Yoga In The Water

Yoga In The Water


The standing stones and circles of Britain are generally found near wells or running water, attesting to the importance of water in pagan religious rites. With the spread of Christianity, a concerted effort was made to stamp out the older animist religions, which attributed divinity to nature. In the 5th century, a canon issued by the Second Council of Arles stated uncategorically that if, in the territory of a bishop, “infidels” lit torches or venerated trees, fountains, or stones, and the bishop neglected to abolish this usage, he was guilty of sacrilege.

Despite the destruction of ancient holy sites, pagan beliefs proved harder to eradicate. By the 7th century, Pope Gregory decided on a new approach and instructed Saint Augustine to convert sacred sites to Christian use. Pagan wells became holy wells, and churches were built upon them or beside them yet the old ways must have persisted, for in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries, a stream of edicts was issued denouncing the worship of “the sun or the moon, fire or flood, wells or stones or any kind of forest tree.”

Over time, however, pagan and Christian practices slowly blended together. Wells named after Christian saints were celebrated with festivals and rites on old pagan holy days in ways that wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to “heathen” people. On the Isle of Man, for instance, holy wells are still frequented on August 1, a festival called Lugnasad (a day once sacred to the Celtic god Lugh).

August 1 is Lammas in the Christian calendar, but the older name for the holiday was still in use on the Isle of Man until the 19th century. In Scotland, the well at Loch Maree is dedicated to Saint Malrubha; but its annual rites, involving the sacrifice of a bull, an offering of milk poured on the ground, and coins driven into the bark of a tree, are clearly more pagan in nature.

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The custom of “well dressing” is another Christian rite with pagan origins. During these ceremonies (still practiced in Derbyshire and other parts of England), village wells are decorated with pictures made of flowers, leaves, seeds, feathers, and other natural objects. In centuries past, the wells were “dressed” to thank the patron spirit of the well and request good water for the year to come; now the ceremonies generally take place on Ascension Day, and the pictures created to dress the wells are biblical in nature.

As Christian tales were attached to the springs and wells, they became as colorful as any to be found in pagan folklore. Wells were said to have sprung up where saints were beheaded or had fought off dragons, or where the Virgin Mary appeared and left small footprints pressed into the stone. Wells dedicated to Saint Anne were called “granny wells” (because, as the mother of the Virgin Mary, she was the grandmother of Christ), and particular powers concerning fertility and childbirth were attributed to them.

Up until the 19th century, the holy wells of Britain and Europe were still considered to have miraculous properties and were frequently visited by those seeking cures for disease, physical deformity, or mental illness. Other wells were famous for offering prophetic information generally determined through the movements of the water, leaves floating upon the surface, or fish (or eels) swimming in the depths. At some wells, the water was drunk from circular cups carved out of animal bone, an echo of the cups carved out of human skulls by the ancient Celts. Pins (usually bent), coins, or bits of metal were common offerings. Rags tied to trees around the holy well were another tradition dating back to pagan times. The cloth was symbolic of ill health or misfortune left behind as one departed.

Some wells, known as “cursing wells,” were rather less beneficent. Curses were made by dropping special cursing stones into the well, or the victim’s name written on a piece of paper or a wax effigy. At the famous cursing well of Ffynnon Elian, in Wales, one could arrange for a curse by paying the well’s guardian a fee to perform an elaborate cursing ritual. A curse could also be removed at this same place for a somewhat larger fee.

In the mid-19th century, Thomas Quiller Couch became interested in the history of sacred wells in Britain; he spent much of his life wandering the wilds of his native Cornwall, seeking them out. Extensive notes on this project were discovered among his papers after his death; and in 1884 The Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall was published by his daughters, the Misses M. and L. Quiller Couch.

More recently, folklorist and photographer Paul Broadhurst revisited the sites documented by Quiller Couch; and in 1988 he published Secret Shrines: In Search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, an informative guide to the many sacred wells still to be found in the Cornish countryside.2 In addition to holy sites dedicated to Celtic goddesses and Christian saints, Broadhurst discovered crumbling old wells half-buried in ivy, bracken, and briars inhabited by spirits somewhat less exalted: the piskies (fairies) of Cornish folklore. Wells under the protection of the piskies are not to be trifled with, for they’ll take their revenge on any who dare to disturb their homes. A farmer once decided to move the stone basin at Saint Nun’s Well (also known as Piskey’s Well), with the intention of using it as a water trough for his pigs. He chained it to two oxen and pulled it the top of a steep hill, whereupon it broke free of the chains, rolled downhill, made a sharp turn right, and settled back into its place. One of the oxen died on the spot, and the farmer was struck lame. This rather enchanted-looking well can still be found in the beautiful part of Cornwall between Liskeard and Looe.

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