This month we have the letter q which restricts us to one country! Fortunately, Qater does have some historical water supplies. However details are limited and so this month is a rather shorter blog post so apologies.
In the dry terrain of Qatar water was understandably an essential resource. However, like many places modern water systems have meant that the 107 ancient wells of the country have slowly been lost and forgotten. One of the most significant is Ain Hleetan Well.
Found on the west coast of Al Khor, Ain Hleetan Well was the principle source of the Al Mahanda or Al Muhannadi tribe of the city of Al Khor settled in the 18th century. A local legend states that a group of hunters were hunting a hare and found the spring, which sounds like a classic folklore motif but details are lacking. More realistically, a new water supply was needed as the city expanded. Al Khor towers were built in 1900 to defend this well.
The water arises in a circular well head and then fills a cylindrical basin. Locally people called it the ‘Doctor’ as its water were believed to be curative according to old oral sources. Details of which are difficult to find though.
In Braga can be found a fairly unique sacred spring called the Fonte do Idolo or Fountain of the Idol. Often it is claimed that springs have a pagan origin but little evidence of it can be seen. Here is a rare example of such a site.
The fountain flows from the base of a three metres wide and 1.20 metres high granite structure upon which is a carved human figure possibly a male with a beard dressed in a toga who appears to holding some undecipherable object in ‘his’ left arm possibly a cornucopia. Above appears a Latin inscription, CEL) ICVS FRONTO / ARCOBRIGENSIS / AMBIMOGIDVS / FECIT, which can be translated by “Celico Fronto, of Arcóbriga, Ambimógido fez (this monument) and to the right of the figure is a rectangular building cut into the rock with the worn figure of a human head, crowned with a triangular pediment engraved with a dove and a packet and other Latin inscriptions are engraved into the shape’s side. At the base of this niche sprouts a small spring. .
It is the combination of the carvings and the Latin inscriptions which makes the site of significance indicating they date back to the era of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century.
What does it represent?
In 1895, archaeologist Jose Leite de Vasconcelos visited the garden where the spring was found and completed a study examining the inscriptions, although they had been encrusted in lime and deciphered the inscription to read re- TONGOE and hypothesized that the human figure on the left was the religious practitioner and the image within the structure the divinity. Now it is clear that the inscriptions read: CELICVS FECIT, which follows in the lower part of the niche : FRO (NTO), that is the name of the dedicator. To the left can read the name of a deity: TONGONABIAGOI.. In 1980-1, archaeologist Alain Tranoy examine the image and thought that the images were reversed in what they showed. Finally, António Rodríguez Colmenero firmly established the fact that it was two deities, a plural sanctuary and that it represented Tongo Nabiago and Nabia. Part of the Lusitanian divinity, that is indigenous indo-european people of western Iberia who were typically adopted by the Romans once the area was colonised. .
Of Tongo Nabiago it is clear he was a local cult and interesting his name by derive from Celtic root*tenge(o)- (Old Irish tongu “I swear”) and so he may have been associated with the swearing of oaths. This is particularly interesting as the swearing of oaths is not an unusual practice associated with springs. Nabia by comparison was part of the main pantheon and was associated with sacred springs being identified with Fortuna, Diana, Juno and Victoria being associated with health, wealth and fertility. There has been thought that near the spring was a temple associated to Nabia.
Recognition and restoration.
The site was first marked in modern time on a map of the town from 1594 by Georg Braun and by 1695 the land was owned by the vicar of Sao Joao de Casteloes suggesting it had been adopted by the Catholic church and indeed a view was that it was Bishop of Urianópolis, Alves de Figueire who made it. Its first written description was in the 18th century, when the accountant Jerónimo Contador de Argote, noted in his records that:
“behind the church of São João Marcos is a garden, that is called “Idol”, in which is located a deep spring, which has a rock, which appears to be living rock, with a figure in long robes, that is five palms [in size]: it looks like [the figure] has a long bear, and part of his body is missing; his right hand is broken and on the left the form of a envolotório, and above the head there are letters…”
Much of the writing was obscured by encrusting lime. In 1862 King Pedro V came to examine the site and it was offered as a gift by its then owner, to be placed in a museum in the grounds of Quinta dos Falcoes, but it never happened and after going through several owners in 1936, the municipal government of Braga, acquired the land surrounding the fountain and it was then transferred this title to the State the following year, with repairs in 1952 and then in 2000-2001, a modernist building was constructed over the site with interpretation signage. Its future being secured as perhaps the most important ancient healing spring from the pre-Roman period in Europe.
One of the country’s most noted healing springs is that of Rustaq. These springs are both hot springs and Sulphur waters and they have been an invaluable source of local healing and water with the settlement forming around the spring head from ancient times, the waters irrigating orchards and other crops.. The Ayn Al Kasfah, waters reach around 450C, a temperature which does not vary through the year making them particularly invaluable considering the tradition that they have never ran dry, especially important in a dry and arid environment. Peering into the spring head its waters are a remarkable mixture of yellow and turquoise towards the centre with its central hole being a darker mysterious and somewhat foreboding place.
The spring head as can be seen from the photo from http://www.omanobserver.om is surrounded by urbanisation beside a large mosque and acting much like a roundabout. It fills a large pool which is surrounded by a wall with steps down to the pool. At the source swimming is forbidden but a small distance away a channel or falaj runs away from the spring and along this are cubicles for those wishing to experience its waters.
Some curious cures
Its waters are said to cure those with cholesterol and blood pressure issues as well as help with the immunity and skin properties. It is claimed that they have some unusual properties in helping people to relax and sleep better perhaps as a consequence of the hot waters. .
The http://www.omanobserver.om note that:
“Locals of the region who have benefitted from the hot springs for generations often tell visitors about how to make best use of the springs. For those looking to heal their ailing bodies, one should gradually settle their body into the water as the high temperature often takes a little bit of time to adjust to. Since the water is fairly warm, stay in the water for short intervals of around five to nine minutes before taking a break. This should be repeated at least three times or until one feels the pains reducing or can comfortably stay in the pool for longer.”
Near destruction of the spring
Visitors are very fortunate to still be able to visit these springs for they were nearly destroyed.
Abbasid governor Muhammad bin Nur during Abbasid era of the 750-1200s a regime which resulted in much destruction locally . He attempted to fill up the spring head and damn up the falaj. It was unsuccessful as the water burst forth somewhere else around 10 metres from the original spring in the location it does today. A common holy well legend motif and one wonders whether it was another example of a legend associated with an unpopular leader! Whatever the truth, the waters of Rushtaq continue to be a wonder for the country.
At the source of the Oṣun Riveri is the Osun Shrine on the outskirts of Osogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Along the river are sculptures and sanctuaries in the last of the Yoruba’s sacred forests a site now identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The shrine is a major African pilgrimage site. The Osun/Osogbo grove is where the Osun goddess, also known as Yeye Osun or Oshun Kole resides. It is believed that the river arose when a frightened women turned into a river. The river is so named from Osun or Oshun a Orisha. Osun is a river goddess who was one of the wives of Sango who was the Yoruba God of Thunder noted for being able to give barren babies
The Oshun goddess
Described as the most complex of the Yoruba-Lukumí pantheon deities. It is believes that Oshun embodies the very substance of the water we drink with her fan abebe (deriving from the verb ‘to beg).Oshun Kole is described as:
“the gifted, beautiful, affectionate, sensual goddess of luxury, and pleasure, ruler of oceans and fresh waters…she is called the giver of life, mother of orishas, and possessor of feminine virtues; she guards women during pregnancy. Oshun walks many paths: she is given to industrious intuitions, manages finances, and loves music and dancing. As Kole Kole, Oshun represents children and the poor and needy. She typifies the ‘sensuous saint’ and controls the knowledge and art of sexuality and lovemaking in human pleasure and marriage. Legend has it that Oshun used her charm to lure Oggun out of his wild forest life into the city. She seduces other male Orisha lovers although her main consort is Shango. Ogun loves everything yellow and her ornaments and elekes (necklaces) reveal expensive tastes.”
Her association with fertility allows her to be described as the mother of many children and that barren women would visit the shrine. Due to the dispora from Nigeria travelling across the world the deity is recognised globally often associated with the Virgin Mary as in Cuba manifesting itself with their patron saint. Therefore pilgrims come from as far as Peru, USA, Brazil, Germany and the UK.
The development of the shrine
The shrine sits on the banks and is comprised of wooden deities who stare out from the inner sanctumUNESCO record that:
“A century ago there were many sacred groves in Yorubaland: every town had one. Most of these groves have now been abandoned or have shrunk to quite small areas. Osun-Osogbo, in the heart of Osogbo, the capital of Osun State, founded some 400 years ago in southwest Nigeria, at a distance of 250 km from Lagos is the largest sacred grove to have survived and one that is still revered.
The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove is some of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria. Through the forest meanders the river Osun, the spiritual abode of the river goddess Osun. Set within the forest sanctuary are forty shrines, sculptures and art works erected in honour of Osun and other Yoruba deities, many created in the past forty years, two palaces, five sacred places and nine worship points strung along the river banks with designated priests and priestesses.
The new art installed in the grove has also differentiated it from other groves: Osogbo is now unique in having a large component of 20th century sculpture created to reinforce the links between people and the Yoruba pantheon, and the way in which Yoruba towns linked their establishment and growth to the spirits of the forest.
The restoration of the grove by artists has given the grove a new importance: it has become a sacred place “
The Nigerian Bulletin records its origins:
“The origin and story of Osun festival started over 700 years ago when a group of settlers led by one great hunter, Olutimehin settled on the bank of the river to escape the famine in their former dwelling place. Osun, the water goddess was said to have appeared to Olutimehin and requested him and his group to move up some bit to higher ground – the present Osogbo town. Osun pledged to protect the group and make their women fruitful if they would offer an annual sacrifice to her in return. The group agreed, vowing to sacrifice annually to the goddess trusting that she would honour her promise. Today, the annual sacrifice has gone past just offering sacrifices to a river goddess, it has become an international celebration of cultural events attracting people from all over the world.”
Account in https://www.legit.ng/830694-the-mysterious-river-dreaded-goddess-and-all-the-unbelievable-myths-about-the-osunosogbo-shrine.html describes the ritual upon reaching the shrine:
“Before our entrance to the courtyard, the Chief priestess was seen appeasing the gods of the river.”Yeye ooo, Omi ooo,” she said in Yoruba, meaning “My mother, water” just as a way of reverencing the goddess that resides in the water. On entering the courtyard, we were made to put away our shoes as it nobody was allowed to wear shoes inside the sacred grove, as our cameras were barred from entering the Osun shrine where sacrifices and requests are being made.”
The account records that:
“During our visit, a woman and her husband were seen with the chief priestess, going towards the river to appease the goddess of many children. And after whatever sacrifice that is made to appease the goddess of the river, our correspondents gathered that nobody is allowed to look back as anyone who does will live with whatever consequences that follows”
The shrine and its waters is therefore still an important site indicating the importance of Sacred pre-Christian waters to the modern often Catholic African and South American population. It was probable that originally the shrine demands a real watery sacrifice at times and that the association with August conveniently near the feast of Mary allowed a more convenient personal sacrifice to be given. Today despite slight modernisations it is a powerful place of faith.
It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s third part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw
For Giraldus, the ebbing-and-flowing spring near Rhuddlan was a wonder of the natural world. Such watery natural wonders were a source of perennial fascination to the people of the medieval period. For example, in Wales, the “De mirabilibus Britannice insule” chapters of the early ninth-century Historia Brittonum of “Nennius” are almost entirely taken up with the anomalous behaviour of springs, lakes, and the tides (Morris 1980, 40-2, 81-3). They held an equal fascination in the Early Modern period. This fascination is clearly revealed in one of the Queries (No. XXIV) in the series of “Parochial Queries” which Edward Lhwyd printed and distributed throughout Wales c. 1695, which resulted in the priceless assemblage of information now generally known as the Parochialia. Lhwyd asked for:
An Account of the subterraneous or diving Rivers; & of such as are totally absorbed; or no where distinguishable afterwards; also of sudden Eruptions of Water, & periodical Streams. A Computation of the Number of Springs in the Parish. How near the Tops of the Hills are the highest running Springs: Or are there any in very even Plains remote from Hills? Any Fountains that ebb and flow? Waters that petrify or incrustate Wood, Moss, Leaves, &c. Medicinal Springs, or Waters of an unusual Taste, Smell, or Colour, or remarkable for their Weight or tinging the Stone or Earth whence they proceed? (Lhwyd 1909, xiii.)
Thus, it was simply as a natural wonder that writers from Humphrey Llwyd to Pennant chose to describe Ffynnon Leinw; but attitudes were beginning to change, and interests slowly to widen. In 1613 Michael Drayton (1563-1631) published the first eighteen sections (of an eventual thirty) of his epic poem Poly-Olbion, or a Chorographicall Description of all the Tracts, Rivers, Mountains, Forests, and other Parts … of Great Britaine. Mapping England and Wales with reference to their noted springs and rivers, he used this imagined framework to relate the history, real and legendary, of the two countries. In the course of this (Tenth Song, lines 132-40) he versified Humphrey Llwyd’s Commentarioli passage on the Cilcain well.
As also by thy Spring, such wonder who dost win,
That naturally remote, six British [i.e., Welsh] miles from sea,
And rising on the firm, yet in the natural day
Twice falling, twice doth fill, in most admiréd wise,
When Cynthia [the moon] from the East unto the South doth rise,
That mighty Neptune [the sea] flows, then strangely ebbs thy Well;
And when again he sinks, as strangely she doth swell;
Yet to the sacred Fount of Winifrid gives place;
Of all the Cambrian Springs of such especial grace [&c] (Hooper 1876, II, 49-50).
At the end of each Song Drayton’s friend the jurist and antiquarian John Selden (1584-1654) supplied detailed references and commentaries for the various locations, sights and wonders celebrated in the Poly-Olbion. For lines 132-8 Selden identified the well as Finon Leinw in Kilken, and referenced the accounts of Llwyd and Powel; and he further noticed the ebbing-and-flowing wells at Newton (from Stradling’s account in Camden) and Dinefwr (from Giraldus). But when he came to account for the ebbing-and-flowing phenomenon itself, he seemed to suggest – doubtless, tongue-in-cheek – that such wonders existed simply to tease the antiquarians.
Nor think I any reasons more difficult to be given, than those which are most specially hidden, and most frequently strange in particular qualities of Floods, Wells, and Springs; in which (before all other) Nature seems as if she had, for man’s wonder, affected a not intelligible variety, so different, so remote from conceit of most piercing wits; and such unlooked-for operations both of their first and second qualities (to use the School phrase of them) are in every Chronographer, Naturalist, and Historian (ib. 59).
Without a trace of humour, the “experimental philosopher” Robert Hooke, in his Micrographia of 1665, aimed to remove the very idea of certain springs as wonders altogether.
The same Spring may be fed and supplyed by divers Caverns, coming from very far distant parts of the Sea, so as that in one place be high, in another low water; and so by that means the Spring may be equally supply’d at all times. Or else the Cavern may be so straight and narrow, that the water not having so ready and free passage through it, cannot upon so short and quick mutations of pressure, be able to produce any sensible effect at such distance. Besides that, to confirm this hypothesis, there are many Examples found in Natural Historians, of Springs that do ebb and flow like the Sea: As particularly, those recorded by the Learned Camden, and after him by Speed, to be found in this Island: One of which, they relate to be on the Top of a Mountain, by the small Village Kilken in Flintshire … Which at certain times riseth and falleth after the manner of the Sea. A Second in Caermardenshire … (ut scribit Giraldus) … The Phaenomena of which two may be easily made out, by supposing the Cavern, by which they are fed, to arise from the bottom of the next Sea (Hooke 1667, 27).
He goes on to deal with the Newton well in the same manner. The age of the natural wonder was drawing to a close. The dawning, more self-consciously scientific, age was to be that so wonderfully represented by Sir Thomas Browne’s popular Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenents And commonly presumed Truths, popularly known as Vulgar Errors (1646 and many subsequent editions). This was designed, according to Browne’s modern editor Sir Geoffrey Keynes, “to combat the popularity of a large variety of erroneous beliefs” (Browne 1970, “Introduction”). In the opening words of the Pseudodoxia:
Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colourishing of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know (ib. 227).
It is interesting, not to say salutary, to recognise how very few of the learned people who wrote about Ffynnon Leinw had ever seen the well. That had probably been necessary for it to retain its natural wonder reputation; the end of the natural wonder age with the triumph of the age of the Vulgar Errors allowed other aspects of Ffynnon Leinw’s history to be brought to the fore, and a new model to be proposed – one rather closer, it may be, to the actual facts, and certainly one more in keeping with the dawning Gothick and Romantick sensibilities of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Ffynnon Leinw comes belatedly to be understood as a holy well.
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This year I will finish my book on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire a county which has been surprisingly rich in fascinating sites and last summer I had the pleasure of doing a field trip with fellow wellie and member of the Holy wells and sacred springs of Britain Facebook Group and admin of the Holy, ancient and roadside wells of Warwickshire group Steve Bladon as we explored a number of sites around Rugby. Perhaps one of the most unusual wells is found at Watergall Bridge on the outskirts of the parish is the Monk’s Well (SP 418 548).
The Monk’s Well is not marked on the map as such but its location can be surmised by the presence of a blue W above an old farm house off the A423 road. A footpath went from the road, past an old farm house and directly to the well or rather veered a little to the left but close enough to have a quick look anyway. However when we arrived there, there was no sign of a path beyond the gate. As we pondered map in hand our next move, the farmer appeared. He was curious of what we wishing to do but as soon as he learnt we were interested in the well he became very welcoming and told us about the history of his house which appeared to have been once a manor house with the remains of the walls of a very large garden being visible to the side of the house. The farmer gave us permission to explore the well; he added that he used to go down into it when he was a teenager but hadn’t looked inside for years. He knew of the legend an unusual one, and one I had not read associated with any British holy well.
A hidden well
Climbing the hill where the spring was marked on the map in blue lettering the first significant site we encountered was the large conduit house. This is a substantial brick building, an arch approximately eight metres in diameter over a large rectangular pool of clear water, 14 by 25 metres. Originally the date 1618 was over the arch but this has now been lost. It is a substantial structure.
Climbing further up to the site of a well one is greeted by a modern metal drain cover. Not very promising. But carefully lifting it a shaft can be seen. This shaft itself is remarkably well made being made of dressed stone with stones projecting out allowing someone to climb down into the well, the spring of which appears to arise around two metres into the ground.
The bottom of the well is rather unusual being about 37 metres across and again well made of dressed stone with a stone seat. The spring arises beneath a rectangular slab of stone. It is the seat which is of interest. A pipe conveys the water away to the conduit house which itself supplied the house below. The earliest record of both sites appears to be C. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land:
“About a quarter of a mile west of the house is an eminence with an irregular hollow forty yards across and oft. or 6ft. deep, in the centre of which is a singular rectangular pit lined with dressed stone, having angle stones on two sides to facilitate the descent. It is 7ft. 7inches. deep, 2ft. square at the top, and 4ft. at the bottom, where there is a stone trough through which the water flows from a spring in the hill above.”
A Monk’s penance
As stated the seat if on interest for an oral tradition records that the monks inhabited the nearby manor house and were sent down into the well as a form of penance explaining the seat. An unusual form of penance but in line with other traditions perhaps of immurement. Evidence for the tradition that transgressing monks were somehow incarcerated in walls is scant however a discovery of a skeleton found with a book and candle behind a wall in Thorney Abbey Lincolnshire may well record it. However, was there ever a religious community at the site? The only scant evidence is that records show that early in the 13th century Henry son of William Boscher gave to the monks of Combe Abbey land on Heidune for building a new mill, and a little later John de Lodbroke gave 3 acres ‘below the mill’, this being evidently a windmill It is also recorded that on 14 February, 1227, the prior and monks of Coventry were granted in perpetuity a weekly market on Wednesdays at their manor of Southam (Suham) and a yearly fair at Coventry on the feast of St. Leger and the seven following days. However, this does not suggest there was any property here. A tradition records that they may have had a grange there. The local legend was known by the owner of the land but he believes there was never a religious house here the land being owned by the Spencers in medieval times. But it seems unlikely they had enough monks that would need such a bespoke penance.
Perhaps a better alternative is that the custom remembers the time when a hermit lived by the spring in a chamber, maybe the surviving chamber, protected from the elements. As the start appears never to have been investigated archaeologically. There are the lumps and bumps of a lost village not far from the spring although interesting not really near enough to have had the settlement settled around it, it feels. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land is more prosaic
“On the north side is a recess with a seat in it, probably to accommodate the person who cleared the trough.”
Whatever the truth it is the most unusual of sites in the county and perhaps the oddest legend in the country. Interesting in an area noted once for a large lake, hence the name Watergall, gall deriving from an Old English word for watery, it is not alone. Before the farm near the road is a mineral spring of which is noted by the owner of the farm that there were plans to develop it into a spa in the 1920s with full details being published locally but I have yet to find them. It arises in dilapidated wooden shed in a rectangular basin. Iron chalybeate water can be seen but the flow is sluggish.
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.”
The area of Charlcombe and Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath boasts three holy wells. The first one is of these is St Mary’s Well which attracted some notoriety in the 1980s when its existence seemed threatened. An article in the Bristol Evening Post of 6th June 1986 entitled ‘Hermit told to quit holy well site’, related according to an article in the Source Journal of Holy Wells how:
“the Bishop of Bath and Wells had obtained a court order to evict ‘bearded 42 year-old artist Alan Broughton’ who had made a makeshift home under a tree in the grounds of Charlcombe Rectory, near Bath. The rectory is due to be sold by the church even though its grounds include St Mary’s holy well. Churchwarden John Kirkman is leading a campaign to preserve the well in some way and I sent a letter of support on behalf of Source to be added to similar letters from other concerned parties for presentation to the Church Commissioners. It is to be hoped the Church will not put profit before sanctity.”
A report in the Proceedings of the Bath and District Branch of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society for 1909-1913 records:
“Mr. Grey … tells me he has known of this one, under the name of St. Mary’s Well, for a great number of years. It is close to the old Norman Church at Charlcombe, in the Rectory garden, amid a clump of ferns. The inhabitants have a tradition that the water is good for the eyes, and some twenty years ago persons were known to come and take it away in bottles. It is also stated to be a “wishing well,” and I believe the water is still taken from this source for baptisms. Mr. Grey gives an extract from a letter in which the writer states that a lady derived considerable benefit from this well, through applying the water to her eyes.”
The Rectory was sold and the hermit was removed. But what happened to the well? Dom Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells records the site as being:
“ situated in a bank, now covered with ferns, and the water flows through a pipe into a small natural basin. The village people used to take away the water from this well, as it was reputed to be ‘good for the eyes’, and the font in the church was filled from the same source.”
Searching for the site in the 1990s I couldn’t get access to the Rectory and feared it may have been lost but soon found a sign for it! It had been moved a controversial option for a holy well. It now lay in a public garden and filled a small elliptical pool. Overlooking the pool is a stone carving of Christ being baptised in the river Jordan This according to Quinn’s 1999 xxx it was done in 1989. It was very good to see someone preserve it, but I did wonder what had happened to the origin stonework. Was there something still in the Rectory, Quinn is silent on this. In a way this sort of modern day action underlines the contradictory views of those who look upon the site in regards to its waters and those, such as historians, who might be more concerned with its fabric. The Holy Well is used for baptisms and Christian festivals such as Ascension Day and Easter Day.
Above the village not far from Beckford’s Tower is another well, one which is in a way far more interesting by virtue of its dedication. This is St Alphege’s Well. Its first reference was in the 15th century were it is recorded that there were lands
“apud fontem Sancti Alphege.”
When Horne visited he stated that:
“This well is situated on…the opposite side of the road to the old cricket ground. A steep path, which looks as if it was once made with cobblestones, leads down from the road to the bottom of the field. The water issues from a bank and falls into a Roman coffin. This…was brought from Northstoke about forty or fifty years ago, by a farmer who wanted to make a drinking place for his cattle…A mile from this well, on the road to the Monument, is Chapel Farm. This was originally St Laurence’s Hospice for pilgrims on their way to Glastonbury. It is not uncommon to find a holy well by frequented pilgrim tracks, and this is a good example…This is probably the only well in England dedicated to this saint.”
Horne is not correct there are records of other Alphege wells one in far way Solihul and a possible another one in Kent. Both lost! What is interesting concerning St. Alphege’s well is that a path remains as a track linking it to a fifteenth-century chapel which half a mile away which suggests it was on a pilgrim route. Indeed Quinn (1999) relates that its waters were sought until recently:
“by the Catholic Church of St Alphege in Bath, who came to take away a gallon of the holy water for use in the baptismal font. At one time there was a deposit of soot on the roof of the well chamber, left by the burning candles of generations of pilgrims’.
Today they would find it difficult to fill the water for the access to the well is very overgrown and the doorway locked. One hopes that soon access can be improved otherwise I fear the well may be forgotten
Alphege was a local saint so to speak living in Gloucestershire at the Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the late 900s. Why here? Well he is said to lived as a hermit in a small hut here and was latter associated with the building of Bath Abbey before meeting a death of a Dane in the early 11th century Greenwich, the site being now a church!
The final well is now lost St Winefredes Well, Sion Hill, Lansdown. St Winifred unlike St. Alphege probably needs little introduction being a noted Welsh Martyr whose death at the hands of a pagan ‘husband’ she was forced to marry and resurrection by her uncle St Beuno are well known in hagiographical terms and of course a well-known healing water shrine arose – The Lourdes of Wales. But in Bath’s suburbs such as dedication is curious. Of this well it is described in 1749 in John Wood’s An Essay Towards a Description of Bath as:
“A Spring of Water, which, for some Mineral Quality, was, in former times, dedicated to St Winifred; the Fountain still bearing the name of Winifred’s Well; and it is much frequented in the Spring of the Year by People who drink the Water, some with Sugar and some without.”
As such this would make it the furthest south and west of the Sugar wells i.e those where people would drink them on specific days with sugar or licorice. However finding provenance for the well is difficult and it seems likely that its name was adopted at a later date when it became acceptable once again to visit the Flintshire shrine. Evidence may be drawn from Robert Peach’s 1883, Historical Houses in Bath and their Associations which recalls that Mary of Modena lived nearby. Now it is known this was around the same time as she travelled back from the more famous St Winifred’s Well in Flintshire to utilise the Cross Bath and other local springs to hopefully fulfil a wish to conceive. Did someone locally know her location and puffed a local mineral spring as a St. Winifred’s Well. Indeed Peach notes that the spring was sought by:
“women with superstitious hopes of maternity.”
Of course a St Winifred’s Well did exist, 19th century deeds for a Winifred House refer to
“Pasture-Ground, called the Barn-piece, wherein was a well called Winifred’s Well.”
And it does appear as St Winifred’s Well on the 1888 OS at ST 742661 and although John Collinson in his 1791 The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset does mention a chapel of St. Winifred he is the only one. By the time of Dom Horne (1923) looked for it he stated that it
“been covered in and its exact position is doubtful. The water is said to be of a hard brackish nature.”
Nothing remains at Sion Hill to note it today and many people will have forgotten this interesting footnote in the local history.
This month sees insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com is 7 a good birthday for sacred spring researchers – look it up@! Also it becomes the platform to host the Source and Living Spring Archive. The Source Archive consists of articles written in the mid 1980s and early 1990s for the Source Journal a short-lived but very influential attempt to bring together research on the topic. with Living Spring an even shorter lived but important online attempt to do the same. The original journal (divided into new and old series) was influenced by the burgeoning earth mysteries movement on the late 70s and early 80s and one of the most prominent exponents was Janet Bord. As is commonly said Janet needs no introduction amongst anyone interested in the space between archaeology and folklore. Janet work in the holy well field includes the Curses and Cures, Holy wells in Britain and the seminal Sacred Waters – a copy of which I myself purchased back in a Truro bookstore in 1985. A purchase which was very influential and lead to the birth of my fascination and research into the area. So it is with great honour that I introduce the first of a Source inspired articles (the next three from similarly influential James Rattue, Mark Valentine the original founder and Tristan Gray-Hulse editor of the new Series)
Anyone who regularly visits holy wells must be aware of how they can differ in appearance and atmosphere. We all know the delight of finding a hidden spring bubbling into a clear pool, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the landscape; and probably we can also all remember wells that are unloved and derelict. Those can often have a charm of their own too, perhaps being in an evocative place, or with enough remaining to suggest what the place was once like. Sadly there are also wells that are in awful locations, and perhaps have also been badly restored; but luckily I can’t remember too many that come into this last category. One that does is St Tewdrig’s Well at Mathern in Monmouthshire (ST52279116), just to the south-west of Chepstow and distressingly close to the M48 motorway. It’s a shame that the well has been so insensitively and over-thoroughly restored, because the area around the church and well has an interesting history.
St Tewdrig was a king and martyr, probably born in the late 6th century. He handed over his kingdom to his son Meurig and lived as a hermit – until an angel appeared to him advising him to go and help Meurig who was in danger of being overrun by his enemies. Despite also being told by the angel that he would die, Tewdrig went to help his son, and the enemies fled on seeing the two men and their army standing on the bank of the River Wye at Tintern. Unfortunately Tewdrig was stuck by a lance thrown by a fleeing soldier, and mortally wounded. He was taken in a cart pulled by stags to a meadow near the River Severn, where a spring began to flow, and there he died and was buried. The place was given the name Merthyr Tewdrig (now Mathern) and a church was built over his grave. The name confirms that this is a genuinely ancient tradition, a ‘merthyr’ being an early Christian martyr’s burial place.
In the early 17th century, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandaff, gave orders that a coffin found beneath the church floor was to be repaired, as it was thought to be Tewdrig’s: ‘I discovered his bones, not in the smallest degree changed, though after a period of a thousand years, the skull retained the aperture of a large wound, which appeared as if it had been recently inflicted.’ On his orders, the coffin was reburied in the chancel and a stone tablet put on the wall above, telling the story of St Tewdrig and his death. In 1881 the coffin was rediscovered when repairs were being carried out, and in 1946 an old lady told author Fred Hando that the vicar had taken her into the church when she was a child and showed her a big hole that had been dug in the chancel, and ‘in a stone coffin, she saw the remains of King Tewdrig, with the hole made by the spear-point still visible in his skull.’
The well named for St Tewdrig is to be seen beside the lane just north of Mathern church, immediately south of the motorway. There seems to be no record as to what it looked like before being restored by the Monmouth District Council in 1977. Although they are to be thanked for ensuring the well wasn’t lost, it’s a pity that they decided on this earnest municipal restoration that is completely lacking in atmosphere. With its steep steps leading down between walls to the well below, it puts one in mind of a drinking water well, rather than a place where a saintly king died over a thousand years ago. But… it is impossible to be absolutely sure if this really was the spring which flowed where he died, because I have found no mention of it before 1847, at which time it was called Ffynnon Gor Teyrn. This name may possibly derive from the Welsh word cateyrn, meaning a ‘battle-king’, and is all the evidence we currently have that might confirm this as the saint’s well. But it is very close to the church, and all the evidence we have does suggest that this is indeed St Tewdrig’s well.
Those who are well versed in the subject of holy wells will be aware of James Rattue’s contribution to the subject. His county guides for Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey set a high benchmark for such research – including my own – and his magnus opus – The Living Stream: holy wells in historical context (1995) is as it states in one of the intros to his work on the Living Stream ‘the most detailed and rigorous historical study of holy wells yet published in book format’. He was one of the main contributors to both the first or Old Series and New Series as well as the Living Spring Journal.
The establishment of the old Source magazine in 1985 coincided providentially with my own discovery that there were such things as holy wells. At the distance of over thirty years I can’t now remember quite how I found out about it: I have a memory that I made contact with Mark Valentine about his monograph on Northamptonshire wells and he told me the magazine was about to emerge. What I do remember clearly is the excitement the first edition brought as it plopped through the letterbox, an experience repeated with every one of its eight successors spread over the following few years. There were never enough! And the very first article in that initial, blue-covered, number was Jeremy Harte’s survey of holy wells in my native Dorset. Could it be any better?
Before Source my only guide to the sacred springs of my own county (and pretty much everywhere else) was, for all its shortcomings, RC Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Bournemouth Central Library had a copy and as I turned its pages during one school summer holiday trying not to crumble the edges too much, I wondered how long it had been since anyone looked at it. Hope only lists six wells in Dorset, and of those, one site, the springs near Shaftesbury which were the subject of the annual Byzant ceremony, aren’t really holy wells of any description, while another, the supposed holy spring at Abbotsbury, doesn’t exist at all. Jeremy’s article in Source 1, however, introduced me to the fact that there were lots and lots of these places.
I wanted to visit them, but it would take years before I managed to chase them down, and by then I would realise that even Jeremy’s list was inadequate and that there were over a hundred named springs (if not holy wells, exactly) in Dorset alone. The probable Holy Well of East Stoke I have only just visited, thirty-five years later; I now know that the time I spent uncovering the featureless spring I thought was the well in 1987 or so, sinking in bog over the top of my wellingtons and snagging my jumper on barbed wire, was wasted apart from using up some calories. I couldn’t have visited the Holy Well of Hazelbury Bryan: that was only dug out of the Dorset mud to celebrate the Millennium fifteen years after Jeremy wrote about it.
My own contributions to Source first appeared in issue 5. Most of them were more detailed accounts of wells that Jeremy had mentioned, with the exception of St Andrew’s Well at Bradpole just north of Bridport, and the format of my pieces was heavily influenced by the way John Meyrick had laid out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall a little before, meticulously listing the date a site was visited and its map reference. That was all very well, but later on I began to deface the surface of holy well research, already far from pristine, with a variety of unwonted speculations. My article in Source 6 included ‘All Saints’ Well Hordle’ in Hampshire, presumed to be holy on the grounds of its proximity to an ancient church, a fact which at least I had the grace to admit. Issue 7 described ‘All Saints’ Well Thorney Hill’, a well in the grounds of a chapel I generously described as ‘no more than 250 years old’ (in fact it dates to 1906). It’s a nice feature but no one has ever treated it as a holy well of any kind. There was more wishful thinking in issue 8 when I wrote about ‘St Andrew’s Well Corton Denham’ in Somerset, another spring I’d given a sacred identity due to its being near a church. All these speculations resulted from me adopting completely uncritically the idea that pre-Reformation Christians had, wittingly or not, sited their places of worship on previously sacred locations which preserved an ancient awareness of the mystical power of the earth. I hope nobody now uses my descriptions of these ‘holy wells’ as evidence that they ever existed, at least not without heavy caveats!
By the time Source re-emerged in 1994 under the editorship of Tristan Gray-Hulse it was as sceptical about these ideas as I had become. I now knew far more about the field of holy wells and therefore that it was beyond the scope of any small journal to list every one that might be found in a given area, and as if in sympathy, the new Source didn’t try to do this. Instead it concentrated on focused studies of particular sites or motifs that could illustrate wider themes. Tristan must have solicited a contribution from me before the first edition appeared as it carried a piece I’d written about the Holy Well of Frome, created by a Victorian Anglo-Catholic clergyman; it was followed by a short article on the folly-wells of Stourhead and one speculating on the origin of some wells dedicated to St Swithun in a Yorkshire dialect word meaning something completely different. These were all elements in the history of holy wells in which I’d become increasingly interested as I’d discovered that their story was much more complicated than I originally thought. No longer were holy wells merely taciturn, numinous features in the landscape: I understood more about them and how they had developed, their enormous diversity as well as the way they intersected with other features and historical themes.
It was something of a necessary loss of innocence, I suppose, and Source had followed me in this, until its final appearance in 1998. But in the same way that coming across a really nice well that I’ve never seen before (even through the accounts of someone else) brings a sense of excitement, and re-visiting one of my favourite sites to see what mood it might be in carries a thrill of anticipation – because the well is continually changing – I will always remember with greatest affection the arrival of that first issue of Source, all those years ago.