Madron Well: ‘the Mother Well’
by Chesca Potter
Whilst on holiday in Cornwall, at Penzance, I visited Madron Well, West Penwith, which was listed in Source 3 (First Series). I caught the bus from Penzance to Madron and walked the half mile distance to the well. It is reached along an unspoilt and ancient path, lined with blackthorn and hawthorn. It was like stepping back thousands of years, into a secret corner of nature, that, so far, has been preserved from the destructive onslaught of modern agriculture.
The path leads to a fork, the well on the left, the baptistry on the right. We walked through the old gnarled wood to the well, along very muddy ground. The well is circular and stone lined, with rags and tissues hung from the trees around it. The wood seemed alive, yet silent except for a wren.
There is ridiculous confusion over the dedication of the well to Madron; ‘Madron is the mother church to Penzance and is dedicated to the Irish Medrhan or Maternus…Others say he was a priest from Brittany commemorated as Paternus. The alleged date of his death is June 20th.’ . So the well and area was originally dedicated to the Mother, (i.e. lat. Maternus). Modron means ‘Mother’ in Old Celtic. Then there must have been an attempt to suppress the feminine aspect, hence the legend about ‘Paternus’, just meaning father. His death is June 20th because as a solar representative he dies with the sun, at the Summer Solstice.
The name Modron is used in Celtic mythology in a specific sense. It does not mean Mother as most of us think of her. Modron is Mother of the ‘virgin’, or maiden. Modron is the earth mother, sometimes depicted as a Black Goddess/Madonna, black being the symbolic colour of earth, the underworld and death. The Mother represents the dark or waning moon, and her daughter, the bride or virgin is the new and waxing moon . This female polarity is a more ancient division of the aspects of the Goddess than the later maiden, mother, hag.
This dual aspect of the Goddess passed over very clearly into Christianity. St Anne is the Mother of the Virgin, who in turn is the Mother of the son or sun. There are many St Anne or ‘tan’ wells, which represent a different aspect to the numerous wells dedicated to the Virgin, (i.e. St Mary, St Bride or St Helen).
St Anne is also a Christianisation of Black Annis, for the Mother is also the Witch. This came out in the spontaneous, strong images which arose whilst at Madron Well. There were a black cat, a crow’s foot (the ‘witches’ mark’), and a three-headed raven, presumably symbolic of Hecate, called ‘Witch of the Three Ways’.
If you leave the well, and return to the fork in the path, you can then take the right hand path to the Baptistry, a small ruined medieval chapel, and the most pagan Christian building I had ever entered. The only entrance was in the North wall. Usually churches block up or never build a North door because that is the direction from which ‘pagan deities’ and ‘nature forces’ enter.
The altar, as usual, was in the East, yet was just a huge slab of stone. Water flowed along the whole of the West wall. In one corner a spring ran into a stone basin, from which a channel flowed along the wall. Water is the element of the Western quarter in all Western magic, and in churches the font is in the West. There is no roof on the baptistry now, and tall, old trees lean over the chapel.
The ancient ‘green’ pathway, the unspoilt woodland, the exuberance of the well spring, made this a place for the maiden, also the Goddess of nature, to ‘inhabit’. This seemed to be a place for virgin and ‘sun’, as though all aspects were to be represented, at the two wells.
By chance, I was at the wells on Old Midsummer Eve, June 23rd. This is also called St John’s Eve, or St Helen’s Eve. St John (the Baptist) represents the new born sun at Midsummer . St Helen, the ‘virgin’ nature Goddess. Baptistries owe their function, some may say, to John the Baptist. Perhaps John (the sun) is reborn symbolically from water/maiden at Midsummer.
I feel it is important to appreciate the meaning of the wells’ aspect. By being in harmony with this, at the right times of the year, the wells are kept alive and part of their original function fulfilled.
|1.||Meyrick, J., (1982); A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall, privately published.|
|2.||The archetypal meanings of Modron have been well researched by Caitlin Matthews for her forthcoming Arkana publication on the Mabinogion.|
|3.||A. Collins, The Knights of Danbury (Earthquest Books, 1985) discusses this.|
Text © Chesca Potter (1986)
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