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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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I HAVE thought it most important to look up this subject with a view of seeing whether any clues were available which could help us to associate the introduction of the well ceremonials with the worshippers of the May or of the Solstitial year. For shortness I will call the ceremonial "baptism," not necessarily baptism in the modern sense, but as implying the use of water for purifying or other religious purpose.

That baptism was pre-Christian is shown by John the Baptist using the Jordan for this purpose before Christ's ministration began. (Matt. 3. 6.)

There is a tremendous literature ( footnote 213:1 ) dealing with the folklore of holy wells and streams. The number of holy wells and streams in Britain is legion; there are 3,000 in Ireland alone, and the first thing which. strikes us in a casual study of the folklore is the close association of the wells with sacred trees. Almost equally distinctly we gather that both were situated near holy stones, and that the worship included ceremonials connected with all three.

The folklore dealing with holy wells and well-worship is so various that it will be useful for our present purpose to classify the portions we need under the following headings.

1. Well-worship outcome of pre-Christian days and customs.

2. Wells generally situated near circles, dolmens, cromlechs or cairns, or churches which have replaced them.

3. Association with sacred trees.

4. Well-worship and offerings.

5. Time of the chief festivals.

1. Pagan origin.—It seems to be accepted now that well-worship in Britain originated long before the Christian era; that it was not introduced by the Christian missionaries, but rather they found it in vogue on their arrival, and tolerated it at first and utilized it afterwards, as they did a great many other Pagan customs.

With regard to this point Wood-Martin writes:
( footnote 214:1 )

"In many Irish MSS. there are allusions to this pre-Christian worship. For example, Tirehan, relates that St. Patrick, in his progress through Ireland, came to a fountain called Slaun, to which the Druids offered sacrifices, and which they worshipped as a God; and in Adamnan's Life of St. Columkille it is recounted that this saint, when in the country of the Picts, heard of a notable fountain to which the Pagans paid divine honour."

He adds (p. 50)

"It evidently did not originate in the blessing of wells by early saints and thus spread downwards, until it became almost, if not quite, universal; on the contrary, it began from the people, who were being Christianized, and thence permeated the entire system of Irish Christianity."

Baring-Gould tells us much concerning the transitional state (pp. 28 et seq.). Wood-Martin divides holy wells into three classes: (1) those which "derive their reputed virtues from Pagan superstition"; (2) those which were "transferred from Pagan to so-called Christian uses," and (3) "a few which may lay claim to a merely Christian origin."
( footnote 215:1 )

It is very easy to understand how the purely devout custom developed in course of time, in the case of some wells at any rate, into a more superstitious one, how some wells came to be called "wishing-wells" and others were regarded as prophetic. Rhys gives us several instances of these two classes in Wales.
( footnote 215:2 )

Wishing-wells are known all over the United Kingdom; many authors give accounts of them.
( footnote 215:3 )

 There can be no doubt that in the most ancient times magical practices were carried on at wells or at the religious centre of which the well formed a constituent part. Local practices of witchcraft would be a natural survival of these. Gomme (p. 87) thus refers to the well of St. Aelian, not far from Bettws Abergeley, in Denbighshire.

"Near the well resided a woman who officiated as a kind of priestess. Anyone who wished to inflict a curse upon an enemy resorted to this priestess, and for a trifling sum she registered, in a book kept for the purpose, the name of the person on whom the curse was wished to fall. A pin was then dropped into the well in the name of the victim, and the curse was complete."

The magical associations with wells appear in the following extract (given by Quiller-Couch, p. 134) of a letter from Dr. O’Connor, the author of the letters of Columbanus, to his brother.

"I have often inquired of your tenants what they themselves thought of their pilgrimages to the wells of Kill-Aracht, Tobbar Brighde, Tobbar Muir, near Elphin, Moor, near Castlereagh, where multitudes annually assembled to celebrate what they, in broken English, termed Patterns (Patron's days); and when I pressed a very old man, Owen Hester, to state what possible advantage the expected to derive from the singular custom of frequenting in particular such wells as were contiguous to an old blasted oak, or an upright hewn stone, and what the meaning was of the yet more singular custom of sticking rags on the branches of such trees and spitting on them, his answer, and the answer of the oldest men, was that their ancestors always did it, and that it was a preservation against Geasa Draoidecht, i.e., the sorceries of the Druids, and that their cattle were preserved by it from infectious disorders; that the daoini maithe, i.e., the fairies, were kept in good humour by it; and so thoroughly persuaded were they of the sanctity of these Pagan practices that they would travel bareheaded and barefooted from ten to twenty miles for the purpose of crawling on their knees round these wells, upright stones, and oak trees, westward, as the sun travels, some three times, some six, some nine, and so on in uneven numbers until their voluntary penances were completely fulfilled."

2. Wells generally situated near stone monuments or churches which have replaced them.—We find many instances of wells near stone circles and dolmens.

It may even be that the existence of the spring determined the position of the circle, for the officiating astronomer-priest must like other mortals have had a water supply available. "Where a spring or a river flows," says Seneca, "there should we build altars and offer sacrifices" (Hope, p. 47). The following shows how closely connected they were.
( footnote 217:1 )

"Closely associated with the circles, and occupying an equally important position in the religious rites and ceremonies of the ancient inhabitants, were sacred wells. These were more numerous than circles, no doubt owing to the fact that their acquisition was more easily accomplished: but amongst sacred wells we find some, as we find certain circles, occupying a position of pre-eminence in the religious cult of their votaries, and these, as a rule, in close proximity to sun and moon temples. At Tillie Beltane, in Aberdeenshire, in close proximity to the remains of a larger and smaller circle, is a well which was held sacred by the people. According to Col. Leslie, on Beltane and Midsummer days, those on whom the dire hand of disease had fallen, or those desirous of averting that calamity, went seven times round the sacred wells sunwise (deasil)
( footnote 218:1 ) and then proceeded to the circles, where a like ceremony was performed."

"In Stenness we find the same association of the well and the circles. But in harmony with the unrivalled completeness of these monuments . . . we find the sacred well here in a closer and deeper connection with the circles than elsewhere."

"In the parish of Stenness there is a district called Bigswell, in the centre of which is a sacred well, and from which the district takes its name, Big(s)well. . . . Be that as it may, we know from tradition that down to the time when the Stone of Odin was demolished, parents came to the well with children, on Beltane and Midsummer, passed round it sunwise, and having bathed their little ones (a healthy ordeal), carried them thence to the Stone of Odin, and passed them through the hole as a divine protection against the malignant influences of the evil one."

Borlase records an instance of a well near a stone-circle in Ireland in the Townland of Ballyferriter, in County Kerry.
( footnote 219:1 )

The same author also gives examples in Ireland of wells near dolmens and of wells covered by dolmens.
( footnote 219:2 )

It may be remarked that in Cornwall Chapel Euny well is associated with the circles at Bartinné and Carn Euny; St. Cleer with the three circles at the Hurlers, and Alsia well is near the Bolleit circle. Mr. Horton Bolitho is my authority for these statements.

A well is often found near a cell, cairn or keeill. Rhys gives us two examples in the Isle of Man.
( footnote 219:3 ) At Ardmore Bay the holy well is within the ruined chapel of the saint. ( footnote 219:4 ) A vast pile of stones surrounds the holy well in Glencolumbkille in Donegal. ( footnote 219:5 )

It might be useful to add here, that it is a very common thing to find a well by a so-called tomb of a saint.

Let us, turn now to wells situated near churches.

It is very generally known that many churches have been built on the sites of stone-circles, menhirs, &c. This leads us to think that some form of worship must have taken place at the "ancient-stones" originally. The following extract from Wilson's Archæology (page 110) is given in Stonehenge by Sir Henry James (page 17):

"The common Gaelic phrase—Am bheil thu dol don chlachan—Are you going to the stones?—by which the Scottish Highlander still enquires at a neighbour if he is bound for church, seems in itself no doubtful tradition of ancient worship within the monolithic ring."

Rhys gives us many instances of wells near churches, and here it may be useful to add that the Welsh for well is Ffynnon.
( footnote 220:1 )

Ffynnon Faglan is described as being near a church, also Ffynnon Fair, a wishing-well. Criccieth Church is supposed to have had a well near it at one time. Again, Ffynnon Beris is near the parish church of Llanberis (p. 366), and Ffynnon Elian near to the church of Llanelian, Denbighshire. Then there are St. Teilo's Church and Well at Llandeilo Llwydarth, near Maen Clochog, North Pembrokeshire.

( footnote 220:2 ) refers to the rites at the well of Tubberpatrick, part of the ceremony taking place in the church near by.

3. Association of sacred wells with sacred trees.—Rhys, and many other authors, give us several instances of a tree by the side of a well.
( footnote 220:3 )

When we come to deal with well offerings we shall find, in fact, that in almost every case a tree has been a necessary companion of the well, as the well offerings were hung on them.

In many cases, of course, the kind of tree is not specified. When it is, it is almost invariably the rowan or hawthorn. Rhys tells us: "The tree to expect by a sacred well is doubtless some kind of thorn."
( footnote 220:4 )

 Then again, with reference to Ireland, Rhys, p. 335, quotes a passage from a letter by the late Mr. W. C. Borlase, on Rag Offerings and Primitive Pilgrimages in Ireland, to the effect that a hawthorn almost invariably stands by the brink of the typical Irish "holy well."

There are also many references to thorn trees in the same position in Wales.

There are thorn trees at St. Madron's well in Cornwall, and at Chapel well St. Breward in the same county near Bodmin, there is a thorn tree over the well.

Not only are wells often recorded as near sacred trees, but in the case of some we learn that at the chief annual festival they were decked with flowers and garlands, and "encircled with a jovial band of young people celebrating the day with song and dance." This is recorded of the "blessing of the Brine" at Nantwich (Hope, p. 7).

4. Well worship and offerings.—Although the traditions and superstitions connected with wells are fast becoming things of the past, in certain parts they are still believed and practised. .

( footnote 221:1 ) informs us that well-worship prevails in every county of the three kingdoms. He finds it "most vital in the Gaelic countries, somewhat less so in the British, and almost entirely wanting in the Teutonic south-east. In some cases wells were resorted to for the cure of diseases; in others to obtain change of weather or good luck. Offerings were made to them to propitiate their guardian gods and nymphs. Pennant tells us that in olden times the rich would sacrifice one of their horses at a well near Abergelen to secure a blessing upon the rest. ( footnote 222:1 ) Fowls were offered at St. Tegla's Well, near Wrexham, by epileptic patients, ( footnote 222:2 ) but of late years the well spirits have had to be content with much smaller tributes—such trifles as pins, rags, coloured pebbles and small coins."

In consequence of this dwindling down of the offering we have chiefly to do with rags, but I think we may learn from the traditions that originally it was an offering of a garment, and to the officiating priest, at the well, or temple with which the well was connected. It is also a question whether the almost universal association of pins with the garment or part of it might not have originated at a time when such an offering—it was probably originally a skin—to a priest without a pin (of bone) to fasten it on would not have been complete. In Kent's cavern pins of bone have been found associated with bones of palæolithic mammals.

Mr. Gomme tells us,
( footnote 222:3 ) "In the case of some wells, especially in Scotland, at one time the whole garment was put down as an offering. Gradually these offerings of clothes became less and less till they came down to rags." He also points out, as we have already seen, that "the geographical distribution of rag-offerings coincides with the existence of monoliths and dolmens."

As has been noted, almost invariably by the side of every well there grows the "sacred tree," a rowan or thorn for the most part; on this tree the rags are hung, then the bent pin is dropped in. If there happens to be no tree, or if it is so old that only the stump is left, then the rags may sometimes be seen wedged in between the stones of- the well.

Quiller-Couch (p. 135) tells us that at Ahagour in Mayo is a well much frequented by pilgrims, for penance chiefly, where among other offerings they cut up their clothes, be they ever so new, and tie them to the two old trees growing near, "lest, on the day of judgment," thinks the superstitious peasant, "the Almighty should forget that he came there, and in order that the tokens should be known, when St. Patrick should lay them before the tribunal."

When the original well-worship in relation with the temples became disestablished, if the well-worship were kept up at all, reasons other than the old one would soon be invented, and many of these would naturally be connected with magic and sorcery. In the oldest days the priest would be a physician as well as an astronomer and a magician, and his advice might be good for various disorders, but after he had disappeared there was only magic to depend upon; and this atmosphere is reflected in the traditions.

I will now give a few extracts to show what goes on at present in certain localities with regard to the offerings, and the frame of mind of the devotees.

With reference to the reasons for the offerings made in the present day, Wood-Martin writes:
( footnote 223:1 )

"Wells were the haunts of spirits that proved to be propitious if remembered, but were vindictive if neglected, and hence no devotee approached the sacred precincts empty-handed, the principle being no gift no cure; therefore the modern devotee, when tying up a fragment from the clothing, or dropping a cake, a small coin, or a crooked pin into the well, is unconsciously worshipping the old presiding spirit of the place."

( footnote 224:1 ) gives us a great deal of information on this. The ritual varies at some of them. People came from far and near; it is the custom to make some sort of offering, rags and pins being the most modern, and about these we have most information as a matter of course:

Rhys quotes statements he has received about three wells in the county of Glamorgan (Vol. 1, p. 356). At the first it was the custom "that the person who wishes his health to be benefited should wash in the water of the well, and throw a pin into it afterwards." At another "the custom prevails of tying rags to the branches of a tree growing close at hand"; and at the third, "it is the custom for those who are healed in it to tie a shred of linen or cotton to the branches of a tree that stands close by; and there the shreds are almost as numerous as the leaves."

Further (p. 363) we read of another Ffynnon Faglan, and of this Rhys says, "One told me his mother used to take him to it when he was a child for sore eyes, bathe them with the water, and then drop in a pin. The other man, when he was young, bathed in it for rheumatism." Of this well it is recorded that when it was cleaned out about fifty years ago "two basinfuls of pins were taken out," which were all bent, but no coins were found in it.

( footnote 224:2 ) also gives an interesting account of the rite performed at a certain well in Ireland; it is a little more elaborate than at some, but affords an idea of what was probably at one time a very usual in connection with stones in other places.

"In a statistical account of the parish of Dungiven, written in 1813, it is stated that at the well of Tubberpatrick, after performing the usual rounds, devotees wash their hands and feet with the water and tear off a small rag from their clothes, which they tie on a bush overhanging the well; from whence they all proceed to a large stone in the River Roe, immediately below the old church, and having performed an oblation they walk round the stone, bowing to it, and repeating prayers as at the well. Their next movement is to the old church, within which a similar ceremony goes on, and they finish this rite by a procession and prayers round the upright stone."

5: Time of the chief festival.—On this point there is not a great quantity of precise information, but what we have points to May 1 as being about the time when the holy wells are most frequented and considered most efficacious.

This lack of information arises from the fact that the existence of the May year in prehistoric times has not been even dreamt of by those who have compiled the various accounts of the fast fading traditions, and in very many instances a reference to an unknown saint's day is the only information given as to the time of the annual celebration. Wide generalisation, therefore, from the material at hand is risky.

I will refer in the first instance to the May worship, and begin with the famous Madron well in Cornwall, the walls of which I found to be oriented to the May sunrise, so that the priest officiating at the altar would face the sunrise. Quiller-Couch (p. 137) thus refers to what happened there.

"Children used to be taken to this well on the first three Sunday mornings in May to be dipped in the water, that they might be cured of the rickets, or any other disorder with which they were troubled. Three times they were plunged into the water, after having been stripped naked; the parent, or person dipping them, standing facing the sun; after the dipping they were passed nine times round the well from east to west; then they were dressed and laid on St. Madern's bed; should they sleep, and the water in the well bubble, it was considered a good omen. Strict silence had to be kept during the entire performance, or the spell was broken. At the present time the people go to the well in crowds on the first Sunday in May, when the Wesleyans hold a service there, and a sermon is preached; after which the people throw in two pins or pebbles to consult the spirit, or try for sweethearts; if the two articles sink together, they will soon be married.

"Here divination is performed on May morning by rustic maidens anxious to know when they are to be married. Two pieces of straw about an inch long are crossed and transfixed with a pin. This, floated on the waters, elicits bubbles, the number of which, carefully counted, denotes the years before the happy day."

Chapel Euny in Cornwall, near the Bartinné circle, has a wishing (lucky) well near it. It was used on one of the three first Wednesdays in May. Children suffering from mesenteric disease are dipped three times "widderschynnes," that is contrary to the sun's motion, And dragged round the well three times in the same direction:
( footnote 227:1 )

( footnote 227:2 ) thus refers to this well:—

"Some years since I had the curiosity to go with a friend to Chapel Enny on one of these Wednesdays, and, whilst watching at a distance, we saw two women come to the well at the appointed hour, and perform this ceremony on an infant."

Alsia Well, in the parish of Buryan, same parish as Bolleit circle, has its well ceremonials on the first three Wednesdays in May.

In Cornwall the May bathing ceremonial is even carried out in salt water.
( footnote 227:3 ) The time chosen is the same as that at Madron and Chapel Euny, the first three Sundays in May.

This Sunday in May celebration is not confined to Cornwall. At Eden Hall, Giant's Cave, water with sugar is drunk on the third Sunday in May: A vast concourse of both sexes is present.
( footnote 227:4 )

At Rorrington, a township in the parish of Chirbury, was a holy well at which a wake was celebrated on Ascension Day.

In the account of this well given by Gomme (p. 82) we get a glimpse of many associated usages.

"The well was adorned with a bower of green boughs, rushes, and flowers, and a may-pole was set up. The people walked round the well, dancing and frolicking as they went. They threw pins into the well to bring good luck and to preserve them from being bewitched, and they also drank some of the water. Cakes were also eaten; they were round flat buns from three to four; inches across, sweetened, spiced, and marked with a cross, and they were supposed to bring good luck if kept."

The legend given by Quiller-Couch (p. 55) respecting St. Cuthbert's well in North Cornwall is that "in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns; and thus, it is said; they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well."

At the village of Tissington, near Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, the custom of well-flowering is still observed on every anniversary of the Ascension (Hope, p. 48).

We may gather from these associated observances at different places that the wells themselves were situated near circles, for the worshippers would not be distributed at such a time. This argument is strengthened by the custom of "waking the well" which took place on the patron saint's day.

With regard to the time of the day or night at which well-worship took place, there seems little doubt that for the most part it was carried on at night. The practices connected with the "waking of the well" indicate this clearly, and when it is remembered that these ancient worships were carried on at a time when marriage had not been instituted, we can understand that many 'pagan' rituals savoured of sensualism as we should now think and call it.

The particular times when it was considered most propitious for the sick to visit the wells appear anciently to have been at daybreak or sunrise.

At the well at Farr, in Sutherlandshire, it is held that the patient, after undergoing his plunge, drinking of the water, and making his offering, "must be away from the banks so as to be fairly out of sight of the water before the sun rises, else no cure is effected." At Roche Holy-well, in Cornwall, before sunrise on holy Thursday was the appointed time.

Sometimes the moment of sunrise is chosen. To bathe in the well of St. Medan, at Kirkmaiden in Wigtonshire, as the sun rose on the first Sunday in May was considered an infallible cure for almost any disease.

On the other hand, in some cases, as at St. Madron's well, noon is chosen do the first .three Sundays in May, "not believing that these waters have any virtue if resorted to on any other days of the year, or at any other hour of the day."

With regard to the August festival, there is a holy well at St. Geer, near the Hurlers; the festival is held on August 9th.
( footnote 229:1 ) I have no special references to August wells in Ireland, but there is evidence given by Piers ( footnote 229:2 ) that at that time cattle were bathed.

"On the first Sunday in harvest, viz., in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched. I deny not but that swimming cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them, as the poet; hath observed:—

"Balantemque gregem fluvio mersare salubri."—Virg.

In th’ healthful flood to plunge the bleating flock.

but precisely to do this on the first Sunday in harvest, I look on as not only superstitious but profane."'

I next come to the solstice in June.

There is evidence concerning wells quite akin to that furnished by the astronomical use of the circles, that the May year festivals were subsequently changed to solstitial dates. The well worship does not appear to have been carried on in the cold weather—hence the absence of references to February and November; for the same reason we have only now to do with the summer solstice.

Hazlitt quotes the following from the Irish Hudibras (1689) concerning June worship at a well in the North of Ireland:—

"Have you beheld, when people pray
At St. John's well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle,
To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame,
And go as limping as they came."

At Barnwell (Beirna-well = youths’ well), near Cambridge, the festival took place on St. John's Day.
( footnote 230:1 )

Brand, in his history of Newcastle (ii. 54), refers to a. well still called Bede's Well, near Jarrow. "As late as 1740 it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well, at which also, on Midsummer Eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, music, etc."

Hope gives references to seven wells dedicated to "St. John," one to "St. John the Baptist," and four to St. Peter. These may have been solstitial wells, but the information given is very slight and not to the present point. He states (xxii) that the most important celebrations were first held in May and at the summer solstice. He then adds, "later Easter and Ascensiontide were the favoured seasons." May, Summer Solstice and Easter was, I think, the true order.

Finally, I may refer to the earliest holy well known to history. This is the famous well at where Ra used to wash himself, and Piankhi, B.C. 740, went and washed his face in it. At this same well the Virgin sat and washed her Son's swaddling bands in it. Its water made the balsam trees to grow. It is now called by the Arabs "The Fountain of the Sun" ‘Êyn ash-Shems.


213:1 The literature that I have chiefly consulted is as follows:—

R. C. Hope
Holy Wells; their Legends and Traditions.

R. L. Quiller-Couch
Ancient and holy Wells of Cornwall.

W. G. Wood-Martin
Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland.

G. L. Gomme
Ethnology in Folklore.

Prof. Rhys
Celtic Folklore, Manx and Welsh.

W. C. Borlase
Dolmens of Ireland.

S. Baring-Gould
A Book of the West.

214:1 Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, A Folklore Sketch, ii., p. 47.

215:1 Pp. 11, 47.

215:2 Celtic Folklore, Manx and Welsh, ii., p. 366.

215:3 Wood-Martin, loc. cit., ii., p. 80.

217:1 Standing Stones and Maeshowe of Stenness, by Magnus Spence, p. 13.

218:1 That is from W. to E. through N., or E. to W. through S.; in the same direction as the hands of a clock.

219:1 The Dolmens of Ireland, i., p. 3.

219:2 Ibid., pp. 95, 765.

Celtic Folklore, Manx and Welsh, i., p., 332.

219:4 Borlase, loc. cit., p. 760.

219:5 Ibid., p. 426.

220:1 Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Manx and Welsh, p. 363.

220:2 Pagan Ireland, p. 160.

220:3 Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Manx and Welsh, i., pp. 35.1, 35G, 357, &c.

220:4 Rhys, ibid., p. 332.

221:1 Ethnology in Folklore, p. 78.

222:1 Sikes: British Goblins, p. 351.

222:2 Sikes, idem., p. 329.

222:3 Folklore, 1892, p. 89.

223:1 Pagan Ireland, p. 145.

224:1 Celtic Folklore, Manx and Welsh.

224:2 Pagan Ireland, p. 160.

227:1 Hope, p. 14.

227:2 The Land's End District, p. 72.

227:3 Edmunds, p. 72.

227:4 Hope, p. 40.

229:1 St. Cleer = St. Cledod, A.D. 482. The arms of St. Cleer are the Sun in its glory.

229:2 Description of Westmeath, 1682, quoted by Vallencey, i., 121.

230:1 Hazlitt, ii., 616.


Next Chapter: Chapter XXII. Where Did the British Worship Originate?

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