For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Sacred Wells
A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells and Waters
  • Gary R. Varner
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Sacred Wells. A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells and Waters
Sound Bite
Sacred Wells is an in depth study of springs, wells and waters that have been venerated from California to Cornwall, Russia to Australia. Tales of faeries, black hounds, hauntings and miraculous cures are explored. Many of these sites are still locations for religious festivals and ritual, unchanging for hundreds of years.

The book is illustrated with photos taken by the author.


About the Author

Gary R. Varner is a lecturer and writer on folklore and early religions. He is author of several popular books comparing legends and beliefs around the world, three published by Algora. His approach incorporates details from ancient cultures and from Native American, UK and European, Asian, South Pacific and African folklore.

Varner has traveled extensively to research his projects, most notably to England, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Mexico and the American West and Southwest.

He is a member of the American Folklore Society and writes about ancient traditions and how those traditions, along with their folklore and mythology, continue to play an important part in contemporary society. He is listed in successive editions of Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World reference works.

Varner lives in northern California. His website is popular with those interested in pre-Christian religions, traditional beliefs, myths, legends and superstitions.

About the Book
This book is a welcome addition to the scant literature concerning holy wells, springs, and rivers around the world. One of a few serious works outside of regional studies which discusses, in depth, the folklore, mythology, and archaeology of holy...
This book is a welcome addition to the scant literature concerning holy wells, springs, and rivers around the world. One of a few serious works outside of regional studies which discusses, in depth, the folklore, mythology, and archaeology of holy wells and springs, as well as rituals that still exist today at many of the sacred water sites around the world.

Sacred Wells is a fascinating look at the continuation of ancient pagan traditions into modern culture. Many of these wells are still frequented by those who seek miraculous healing. Mysterious beasts, ghosts, fairies, and gods are still believed to reside in and near these holy areas. This study examines the universal appeal of these sites and provides an excellent reference for anyone interested in folklore, history, and the development of religion.

Preface

Sacred Wells was originally published in 2002. Since that time, I have visited a large number of additional sacred sites, including those associated with Native American rock art, gargoyle-embellished cathedrals, sacred landscapes and,...

Sacred Wells was originally published in 2002. Since that time, I have visited a large number of additional sacred sites, including those associated with Native American rock art, gargoyle-embellished cathedrals, sacred landscapes and, of course, sacred wells. I have written a number of books having to do with folklore, mythology, the environment and the history of religion since Sacred Wells was first published. However, I continue to travel back to the subject of holy wells and waters and when Algora Publishing gave me an opportunity to expanded and reissue the book in this present volume, I couldn't resist.

Much of our mythic environment is forgotten, discarded or abused. The thirst for coal and oil, for land for housing developments and business parks, and the desire to control the few wild rivers to harness energy, consistently degrades our habitat and the habitat of the wild animals that continue to struggle to survive. It also destroys much of the landscape that, for a variety of reasons, has a special meaning for various people, some of that revealed in ancient tales that used to be told. Now, many of the mysterious locations our ancestors held in awe are forgotten. I am pleased to reissue Sacred Wells so that these sacred places and their legends will continue to be known to those who may wish to learn from them and perhaps even travel to them to experience their special nature for themselves.

Sacred wells are recognized around the world, in nearly every culture and in every age. Long associated with feminine, divine power they are also seen as places of healing, magick,  wisdom and sources to the Other World. Some believe that these wells were originally created to bring the moon and its powers to the earth, at least in its reflection. Water from these holy wells was believed to have the intrinsic value of fertility and life, and thereby love and sexuality. In many cultures, and for untold centuries, it has been believed that Holy wells are inhabited, or at least guarded, by nymphs and faeries. Holy wells are also contradictory. Traditions have held that they are life giving, they grant wishes, they heal, they foretell the future but also that they may take life, apply curses, and serve as residences for lost souls and supernatural mischief-makers.

Over the years, most holy wells have been renamed after Christian saints but in many cases the ancient practices associated with them continue. Thousands of people still flock to Lourdes and other sacred sites for healing. Votive offerings are still left in secret at many out-of-the-way locations throughout Great Britain and Europe. Today some scholars are questioning the origin of these holy wells. Were they really venerated by our pagan ancestors? Are they purely the creation of the Christian era? Ronald Hutton noted in his work, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, that "not a single structure, not even a basin or retaining wall, can be convincingly dated back to the early Middle Ages, let alone to pre-Christian times."

It is acknowledged that many, if not most, structures constructed around these water sources were created in Christian ages along with the associated linking to a particular saint.

The early Church assigned Christian names to specific wells in an effort to remove traces of pagan usage. The study of the particular saints who had wells dedicated to them is an interesting one. There are over 200 wells named for St. Helen in Britain but it is likely that the original term for these wells was hael, meaning "omen". "St. Alkelda's” well in Middleham is an obvious reworking of the Old Norse words halig kelda ("hal kelda"), meaning a spring of living waters. However, far too many myths and legends tie particular wells to pagan gods and goddesses to discount the pagan origin of many of these sites. These wells were considered sacred long before the followers of the new religion of Christianity placed walls and other structures over them.

In addition, many wells, springs, rivers and lakes have ancient offerings in their depths indicating a pre-Christian origin. Richard Muir, in his book The National Trust Guide to Prehistoric and Roman Britain, wrote: "It seems very likely that the multitude of early Christian holy wells are an inheritance resulting from the Christianization of much older pagan holy places."

What is most important, however, is how these monuments affect us today. Do we find an important archetypal link in our concept of what is holy and divine through these wells? Do we find ourselves at peace when we visit these areas?


Introduction
Sacred wells are recognized around the world, in nearly every culture and in every age. Long associated with feminine, divine power they are also seen as places of healing, magick,  wisdom and sources to the Other World. Some believe that these wells were originally created to bring the moon and its powers to the earth, at least in its...
Sacred wells are recognized around the world, in nearly every culture and in every age. Long associated with feminine, divine power they are also seen as places of healing, magick,  wisdom and sources to the Other World. Some believe that these wells were originally created to bring the moon and its powers to the earth, at least in its reflection. Water from these holy wells was believed to have the intrinsic value of fertility and life, and thereby love and sexuality. In many cultures, and for untold centuries, it has been believed that Holy wells are inhabited, or at least guarded, by nymphs and faeries. Holy wells are also contradictory. Traditions have held that they are life giving, they grant wishes, they heal, they foretell the future but also that they may take life, apply curses, and serve as residences for lost souls and supernatural mischief-makers.

Over the years, most holy wells have been renamed after Christian saints but in many cases the ancient practices associated with them continue. Thousands of people still flock to Lourdes and other sacred sites for healing. Votive offerings are still left in secret at many out-of-the-way locations throughout Great Britain and Europe. Today some scholars are questioning the origin of these holy wells. Were they really venerated by our pagan ancestors? Are they purely the creation of the Christian era? Ronald Hutton noted in his work, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, that “not a single structure, not even a basin or retaining wall, can be convincingly dated back to the early Middle Ages, let alone to pre-Christian times.”  It is acknowledged that many, if not most, structures constructed around these water sources were created in Christian ages along with the associated linking to a particular saint.  The early Church assigned Christian names to specific wells in an effort to remove traces of pagan usage.

The study of the particular saints who had wells dedicated to them is an interesting one. There are over 200 wells named for St. Helen in Britain but it is likely that the original term for these wells was hael, meaning “omen.” “St. Alkelda’s” well in Middleham is an obvious reworking of the Old Norse words halig kelda (“hal kelda”), meaning a spring of living waters. However, far too many myths and legends tie particular wells to pagan gods and goddesses to discount the pagan origin of many of these sites. These wells were considered sacred long before the followers of the new religion of Christianity placed walls and other structures over them. In addition, many wells, springs, rivers and lakes have ancient offerings in their depths indicating a pre-Christian origin. Richard Muir, in his book The National Trust Guide to Prehistoric and Roman Britain, wrote: “It seems very likely that the multitude of early Christian holy wells are an inheritance resulting from the Christianization of much older pagan holy places.”  What is most important, however, is how these monuments affect us today. Do we find an important archetypal link in our concept of what is holy and divine through these wells? Do we find ourselves at peace when we visit these areas? Do we find physical relief of our aches and illnesses by partaking of the waters?

Springs and wells are archetypal symbols of life, fertility and vitality. The Irish have a legend of the Well of Knowledge and, in fact, wells have been regarded as having a special wisdom that can be obtained through their waters. The underground sources of the life giving waters have naturally attracted a religious significance for those living around them. These sources of life (also described as avenues to the underworld) have special guardians in the forms of nymphs, faeries and other mystical beasts and beings.

The United States does not have “holy wells” as they are known in Europe. Modern America does not have the history or traditions associated with long periods of habitation by a single, widespread culture with an intimate relationship with the Earth. The cultures of Native Americans are diverse and their populations are and were located over a widespread geographic area. In a broad sense, these cultures do share a belief in a special relationship with nature and the mystical or divine and there are many areas, including springs and rivers, which were and are still held sacred by the indigenous peoples of America.

Thus the United States does have many magickal places, but they are not as well known or documented as those in Europe and Great Britain in particular. Some Native American sacred sites are discussed in detail in Chapter 2.

It is the personal relationship that each of us has with the Earth which creates sacred space. The sacred sites discussed in this book have been considered special for hundreds and thousands of years. But one individual, or a few, recognized them originally as places of wonder and power. We can do the same even if we live in a country that has not had the linear history that Great Britain and Europe have had. If you know an area that is meaningful to you, that feels powerful and mystical, then you have connected with the sense of spirit and have begun the process of creating a sacred place.

This book will examine the ancient roots of the mythology and spirituality that is associated with holy wells and the religious conflicts that surround them. In addition, the contemporary religious rites practiced at various sacred wells that date back to prehistoric times will be examined.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Sacred Well in Ancient HistoryChapter 2: A Spotlight on Sacred WellsThe Chalice Well, Glastonbury GlastonburyÂ’s White Well SpringSt MadronÂ’s
Chapter 1: The Sacred Well in Ancient History

Chapter 2: A Spotlight on Sacred Wells
The Chalice Well, Glastonbury
GlastonburyÂ’s White Well Spring
St MadronÂ’s Well, Cornwall
St NectanÂ’s Falls, Tintagel
St PiranÂ’s Well, Tintagel
Sancreed, Cornwall
St EunyÂ’s Well, Cornwall
St BridgidÂ’s Well, Ireland
Lourdes, France
The Wells of Rome
Lumbini — Birthplace of Buddha, Nepal
Holy Springs and Water Lore of Ethipoia
Cenotés & Other Sacred Waters of the Americas
Chapter 3: Sacred Wells—Holy Trees

Chapter 4: Wells and Votive Offerings

Chapter 5: Myths and Legends

Chapter6: Healing Wells and Springs

Chapter 7: Ancient and Contemporary Rituals

Chapter 8:Holy Wells—A Pagan & Christian Perspective

Chapter 9: Holy Wells and Divine Apparitions

Chpater 10: Holy Wells in TodayÂ’s World

Chpater 11: Place Names and the Danger of Language

Chapter 12: What Makes Healing Water Heal?

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Categories

Pages 200
Year: 2009
LC Classification: GR690.V37
Dewey code: 265—dc22
BISAC: SOC011000    SOCIAL SCIENCE / Folklore & Mythology
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-717-5
Price: USD 21.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-718-2
Price: USD 31.95
eBook
ISBN: 978-0-87586-719-9
Price: USD 21.95
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