Holy Communion, use the water, invoking our Lady of Walsingham, and receive healing.’
A short time later, during the excavations for building the new shrine in 1931, a well was discovered and incorporated into the pilgrimage church. A photograph published in the Mirror in 1934 shows the proximity of the well to the Holy House which can be seen rising in new brickwork behind it. The discovery was part of the evidence which encouraged Fr Patten, the restorer of the Shrine, to believe that the site on which he was building had been the location of the original Holy House. Other foundations discovered between 1931 and 1937 convinced him that this was likely to be so.
The story of the origins of the shrine at Walsingham tells us that when the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she was taken in the spirit to Nazareth, shown the house in which the Holy Family had lived and told to build a replica of that house in her own land. The sign for where thus ‘casa sancta’ should be built was the eruption of a spring of water, and so the well has always been a part of the Walsingham cult, witnessed to by the well (more modern and more akin to a pond) in the ground of the ruined Priory, spoken of by Dunbar in his article and used by pilgrims prior to the restoration of the Shrine church in 1931.
Today the well in the shrine is an important part of our identity. It stands as a sign of the continuity of the new and old, witnessing the use of water to indicate hallowed ground and the presence of God in a particular way. More universally, the well points also to the centrality of baptism, the Sacrament by which Christians participate in the life and death of Jesús, within his body, the church. In this way the power of the incarnation is experienced as the source of all healing and all miracles.
To describe fully the significance of the well in the life of the Shrine today, it may be useful to look first at what happens when pilgrims come to be sprinkled, and then at three different types of pilgrim for whom this service can be of particular importance.
First of all, the service of Sprinkling. This is an informal service which takes place at 2.30 pm, each afternoon from Easter to the end of October and every weekend throughout the year. People gather in the main body of the Church for an introductory talk. After an opportunity to reflect on their sum of human suffering and our universal need for healing, there is a simple recognition of sin, brokenness and pain, and prayer for reconciliation. Going then to the well, the water is received in three ways. First, a sip to drink then used for making the sign of the cross on the forehead, and finally poured out into cupped hands to splash some part of the body in need of healing, or simply as a gesture of refreshment or cleansing. Those who have been sprinkled then make their way into the Holy House for final prayers and a blessing.
For Christians this can be a powerful and moving rite. A source of healing and a symbol in action of the movement from death to life. But it also speaks eloquently of another movement, that of all Christians towards unity and healing of past divisions. For those who experience sprinkling at the well, the Anglican identity of the Shrine is not of paramount significance. Walsingham is holy ground, to which Christians of all traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed) have various points of access, each which focus on baptism, helping pilgrims of different traditions to recognise what we share in allegiance to Jesus Christ, the child of Mary. The rite gives a structure for Christians to pray and worship together in an activity which unlike the eucharist, does not raise issues of denominational boundary.
Many of those who visit Walsingham and come to the well are from other religious traditions. A number of Asian families are often to be seen at the rite of sprinkling, some of them Christian, but some of them not. For these pilgrims water has a special religious significance with which they easily seem able to identify.
As an expression of the sacred, the River Ganges holds a powerful place in the religious imagination and landscape of India. Washing is a natural religious ceremony for many, and in the Islamic tradition Mary has a significant place of respect. Thus the well open up a dialogue with people of other faiths, recognising that in the ritual association with it there is an expression of some sacred awareness germane to human identity.
During the Summer months many holiday makers stumble across the Shrine and its well and attend, almost by accident, the rite of sprinkling. What their impressions are and how they interpret the symbolism is not always clear. But again, some relationships is often awakened with those whose faith is inarticulate, but whose search is real. This can sometimes be expressed by tears which indicate a hurt in need of healing. Sometimes it can be a sign of the strengthening of family bonds, hint at a sense of life as a precious gift and graciousness of its creator. For those who feel such stirrings, to crowd with others, into the dimly -lit Holy House after being sprinkled , witnessing the glow and candlelight, us to come as near as one night to siftinging holiness and jostling with angels. The waters of this well go deep indeed.
Last month I introduced the rag wells associated with Lincolnshire we now move southwards to explore the other sites.
At the significantly named Hemswell are the seven springs apparently rise from the spring wells and one of these is dedicated to St Helen’s Well (SK 932 911). The site has an eerie but not unquiet atmosphere. The proximity of a local stone called the Devil’s pulpit may help this of course. It is a large approximately six foot high piece of sandstone under which a small spring arises. This Ian Thompson (1999) Lincolnshire Wells and Springs notes local opinion thought was St. Helen’s, he said it tasted sweeten than the other waters (a fact that I cannot testify as the spring has appeared to have almost dried up the year I went). Peter Binnall (1845) in his theories on eye wells notes that the spring wells were regarded as possessing curative powers and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes. The dedication of St Helen is an interesting one of course and just within the main area. Jeremy Harte’s 2008 English Holy Wells suggests that the name is spurious and that Ethel Rudkin (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore does not refer to it as such, however in support of the view I had no problem locally detecting the well using this name in the village (incidentally Harte makes an error referring to the springs as Aisthorpe Springs, these are clearly another site). There was supposed to be a chapel or church associated with the site, of which there is no trace or record. There was no evidence of any rags on any of the trees and the only thing hanging was a rope for a tyre swing!
Not far away and still surviving are the Aisthorpe springs (SK 956 899) a curative spring and a rag well, despite what Thompson (1999) notes is not now incorporated into a sewage farm, although this is nearby. The spring arises with some force near by the footpath which passes towards the sewage farm and has a separate flow from that of the plant. The spring flows from a pipe beneath some thorn bushes, sadly without any sign of rags.
To the east is Holton cum Beckering were to the east of Holton Hall was a Rag Well according to Lincolnshire Notes and Queries which was said to have had some medicinal qualities, however recent correspondence with local vicar has shown that there is now no local knowledge of this well. The only evidence was a local name for a field to the south of the town known as Well Walk. There is a spring fed pool in churchyard but no traditions are given concerning this. It is possible perhaps that this is the same site as the Wishing Well at Nettleton.
Here at Nettleton, the Wishing well which is records as being half mile from church, east of the grange on land belonging to Holton Park hence the possible confusion with above. Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) Lincolnshire County Folklore note that:
“It was famous for its curative virtues, and thither many of the afflicted, until very recently, if not now, were wont to make a pilgrimage. A thorn tree grew over the well, which used to be covered with votive offerings, chiefly bits of rag, the understood condition to any benefit being that whoever partook of the water should ‘leave something.’ The thorn tree, however, is now cut down.”
Again no local people could determine the existence of this site and nothing is marked on maps.
Kingerby Spa (TF 045 914) whose name first appears in 1824 as the site of a Chalybeate spring might seem an unusual place for a rag well but it is an old site. In Lincolnshire notes and queries state that large numbers of coins dating back to Elizabeth I, were dredged from the pool. Records tell that in 1900, pins and coins were found nearby, and the thorn rags were full of rags. Mr Wilkinson states that it became popular in Victorian times as a place to go for the healing waters and he had seen a photo of the spring with strips of cloth fastened to the bushes surrounding the spring but could not locate it. He believed it fell out of popularity after the turn of the century, and suggested that the landowner was against people tramping over his land to reach it. However, as late as the 1990s, that the then owner was thinking of selling the waters. Mr. Wilkinson also noted that last time he saw the spa it resembled a pipe discharging into a dyke. This is at variance to Pastscape, which notes that the site consists of a small oval shaped isolated pool which has three courses of narrow brickwork forming a semi-circular rim with another brick course and a coping stone set into the side of the hollow suggesting that was a well house. Despite appearing to exist as a small pool on both the current O/S and Google maps; recent field work failed to reveal it. The site would appear to have either dried up or purposely filled in. Field train channels were nearby. This was despite being described on the parish map outside the church, although interestingly this revealed itself to be in another location to that noted on the map so maybe I was pixy led.
The last traditional site is the chalybeate Blind Well (TF 085 208) on the edge to Bourne Wood is the furthest south rag well. However, there are no signs of rags now. Its water was used to cure eye complaints and sold in Bourne Market. It is now rather neglected being rather weed filled and untidy surrounded by a rather ugly wooden frame.
Thus completes the traditional rag wells but as I have eluded to before what is interesting is the site called Lud’s Well (TF 176 937) at Stainton Le Vale. The evocative site is a spring which arises in a small cave like structure and fills a small pool. When I saw it in the summer it was a bit dry but apparently it forms a small waterfall according to local sources. I learnt of the site from Thompson’s 1999 work and when visited did not see any sign of ribbons. Now this is the county’s only rag well. This can be seen from this screenshot from a recent video visiting the site. Why?
The origin of the name may suggest why. Although it is believed to come from O.E Hlud meaning ‘loud’ others prefer to believe it is derived from Celtic deity Lud, this however is unlikely. Thus it seems very likely that the site has been adopted by the local pagan community who have adopted the attaching of ribbons as a pagan gesture.
So why. Such a cluster as far east as it is as possible to go puts in question the idea that the custom is strongly Celtic in origin perhaps. So why in Lincolnshire. A theory I discuss in my working thesis on the work is that the custom was brought by gypsy communities who had a stronghold in the county. However, why these particular springs is unclear perhaps like Winterton, Hemswell, Aisthorpe, Healing they were close to main roads – we cannot state this in the case of the lost sites of course.
What is interesting is how quickly the custom died out in the county and one wonders whether this is correlated by the reduction in gypsy numbers as well.
Found down a quiet lane, called Plemstall Lane near the church, is this well named after 9th century saint and Archbishop of Canterbury. The earliest record of the well is in 1302 but doubtlessly the settlement itself derived from Plemstow and supposedly where the saint lived a hermit life on a supposed island on which the church now stands, the spring arising at the base of its cliff. Plemstall taking its name from the saint.
Who was St Plegmund?
Rotha Mary Clay in her 1914 Hermit and anchorites of England states that Plegmund, an Eremite (lived) in the Isle of Chester’. He rose to a position of high office, being promoted Prinate of all England during King Alfred 871-899 AD being a learned individual noted for his writings and translations. He travelled to Rome to be consecrated the 19th Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Formosus. Following the death of King Alfred, Plegmund crowned Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder. He continued to be Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 923 AD and is buried in Canterbury Cathedral. There is no evidence of his association with the well as sadly, the earliest reference to the well is a 1301 quit rent.
The well today
The present structure was erected by Mr Osborne Aldis in 1907 is curbed with stones with steps down to the water. The site was dedicated by the Venerable E. Barber, Archdeacon of Chester, on 11 November 1907. A Latin couplet was placed on the stone supposedly reading:
“Here, as in days when Alfred erst was King, Baptismal water flows from Plegmund’s spring.”
Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews reported that in 1995 a survey of the well was carried out. This failed to find the slabs in added in 1907 but revealed that the well was a square stone-lined pit which had on either side two large slabs. The bottom of the well was a ceramic pipe inserted at a later date and there was water covering the first step as there was when I first visited. In 2002 a substantial wrought iron structure bearing the saint’s name and date was erected making the site easy to find.
As noted by the signage, site was supposedly used for baptisms and was called the church well or Christening well, and is mentioned in Churchwardens’ accounts, although this may be another well. In the 1990s rags, or clootties, have been placed around the site, and attached to a hawthorn overhanging the tree. However, there does not appear to be any folklore or historical reference to this activity at this site and it has probably been transferred by those in the know! However, there is a tradition of hanging rags at Alderley Edge in the same county so it may be traditional. According to Richards (1947), that:
“on Sunday, August 14th, 1938, the Saint’s Day, a large body of Roman Catholics made a pilgrimage on foot to the well.”
This was probably started by the curate at St Werburgh’s Chester at the time, Canon Frank Murphy. Canon Frank Murphy was clearly highly devoted to the saint, the church had stained glass windows of St Plegmund and the church hall opened by the Canon in 1971 is also dedicated to him and has stained glass featuring him. Curates Frs Gerry Courell and Peter Sharrocks in the 1970s, remember that there was an annual pilgrimage to the well from St Werburgh’s probably from the time Canon Murphy returned as the parish priest in 1959. When it ceased is unclear although in the late 1990s, Chester City Council archaeologists lead local children on a well dressing walk on the 2nd of August St Plegmund’s feast day. The children on arrival would informally dress the well inspired by the rags hanging nearby. This is said to have ceased in 2000,but according to stcolumbachester.wordpress.com a pilgrimage returned in 2016, The website states:
“On 11 Sept 2016, Fr Jonathan together with 11 parishioners representing 3 generations of St Columba’s and St Theresa’s parishes, revived the tradition of walking to the nearby well of St Plegmund. It was a lovely warm sunny day for the 3.6 mile walk which is now mostly along the Millennium Greenway. We said prayers at the well and were then welcomed with tea and chocolate biscuits by Mike, the verger to St Peter’s at Plemstall where we were impressed by the carvings mostly done by the Rev Toogood in the last century. There followed a picnic in the historic graveyard before a leisurely walk back to St Columba’s.”
Now since 2000 a Peak District style well dressing has been undertaken. Cheshire-Live website notes:
“THE annual tradition of well dressing is taking place in a Cheshire village this weekend. Volunteers in Mickle Trafford have been preparing the well dressing in the scout hut on School Lane in readiness for the blessing of St Plegmund’s Well ceremony on Sunday. Helpers include efforts by the Village Well Dressing Group, Mickle Trafford Primary School pupils and the Cestrian Scouts group. They have been providing decorations for the well and will transport their completed display from the scout hut to the well on Saturday in preparation for the ceremony. Only natural materials are permitted to be used within the display. The blessing of the well ceremony was originally intended to mark the new millennium but proved so successful it was decided to make the occasion an annual tradition. This year’s theme for the well is astronomy, with previous years’ displays based upon Alice in Wonderland, Hogwart’s Express and Creatures Great and Small.”
Themes varied from Royal Britannia to although this appears to have died out in 2010.
Sadly, no water flows through the well now said to be the result of a nearby Shell plant lowered the water table, but it clearly continues to be celebrated locally and provide a local connection to the age of saints. It is nice to hear of a village remembering its name’s original connection
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!
There are records of a considerable number of rag wells in Lincolnshire and as such a cluster can be identified. In a couple of posts we shall be exploring the sites focusing on some in detail such as the significantly named Ragged springs near Cleethorpes to the north of the county which is the focus on this blog post.
First it is worth considering the name. The springs themselves whilst possibly being an ancient site, noted by the fact that the earliest name for the parish is Heghelinge. One may make the assumption that perhaps this derives from the springs. However, this is at variance to the view of the Cameron (1985-2002) as it is noted that Hægelingas is derived from ‘the sons or followers of a man named Hægel’ rather than healing, although it is of course a strange coincidence perhaps.
The first reference appears to be Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, which of course takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown, but often from local accounts. He records it confusing under another nearby village and states?
“Lincolnshire GREAT COTES, ULCEBY. Here is a spring celebrated locally for its healing properties. It rises from the side of a bank in a plantation, and is overshadowed by an ancient thorn, on the branches of which hang innumerable rags, fastened there by those who have drunk of its waters.”
Gutch and Peacock (1908) note that a:
“Mr. Cordeaux visited them not long since for the purpose of discovering whether pins are ever dropped into them, but the bottom of the water in both cases was too muddy and full of leaves to allow accurate examination.”
According to Gutch and Peacock (1908) each well had a different use, one spring being a chalybeate one was done for eye problems, whereas the other was for skin problems. They continue to note that a:
“F S, a middle-aged man, who grew up in an adjoining parish, states that when he was a lad, one spring was used for bathing, and the second for drinking. The latter was considered good against consumption, among other forms of sickness. . . . What the special gift of the bathing well was F S cannot say. He often plunged his feet into it when a boy, but he does not venture to assert that it had any great power in reality, although ‘folks used to come for miles,’ and the gipsies, who called the place Ragged Spring or Ragged Well, frequently visited it. A Gentleman who hunts with the Yarborough pack every winter, says that he notices the rags fluttering on the shrubs and briars each season as he rides past. There is always a supply of these tatters, whether used superstitiously or not, and always has been since his father first knew the district some seventy years ago.”
The custom apparently continued until the 1940s, indeed a visitor in the 1920s noted that even the trunks were covered with longer pieces of rag. A picture in Healy (1995) shows a number of rags on the bushes as seen below.
It is worth noting that perhaps the presence of a large thorn perhaps suggests a great antiquity to the site The springs are still marked on the current OS map, as Healing Wells, in a small plantation, but they are, as the photo shows, only marked by circular indentations in the ground, the first spring being the easier to trace and appears to have holes, although these may be made by animals.
The springs are now quite dry, perhaps that the clogging of the springs noted above continued as the springs were forgotten, resulting in the current situation. Lying around the springs are a range of metal buckets in various stages of decay and some metal pieces which may be remains of a metal fence around it. I was unable to find any sign of rags although the man I asked in the whereabouts referred to them as the ragged springs. So there name maybe remembered even if the custom has long since been forgotten.
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
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.
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.”
Sacred springs of the Zorastrians
Kazakstan is a mysterious country for many reasons, one being shrine is in the village of Kentau, here is the Zhilagan-Ata or the the Crying Grandfather. This spring is only said to flow for the pure of heart and that if you are not pure no water will be forthcoming.
One of the most holy places of the Zoroastrians is Pie- e- Sabz, a mountain shrine. A local legend tells that Nikbanoo, daughter of Emperor Yazdgird III was being chased by the conquering Arab army and reached he prayed to Ahura Mazda to save her at which case the mountain opened up. At the same time a spring arose which flows from the towering cliff called Chak Chak which in Persian means drop drop. This spring is said to be the tears of the mountain crying for Nikbanoo. Beside the spring is ancient tree which arose from Nikbanoo’s cane, which might suggest another origin for the spring. There was also said to be a cloth nearby from Nikbanoo. The shrine itself is a marble floored man-made cave with an eternal flame which has darkened the walls On the 14th-18th June the site is the goal of 1000s of bare footed Zoroastrians from Iran, India and other countries
Hot springs – sacred springs to spas
Hot springs are found in the mountainous regions and indeed appear to attract a mystical belief. Alex Lee explains on the website of Kazakh culture, Edgekz, a familiar tradition to readers of this blog:
“Springs are sources of healing and spirituality in many cultures, and near Kazakhstan’s hot and cold springs, you can still see ribbons tied to trees, which locals have tied there when they make wishes on the magical waters.”
The laying of ribbons being a custom widespread across England and in Europe. One of the most famed of these hot springs is Rakhmanovsky Springs, a remote spring though to relieve pain, improve heart and circulatory problems and even slow aging and help regeneration. The reason for the later belief may derive from a local story linked to its discovery. This is named after a local hunter who discovered the spring following a wounded deer. Being ready to finish it off he watched amazed as the fatally wounded animal lay in the hot waters and was apparently healed, running away from the hunter unharmed. Understandably amazed by what he saw he did not shoot it but told the locals of what he saw.
Other springs in the country are famed for hydrocarbonate and sulphate waters as well as silica, bromide, iodine and even Radon. The east of Kazakhstan boasts thermal hot springs with sulphate and hydrocarbonate waters. Additionally, Kazakhstan offers silicic water springs, as well as bromide and iodine waters. Bromide water calms one’s nerve system and also has anti-inflammatory effects, while iodine is considered helpful for gastrointestinal tract diseases with atherosclerosis and thyroid dysfunction.
Perhaps the most established is the Alma Arasan hot spring established as a spa in 1886 for rheumatism, metabolic disease, blood problems with over 2000 patients seeking its waters a year. These waters have a temperature 35-7 C and said to be radioactive much like the Pyrenean Aix Les Bains. This might explain why it is claimed that those poisoned by heavy metals such as lead will get cured.
This is one of a large number of such springs which await any healing water pilgrim in this country.