St Mungo’s Well and ‘Devil’s Stone’ Copgrove

by Ian Taylor

I read with interest the article by P.D. Hartley on the Copgrove holy well (Source (First Series) issue 4) and decided, with my wife, and Edna Whelan, to visit the area and see both the well and the ‘Devil’s Stone’. The Holy Well (described as St Monagh’s Well on the l:25 000 Ordnance Survey map – SE 3470 6378) is upon a public footpath which runs from Copgrove village (but is unsignposted) through the fields belonging to Copgrove Hall. The Well is, in fact, a very large chamber or cistern which has been let into the course of an underground stream. It is covered today by a padlocked wooden top, so a full inspection was not possible, but water could be heard flowing strongly through what sounded from the echo like a fairly empty receptacle. The chamber would, therefore, be useable again as a sacred healing bathing place if some future owner of the site wished to make it available. The site is enclosed by a wooden fence. The Well House, named on the O.S. map in the vicinity of the Holy Well, has presumably been destroyed as there is no trace of this structure left.

The Devil’s Stone is located on the north-east corner of the church of St Michael, Copgrove, about 500 yards south of the Well. The stone, with its interesting carving, used to be inside the church either against or within the north wall of the chancel but, during nineteenth century restoration, it was placed in its present external position where weathering will eventually erode it completely. The figure on the stone has been identified as, and certainly has all the features of, a Sheela-na-gig; the Celtic Goddess of Creation and Destruction. We took a very careful rubbing of the Copgrove carving which shows the figure holding her vagina open with her left hand, while in her right is an object which, as P.D. Hartley suggests, looks suspiciously like a head. What may be a ritual beheading axe appears to one side of the figure – though the official interpretation of this is a Tau Cross. In this Copgrove variant of the Sheela-na-gig, the Celtic beheading cult may be represented, symbolising more than simply the return of all life to the Otherworld womb of the Universal Mother; one aspect of the figure could be that the head is about to be thrust back inside the vagina, from which its life had originally emerged.

There may be an interesting relationship here with the Celtic custom of associating carved stone heads with holy wells – for instance at St Helen’s Well, Eshton (see Source (First Series) issue 5) where the carved heads are under the water, or at the Well of the Heads at Invergarry, and elsewhere, where heads are part of the Well House architecture. This custom, possibly hinted at by the Copgrove carving, may depict the rite of the creation of a Guardian; the ritual beheading and the subsequent capturing of the spirit of the victim within the human energy field of the carved stone head, which is then placed at or within the well. This Guardian entity is thus held ‘between the worlds’ at the Otherworld ‘gateway’ of the sacred waters of the Goddess – the Holy Well. The placing of real human heads within the pillars or door posts of Gallic temples in southern France has been noted, and this custom may have been more widespread than archaeological evidence (quite inadequate in this context) would seem to imply.

Alternatively, it may be that the object in the right hand of the figure is not a head but a cauldron. This possibility is echoed in the name of Copgrove itself; cupa = cup (Gaelic) – a chalice or Grail and symbol of regeneration, like the womb of the Great Mother, portrayed in the figure of the Sheela-na-gig. The cauldron also connects with the Copgrove Holy Well, which has evidently always been a large bath type of receptacle, presumably for total immersion of the body. This is, maintaining the Celtic link, a graphic representation of the cauldron of Ceridwen, perhaps itself originally a holy well of inspiration and regeneration – the water being the channel, or medium through which these Otherworld powers were expressed in physical creation. Dr Ellison, quoted by Reverend Major in Memorials of Copgrove states that the sick had to be dipped five, seven or nine times in the holy well in June or July and that ‘the officious women at the Well are active in rubbing their backs or their maimed parts’. The doctor’s observation was made in 1700, so we have here a graphic example of the survival of ancient, Pagan, customs in post-Parliamentarian (but pre-Enclosure) England.

The Celtic association with Sheela-na-gig figures obviously dates, at Copgrove, from the pre-Saxon period, and the Devil’s Stone has been identified as Romano-British. A few place-names in the area retain Celtic influence, for example Branton Court, one mile south of Copgrove, and Copt Hewick near Ripon. And, of course, Aldborough – Isurium Brigantum – is only three miles away to the north-east.


Text  © Ian Taylor (1987)

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