Category Archives: Votive
“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”
John Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:
|“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,
When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus
Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
And move with vigorous feet.”
Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However, as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.
The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.
Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous
Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .
However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed! Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!
The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.
Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!
Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.
In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure. The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.
Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
Very honoured this month to have a guest blog article by Father John Musthers, author of a new book on Cumbrian holy wells – a poorly studied area – his book will be reviewed here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/. Below is a brief biography
After a full life of Christian service, Fr John moved to Keswick, from the south coast, with his wife Jenny in 2007. They immediately found enough people to start an Orthodox parish and he was ordained priest in 2008. The parish serves the whole of Cumbria and beyond and was granted the use of Braithwaite Methodist Church in 2009. There is an Orthodox liturgy in English every Sunday at 10.30 followed by food and time together for much of the afternoon. We welcome young families and children. The parish is thriving and is becoming known for its energy, warmth, and welcome. Fr John is a keen observer of the continuity between the early church in the British Isles and coming of Orthodoxy to Britain again in recent times. His passion is the traditon of lived holiness down the ages. He has written a book about the saints and their relevance today. He has extensively explored ancient Christian sites in the UK and Ireland. His latest interest has been the Holy Wels of North Cumbria.
My introduction to holy wells came about in Ireland. I had some free time over there so I went to look for holy sites. This was a jaw dropping experience to find much of Ireland’s rich heritage of monasteries, churches, holy wells and more. With my wife we journeyed all over, in time visiting most of Ireland twice. Ireland is reputed to have had 3000 wells. We saw many big ones, little ones, nice ones, and spooky ones. My favourite is at Kyle in Co Tipperary. It is well off the beaten track. You have to negotiate a bull, water that bubbles, trees with clouties, and under the trees many crosses from a mysterious unknown monastery.
Back home in Cumbria we started to notice wells until it got to the point where we knew of at least 70 – many more than earlier tallies. So we felt people ought to know. We have published ‘Springs of Living Water’, in paperback and hardback. The hardback came out expensive, but I believe it to be a gem.
St Helen’s, Great Asby, is the well with the best flow of water. St Michael’s, Arthuret, is a big well and a very old one. St Andrews, Kirkandrewes, (on the front cover) has outlived its church but still makes a pretty flow of water by the footpath down past the churchyard. The most popular of wells is lkely to be that at Caldbeck on the riverbank behind the church.
I always like to find those difficult to discover: St Michael’s, once of Addingham, now in Lazonby, has to be another favourite with loads of atmosphere underneath trees, rather like Powdonnet well in Morland; St Catherines in a remote spot near Boot in Eskdale; the well at Staffield is little known, hidden away in the middle of a very very large field. In this category also must come the well in the bottom of Schawk quarry which had a history going back to Roman times. Many places have lost their wells and are known only by name: but there is one almost perfect well – Grange Hall in Great Asby with its canopy still in place.
What’s it all about? We don’t get very far without facing the deeper questions. Where do they come from? What are they for? Where do we come in the scale of history? It is a wise man who does not jump in too quickly to answer these questions. But here are some thoughts and reflections.
Human beings have to drink and wash from time to time. Our ancestors valued wells, streams and rivers because of this practical need of water. But such is the ‘magic’ of water they, like us, reflected on the matter and noticed how some wells had something more: a sense of mystery, a sense of awe, a sense of the ‘holy’. We need not doubt this for we can feel it too. In this context the leaving of a gift is a natural thing to do. We all have our explanations. We do not have to be condescending. We only need to sit at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Keswick to realise this magnificent piece of work is a testimony to man’s consumng search for the spiritual, the divine, for ‘God’.
Kneeling by the pool of water at Kyle we become aware of the bubbles coming up through the limestone. Instantly comes to mind the cripple at the Pool of Siloam who, when the pool was disturbed, could get no one to take him to the water. Here was a connection across 2000 years, between an event in Jerusalem to a moment in Kyle, of revelation, of meaning, of healing, if you believe it. Could not the Celt have made the same connection?
Would he not believe he had found a greater salvation?
Just up the road from our house is Crosthwaite parish church. Here, in a likely tale told by an Englishman called Bede, about the itinerant bishop St Kentigern (I prefer the more intimate name of Mungo, ‘my dear one’) who placed his cross in a clearing and began to speak. From all accounts (as shown in the contemporary Life of St Cuthbert) there were many in those days who were thirsty. They went down into the pool, or stream or river and were baptised. Seek out the old British churches, of which there are several in north Cumbria, and look for the water. I guarantee you will find it.
The water was blessed, the water was used again and again. The faithful built little churches by the spot or even over it. They remembered the day when the Saint had visited them. They remembered the name of Christ and the name of the Trinity, though in some places it didn’t catch on and people went on in their old convictions. The Christian felt connected to the saint even when, as they believed, he went from them and was alive with Christ in heaven; and they found he still prayed for them.
Christ, the Church, the saints, the wells and baptism were the foundation of a new culture. Holy Wells flourished and abounded. If we go anywhere in Wales or Cornwall we will be astonished by their number. The large wall map on my wall of Cumbria tells the same story.
As we all know they came under attack, many were destroyed, left to neglect. For a long time people remembered the old places. They still went on the Saints days to trade their wares, to enjoy the entertainments and went home grateful for another ‘holi-day’ temporarily lifting the heavy burden of life long ago.
Some wells got a new lease of life by the Spas when the cultured ‘took the waters’. Cumbria has many of them. Now people go to them for a nice weekend, and the well is, if anything, just a curiosity.
Our church in Braithwaite has started to bless the waters again; and new believers plunge into the cold waters of the beck. We have a large container of blessed water inside the church for use on local saints days, of St Bega, St Mungo, St Cuthbert and St Herbert. We also bless our homes with the water.
In effect, we have made a new holy well!
It can be purchased now follow the link
Springs of Living Waters
It is pleasing to say that this bi-monthly guest blog post is from Noel French, author of the Holy Wells of Meath, an excellent book on the county’s holy wells.
The introduction is from his book and attached are some very interesting notes of the wells dedicated to St. Patrick. Images copyright noël French
A holy well is a source of water where there is a tradition of veneration or has a religious dedication. They are sacred sites. There are many holy wells in Meath, a good number of them still having a regular pattern or pilgrimage. I have recorded more than one hundred and thirty holy wells and sacred places in the county. Many wells are located in secluded and beautiful areas, well away from the madding crowds of modern life.
Wells had both material and spiritual importance to our ancestors. Water is a basic necessity and while today water is on tap it was not so for our ancestors. My mother had to obtain water from a well for the first five years of her marriage until electricity arrived. Our ancestors made sources of good clean water holy and these wells had to be respected. If something untoward was done to the well it might move.
Holy wells acquire their spiritual importance not only from current and recent worship but also from the pilgrimages made to the wells year after year by generation after generation of ordinary people. These wells have a strong connection to our Faith. Pilgrimages, patterns and holy well are an important part of our heritage.
Holy wells are visited at special times of the year usually on the patron’s day but also on days connected to the major Celtic festivals, in particular the Lughnasa festival in August. This suggests the pre-Christian origin of many of these wells. With the arrival of Christianity the wells were re-dedicated and their water used for baptism and for curing people’s ills. Many Meath wells are dedicated to St. Patrick but many are also dedicated to the other two great Irish saints, Brigid and Colmcille. Many parochial saints had wells dedicated to their honour.
The holy wells were believed to be places of cures, with different wells having unique healing properties. Drinking from one well would restore sight to the blind or cure a headache or bathing in the stream of another would cure ague. In almost all cases, rituals were required in order for the healing to occur.
Visitors to the wells said certain prayers and followed a defined route at the well. The rounds were always made to the right, in a clockwise direction. Patterns involved saying the Stations at the well but there was also a social side of the celebrations and in many cases these non-religious aspects led to the festivities being prohibited by the Church. In the light of opposition by the government, the established church, the Catholic Church, it is somewhat surprising that so many wells have survived and are treasured by their adherents. Holy wells have endured because they were regarded as sacred places by the community.
The wells do not exist alone; they are often associated with a tree and or a stone. The most common trees are hawthorn, ash or oak. The tree may represent the timber of the Cross and the Crucifixion and trees were also worshipped by the Celts. The trees are usually festooned by offerings of rags or ribbons. Leaving votive offerings such as cloth or pins was a common custom and still survives at many of the wells today. This tradition is associated with wells in other countries throughout Europe and western Asia.
The stones at the wells often bear the mark of the patron saint’s knees, fingers, thumb or some other bodily part. Many wells are said to contain a sacred trout.
Many holy wells have slipped into obscurity, having been ploughed over, clogged with rubble, overgrown, or fallen victim to natural erosion. They continue to be lost to farming, drainage work, development or neglect.
The Meath Archaeological Survey does not mention holy wells. There are only three wells protected in the County Development Plan: St. Colmcille’s, Kells, St. Brigid’s, Ardsallagh and Tober Rua, Moymet. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in holy wells and a number have been restored.
The earliest reference to a holy well in Meath is that of St. Patrick’s nephew, Loman, baptising a chieftain’s son at Trim in the fifth century but the well tradition stretches further back to the story of the origin of the Boyne River at Trinity Well. The wells recorded in my Meath book are usually holy wells or have cures associated with them.
St. Patrick’s Wells
There are many wells dedicated to St. Patrick in Meath. The saint’s journey from the sea to Slane, from Slane to Tara and onto Trim may be traced through the occurrence of major and smaller wells. There are also wells dedicated to the saint dotted throughout the rest of the county, each recalling a similar story of how Patrick and his followers became thirsty and the saint struck a rock and fresh cool spring came forth. Many of the wells also have stones marked by the saint’s knees, fingers or handprint.
St. Patrick’s Well (above) is located on the Green at Carlanstown, opposite the National School. The well is recorded on the OS maps from the 1830s. The well is covered by chiselled blocks of granite, forming a dome, and the stones placed so as to form a cross at the centre. Cogan noted the well in the 1860s.
St. Patrick blessed the well at Carlanstown on his journey from Meath to Cavan. The water is cold in winter and in summer. There was a red coloured flagstone in the well and it is said that St. Patrick cut his foot on a stone and this is where the red colour comes from. On another stone there are two tiny holes, one is where the holy man stuck his thumb and the other is where he put his big toe.
There was a story relating to the well recorded in Jack Fitzsimon’s ‘The parish of Kilbeg.’ A Tipperary jobber attended Carlanstown fair, regularly buying and selling cattle. He missed the fairs for a year and was asked why when he returned. He explained he had lost a large amount of money at the previous fair. Having sold cattle he had the sum of 20 sovereigns and placed them on the wall near the well and forgot about them. When he tried to locate his money he could not. Not having the necessary finances to continue to trade he had to leave the profession for a year to raise funds. The jobber showed his audience where he had placed the money at the well. To his and their surprise there were the twenty sovereigns on the wall exactly where he had left them a year earlier.
The well at Shancor (below), Kilmainhamwood, has a number of names and dedications. The well is also known as Kilfannin Well. The well is situated in a beautiful valley on the side of a glen. A tiny waterfall runs near the well and is marked ‘St. Patrick’s Cascade’ on the OS maps. About one mile along the Glen Road on the Bailieborough road from Kilmainhamwood, the well was the scene of a pilgrimage and pattern each year on the first Sunday of August. There was an altar erected near the well. St. Patrick said Mass at the rock near the well. This was also described as a Mass Rock from the Penal Days. There was a prophecy “that the wagons of war would pass by within a pistol shot of the holy well.” This prophecy was deemed fulfilled when lorries of Black and Tans travelled on the nearby road night and day during the Troubles.
At Mosney there is a well dedicated to St. Patrick, one kilometre north of Ben Head. A natural spring, St. Patrick’s Well, is just east of the railway embankment about one hundred metres south of Mosney railway station and on the foreshore of the sea.
In the 1830s John O’Donovan recorded that Julianstown had its pattern day each year on 8 September. The procession began at Moorechurch, passing through Keenogue Cross, Moymurthy and Sarsfield Cross to St. Patrick’s Well. The pattern was last held in 1912.
When St. Patrick was travelling from the mouth of the Delvin River to Tara he dispatched his boats by sea from the Delvin to the Boyne and he himself travelled overland. Between Laytown and Gormanston the saint met a young man named Benignus. The young man fell at the saint’s feet and begged Patrick for permission to be allowed to follow him. St. Patrick baptised Benignus at the well now known as St. Patrick’s Well. Ben Head between Laytown and Gormanston is said to be named after St. Benignus. St. Benignus was the son of the High King of Ireland and later became Archbishop of Armagh and Archbishop of all Ireland. St. Patrick is the patron saint of the parish of Stamullen. The railway bridge near the well is called Peterswell Bridge but there is no record of a well dedicated to St. Peter. St. Peter’s Chapel was in the nearby townland of Irishtown.
Oldcastle and surrounding area
Although the parish of Oldcastle is dedicated to St. Brigid, the main holy well in the parish is devoted to St. Patrick. The well is recorded as far back as the 1830s and was still being visited in the 1960s. St. Patrick’s Well is situated in a secluded valley in the townland of Boolies. A nearby house is named Patrickswell House and is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. The field in which the well is to be found is called the ‘Door field’. The adjoining field was called Church field and there was a local tradition that there was a church there but no traces remain. Sir William Petty’s map of Meath in the 1660s shows the townland of Boolies and the neighbouring area is labelled Tibber Patrick with the well indicated..
It is said that one night Patrick slept close to this well. While he was sleeping a man came and stole his shoes. The man had no luck during the rest of his life. Another story provided by the School’s Folklore collection said that the day St. Patrick was passing this well on his horse, the horse got thirsty so Patrick brought him over to the well, and the horse knelt down on one of the stones to take a drink. The track of the horse’s knees is still to be seen in the stone. A toothache might be cured by rubbing the stone against your face. People suffering from stomach trouble or morning sickness drink water from St. Patrick’s Well and are cured.
The Hill of Slane is the traditional site for the lighting of the Pascal fire by St. Patrick. In the 1830s John O’Donovan recorded the presence of St. Patrick’s Well midway between the ruins of the seminary and the ruined church. This well had stonework as high as the surface of the ground and was called Tobar Patrick. Its waters ran dry every summer.
A stone covered well (above) stands by the roadside on the eastern slopes of Hill of Tara. This well is one of the sources for the Gabhra stream. The well recently named St. Patrick’s Well was originally a pagan well.
One of the earliest recorded wells in Meath is the one used by St. Loman to baptise Foirtchern at the Ford of Trim in the fifth century. According to the Book of Armagh, which was completed in the ninth century, a well opened in Trim so that St. Loman could baptise Foirtchern. This well was named after Loman’s uncle, St. Patrick.
Today there is a well dedicated to St. Patrick on the banks of the river Boyne upstream from the town of Trim. It is said that the well was originally in the middle of the large field on the Kildalkey Road but that soldier’s wives washed clothes in the waters and the well disappeared only to spring forth near the river. The well had the cure of the headache and pilgrims left behind a piece of cloth on the thorn bush over the well. Sr. Assumpta revived the pilgrimage to the well in 1995 and since that year an annual ecumenical pilgrimage takes place at 12 noon on St. Patrick’s Day.
Happy slightly belated St. Patrick’s Day to everyone – there are two type of people in the world on March 17th – those who are Irish and those who wish they were Irish!
More can be read in Meath Holy Wells by Noel French available from the author. A review is here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/
For the last twelve months I have been cataloguing some of the rich sacred spring heritage of Sardinia. For the final post, perhaps the most fascinating sacred spring site has been saved until last!
For buried beneath a fairly ordinary Sardinian church is a unique marvel – an incredible relic of ancient times and a testament to the continuation of tradition and spirituality. For 1000s of years, generations of Sardinians – whether Nuraghic, Roman, Punic, Islamic or Christian have worship here at the sacred spring.
The site is in a remote place – remote in every sense – geographically, culturally and of course historically.
The village of San Salvatore is a typical example of a temporary religious centre, such as we discussed at Santa Christina. A village of 130 houses which apart from one house the village is completely deserted centred around its church of Jesus the Saviour. So deserted in fact that I feared that the church would only be open at specific times, as my guide book suggested, but I found it was. When the church is certainly open and the village comes alive in the first Saturday of September. It is then that the village swarms with attendees of the naked foot race. This race called the Corsa degli Scalzi or Barefoot Race is said to commemorate an 1506 Arab pirate attack that forced nearby town of Cabras to run to San Salvatore to hide their Saviour’s statue. The local faithful still run this dirt track in their white tunics and stone torn feet.
It is very tempting and indeed it is likely that this ritual arose from some ancient practice at the site. This is especially considering the autumnal date of the custom which would tie in with harvest festivities which certainly were celebrated by ancient civilisations. Essentially considering the name Saviour is the same as Sin Salvatore’s church. Is this some ancient processional ceremony to celebrate the harvest?
The site today
Arriving at the church, it is a fairly typical whitewashed Italian church. Not remarkable but pleasing to the eye, a simple two aisles divided by pillars. The only clue to anything unusual is that it is arranged in an unusual orientation. This is a clue to what lies within as its arrangement was presumably done to enclosure the original sanctuary.
It is this sanctuary that we have come here to see. A rectangular hatch in the floor opens up to reveal a step set of stone steps into a dug out chamber, made of sandstone and brick faced with cement – a hypogeum – not the only one in Sardinia but unique in what we find within.
The steps lead us to three separate chambers set off a central room in essence a cross arrangement. The shapes of the chambers with their dome roofs suggest partly a Roman origin. However, it is thought that the construction of the church may have removed any firm evidence.
The central chamber is dominated by a large square well, now dry. Originally this well’s water was obtainable from the church above by an aperture now closed up. The furthest chamber is the most interesting and looks like the most significant religiously. Here is found a small table altar, a semi-circular drainage hole and circular well shaft. It is this well which is believed to be the original nuraghic site, although the evidence is scant. There is certainly no lack of evidence for its usage. This evidence being on the amazingly preserved drawings or graffitos on the walls around the chamber. The wells were dry in August but that is probably significant I could not confirm it but I would reckon that the spring was flowing in September at the time of the festival.
The site was probably a baptistery, and the dedication of the church to Jesus may well suggest this, but it is also possible that the hypogeum was the shrine of some saint. There is support for this for in Mamertina prison, a healing well was said to have used by Saints Peter and Paul, the water of which came from the catacombs of St Elena. Early baptisteries were incorporated into church and it was only after the risk of persecution was lifted that they became separate buildings.
Father Aleu, in his Successos Generales de laisla de SardeIra” (Avvenimenti generali della isola di Sardegna), sud- isla de SardeIra (Events General of the island of Sardinia) is one of the first to describe in the 1684:
“San Salvador, whose church remains until now, and has an underground until now, and has an underground chapel in the form of sanctuary, and in the area above the ground you can see the ruins of brick and cloisters, which document the existence of a Monastery.”
“Vi era un altro insediamento-scrive Fra Alèu nel 1684-non lonta- This monastery is thought to date from 1070 and suggests an importance to the settlement long since past. However, dig beneath the surface and this history is indeed very ancient. Near the village itself are Roman remains. It is en route to the city of Tharros and along the Sinis lagoon are Neolithic towns. The presence of Neolithic towns along the banks of the lagoon Sinis have left not only obsidian tools and more significantly a Mother Goddess. Clearly a very significant location.
Once in the chamber one is struck by the otherworldly nature. Sardinia has many great relics. Indeed its domus tombs are amongst the most awe inspiring. However, there is something more atmospheric about this site. Part of this is due to the artwork and inscriptions – graffiti – from over the ages on the walls.
These inscriptions span the centuries from 16th century back to Roman. Drawn in charcoal for the most part, although some have traces of colour, probably ochre, they are Arabic, Latin and Greek in origin. Inscriptions some of scripture, some harder to decipher, animals, deities and various scenes, laying upon each other in a confused manner, even modern graffiti. Like many places more recent visitors have made themselves known such as a Fin Salvatore in 1920 which is on the central well. These modern inscriptions sit with older Latin writings from the fourth and fifth century AD although deciphering them is now difficult. It is possible that these and the Greek letters represent some sacred alphabet perhaps a magical incarnation or spell. This may explain the appearance of RF written eight times on the walls. One interpretation maybe that this is someones’s name – Rufus – another that it may derive from a Semitic prayer barb-pe-aleph (ip ‘), meaning ‘heal, save, give health.’ And may have been associated with the use of the well water.
Those who visit churches will be familiar with bosses, poppyheads and misericords showing strange animals often personifying human evils. It is probable that some of these images fulfil the same function. For on the walls are geese, dogs, and large cats. More interesting and again emphasising its classical origin there is a winged horse probably Pegasus and fish. Fish of course represent a secret code for Christians and their presence on the wall must be seen as significant. It emphasises the chambers use as a secret place of worship. Although one might question why did these early Christians not remove the signs of pagans – perhaps like in many other places they were attempting to assimilate not destroy signs of earlier worship.
Another possible link with the well is the presence of ships. Some of these are of local, fassoni reed boars, and possible ancient origin. Others are three mast ships, a feature which does not belong to the ancient world, but is rather typical of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. So why are they here?
It is probable that the ships were part of some long held ritual here. Boat images are quite regularly found in the nuraghic settlements as votive offerings and it is tempting to think that these drawings are part of a continuation of this. Particularly as one shows a human figure with their arms raised to the sky presumably as prayer. Were these drawings part of a long lost tradition of going votives to a sea deity perhaps linked to the waters of the well, which may have due to the proximity of the lagoons be saline? What is also interesting is that tradition may have connections to the Greek graffiti here – the Island of Delos – where God was born and ships shipwrecked. The fact that this tradition survived possibly from prehistoric times is remarkable.
Greek iconography is very evident in the shrine. Two particular deities are present – Hercules strangling the Nemean lion. This image is particularly interesting considering the role the cult of Hercules had in the late period of the Roman empire when he vied for religious dominance against Christianity, Mithrasm and other cults. However again, Hercules was adopted by the early Christians as a metaphor. His many labours recognised as a divine struggle akin to that central to the story of Jesus and indeed he was often called Soter – the Savior. The dedication of the current church may possibly be a link to another association preserved from ancient times.
The most remarkable graffiti is that of two female figures standalone, with corona radiata on their head: identifying them as a deity. Over their heads of the figures they are painted their names: VENVS and MVRS – Venus and Mars. Above them is a winged cupid with AMOR. As a result the interpretation of this scene is the love affair of Venus and Mars. One which was particularly significant in the political and religious life of Rome: The city founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to be the children of Mars and descendent from Aeneas, a descendent of Venus. What is interesting again is the context Venus was another cult, popular at the times of emergent Christianity, and its survival here like Hercules is perhaps an attempt to adopt it perhaps as Mary.
However, there is something more significant in line with the spring arising here. The appearance of the Venus is akin to that of a water spirit and indeed, Venus was a Goddess associated with water – being associated with the waves and the morning dew.
Move forward the centuries to the Arabic inscription in the third room, which reads translated as:
“In the name of God the merciful and gracious. There is no God except Allah …. and that Muhammad. It testifies that heaven actually exists and Hell really exists.”
This may date from 1509 a time when the Sardinian coast was subject to many Arab incursions and a landing occurred not far away at Cabras. The presence of the inscription may be due to the site being used as refuge or maybe a prison!
There is so much to observe in these four small chambers remote from the outside world. However what is clear that they remain a rare relic from an ancient time and a fascinating testament to how the faiths through the millennia had one central theme – the sanctity of water.
In my regular posts this year on the incredible prehistoric sacred spring history of Sardinia, I have referred to votive offerings the bronzetti and other votive offerings. I thought it would be worth a brief post examining these structures.
The range of votive offerings
A votive offering is an object given to a religious site for ritual purpose in hope of some intercession from a spiritual figure.
At thirty three pozzo sacro temple sites votive objects have been found out of seventy-five known sites. Of course all sites could have had such deposits and were lost as the sites were either robbed or converted to other uses. What is interested is the range of objects, some appear to have a direct link to the temple others more circumstantially linked. Many are linked to a cult usage of the site and probably represent worship at the site. Others appear are presumably linked to economic concerns, such as those upholding bread – although this could be considered sacred bread – or private or even military concerns. In many ways these objects reflect similar themes to those in British sites. However the bronzetti are the most curious.
What is a bronzetti?
Around 500 of these curious figures have been excavated. They are found in association with a number of sites across Sardinia, but particularly the Pozzo Sacro. The bronzetti are small bronze statuettes which greatly vary greatly in their appearance using being around 40 cm high but representing animals, ships and divinities. They were made via lost wax casting, a technique used by a number of ancient civilizations.
How were they found?
The bronzettis are associated with Bronze Age and early Iron Age sites, the Nuragic culture, dating from the ninth century BC and the sixth century BC, particularly the pozzo sacro and the megaron temples.
What were they for?
Unfortunately the Nuragic community left no written record so the usage of these votive objects can only be surmised. Niches are found in a number of pozzos and it is thought such figures were placed in these – similar to the placing of deities and saints in niches in modern religions. One of the most curious is that of Sa Testa, a wooden figure, perhaps the precursor of the bronzetti and similar in ways to the Dagenham idol in some ways. One particularly common bronzetti is a cloaked figure representing, it is thought, a priest. Alternatively the figure may represent a spirit of the spring.
Bulls are also found at sites. Horned creatures resonate around the prehistoric civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Nuragic communities were no different. A bull figure is associated with Predio Canopoli. The goat as noted at Sa sedda sos carros was clearly a sacred animal and indeed bronzetti showing a lamb being carried on a person’s back such as Santa Vittoria or lead on a leash at Serra Niedda do indicate animals being prepared for slaughter. These finds appear to link to the idea of animal sacrifice and indeed burnt bone fragments have been found at a number of Nuragic pozzo sacro sites.
Ships laden with soldiers are widely found as bronzetti figures and may have been given to ask for success in local conflicts or otherwise may represent the passing of the congregation into a watery afterlife. Perhaps the most curious is the finding of weapons and everyday objects. Weapons may have been deposited like those found in British sacred sites such as those inserted into the top of Su Tempiesu coping stones. However, the finding of some objects is more problematic. Such as stone hammers. Were they accidentally dropped by the masons of the well or given there to say thanks and offer protection to the structure? It is curiosities like this which make Sardinia’s sacred spring sites a fascinating subject.
Some excellent photos on this site and brilliant information on Sardinia generally http://www.neroargento.com/page_galle/bronzetti_gallery.htm