Ritual washing in water, or immersion in a pool, has been part of various religious systems since the dawn of time. The priests of ancient Egypt washed themselves in water twice each day and twice each night; in Siberia, ritual washing of the body — accompanied by certain chants and prayers — was a part of shamanic practices. In Hindu, "ghats" are traditional sites for public ritual bathing, an act by which one achieves both physical and spiritual purification.In strict Jewish household, hands must be washed before saying prayers and before any meal including bread; in Islam, mosques provide water for the faithful to wash before each of the five daily prayers. In Christian tradition, baptism is described by St. Paul as “a ritual death and rebirth which simulates the death and resurrection of Christ.” According to mythologist Mircea Eliade, "Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, forimmersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence; and emerging from the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed."
The idea of regeneration through water is echoed in pan-cultural tales about the miraculous Fountain of Youth. So pervasive were these legends that in the 16th century the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon actually set out to find it once and for all — and found Florida instead. In Japanese legends, the white and yellow leaves of the wild chrysanthemum confer blessings from Kiku-Jido, the chrysanthemum boy who dwells by the Fountain of Youth. These leaves are ceremonially dippedin sake to assure good health and long life. One Native American story describes the Fountain of Youth created by two hawks in the nether-world between heaven and earth — but this fountain brings grief as those who drink of it outlive their children and friends . . . and eventually it’s destroyed.
To the Celtic people of the British Isles, certain waters were deemed to have regenerative, healing properties and thus were under divine protection. The famous hot spring at Bath (Aquae Sulis) was dedicated to the goddess Sulis, who was linked from Roman times with one of the Roman’s own goddesses to become Sulis Minerva. (The Romans built a temple on the site, and a magnificent public bath house which still stands today.) The standing stones and circles of Britain are generally found nearwells 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: "If in the territory of a bishop infidels light torches or venerate trees, fountains, or stones, and he neglects to abolish this usage, he must know that he is 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 St. Augustine to convert sacred sites to Christian use. Pagan wells became holy wells; 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 were 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 would not have been unfamiliar to "heathen" people. On the Isle of Man, for instance, holy wells are frequented on August 1st, a festival called Lugnasad (a day once sacred to the Celtic god Lugh). August 1st is Lammas in the Christian calendar, but the older name for the holiday was still in use on the Isle of Manuntil the 19th century. In Scotland, the well at Loch Maree is dedicated to St. 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. 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, feathersand 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. [For an excellent evocation of this tradition, see John Brunner’s magical story "In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells," in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume VI.]
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 St. Anne were called "granny wells" (because, as the mother of the Virgin Mary, she was grandmother of Christ)and were attributed with particular powers concerning fertility and childbirth. According to one Breton legend, St. Anne settled in Brittany where she was visited by Christ before she died. She asked him to create a well to help the sick people of the region; he struck the ground three times, and thus the well of St. Anne-e-la-Palue was created. Up until the 19th century, the holy wells of Britain and Europe were still considered tohave 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, or leaves floating upon the water, 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 carvedout 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 writtenon 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 well, for a somewhat larger fee.
In the mid-19th century Thomas Quiller Couch (father of the writer Sir Arthur 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 the antiquarian’s daughters, the Misses M. & L. Quiller Couch.This fascinating book is somewhat difficult to come by today, but a more recent guide to the subject — citing Quiller Couch’s text — is now available. Folklorist/photographer Paul Broadhurst re-visited the sites documented by Quiller Couch and in 1991 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. (Pendragon Press, Box 888, Launceston, Cornwall, U.K.)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 (faeries) of Cornish folklore. Wells under the protection of the piskies are not wells to be trifled with, for the piskies will take their revenge on any who dare to disturb their homes. A farmer decided to move the stone basin at St. Nun’s Well (also known as Piskey’s Well),with the intention of using it as a water trough for his pigs. He chained the stone to two oxen and pulled it the top of a steep hill — whereupon the stone broke free of the chains, rolled downhill, made a sharp turn right, and settled back into its place. One of the ox 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.)