The spirit of the Goddess continues to help visitors to her places of power in the southwest of England
by Cheryl Straffon
Cornwall contains within its one hundred or so miles a great number of sacred and holy wells. Although some of these have now fallen into disuse and disrepair, there are quite a few still preserved and visited, particularly in West Penwith, a most mystical and elemental landscape where the ancient stones still live and the sacred sites are everywhere to be seen. Among these sites are some few dozen holy wells which have living legends of their power to heal and foretell the future associated with them.
The age of these wells is anyone’s guess: most are associated with early Celtic saints, for Cornwall, unlike the rest of England, was of course a Celtic land, having more in common with Ireland, Wales and Brittany (also famed for their holy wells) than the Anglo-Saxon lands. We may be talking about at least 1,000 years of use, and during this time the efficacy of the wells must have had a powerful effect. It seems very unlikely that they would have been used so continuously and to such effect if they did not actually “work”. In a way not really understood by us today, the wells must have been perceived as a direct entrance into the body of Mother Earth herself, a kind of shamanistic key that unlocked some of the meaning of existence, and the waters understood as being the source of both life and fertility. It seems likely then that the pagan Celtic peoples used the wells for the purposes of healing (making the body whole) and divination (predicting future events) as a means of integrating mankind and womankind with the Goddess herself – the spirit of the universe that inhabited everything: people, animals, trees, rocks etc. Probably all of the Earth’s special places, such as seas, rivers, trees and certain stones were thought to contain the spirit of the universe in a pure or concentrated form, and wells would have been particularly potent manifestations of this.
Later on, the meaning of this would have become more corrupted and less well understood. The Goddess spirit would be interpreted as actual spirits – fairies or piskies that inhabited the wells, and sacred hills and fountains were re-Christianised after saints, to whom their sanctity was transferred. The meaning and purpose of the wells as holistic places of healing and far-seeing became corrupted into quaint customs to do with cures for ailments and wishes for future happiness. Yet, if we scratch below the surface, it is in these customs that are sometimes dismissed as folksy and superstitious than we can begin to understand the true meaning of the wells.
For example, a dozen or so wells in Cornwall have divination lore associated with them, and many more are renowned for healing. At Colan Well near St. Columb on Palm Sunday (the nearest Sunday to Easter, the old pagan god of Eostere) crosses were thrown onto the water. If they floated the diviner would outlive the year, but this was conditional on holding the cross in one hand, leaving the other free for an offering to the priest! The well also became famous as a cure for sore eyes, which seems in some way to be related to the aspect of divining – the one seeing with the outer eyes, and the other with the inner eye. Crosses were also floated on the water at Madron Well in West Penwith by maidens in May, the number of bubbles indicating the number of years before matrimony. May is an especially propitious time for well-worship, linking it back directly to the pagan festival of Beltane, and the presence always of maidens for divining must be a significant folk memory of the May-Day festival, which was about fertility and coupling. The most propitious time at Madron was three successive Thursdays in May; at Chapel Euny not far away it was the first three Wednesdays in May. Here the future was foretold by sinking a pin or pebble, and again the number of bubbles gave the answer to any question. Pins were also thrown in a Roche Well (Holy Thursday and the following two Thursdays, before sunrise being the most appropriate time) and at the well on St. Michael’s Mount, both of these incidentally being sacred hilltops: Roche is a rugged outcrop of rock upon which was built a hermitage, and St. Michael’s Mount an island offshore of West Cornwall with an original monastic settlement, as if the sanctity of the places were recognised by the presence of sacred water. At Alsia Well, also in West Penwith, it was reported that scores of maidens could be seen on summer evenings, anxious to discover what sweethearts would be parted or united, the number of bubbles arising from the fall of a pebble representing the years before the event would transpire. An alternative was to float bramble leaves. And at Gulval Well (now destroyed) an enquirer could find out if a friend were alive or not: if alive, the water of the well would bubble, or otherwise become muddy, but if dead remain still. The whereabouts of stolen cattle and lost goods could also be traced by means of its waters. This is extraordinarily specific information, and for a well to possess such oracular powers means it must have gained such a reputation for accuracy over quite a number of years.
Many of these wells associated with divination also have a strong reputation for healing, as if both aspects were related, the waters being a means of cleansing the impurities of the past, and of giving wholeness of mind and body back to a person in the future. Chapel Euny had a tremendous reputation for healing, the patient being dipped three times against the sun, and then passed round the well three times in the same direction, on the first three Wednesdays in May. Three is a magic number that often recurs in well-lore: cures could be made at Madron Well for example by bathing on three successive Thursdays in May, or for children with rickets on the first three Sundays in May, and may be a folk memory of the triple aspect of the Goddess. Rickets could also be cured incidentally by passing children nine times through the holed stone of the Men-an-Tol (and notice Chapel Euny’s ritual is 3+3+3=9), a stone which also had a reputation for divination (a brass pin placed on the stone would move right or left to answer yes or no). The stone seems to have had the same power as a holy well, as if the holed stone were a passage into the secrets of initiation in the same way as wells lead into the womb of Mother Earth. Again at Alsia Well on the first three Wednesdays in May mothers came from far and near with their weak and rickety children that they might be strengthened by being bathed in its waters. At both Men-an-Tol and Madron well it was important to pass round widdershins (against the sun), and over the centuries many of the rites have been analogous to sun worship, particularly when arriving before dawn. Also at Madron Well pilgrims tied pieces of rags to bushes to help their cures or to propitiate the fairies (spirits of the well), a custom still observed there today and known in many other parts of the world. In Ireland and Cornwall some of these pilgrimages would end in pagan rites, and the general licentiousness and merrymaking of the gatherings was much frowned on by the established church. However it is interesting to note that even today Christian baptisms take place at Madron Baptistry Well on Sundays in May, a direct link-back to the pagan Beltane festivals there, though they are doubtless much more solemn affairs today!
Thus it may be seen that well customs practised generally up until this century are direct invocations of a time when the old shrines were part of everyday life and were focal points for the rituals dedicated to the Goddess herself and the spirits/gods who inhabited everything. A natural spring in a grove (and wells are nearly always surrounded by trees) would “draw together the potent forces of the earthly and watery elements in a cauldron of primal power that could be harnessed in a rite of known efficacy” (see Bibliography 4, below). As time went by, the original meaning would have been forgotten, and the wells became places for quaint customs. These persisted right up until the early years of this century
The use of the wells has never really died out. Today more than ever they are once again visited and cared for, as more and more people come to realize what a haven of peace and solitude they represent in today’s crazy materialistic world. Describing Sancreed Well, the Rev Lane-Davies said in 1970: “The spot always seems to me to possess a greater air of mystery and sanctity than any other in Cornwall”, and 18 years later Paul Broadhurst felt the same: “This truly ancient shrine is beyond all others in its peculiarly elemental essence … it is like returning to some haven of tranquility at home in the womb of the Earth.” I have visited it many times – sometimes one will find flowers left there as an offering to the well, sometimes someone will be quietly meditating beside it, most times there is no one there except the gentle dryads hovering peacefully around the cool clear waters reached after a climb down steps into the very womb of Mother Earth herself. Once I was there at the Winter Solstice and a full moon rose in the sky in a clearing above the well and shone her light straight down through the trees into the area of the sacred shrine itself. The tides of moon and water were moving together in a celestial harmony, a powerful revelation that the wells are still alive and potent with power to heal or give insights into the past, present and future, if only we care for them today as they were cared for all those hundreds and thousands of years ago.
1. Ancient & Holy Wells of Cornwall: M.&L. Quiller Couch (1894).
2. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall: J. Myrick (1982).
3. Holy Wells of Cornwall: A. Lane-Davies (1970).
4. Secret Shrines: Paul Broadhurst (1988).
About the author
Cheryl Straffon is the editor of Meyn Mamvro, the magazine devoted to ancient stones and sacred sites in Cornwall. This article originally appeared in Meyn Mamvro, and is used with permission. She has also published a book featuring the holy wells of Cornwall called Fentynyow Kernow: In Search of Cornwall’s Holy Wells. For details visit Meyn Mamvro.
Drawings by Su Bayfield