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Well Dressing and Sacred Water
Well Dressing and Sacred Water
by Chris Tripp
|Water Worship - The Filly Loo Ceremony
around the village pond, Ashmore.
Water is the foundation of all life on Earth. Our bodies are mostly made up of it. A human being can survive many days without food in a hostile environment, but deprived of water for a much shorter period of time and our bodies quickly start to malfunction and then die. Water as the bringer of life is twinned with its power to take it. If water is running in streams and rivers it will sustain us, our wells, our animals and crops. If those streams and rivers dry up, withdrawing its life-giving properties, or burst its banks and floods the land, it can bring death and destruction.
In the 21st century we will have to face the prospect of ‘water wars’ in many of the world’s continents as the very foundation of life seeps away due to climate change and population growth. This has already started to impact the British Isles with average yearly rainfall dropping, especially to the east. But this is not new. Throughout recorded history many parts of Britain have suffered from lack of water, especially after long dry summers, and autumn was the time of drought. There is a proverb that runs “between Martinmas and Yule, water’s worth wine in any pule”. It is our physical and spiritual relationship with water that lies at the heart of understanding well dressing, past and present, and this is my personal interpretation as an atheist and archaeologist.
Well dressing has long associations with the north of England, especially with Derbyshire, Staffordshire, South Yorkshire and Cheshire, and is has been the Christian way of blessing the ‘gift’ of water that sustains our communities. It is described as being ‘revived’ at certain times, as in 1349 in Tissington, Derbyshire in response to the Black Death sweeping away large centres of population during the 14th century. Into the Tudor period Thomas Cromwell was ordered by Henry VIII to ban the ritual and destroy all equipment associated with it. Henry could not tolerate a Catholic ritual with its connection to St Anne, the mother of St Mary the Madonna. It was also revived in the 1920s by an expert family of well dressers, the appropriately named Shimwell’s, of Tideswell, Derbyshire and then again at the Festival of Britain in 1951, when all things British were being celebrated.
|Well Dressing at
Upwey Wishing Well 2011
In our time the festivals using well dressing have increased in number and location and involve the construction of wooden frames covered with clay mixed with salt and water. A design is then traced on the clay surface and flowers, seeds, mosses, beans and even artificial materials can be stuck onto the surface to make a picture. The well is then blessed by the Christian priest to give thanks to God and to protect the water used by the community. (click here to read about Well Dressing at Upwey Wishing Well)
However, it is into the deep past that we must look to find the origins of this tradition. A path that will lead us away from the male dominated religions of today and into a generally forgotten female based rituals of life, death and regeneration, underscored with bloodletting and sacrifice.
The liquids of water and milk are our first substances which are every human’s first introduction to the world. Independent life begins with the breaking of waters, presaging a dangerous journey from the womb into the light of the world. Our first meal is one of milk. It is no wonder that many cultures have the Earth surrounded by the cosmic waters and the bright stars we see from Earth, composed of what we now know as our galaxy, were called The Milky Way. In making images that relate to an understanding of how this world, and the worlds beyond the physical work, past people created female figurines with exaggerated characteristics, specifically the breasts and the pubic area. We see such figurines from as long ago as the Palaeolithic, represented by the Goddess of Laussel, the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Dolni Vestonice (all from around 20,000 years ago), through to the Lady of Pazardzik from the Balkans and the very abstract figurines from the Carnavoda Cemetery, Romania and the Aegean area from 6-4,000 years ago. From the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age we have the Cycladic sculptures of the Mediterranean region, the Catal Huyuk figurines from Turkey and small and large representations of the Mother Goddess of Malta.
St. Nicholas Church, Studland
From the earliest humans the female represents the birth of the world and its people, out of herself, as part of her divine substance. She is the Bird Goddess of the upper and lower waters, uniting heaven and earth, the rains from the heavens and the depths of the sea, where she can fly and also settle on the waters. She is the Egyptian Nut, whose hieroglyph is the jar, pouring rain from heaven and the sun, moon and the stars rise and fall within the tides of her body. She is the three witches of Macbeth stirring a huge cauldron of magic liquid. The young woman, the fertile mature woman and the withered old woman are birth, life and death. Then all the way to the Sheela-na-gig, found in many churches, with her hands opening her vulva.
The goddess of death is the figure of ‘The Washer at the Ford’, an old woman who washes the bloodstained garments of those about to die. She could turn water into stone and the sea into land just by the touch of her hand. Death will come in the form of starvation and famine if the waters are not replenished. The Ashmore well had a White Lady haunting and was sometimes called the ‘Washers Pit’, where you could see her hanging from a tree (click here to read more about the White Lady of Ashmore).As with Jesus and Odin hanging from the Tree of Life was death but leads to resurrection. At Spetisbury the well was called the ‘Slayers Pit’.
|The Mouth of Hell as depicted in
the 15th Century illuminated manuscript
'The Hours of Catherine of Cleves'
Then she becomes ‘The Cunning Woman’, which means in this instance the woman of knowledge, possessing a practical and magical knowledge or skill to help the community. The root of the name has origins in a term that is still taboo in our language - cunt. It has a usage in many old languages, including Latin, Middle English, Old Norse, Old Frisian and Basque as a descriptive of female genitalia and also used as a pictogram for the Mouth of Hell by many Christian artists (Eve being the mother of all sin by taking the fruit of knowledge). One of the most famous rivers in England is the Kennet, surrounded by many surviving monuments from the past. Until the 18th century local people also knew it as the River Cunnit. The river appears and disappears during the year into a swallow hole, dying and being reborn according to the season from the opening in the earth. Derivations include:
CUNABULA – cradle or earliest abode
CUNINA – the goddess who protects children
CUNCTIPOTENT – all knowing
CUNCILE – a hole or passage underground leading to an exit
Many archaeological sites are situated near springs and rivers, as near the Kennet (Silbury Hill, West Kennet long barrow, Avebury stone circle). The monuments are thrilling survivors from our distant past and rightly admired, but visitors miss the root cause of why they were built there; a river. On the River Avon stands the most famous, Stonehenge. Archaeologists are now looking at the whole landscape as a ritual one which changes over time structurally but with the meaning remaining intact. The ‘Land of the Living’ is situated at the monuments of Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, where the newly departed start on the journey to the ‘Land of the Dead’. They are taken by boat along the Avon and stop at the Stonehenge Avenue or Cursus, consisting of two parallel ditches running north-west from the river. Water is the element that allows the dead to journey from one world to another. In the later Roman tradition the dead cross the River Styx. The Avenue approaches Stonehenge from the north-east, the direction of the midsummer sunrise and into the stone circle, at the very heart of the realm of the ancestors. Archaeologists have wondered if the Avenue is a ‘hard’ continuation of the river itself and other cursus are connected to rivers and wet areas. Other than that cusus monuments are totally unexplained in relation to function.
Avebury has a similar ritual landscape, including Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. In the Persian text Zend-Avesta it states: “To the east rises the ‘Lofty Mountain’ from which all mountains of the Earth have grown... called the ‘Navel of Waters’ for the fountain of all waters springs there guarded by a majestic and beneficent goddess”. One theory has Silbury Hill as the Great Goddess herself, the surrounding moat, when full of water, reflecting the moon (associated with the goddess, waxing and waning and being reborn once more) and turning the water milky. The spiral mound that is the hard body of snails were brought to ancient sites from ‘holy wells’, the spiral being a natural image of the eternal continuance through fecundity. ‘Snail Stones’ are small hollow cylinders of blue glass, composed of 5-6 rings, carried about by people into the 17th century as a cure for sore eyes.
More than 28% of the holy wells listed by 1893 retained a connection to the cure for sore eyes. This has a practical and spiritual basis. The flower Fool's Water Cress (Apium nodiflorum) grows around spring heads and is star-shaped, very similar to Parsley. Both flowers have been used in medicinal ways associated with the cure for eye complaints. Parsley was steeped in water and then applied to the eyes of newly born babies to ensure good eyesight and brain development, with Apium used to cure problems affecting tear ducts. Some of Dorset’s wells have this connection:
- Bothenhampton – the waters cure eye trouble
- Corfe – good for the eyes and the ague
- Elwell – reputed to cure sore eyes
- Symondsbury – eyes could be cured if bathed at first light
The eye motif has also had widespread use during prehistory, on pottery, figurines, idols and engravings. Many of these motifs have the eye and womb combined, in that mind and matter are seen to be co-joined, with Plato and Hippocrates believing that the womb could physically migrate to the head and thus cause hysteria (Greek for womb – as in hysterectomy). Traditionally the head was thought to contain the seed of life, the life-soul, and that is why the eyes are the window to the soul. The combination of the two brings together the physical deed of birth with a spiritual understanding. Back to the Kennet we have a saying that when we do not understand it is ‘beyond our ken’ where the root KEN = range of sight or vision, to generate, mental perception, to give birth to, to know.
At the Turkish site of Hacilar the seated figures found there had their eyes heightened in effect by black paint. Tal Brak, eastern Syria, had hundreds of figurines (c.3500 BC) which had staring eyes and eyebrows that met at the top of the nose and from Caykenari Huyuk, Turkey as well as Sumerian stone figurines the eye predominates. In Britain ocular designs are found on many artefacts and pottery and may explain the many engravings of circles and spirals on stones and funerary monuments.
If water had the magical and practical power to cure it was also the final destination of many a human sacrifice, along with the material wealth of the living. Over 5,000 years ago Danish farmers put flint tools, axes, amber jewellery and food into pots and then placed them in bogs. At Fiskerton on Lindisfarne, still one of our most sacred places, a human skull was found with swords, spears, tools and other artefacts on the causeway, a liminal area between solid and liquid, corporal and spiritual.
Many will know the song of John Barleycorn, cut off at the knee, stripped and ground down to make bread, but he rises again through the planting of the seed. At one time it was an actual human victim chosen to personify the dying corn, his/her sacrifice allowing the renewal of the life force. In many cultures this was the king, representing the divinity, sacrificed at the end of a fixed period or at times of adversity, the personification of the life of the community and the divine life of vegetation as fed by water.
|Preserved 4th century BC corpse of the Tollund Man
Discovered in 1950 buried in a peat bog on
the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark
We can come face to face with these past people by the chance find of bog bodies. Many are noted for their lack of any indication of having worked, with well kempt nails, absence of pathology relating to heavy work affecting the bones and killed in the their prime to save the divine life from degeneration. It may be that they were chosen from a very early age to be the representative of the community and to be ‘sent on’ so the crops would grow, the animals be born, life renewed and the world continue to exist. Even into the 20th century spring festivals took place where ‘death’, in the figure of an old man, was carried out and a figure dressed in leaves, bark and moss (the Green Man of many a legend and the same materials used for well dressing) symbolising Spring and renewal was carried in. The difference is that we no longer hit the person on the head, strangle him, cut his throat and throw him in a bog! From water they were born, nourished by water in life and to water they return.
In killing animals, disturbing the soil and pulling up crops from the earth, people from many cultures see that we have to violate and take from nature, so rituals have been devised that would magically restore what has been lost. The meaning of ‘sacrifice’ in Latin is ‘to make whole or sacred’ (sacer facere).
When we throw a coin into a fountain, bless a baby with ‘holy’ water, baptise an adult in a sacred spring and dress a well we are still making a blessing and a sacrifice. It may now be made to the Christian God but the Earth Mother/Goddess, fount of all life for our ancestors, lurks just below the surface.
Chris Tripp has a degree in archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London and an MA in Managing Archaeological Sites and Public Archaeology. He worked as a field archaeologist at a small museum in East London and then at The Museum of London Archaeology Service working on sites across the capital. He was elected to the Institute for Field Archaeologists in 2001. Now a freelance Community Archaeologist since 2002, Chris works to promote and teach the archaeology of Dorset to local people and visitors under the name ‘Archaeotreks’.
Copyright - Chris Tripp 2011Article updated Thursday 10th November 2011