The Britisher acquainted with his Bible has an easy explanation of the superstitious regard for wells and fountains: "in hot and dry countries water is so valuable and necessary that the sources of the supply come to be looked upon as almost divine; verily the gifts of the gods. Whatever remnants of this superstition still remain are due to this natural cause." But such an explanation is quite inadequate, inasmuch as it merely accounts for the Eastern sense of water's value as an economic necessity. Over and above that, however, there is evidence to show that all nations have held wells and fountains in a kind of religious awe; in fact, the religious element has been uppermost, and although there is always an organic connection between the material benefit and the spiritual ideal, that connection is very slight in humid countries like Ireland, where at one time the worship of wells was as extravagant as anywhere in the Far East. On an island near the centre of Lough Fine there used to be a place for pilgrims anxious to get rid of their sins, the journey over the water being an important part of the business. It was believed to be easier to get rid of sin on an island than on the mainland. In Scotland (Tullie Beltane) there is a Druid temple of eight upright stones. Some distance away is another temple, and near it a well still held in great veneration, says a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (1811). "On Beltane morning superstitious people go to this well and drink of it; then they make a procession round it nine times; after this they in like manner go round the temple. So deep-rooted is this heathenish superstition in the minds of many who reckon themselves good Protestants, that they will not neglect these rites even when Beltane falls on a Sabbath." Side by side with this account may be placed another (taken from The Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. xii., 1794). The place referred to is Kirkmichael, in Banff. "Near the kirk of this parish there is a fountain, once highly celebrated, and anciently dedicated to St Michael. Many a patient have its waters restored to health, and many more have attested the efficacy of their virtues. But, as the presiding power is sometimes capricious, and apt to desert his charge, it now lies neglected, choked with weeds, unhonoured and unfrequented. In better days, it was not so; for the winged guardian, under the semblance of a fly, was never absent from his duty. If the sober matron wished to know the issue of her husband's ailment, or the love-sick nymph that of her languishing swain, they visited the well of St Michael. Every movement of the sympathetic fly was regarded in silent awe; and as he appeared cheerful or dejected, the anxious votaries drew their presages their breasts vibrated with correspondent emotions. Like the Delai Lama of Thibet, or the King of Great Britain, whom a fiction of the English law supposes never to die, the guardian fly of the well of St Michael was believed to be exempted from the laws of mortality. To the eye of ignorance he might sometimes appear dead, but, agreeably to the Druidic system, it was only a transmigration into a similar form, which made little alteration on the real identity." "Not later than a fortnight ago" (it is added) "the writer of this account was much entertained to hear an old man lamenting with regret the degeneracy of the times, particularly the contempt in which objects of former veneration were held by the unthinking crowd. If the infirmities of years and the distance of his residence did not prevent him, he would still pay his devotional visits to the well of St Michael. He would clear the bed of its ooze, open a passage for the streamlet, plant the borders with fragrant flowers, and once more, as in the days of youth, enjoy the pleasure of seeing the guardian fly skim in sportive circles over the bubbling wave, and with its little proboscis imbibe the panacean dews."
In Wales, the same regard for Holy Wells is perhaps more distinctive than in other parts of the country, probably because the medical or curative properties have been more closely allied with the religious element. Holywell (or St. Winefred's) was a famous well for stricken pilgrims so far back as the fourteenth century, and the modern holiday-maker doing a North Wales tour, can still see the pilgrims of the day journeying to St. Winefred's, in the hope of leaving their troubles behind them. Pennant, in his Tour in Wales, speaking of the village of Llandegla, where is a church dedicated to St. Tecla, virgin and martyr, who, after her conversion by St. Paul, suffered under Nero at Iconium, says:--"About two hundred yards from the church, in a quillet called Gwern Degla, rises a small spring. The water is under the tutelage of the saint, and to this day held to be extremely beneficial in the falling sickness. The patient washes his limbs in the well; makes an offering into it of fourpence; walks round it three times; and thrice repeats the Lord's Prayer. These ceremonies are never begun till after sunset, in order to inspire the votaries with greater awe. If the afflicted be of the male sex, like Socrates, he makes an offering of a cock to his AEsculapius, or rather to Tecla, Hygeia; if of the fair sex, a hen. The fowl is carried in a basket, first round the well, after that into the churchyard, when the same orisons and the same circum-ambulations are performed round the church. The votary then enters the church, gets under the communion-table, lies down with the Bible under his or her head, is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till break of day, departing after offering sixpence, and leaving the fowl in the church. If the bird dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected, and the disease transferred to the devoted victim."
It would be possible to duplicate instances of this kind all over the country, but the most interesting cases are those relating to the superstition of decorating wells and fountains. Here is an illuminating letter from a correspondent of The Gentleman's Magazine (1794):--
"Your correspondent F. J. having given you a short account of the custom still prevalent at Tissington, in Derbyshire, of decorating wells on Holy Thursday, please to inform him that it was anciently no uncommon practice; and two places in the county of Stafford instantly occurred to my recollection (Brewood and Bilbrook), where the same custom was observed of late years, if not at the present time. And I believe the same kind of ornaments were used to decorate all Gospel-places, whether wells, trees, or hills. In Popish times this respect was paid to such wells as were eminent for curing distempers upon the Saint's Day whose name the well bore, the people diverting themselves with cakes and ale, music and dancing; which was innocent enongh in comparison with what had been formerly practised at different places, when even the better sort of people placed a sanctity in them, brought alms and offerings, and made vows at them; as the ancient Germans and Britons did, and the Saxons and English were too much inclined to; for which St. Edmund's Well, near Oxford, and St. Lawrence's at Peterborough were once famous. This superstitious devotion, which was called well worship, was not approved of by the heads of the Church, and was strictly prohibited by our Anglican Councils: (1) under King Edgar; (2) under King Canute; (3) in a Council at London under St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1102; as it was also particularly at those two wells near Oxford and at Peterborough by Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Lincoln."
I propose now to give an account of how the Tissington Well was decorated, and then to enquire into the origin of the ceremony itself. "The flowers were inserted in moist clay and put upon boards, cut in various forms, surrounded with boughs of laurel and white thorn, so as to give an appearance of water issuing from small grottoes. The flowers were adjusted and arranged in various patterns to give the effect of mosaic work, having inscribed upon them texts of Scripture appropriate to the season, and sentences expressive of the kindness of the Deity." The sams writer (1823) adds: "I will now proceed to give an account of the circumstances attendant on this annual festival on May 8, 1823, while I was on a visit at Ashburn with my friend, the Rev. Thomas Gibbs, second master of the Grammar School there, and curate of Tissington. There are five wells, and the Psalms appointed for the morning service, with the Epistle and Gospel for the day, being omitted at church, were read by Mr Gibbs, one at each well, when a Psalm was also sung by the parish choir. I officiated in the church, and preached a sermon on the occasion . . . from the church, the congregation walked to the first, or the Hall Well. As there is a recess at the back of the well, and an elevated wall, a great profusion of laurel branches were placed upon it, interspered with daffodils, Chinese roses, and marsh marigolds. Over the spring was a square board surrounded with a crown, composed of white and red daisies. The board, being covered with moss, had written upon it in red daisies:
'While He blessed them, He was carried up into Heaven.'
The second well was Hand's Well. This was also surrounded with laurel branches, and had a canopy placed over it, covered with polyanthuses. The words on the canopy were:
'The Lord's unsparing hand
The letters were formed with the bud of the larch, and between the lines were two rows of purple primroses and marsh marigolds. In the centre above the spring, on a moss ground, in letters of white daisies:
'Sons of Earth
The second Psalm for the day was read here. The third was Frith's Well. This was greatly admired, as it was situated in Mr Frith's garden and the shrubs around it were numerous. Here were formed two arches, one within the other. The first had a ground of wild hyacinths and purple primroses, edged with white, on which was inscribed, in red daisies:
The receding arch was covered with various flowers, and in the centre on a ground of marsh marigolds, edged with wild hyacinths in red daisies:
'Peace be unto you.'
Here was read the third Psalm of the day. The fourth, or Holland's Well, was thickly surrounded with branches of white thorn, placed in the earth. This well springs from a small coppice of firs and thorn. The form of the erection over it was a circular arch, and in the centre on a ground of marsh marigolds, edged with purple primroses, in red daisies these words:
'In God is all.'
At this well was read the Epistle. The fifth, or Goodwin's Well, was surrounded with branches of evergreens, having on a Gothic arch in red daisies:
'He did no sin.'
At this well was read the Gospel. The day concluded by the visitors partaking of the hospitality of the inhabitants, and being gratified with a well-arranged band playing appropriate pieces of music at each other's houses."
This rather lengthy description is worth reproducing, because it shows how an old superstition can be purified of its worst elements, and transformed into a truly Christian celebration. It is noteworthy also as a long-continued and successful protest against the condemnation of such festivals by Bishops and Councils. In itself the festival was as logical, and infinitely more beautiful than, a modern harvest thanksgiving service.
Decorating with rags is a variation difficult to account for. Grose makes an attempt to explain the custom, quoting from an old M.S.:--"Between the towns of Alten and newton, near the foot of the Rosberrye Toppinge, there is a well dedicated to St. Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt, or shift, taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether the person will recover or die; for, if it floated, it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life; and to reward the saint for his intelligence, they tear off a rag of the shirt, and leave it hanging on the briers thereabouts; where," says the writer, "I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rheme in a paper-myll."
There is an echo of this theory in The Statistical Account of Scotland:--"A spring in the Moss of Melshach, of the chalybeate kind, is still in reputation among the common people. Its sanative qualities extend even to brutes. As this Spring probably obtained vogue at first in days of ignorance and superstition, it would appear that it became customary to leave at the well part of the clothes of the sick and diseased, and harness of the cattle, as an offering of gratitude to the divinity who bestowed healing virtues on its waters. And now, even though the superstitious principle no longer exists, the accustomed offerings are still presented."
Again, the same authority says of the parish of Mary-Kirk, Kincardine:--"There is at Balmano a fine spring well, called St. John's Well, which in ancient times was held in great estimation. Numbers who thought its waters of a sanative quality, brought their rickety children to be washed in its stream. Its water was likewise thought a sovereign remedy for sore eyes, which, by frequent washing, was supposed to cure them. To show their gratitude to the saint, and that he might be propitious to continue the virtues of the waters, they put into the well presents, not indeed of any great value, or such as would have been of the least service to him if he had stood in need of money, but such as they conceived the good and merciful apostle, who did not delight in costly oblations, could not fail to accept. The presents generally given were pins, needles, and rags taken from their clothes. This may point out the superstition of those times."
Macaulay in his History of St. Kilda, speaking of a consecrated well in that island called Tobirnimbuadh, or the spring of diverse virtues, says that "near the fountain stood an altar, on which the distressed votaries laid down their oblations. Before they could touch sacred water with any prospect of success, it was their constant practice to address the Genius of the place with supplication and prayers. No one approached him with empty hands. But the devotees were abundantly frugal. The offerings presented by them were the poorest acknowledgments that could be made to a superior being, from whom they had either hopes or fears. Shells and pebbles, rags of linen or stuffs worn out, pins, needles, or rusty nails, were generally all the tribute that was paid; and sometimes, though rarely enough, copper coins of the smallest value. Among the heathens of Italy and other countries, every choice fountain was consecrated, and sacrifices were offered to them, as well as to the deities that presided over them. See Ovid's Fasti, lib. iii. 300.
'Fonti rex Numa mactat ovem.'
"Horace, in one of his odes, made a solemn promise that he would make a present of a very fine kid, some sweet wine and flowers to a noble fountain in his own Sabine Villa." There appears to be good reason for supporting this theory that the rags and pieces of cloth represent the healing power of the well, a theory which finds confirmation from travellers in other parts of the world. Hannay in his Travels in Persia says: "After ten days' journey we arrived at a desolate caravanserai, where we found nothing but water. I observed a tree with a number of rags tied to the branches: these were so many charms, which passengers coming from Ghilan, a province remarkable for agues, had left there, in a fond expectation of leaving their disease also on the same spot."
Park in his Travels in the interior of Africa says:--"The company advanced as far as a large tree, called by the natives Neema Taba. It had a very singular appearance, being covered with innumerable rags or scraps of cloth, which persons travelling across the wilderness had at different times tied to its branches; a custom so generally followed that no one passes it without hanging up something." Mr Park followed the example, and suspended a handsome piece of cloth on one of the boughs.
But apart from medical powers, wells were regarded as possessing occult powers: this is seen in the existence of the wishing well. Pennant, in describing St. Winefred's, says that "near the steps, two feet beneath the water is a large stone, called the wishing stone. It receives many a kiss from the faithful, who are supposed never to fail in experiencing the completion of their desires, provided the wish is delivered with full devotion and confidence." And Moore in his Monastic Remains, says of Walsingham Chapel, Norfolk:--"The wishing wells still remain--two circular stone pits filled with water, enclosed with a square wall, where the pilgrims used to kneel and throw in a piece of gold whilst they prayed for the accomplishment of their wishes."
Reviewing the whole subject, one can see how natural is both the superstition and its gradual disappearance. Not that it has yet disappeared, for large pilgrimages leave this country every year for Lourdes; and as already stated, St. Winefred's has its yearly visitants. These people would not call themselves superstitious: they believe God and the Virgin are associated with these waters in a special sense, over and above any medical properties such waters may possess, like those of Harrogate, Matlock, and Homburg. The evidence for a divine association is the vision of the Virgin seen by some of the faithful, and when this vision is supported by numerous cures, nothing is wanting to complete conviction. Somebody asks, "Are the cures genuine?" The answer is, "Many of them are." The true explanation is the effect of mind on body by means of faith. Scores of testimonies outside the Church altogether are to be found in the pages of medical literature, indeed medical men are themselves becoming more and more disinclined to administer drugs, using mental, natural, and dietetic measures instead. But the feelings of the faithful in believing that the Deity has a partiality for wells and fountains is the survival of an ancient superstition, perhaps one might say the most ancient superstition in the world. Everything had its spirit, in the belief of primeval man; the tree, the brook, the mountain, the cave--each was presided over by a spirit who needed to be propitiated by sacrifice, prayer, or charm, ere the poor human could receive the benefits he sought for. It is a far cry from Animism to Lourdes, but there is a definite connection between the two. Both believed in the spirit of the well.