Blog Archives

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Some Swedish sacred Skalla

Sweden boasts a number of sacred springs or skalla. Many of these are what are called in English sacrifice springs where objects of wealth of deposited. One of the commonest dedications is to St Olof and so we shall explore two of these first.

Who was Sankt Olof ?

Born in 995 in Norway, Olav, Olov or Olof II Haraldsson as the King of Norway, Christianised the country and many miracles were associated with him after his death in 1015. That he was elevated to saints was due to the miracles that were said to have happened after his death. The saint fame spread throughout the Nordic countries and St. Olof’s day, the July 29 is celebrated widely.  In the folklore, Olav appears as a patron saint against the pagan evil powers.

St Olof’s well Vasterlanda

The spring may have been a pre-Christian site of sacrifice with the saint’s name being applied to Christianise it in the 1100s. Its water was considered good for eyes being recorded as such in 1693 to cure eye diseases.

The site was a popular pilgrimage site with people coming on the saint’s day, although the church was uncomfortable with the mix of sacredness and drinking. People came to leave money at the spring and poorer people left meat meaning that the spring was often covered with a layer of fat

Famous scientist Carl Linnaeus writes in his Skåne journey:

“The most beautiful party is St. Olof’s day, when the people here storm to a great extent from distant places to interrogate the sermon and to sacrifice.”

Sankt Olofs källa - KMB - 16001000032277.jpg

By John-Eric Gustafsson / Riksantikvarieämbetet, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60833835

St Olof’s Spring, Hallaröd

The information at the site neatly describes it. Its states:

“In the Middle Ages, about 1050-1500 AD, the source cult received a boost and many and special rites were created through the direct involvement of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, in 1536, the saint’s cult was considered superstitious and primitive. The church was now trying to eradicate it in various ways, but the interest in the sources lived partly, sometimes until the end of the 19th century. It mainly concerned the custom of sacrificing money and drinking and washing in the health-care source water. At the end of the 17th century, the art of healing also began to be interested in health sources and surpluses. The biggest holiday day was of course the day of the holidays on July 29.One offered money or perhaps food and asked for health, prosperity and about the daily bread. Olof also kept beasts, snakes and trolls away from the creature and he protected and blessed the annual growth. The journey to Hallaröd’s sacrificial source was usually concluded with a visit to the market which was held near the church. By the middle of the 18th century, the market was moved to Hörby.”

 The Hammarby Kalla

Considered to have considerable healing powers was this source just northwest of the church at Lake Fysingen in Uppland . To secure a cure one would drink seven sips on a triple evening , which is seven days after the Pentecost .Hence the spring was called a triple well. The site was restored in 2011 and re-blessed on Sunday 4th September. People can be baptised and married at the well in the summer.

Fagertofta spring

At the Fagertofta burial ground there is a site where coins were left at Midsummer Spring . It is two meters in diameter and 3 decimeters deep and surrounded by a wooden fence. According to the saying, you drank or washed here during the midsummer night to stay healthy. This is one of the source of sacrifice or Osterkalla were objects of value such as coins would be added. These were often associated with midsummer and youths.

Karrock

Mjölnarens källa

This sacrifice spring was one of the most famed. As the source flowed north it was thought to make the water more magical and healthy and on certain times it had extra healing powers. In “Witchcraft, disbelief and house cures in Danderyd and Lidingö at the year 1783” noted: 

A source flowing to the north has wholehearted waters, than the one that flows to other directions […] Near Landsnora Qvarn is such a source, running out of the halle mountain, from there water is collected for the cure of numerous diseases, especially for sick eyes.

Av Holger.Ellgaard – Eget arbete, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34724998

The ancient and holy wells of Winchelsea, Sussex

No photo description available.

The ancient small Sussex town of Winchelsea possibly has more named well and springs than a town twice as large. Sadly most of the wells have been lost, some no more than boggy holes but at least one is still preserved and celebrated.

A map see here shows the extent of the springs available in the medieval period. Extant details are unclear but they were important as boundaries as the following recalls:

bounds of the Liberty of Winchelsea as they were taken and enrolled the 7th day of May in the fourth year of the reign of Edward the Third AD 1330 were as under First go from the Cross without Newgate north along by the Town Ditch and so through the midst of Lewes Marsh to a ditch of the Manor of Icklesham leading to St Leonard’s Fleet till you come right against a well in Pook Lane called Vale Well and so east up by a little lane lying between Crooked Acre and Bell Morrice to the King’s High street and then north east through the lands of Thomas Alard to the street end and so to the ring of Stone Mill and so downe to Pipewell Cawsey’s end and so by the street at the right hand leading to the north and to Grind pepper Well 3 and then as the old Ferryway leadeth to the Channell and so over the Channell to a fleet called White Fleet and as the water leadith by the Hopad Marsh into Kettle Fleet and so taking in the whole roads of the Puddle and the Cambre along upon the Sea Coast where the Hermitage did stand until a man can see Beachy Head neare Bourne and from thence through the sea to a wall called Court Wall and so west to the Cross without Newgate aforesaid.”

An account of the wells are described in William Durrant Cooper’s 1850 History of Winchelsea:

“Water, so scarce at Rye, was amply supplied to this town from six open wells:——viz., PIPE WELL, situate near the Ferry, close by the entrance of the town by the former Rye road: ST. KATHERINE’s WELL, situate half way up the hill leading from Rye, and below Cook’s Green, the water of which is slightly chalybeate: the STRAND WELL, on the hanging of the hill (above the former tan yard) destroyed a few years since by the falling in of the cliff: the FRIAR’S WELL, now enclosed, situated in a field recently called the Peartree or Wellfield, to the east of the Gray Friars ; the NEW WELL on the outside of New Gate; and the VALE WELL, now called ST. LEONARD’S WELL, at the north-west of the town, under the old castle,—of whose waters the popular belief yet remains, that when once drunken the drinker never leaves Winchelsea, that is, that wherever he roams his heart is still there; each drinker realising Goldsmith’s lines,

In all my wand’rings round this world of care,
I still had hopes, my strong vexations past,
Here to return—and die at home at last.”

Of these wells the aforementioned Strand Well was lost when the cliff collapsed in 1840s. The Pipe well which gives its name to one of the medieval gates in the town appears also to have vanished but it may remain lost in undergrowth on the steep cliff face.

The most interesting is the Vale Well which was surrounded by land by Poklande, from O.E pwca for ‘goblin’ and by the time of the above survey Pook Lane. Often springs were associated with such elementals and as such may be remembrances of pre-Christian deities. Found at the north end of town, under the old castle, in the meadows underneath the north-western hillside just beyond the mound of the windmill is St Leonard’s Well just about hanging on.  According to Walcott (1857):

‘of St Leonard’s Well at Winchelsea the good folks say that he who drinks will never rest till he returns to slake his thirst in its waters’.

Ford in Return to Yesterday  in 1931

“In the face of the cliff that Winchelsea turns to Rye there is a spring forming a dip – St. Leonard’s Well or the Wishing Well. The saying is that once you have drunk of those dark waters you will never rest til you drink again. I have seen – indeed I have introduced them to it – Henry James, Stephen Crane and W. H. Hudson drink there from the hollows of their hands. So did Conrad. They are all dead now.”

There was  a church of Iham just outside Winchelsea, dedicated to St Leonard; it fell into decay after 1484 and it is possible that the spring takes its name from the church rather than the saint directly. It was described in 1950s as:

‘fenced with barbed wire and noisome water almost covered  by watercress and overhanging brambled’

It is now an indistinct boggy hole a few stones lie around and depending on the weather some flowing water.

Similarly, the Friar’s Well was once enclosed, being in a field called Peartree or Wellfield, to east of Greyfriars. It is a spring head of clear water arising from a small hole, surrounded by remains of metal sheeting and deposits of beach stones, suggesting a possible structure.

The oldest recorded well was Grindpepper Well or the Black Friar’s Well. This maybe the same as St. Katherine’s Well as marked on the map Currently, it is called Queen Elizabeth’s Well and it is the best known and best preserved, being found on Spring steps..  It is located on the hillside, a dry well enclosed in red brick arch with grating at front. Peering inside one can see about of foot of water.  Its alternative name is presumably pre-Reformation dedication but why is it named after this saint? The church is St Thomas the Martyr. Perhaps it was originally to St Katherine.

Image result for Queen Elizabeth’s Well winchelsea

Interestingly, the name survived into the 1760s as it is noted on a map of Winchelsea by Charles Stephens. Records show that it was taken by the Corporation and it allowed its waters to be piped to a Mr. Joseph David in 1877. However, where did the Royal dedication come from? have mentioned in my account of Queen Elizabeth’s Well in Rye that such springs were developed as part of a cult. But it only appears for the first time in 1900 when the St Leonard’s and Hastings Natural History society visited the town and visited the well, then it appears immortalised on a postcard and hence named ever since. The best of the town’s ancient waters and perhaps now the most mysterious!

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Some holy wells of Russia

Russia boasts hundreds of holy wells or Святой колодец however their history is a troubled one and many suffered from the atheist Soviet regime – pilgrimages were banned, chapels closed and holy wells filled in and destroyed. However, since the fall of the USSR Russia is reviving and restoring these ancient water sources and in this post I thought it would be of interest to followers.

One such example is the Polovinka holy well in the Venerovsky district. The site was associated with the finding of a miraculous icon of the holy martyr Paraskeva Friday, a hermit who named herself after the Lord’s passion day and was persecuted by emperor Diocletian in Roman Iconium in Asia Minor. This was found on the shore of a lake and the transferred to the church in Voznesenka but when the next day the people went to see the icon it was not there but back at the lake. This happened several times. Seen as a sign, the local people dug a well on its bank and over it a chapel and placed the icon within it. The water was blessed and taken by the pilgrims. Large number of pilgrims came and a convent was even established there.

The loss of the site

Then came the Soviets who in 1979 burnt down the church and destroyed the holy well chapel, dismantling the foundation and burying the well. Despite this the memory had not been erased. Priests came with their people in secret to the site where the spring despite the burial still flowed. Over time people became bolder with their visits and then in 1995, three years after the collapse of USSR, remains were found and a restoration of the well was planned. Soon followers with their priests from Tatarsk, Chanov, Chistoozerny and Vengerovo visited. And recently a roof with a dome and cross were placed back over the well.

The pilgrimage

Hieromonk Dimitry in the Novosibirsk Diocesan Herald (2006, No. 1) describes the pilgrimage of remembrance of Paraskeva Friday, the 9th Friday of Easter:

“Usually visiting pilgrims meet in the morning in the village of Voznesenka. Here at the site of the burnt church a prayer service is served. Then local residents join the pilgrims, after which everyone gets on the buses and goes to Polovinka. Before one kilometer, people go out and with a procession of the cross, with icons and banners, move to the holy well. To meet them come those who came here earlier.  A prayer service with water consecration is served at the well and the akathist to the holy martyr Paraskeva is read. Sanctified well water is bottled to all present. Then – a common meal in nature, and in good weather – and pouring fresh, icy water, which relieves fatigue and gives new strength. Everyone’s mood on this day is festive.”

The white well

A similar site is that of the White Well. This too is linked to a miracle working Icon, this time of Nikola Zaraysky. It is said that in 1225 the spring arose when the icon was rested on the ground on its journey from Korsun to Prince Fydor Yurievich being carried by Eustathius a priest. Then in the following centuries the seven centuries, the inhabitants of Zaraysk celebrate the day of St. Nicholas as a religious Orthodox holiday and after visiting the icon in the Cathedral a procession would form of those visiting the spring head. Its waters were said to be good for those suffering mental and physical suffering.  This custom like above died out in the days of the USSR. Then in 2002 a new wooden chapel, called Nikolskaya, was built above the spring with stairs down to the springhead. A special spring filled plunge bath was constructed Now every year on August 11, processions have returned with people from all over Russia coming for its waters.

New wells for old

The restorations of Russia’s sacred wells continues and new holy wells constructed. In Birobidgan, a new holy well has been built in association with St. Innocent Convent on its 220th anniversary a well will be built and opened.

A report states that:

“The territory of the monastery was chosen for the first source of holy water in the Birobidzhan diocese because the water in the territory of the village of Razdolnya is very qualitative in terms of physico-chemical indicators,” said Bishop Efrem of Birobidzhan and Kuldur. – It is located close to the surface of the earth – the wells of local residents are usually four to five meters deep.”

The process involved:

“The rite of consecration “treasure” was held in front of the relics of St. Innocent, which on this occasion were brought from the Annunciation Cathedral, where they are stored permanently. Prayer was held by Vladyka Ephraim, who asked the Lord to give the water “sweet and tasty, satisfied to the needy, and harmless to the reception.”

Image result for Birobidgan Святой колодец

This new wall will have concrete walls and an hexagonal wooden frame over it with a dome.

Russia restoring and creating holy wells in equal measure. A superb place for the religious tourist

Springing from the fight between Paganism and Christianity – St Decumen’s Well, Watchet, Somerset

Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site

Who was St. Decumen?

Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion.  There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.

St Decumen’s martyrdom.

The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:

 ‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’

They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:

“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.

However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell.  It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.

Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!

The holy well

Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that

“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.

This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.

Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.

Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Ain Hleetan well Qatar

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.

Image result for 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.

 

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Portugal’s Fonte do Ídolo Braga

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.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Ayn Al Kasfah of Oman

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.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Osogobo Osun shrine Nigeria

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.

Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part three)

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.

References

Anon., Cambrian Traveller’s Guide, ed. 1, Stourport: George Nicholson, 1808; ed. 2, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1813

Anon., “The Parish of Mold”, 3 parts, The Cambro-Briton vol. 1, London: 1819, 136-43, 179-84, 298-300

Anon., “Extracts from a MS of Ancient Date, giving some Customs and Usages in North Wales”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 40 (1885) 150-6

Anon., “Obituary, The Rev. Elias Owen of Llan y Blodwel”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 56 (1901) 322-4

Browne, Sir Thomas, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Selected Writings, London: Faber and Faber, 1970

Camden, William, ed., Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta [&c], Frankfurt: 1603

Camden, William, Britannia; sive Florentissimorum Regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, & Insularum adiacentium ex intima antiquitate Chorographica descriptio, Frankfurt: Johann Bringer, 1616

Camden, William, rev. Edmund Gibson, Britannia: or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland … Translated into English, with Additions and Improvements, second ed., vol. 2, London: Awnsham Churchill, 1722

Carlisle, Nicholas, A Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, London: 1811

Cartwright, Jane, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008

Cathrall, William, The History of North Wales [&c], vol. 2, Manchester: 1828

Cox, Phil, “The Lost Chapel of St Leonard”, 1970: accessed 10/12/2015 on the Caer Alyn Archaeological and Heritage website, http://caeralyn.org

Davies, Ellis, Flintshire Place-Names, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959

Davis, Paul, Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales, Llanfoist: Blorenge Books, 2003

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992

Edwards, J,M., Flintshire (Cambridge County Geographies), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914

Evans, J., The Beauties of England and Wales: or, Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of each County, vol. 17 (North Wales), London: J. Harris [&c], 1812

Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ed. 5, Oxford: University Press, 2003

Giraldus Cambrensis, tr. Richard Colt Hoare, The Itinerary through Wales and The Description of Wales, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1908

Gray, Madeleine, Images of Piety: The iconography of traditional religion in late medieval Wales (BAR British Series 316), Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000

Gruffydd, Eirlys a Ken Lloyd, Ffynhonnau Cymru. Cyfrol 2: Ffynhonnau Caernarfon, Dinbych, Y Fflint a Môn, Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1999

Gruffydd, Ken Lloyd, “The Manor & Marcher Lordship of Mold during the Early Middle Ages, 1039-1247”, Ystrad Alun: Journal of the Mold Civic Society 1 (Christmas 2000) 3-21

Hooke, R[obert], Micrographia: or some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon, London: James Allestry, 1667

Hooper, Richard, ed., The Complete Works of Michael Drayton, vols 1-3 (Poly-Olbion), London: John Russell Smith, 1876

Jacobus de Voragine, tr. William Granger Ryan, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, vol. 2, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995

Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954

Jones, J. Colin, Gresford Village and Church: The history of a border settlement, Wrexham: J. Colin Jones, 1995

Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, ed. 3, vol. 1, London: S. Lewis and Co., 1848

Lloyd, John Edward, and R.T. Jenkins, eds, The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940, London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1959

Lloyd, Nesta, “The Correspondence of Edward Lhuyd and Richard Mostyn”, Flintshire Historical Society Publications 25 (1971-2) 31-61

Lhuyd, Humfredus, Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum, Cologne: Johann Birckman, 1572

Lhwyd, Edward, ed. Rupert H. Morris, Parochialia being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries” [&c], part 1, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1909

Morris, John, ed./transl., Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals, London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1980

Owen, Elias, 1899: “Ffynon Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”, chapter in The Holy Wells of North Wales, unpublished manuscript NLW 3290D

Pennant, Thomas, Tours in Wales, vol. 2, London: Wilkie and Robinson [&c], 1810

Powel, David, Pontici Virunnii Britannicae Historiae libri VI; Itinerarium Cambriae, Cambriae Descriptio; De Britannica Historia recte intelligenda Epistola, London: Henry Denham and Ralph Newbury, 1585

Rattue, James, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995

RCAHM 1912, 1914, 1925 = An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. II. – County of Flint; IV. – County of Denbigh; and VII.- County of Pembroke, London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1912, 1914 and 1925

Rees, Eiluned, and Gwyn Walters, “The Dispersion of the Manuscripts of Edward Lhuyd”, The Welsh History Review 7, no. 2 (Dec. 1974) 148-78

Richter, Michael, Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the Welsh Nation, rev. ed., Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1976

Schwyzer, Philip, ed., Humphrey Llwyd “The Breviary of Britain” with selections from “The History of Cambria”, London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2011

Spalding, Ruth, The Improbable Puritan: A Life of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, London: Faber & Faber, 1975

Spalding, Ruth, ed., The Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, Oxford: Oxford University Press/The British Academy, 1990

Speed, John, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, London: 1611/12

Stephens, Meic, ed., The New Companion to the Literature of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998

Walsham, Alexandra, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, Oxford: University Press, 2011

Whitelocke, R.H., Memoirs, Biographical and Historical, of Bulstrode Whitelocke [&c], London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1860

[Williams, John] Ab Ithel, “Holy Wells”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1 (1846) 50-4

Williams, Moses. Humfredi Llwyd, Armigeri, Britannicae Descriptionis Commentariolum [&c], London: William Bowyer, 1731

Wynne, Glenys, Cilcain, Mold: Cilcain W.I., 1944

 

Down the well you go! The curious Monk’s Well near Southam

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.