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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 85

{191} 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."636 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 {192} 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.639 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 {193} 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,643 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. 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.645 Then he drank of the waters, bathed in them, or laved his limbs or sores, probably attended {194} 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,646 and where a patient was too ill to present himself at the well, another might perform the ritual for him.647

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. 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 {195} 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


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