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Druidry : River and Well Worship

Posted from the book “The Religion of the Ancient Celts" - By J. A. MacCulloch - [1911] - (Obtain this full work and many more backups by clicking here!)

This book, is one of the best scholarly treatments of the ancient Celtic religion. Written early in the 20th Century, "Religion of the Ancient Celts" includes extensive treatment of that perennially fascinating subject, the Druids.

Among the Celts the testimony of contemporary witnesses, inscriptions, votive offerings, and survivals, shows the importance of the cult of waters and of water divinities. Mr. Gomme argues that Celtic water-worship was derived from the pre-Celtic aborigines, but if so, the Celts must have had a peculiar aptitude for it, since they were so enthusiastic in its observance. What probably happened was that the Celts, already worshippers of the waters, freely adopted local cults of water wherever they came. Some rivers or river-goddesses in Celtic regions seem to posses pre-Celtic names.

Treasures were flung into a sacred lake near Toulouse to cause a pestilence to cease. Caepion, who afterwards fished up this treasure, fell soon after in battle--a punishment for cupidity, and aurum Tolosanum now became an expression for goods dishonestly acquired. A yearly festival, lasting three days, took place at Lake Gévaudan. Garments, food, and wax were thrown into the waters, and animals were sacrificed. On the fourth day, it is said, there never failed to spring up a tempest of rain, thunder, and lightning--a strange reward for this worship of the lake. S. Columba routed the spirits of a Scottish fountain which was worshipped as a god, and the well now became sacred, perhaps to the saint himself, who washed in it and blessed it so that it cured diseases. 

On inscriptions a river name is prefixed by some divine epithet--dea, augusta, and the worshipper records his gratitude for benefits received from the divinity or the river itself. Bormanus, Bormo or Borvo, Danuvius (the Danube), and Luxovius are found on inscriptions as names of river or fountain gods, but goddesses are more numerous--Acionna, Aventia, Bormana, Brixia, Carpundia, Clutoida, Divona, Sirona, Ura--well-nymphs; and Icauna (the Yonne), Matrona, and Sequana (the Seine)--river-goddesses. No inscription to the goddess of a lake has yet been found. Some personal names like Dubrogenos (son of the Dubron), Enigenus (son of the Aenus), and the belief of Virdumarus that one of his ancestors was the Rhine, point to the idea that river-divinities might have amours with mortals and beget progeny called by their names. In Ireland, Conchobar was so named from the river whence his mother Nessa drew water, perhaps because he was a child of the river-god. 

The name of the water-divinity was sometimes given to the place of his or her cult, or to the towns which sprang up on the banks of rivers-the divinity thus becoming a tutelary god. Many towns (e.g. Divonne or Dyonne, etc.) have names derived from a common Celtic river name Deuona, "divine." This name in various forms is found all over the Celtic area, and there is little doubt that the Celts, in their onward progress, named river after river by the name of the same divinity, believing that each new river was a part of his or her kingdom. The name was probably first an appellative, then a personal name, the divine river becoming a divinity. Deus Nemausus occurs on votive tablets at Nimes, the name Nemausus being that of the clear and abundant spring there whence flowed the river of the same name. A similar name occurs in other regions--Nemesa, a tributary of the Moselle; Nemh, the source of the Tara and the former name of the Blackwater; and Nimis, a Spanish river mentioned by Appian. Another group includes the Matrona (Marne), the Moder, the Madder, the Maronne and Maronna, and others, probably derived from a word signifying "mother." The mother-river was that which watered a whole region, just as in the Hindu sacred books the waters are mothers, sources of fertility. The Celtic mother-rivers were probably goddesses, akin to the Matres, givers of plenty and fertility. In Gaul, Sirona, a river-goddess, is represented like the Matres. She was associated with Grannos, perhaps as his mother, and Professor Rhŷs equates the pair with the Welsh Modron and Mabon; Modron is probably connected with Matrona. In any case the Celts regarded rivers as bestowers of life, health, and plenty, and offered them rich gifts and sacrifices. 

Gods like Grannos, Borvo, and others, equated with Apollo, presided over healing springs, and they are usually associated with goddesses, as their husbands or sons. But as the goddesses are more numerous, and as most Celtic river names are feminine, female divinities of rivers and springs doubtless had the earlier and foremost place, especially as their cult was connected with fertility. The gods, fewer in number, were all equated with Apollo, but the goddesses were not merged by the Romans into the personality of one goddess, since they themselves had their groups of river-goddesses, Nymphs and Naiads. Before the Roman conquest the cult of water-divinities, friends of mankind, must have formed a large part of the popular religion of Gaul, and their names may be counted by hundreds. Thermal springs had also their genii, and they were appropriated by the Romans, so that the local gods now shared their healing powers with Apollo, Æsculapius, and the Nymphs. Thus every spring, every woodland brook, every river in glen or valley, the roaring cataract, and the lake were haunted by divine beings, mainly thought of as beautiful females with whom the Matres were undoubtedly associated. There they revealed themselves to their worshippers, and when paganism had passed away, they remained as fées or fairies haunting spring, or well, or river. Scores of fairy wells still exist, and by them mediæval knights had many a fabled amour with those beautiful beings still seen by the "ignorant" but romantic peasant.

Sanctuaries were erected at these springs by grateful worshippers, and at some of them festivals were held, or they were the resort of pilgrims. As sources of fertility they had a place in the ritual of the great festivals, and sacred wells were visited on Midsummer day, when also the river-gods claimed their human victims. Some of the goddesses were represented by statues or busts in Gallo-Roman times, if not earlier, and other images of them which have been found were of the nature of ex-votos, presented by worshippers in gratitude for the goddess's healing gifts. Money, ingots of gold or silver, and models of limbs or other parts of the body which had been or were desired to be healed, were also presented. Gregory of Tours says of the Gauls that they "represent in wood or bronze the members in which they suffer, and whose healing they desire, and place them in a temple." Contact of the model with the divinity brought healing to the actual limbs on the principle of sympathetic magic. Many such models have been discovered. Thus in the shrine of Dea Sequana was found a vase with over a hundred; another contained over eight hundred. Inscriptions were engraved on plaques which were fastened to the walls of temples, or placed in springs. Leaden tablets with inscriptions were placed in springs by those who desired healing or when the waters were low, and on some the actual waters are hardly discriminated from the divinities. The latter are asked to heal or flow or swell--words which apply more to the waters than to them, while the tablets, with their frank animism, also show that, in some cases, there were many elemental spirits of a well, only some of whom were rising to the rank of a goddess. They are called collectively Niskas--the Nixies of later tradition, but some have personal names--Lerano, Dibona, Dea--showing that they were tending to become separate divine personalities. The Peisgi are also appealed to, perhaps the later Piskies, unless the word is a corrupt form of a Celtic peiskos, or the Latin piscus, "fish." This is unlikely, as fish could not exist in a warm sulphurous spring, though the Celts believed in the sacred fish of wells or streams. The fairies now associated with wells or with a water-world beneath them, are usually nameless, and only in a few cases have a definite name. They, like the older spirits of the wells, have generally a beneficent character. Thus in the fountains of Logres dwelt damsels who fed the wayfarer with meat and bread, until grievous wrong was done them, when they disappeared and the land became waste. Occasionally, however, they have a more malevolent character.

The spirit of the waters was often embodied in an animal, usually a fish. Even now in Brittany the fairy dweller in a spring has the form of an eel, while in the seventeenth century Highland wells contained fish so sacred that no one dared to catch them. In Wales S. Cybi's well contained a huge eel in whose virtues the villagers believed, and terror prevailed when any one dared to take it from the water. Two sacred fish still exist in a holy well at Nant Peris, and are replaced by others when they die, the dead fish being buried. This latter act, solemnly performed, is a true sign of the divine or sacred character of the animal. Many wells with sacred fish exist in Ireland, and the fish have usually some supernatural quality--they never alter in size, they become invisible, or they take the form of beautiful women. Any one destroying such fish was regarded as a sacrilegious person, and sometimes a hostile tribe killed and ate the sacred fish of a district invaded by them, just as Egyptians of one nome insulted those of another by killing their sacred animals. In old Irish beliefs the salmon was the fish of knowledge. Thus whoever ate the salmon of Connla's well was dowered with the wisdom which had come to them through eating nuts from the hazels of knowledge around the well. In this case the sacred fish was eaten, but probably by certain persons only--those who had the right to do so. Sinend, who went to seek inspiration from the well, probably by eating one of its salmon, was overwhelmed by its waters. The legend of the salmon is perhaps based on old ritual practices of the occasional eating of a divine animal. In other cases, legends of a miraculous supply of fish from sacred wells are perhaps later Christian traditions of former pagan beliefs or customs concerning magical methods of increasing a sacred or totem animal species, like those used in Central Australia and New Guinea. The frog is sometimes the sacred animal, and this recalls the Märchen of the Frog Bridegroom living in a well, who insisted on marrying the girl who drew its waters. Though this tale is not peculiar to the Celts, it is not improbable that the divine animal guardian of a well may have become the hero of a folk-tale, especially as such wells were sometimes tabu to women. A fly was the guardian spirit of S. Michael's well in Banffshire. Auguries regarding health were drawn from its movements, and it was believed that the fly, when it grew old, transmigrated into another. 

Such beliefs were not peculiarly Celtic. They are found in all European folk-lore, and they are still alive among savages--the animal being itself divine or the personification of a divinity. A huge sacred eel was worshipped by the Fijians; in North America and elsewhere there were serpent guardians of the waters; and the Semites worshipped the fish of sacred wells as incarnations or, symbols of a god.
Later Celtic folk-belief associated monstrous and malevolent beings with rivers and lakes. These may be the older divinities to whom a demoniac form has been given, but even in pagan times such monstrous beings may have been believed in, or they may be survivals of the more primitive monstrous guardians of the waters. The last were dragons or serpents, conventional forms of the reptiles which once dwelt in watery places, attacking all who came near. This old idea certainly survived in Irish and Highland belief, for the Fians conquered huge dragons or serpents in lochs, or saints chained them to the bottom of the waters. Hence the common place-name of Loch na piast, "Loch of the Monster." In other tales they emerge and devour the impious or feast on the dead. The Dracs of French superstition--river monsters who assume human form and drag down victims to the depths, where they devour them--resemble these.

The Each Uisge, or "Water-horse," a horse with staring eyes, webbed feet, and a slimy coat, is still dreaded. He assumes different forms and lures the unwary to destruction, or he makes love in human shape to women, some of whom discover his true nature by seeing a piece of water-weed in his hair, and only escape with difficulty. Such a water-horse was forced to drag the chariot of S. Fechin of Fore, and under his influence became "gentler than any other horse."Many Highland lochs are still haunted by this dreaded being, and he is also known in Ireland and France, where, however, he has more of a tricky and less of a demoniac nature. His horse form is perhaps connected with the similar form ascribed to Celtic water-divinities. Manannan's horses were the waves, and he was invariably associated with a horse. Epona, the horse-goddess, was perhaps originally goddess of a spring, and, like the Matres, she is sometimes connected with the waters. 1 Horses were also sacrificed to river-divinities. But the beneficent water-divinities in their horse form have undergone a curious distortion, perhaps as the result of later Christian influences. The name of one branch of the Fomorians, the Goborchinn, means the "Horse-headed," and one of their kings was Eochaid Echchenn, or "Horse-head." Whether these have any connection with the water-horse is uncertain.

The foaming waters may have suggested another animal personification, since the name of the Boyne in Ptolemy, βουούινδα, is derived from a primitive bóu-s, "ox," and vindo-s, "white," in Irish bó find, "white cow." But it is not certain that this or the Celtic cult of the bull was connected with the belief in the Tarbh Uisge, or "Water-bull," which had no ears and could assume other shapes. It dwells in lochs and is generally friendly to man, occasionally emerging to mate with ordinary cows. In the Isle of Man the Tarroo Ushtey, however, begets monsters. These Celtic water-monsters have a curious resemblance to the Australian Bunyip.

The Uruisg, often confused with the brownie, haunts lonely places and waterfalls, and, according to his mood, helps or harms the wayfarer. His appearance is that of a man with shaggy hair and beard. 1 In Wales the afanc is a water-monster, though the word first meant "dwarf," then "water-dwarf," of whom many kinds existed. They correspond to the Irish water-dwarfs, the Luchorpáin, descended with the Fomorians and Goborchinn from Ham. 

In other cases the old water beings have a more pleasing form, like the syrens and other fairy beings who haunt French rivers, or the mermaids of Irish estuaries. In Celtic France and Britain lake fairies are connected with a water-world like that of Elysium tales, the region of earlier divinities. They unite with mortals, who, as in the Swan-maiden tales, lose their fairy brides through breaking a tabu. In many Welsh tales the bride is obtained by throwing bread and cheese on the waters, when she appears with an old man who has all the strength of youth. He presents his daughter and a number of fairy animals to the mortal. When she disappears into the waters after the breaking of the tabu, the lake is sometimes drained in order to recover her; the father then appears and threatens to submerge the whole district. Father and daughters are earlier lake divinities, and in the bread and cheese we may see a relic of the offerings to these. 

Human sacrifice to water-divinities is suggested by the belief that water-monsters devour human beings, and by the tradition that a river claims its toll of victims every year. In popular rhymes the annual character of the sacrifice is hinted at, and Welsh legend tells of a voice heard once a year from rivers or lakes, crying, "The hour is come, but the man is not." Here there is the trace of an abandoned custom of sacrifice and of the traditional idea of the anger of the divinity at being neglected. Such spirits or gods, like the water-monsters, would be ever on the watch to capture those who trespassed on their domain. In some cases the victim is supposed to be claimed on Midsummer eve, the time of the sacrifice in the pagan period. The spirits of wells had also a harmful aspect to those, at least, who showed irreverence in approaching them. This is seen in legends about the danger of looking rashly into a well or neglecting to cover it, or in the belief that one must not look back after visiting the well. Spirits of wells were also besought to do harm to enemies.

Legends telling of the danger of removing or altering a well, or of the well moving elsewhere because a woman washed her hands in it, point to old tabus concerning wells. Boand, wife of Nechtain, went to the fairy well which he and his cup-bearers alone might visit, and when she showed her contempt for it, the waters rose and destroyed her. They now flow as the river Boyne. Sinend met with a similar fate for intruding on Connla's well, in this case the pursuing waters became the Shannon.These are variants of a story which might be used to explain the origin of any river, but the legends suggest that certain wells were tabu to women because certain branches of knowledge, taught by the well, must be reserved for men. The legends said in effect, "See what came of women obtruding beyond their proper sphere." Savage "mysteries" are usually tabu to women, who also exclude men from their sacred rites. On the other hand, as all tribal lore was once in the hands of the wise woman, such tabus and legends may have arisen when men began to claim such lore. In other legends women are connected with wells, as the guardians who must keep them locked up save when water was drawn. When the woman neglected to replace the cover, the waters burst forth, overwhelming her, and formed a loch.The woman is the priestess of the well who, neglecting part of its ritual, is punished. Even in recent times we find sacred wells in charge of a woman who instructs the visitors in the due ritual to be performed. If such legends and survivals thus point to former Celtic Priestesses of wells, these are paralleled by the Norse Horgabrudar, guardians of wells, now elves living in the waters. That such legends are based on the ritual of well-worship is suggested by Boand's walking three times widdershins round the well, instead of the customary deiseil. The due ritual must be observed, and the stories are a warning against its neglect.

In spite of twenty centuries of Christianity and the anathemas of saints and councils, the old pagan practices at healing wells have survived--a striking instance of human conservatism. S. Patrick found the pagans of his day worshipping a well called Slán, "health-giving," and offering sacrifices to it, and the Irish peasant to-day has no doubt that there is something divine about his holy wells. The Celts brought the belief in the divinity of springs and wells with them, but would naturally adopt local cults wherever they found them. Afterwards the Church placed the old pagan wells under the protection of saints, but part of the ritual often remained unchanged. Hence many wells have been venerated for ages by different races and through changes in religion and polity. Thus at the thermal springs of Vicarello offerings have been found which show that their cult has continued from the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age, to the days of Roman civilisation, and so into modern times; nor is this a solitary instance. 2 But it serves to show that all races, high and low, preserve the great outlines of primitive nature religion unchanged. In all probability the ritual of the healing wells has also remained in great part unaltered, and wherever it is found it follows the same general type. The patient perambulated the well three times deiseil or sun-wise, taking care not to utter a word. Then he knelt at the well and prayed to the divinity for his healing. In modern times the saint, but occasionally the well itself, is prayed to. Then he drank of the waters, bathed in them, or laved his limbs or sores, probably attended by the priestess of the well. Having paid her dues, he made an offering to the divinity of the well, and affixed the bandage or part of his clothing to the well or a tree near by, that through it he might be in continuous rapport with the healing influences. Ritual formulæ probably accompanied these acts, but otherwise no word was spoken, and the patient must not look back on leaving the well. Special times, Beltane, Midsummer, or August 1st, were favourable for such visits, and where a patient was too ill to present himself at the well, another might perform the ritual for him.

The rag, or clothing hung on the tree seems to connect the spirit of the tree with that of the well, and tree and well are often found together. But sometimes it is thrown into the well, just as the Gaulish villagers of S. Gregory's day threw offerings of cloth and wool into a sacred lake. 3 The rag is even now regarded in the light of an offering, and such offerings, varying from valuable articles of clothing to mere rags, are still hung on sacred trees by the folk. It thus probably has always had a sacrificial aspect in the ritual of the well, but as magic and religion constantly blend, it had also its magical aspect. The rag, once in contact with the patient, transferred his disease to the tree, or, being still subtly connected with him, through it the healing properties passed over to him.

The offering thrown into the well--a pin, coin, etc., may also have this double aspect. The sore is often pricked or rubbed with the pin as if to transfer the disease to the well, and if picked up by another person, the disease may pass to him. This is also true of the coin. But other examples show the sacrificial nature of the pin or other trifle, which is probably symbolic or a survival of a more costly offering. In some cases it is thought that those who do not leave it at the well from which they have drunk will die of thirst, and where a coin is offered it is often supposed to disappear, being taken by the spirit of the well. The coin has clearly the nature of an offering, and sometimes it must be of gold or silver, while the antiquity of the custom on Celtic ground is seen by the classical descriptions of the coins glittering in the pool of Clitumnus and of the "gold of Toulouse" hid in sacred tanks. It is also an old and widespread belief that all water belongs to some divine or monstrous guardian, who will not part with any of it without a quid pro quo. In many cases the two rites of rag and pin are not both used, and this may show that originally they had the same purpose--magical or sacrificial, or perhaps both. Other sacrifices were also made--an animal, food, or an ex voto, the last occurring even in late survivals as at S. Thenew's Well, Glasgow, where even in the eighteenth century tin cut to represent the diseased member was placed on the tree, or at S. Winifred's Well in Wales, where crutches were left.

Certain waters had the power of ejecting the demon of madness. Besides drinking, the patient was thrown into the waters, the shock being intended to drive the demon away, as elsewhere demons are exorcised by flagellation or beating. The divinity of the waters aided the process, and an offering was usually made to him. In other cases the sacred waters were supposed to ward off disease from the district or from those who drank of them. Or, again, they had the power of conferring fertility. Women made pilgrimages to wells, drank or bathed in the waters, implored the spirit or saint to grant them offspring, and made a due offering. Spirit or saint, by a transfer of his power, produced fruitfulness, but the idea was in harmony with the recognised power of water to purify, strengthen, and heal. Women, for a similar reason, drank or washed in the waters or wore some articles dipped in them, in order to have an easy delivery or abundance of milk.

The waters also gave oracles, their method of flowing the amount of water in the well, the appearance or non-appearance of bubbles at the surface when an offering was thrown in, the sinking or floating of various articles, all indicating whether a cure was likely to occur, whether fortune or misfortune awaited the inquirer, or, in the case of girls, whether their lovers would be faithful. The movements of the animal guardian of the well were also ominous to the visitor. Rivers or river divinities were also appealed to. In cases of suspected fidelity the Celts dwelling by the Rhine placed the newly-born child in a shield on the waters. If it floated the mother was innocent; if it sank it was allowed to drown, and she was put to death. Girls whose purity was suspected were similarly tested, and S. Gregory of Tours tells how a woman accused of adultery was proved by being thrown into the Saône. The mediæval witch ordeal by water is connected with this custom, which is, however, widespread.

The malevolent aspect of the spirit of the well is seen in the "cursing wells" of which it was thought that when some article inscribed with an enemy's name was thrown into them with the accompaniment of a curse, the spirit of the well would cause his death. In some cases the curse was inscribed on a leaden tablet thrown into the waters, just as, in other cases, a prayer for the offerer's benefit was engraved on it. Or, again, objects over which a charm had been said were placed in a well that the victim who drew water might be injured. An excellent instance of a cursing-well is that of Fynnon Elian in Denbigh, which must once have had a guardian priestess, for in 1815 an old woman who had charge of it presided at the ceremony. She wrote the name of the victim in a book, receiving a gift at the same time. A pin was dropped into the well in the name of the victim, and through it and through knowledge of his name, the spirit of the well acted upon him to his hurt. Obviously rites like these, in which magic and religion mingle, are not purely Celtic, but it is of interest to note their existence in Celtic lands and among Celtic folk.
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