What is a Holy Well?
In its simplest form, a Holy Well is just an emergent water source that is regarded as sacred, for whatever reason - by a group, a tribe, a community, or even by an individual.
In mainstream religious terms, for a well to be termed ‘holy’ it has to have caused some acknowledged physical benefit on a number of occasions. This is a similar type of accreditation to that necessary for the assignment of human sainthood - where an individual must have been shown to have achieved a certain number of successful and verified miracles before canonisation.
However, in the case of holy wells, these events may well (no pun intended) have happened in the dim and distant past, and only remain in the present in the ether of folk memory.
So, for a holy well still to be considered holy today, there needs to have been a bit more to it than that.
Let’s go back to basics.
Dupath Holy Well
What is a well?
Again, simplistically, a well is merely a shaft sunk into the ground, often under the guidance of a water diviner, and usually sited above at least two crossing veins of underground flowing water. The lower vein is both the base of the well and the fallback in times of low rainfall and/or sinking ground water.
But while this makes nearly all wells valuable and, in more rural areas, even essential, it doesn’t make them all ‘holy’ as such.
Many dowsers contend that one of the key features of a holy well is that one of the veins is fed by water being brought up under natural pressure from deep inside the earth.
There are two factors to be considered in this context. The more obvious one is that this water from great depth is more likely to have coursed through strata rich in minerals and salts, which will not only affect its taste, but also its chemical content - potentially in a medicinally beneficial way.
The other aspect is that this ultra-deep water may well be of a subtly different form of this most ubiquitous of liquids. There has been much debate over the years as to whether sources of ‘primary water’ can be differentiated from the everyday fluid that is part of the rain/river/ ocean/evaporation cycle. It has been suggested that the water from the deepest sources may actually be chemically separate from surface water - and not just because it has avoided atmospheric and human pollution prior to its appearance in a particular well.
Alan Neal has also proposed that such primal water sources may also carry traces of magnetism, absorbed from the rock strata through which it has passed. Magnetically enhanced bands and bangles have long been considered to promote health in certain circumstances. Additionally, and especially with reference to our own granite-based geology here in the south west of the UK, the potential for ground water to absorb and carry minute quantities of radioactivity may also be of some significance.
Earth Energy Enhancement
For a well to be regarded as sacred, as oppose to just useful, there needs to be other added elements. In dowsing terms, one of these factors is termed earth energy. Where lines of earth energy intersect, a spiral pattern can be found, which is essentially similar in nature to any vibrational interference pattern. Typically, there are two similar spirals at any such crossing - ‘flowing’ in opposite directions, and nested inside one another. Dowsers often find these to exhibit ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities, although that terminology may be a bit misleading in this context.
Crossing earth energy lines are not uncommon, and can usually be found in any modestly-sized piece of ground. Assuming the lines dowse as broadly beneficial, it can be a pleasant experience, and even mentally or emotionally beneficial, to stand, sit or lie over such a crossing point for a while. The stronger the dowsable energies, the greater will be the impact on life forms, such as ourselves, on the surface of the planet. However, even this does not make them all ‘holy’ places, as such.
The emergent underground currents of water, mentioned above, also exhibit similar energy patterns, with opposing - or should that be complementary - etheric water energy spirals at the crossing points.
Earth energy lines appear to be, essentially, the psychologically received output from geological cracks in the ground. Some of these fissures may also contain water energy - flowing or static - which can complicate the situation even more.
Where the crossing earth energy lines and the crossing water lines are closely superimposed, the whole atmosphere of the terrestrial location moves into another gear. And while there’s a huge number of crossing points of both earth energy and underground water flows, for the two to tightly overlap is rather less common.
However, when this over-writing does occur, we have the basic ingredients for the location of a Holy Well. Both the spiralling subtle effect of water, and the similar etheric pattern of earth energy, can be detected quite easily by even a novice dowser.
Although both sets of energy patterns are ‘non-physical’ manifestations, they are each quite distinct. Some will say that they sense the flow to be at different frequencies, while others may merely state that they ‘feel’ different. Either way, standing above four, often quite strong, gyrating spirals cannot easily be ignored.
Where the two crossing points do coincide, or at least where the various spirals significantly overlap, then the impression is that much stronger - or at least it is much more obvious to the recipient standing above it. It is not difficult to understand why people of all periods might ascribe such a powerful sensation as ‘being close to the presence of the divine’.
Where the two types of energy spirals - water and earth - partially overlap, but do not substantially cover one another, I have come to call these places ‘holyish’. Most Cathedrals and other major ecclesiastical buildings seem to have been originally founded above ‘very holy’ places, with a precise and often intricate interplay of moving earth and water energies. Out in the sticks, you can occasionally come across a ‘holyish’ well - or indeed any other quite sacred place - where the various lines and patterns are present, but are rather more diffuse.
However, once the holy well site had been identified and established, other factors came into play, as we shall see in a minute.
Even before the ‘modern’ paraphernalia of well-housings, locked buildings to preserve exclusivity, and the like, any reasonably sensitive person, standing quietly on the right spot on open ground, would know that something serious was going on at that place, deep inside mother earth.
It is worth noting at this point that some holy wells are not actually wells at all, but natural springs, or even redirected water flows reaching the surface at somewhere with more convenient access for the local community. This doesn’t make them any the less intrinsically ‘holy’ (always assuming they have been redirected from, or over, an appropriate sacred place).
A little dowsing practice helps to give form to the preceding explanation but, in essence, all of the above is quite natural, and can be relatively easily understood.
However, when we add in the human factor, as ever, it all gets a bit more complicated.
The L Word
Most people, even those outside of the dowsing or religious communities, will probably have heard of Ley Lines - long straight lines in the landscape that join various places of ancient or sacred origin. This subject is a complete booksworth of discussion and information in itself but, for these purposes, let us assume that Leys have some element of human intervention about them.
I have rarely, if ever, come across a well reputed to be holy that does not have a Ley (and often a very substantial one) coursing straight through it.
If Leys are essentially man-made, or man modified (perhaps an enhancement to the perceived sensation of a deep underground geological fault - as Alan Neal has often found), then the ubiquitous presence of them at holy well sites can be no co-incidence.
What is more perplexing is that leys tend to stretch for many miles - and sometimes across entire continents. However, holy wells are often to be found in shady woodland glades, or other visually obscured lowland locations.
It is the presence of these three elements - crossing water flows (usually including an input from a deep subterranean source), crossing earth energy veins which dowse as beneficial, and at least one Ley - that, in my opinion, generate the criteria for the location of a bona fide holy well.
However, enter stage right, religious practice.
The Historical Age
Consider, in the most ancient of human times, that a nomadic or early farming community found a place that felt somewhere on the scale between pleasant and stunning. They might well have regarded it as special - and they might well have decided to protect and to revere it. The fact that it might also have provided them with pure, health-enhancing water would have made it doubly attractive.
In due course, dozens - maybe even hundreds - of people would have gravitated to that place, probably simply by word of mouth. They would have brought with them all kinds of, generally positive, human activity. In the blink of a cosmic eye, the whole entourage of visitors (not unlike ourselves herding to our GPs today), accommodation needs and rudimentary transport infrastructure might have converted a nice quiet place in the woods into a veritable megalithic metropolis. You get my drift.
The Modern World
It is one thing to talk up a few healing instances to those desperately seeking help, or even insight. But to sustain this kind of activity across several sceptical millennia certainly requires some kind of serious practical output.
The sheer number of holy well sites speaks for itself. Helen Fox talks of up to 400 in Cornwall alone, while Rowan suggests that at the end of the 19th century a typical UK county had around 40 such sites, which puts the figure for Britain as a whole well into the thousands. However, he also states that Pembrokeshire alone had at least 295 such wells. So this was a widely spread and long-lived phenomenon, which must be rooted in something significantly stronger than pure hearsay.
While some holy wells appear to have been used for enlightenment or divination, the vast majority were clearly locations set aside for healing and purification. Different wells, later dedicated to different saints (who may or may not have had anything to do with the original foundation of the well!), are described as having different health-promoting attributes. According to Terry Faull, at least 40% of those in Devon were associated with addressing the problems of sight and of the eyes. Eyewell Wales (Wales in this instance actually derives from ‘wells’) near Dorchester, is also a good example of this nomenclature.
Marrying the spiritual with the scientific to some extent, we can reasonably say that visiting a holy well site with an open heart and an open mind, and with good intent and sincere humility, probably is likely to have some sort of intrinsic health benefit - physical and/or mental. If there is someone present to lead the uninitiated through a helpful ritual - to reinforce the intent, as Christopher Strong would say - then so much the better.
One can even argue that if a visit to a place in the belief that it will make you better actually works, then why knock it. Pilgrimage routes may have become mediaeval mass tourism, but at least some of the time they seem to have worked for at least some of the pilgrims.
The earlier reference to eye problems may be significant, in that the mix of dowsable energies at holy wells could well bring about improved introspection, under the right circumstances, through mildly altered states of consciousness. This could be seen (again no pun intended) as improving insight as well as, or instead of, physical vision.
A more analytical approach might be that merely being in the presence of the energies at the holy well for a short period would be beneficial in itself. Some will argue that this is due to the electrical, or piezo-electrical, emanations from the underlying geology, altering similarly electrically-activated states in the mind, which in turn could affect the physical brain - and I wouldn’t disagree with that. Others may contend that psychic or spiritual input can cause the human or animal body to modestly self-modify hormone and other chemical levels in the nervous, lymphatic or digestive systems, which could also have knock-on physical health benefits.
However, if we take the emerging view that healing, even in the modern world, takes the form of pure information transfer, then what better data carrier could there be than a good slurp of pure, even enhanced, natural water to effect a cure.
At the most philosophical end of this spectrum, if we do need a modified state of mind to appreciate our ability to create, or at least to manipulate, our own reality, then the easily-experienced melange of energies at a holy well would seem to be an excellent place to attain it.
St Keyne Holy Well
A passing word ought to be included in this piece concerning the ancient practice of leaving objects, with or without accompanying texts, at holy wells - and also the giving of votive offerings to the spirit or the deity of the well.
While it is not exclusive to wells, the long-standing, and now quite widespread practice of leaving shreds of clothing (known traditionally as ‘clouties’ in various parts of the country) at such places is certainly worth a mention.
The original concept appears to have been that a piece of cloth bearing the witness, aura (or even the DNA!) of someone seeking healing could be left at a well head, often hanging on or tied to a nearby tree or bush. As the material decayed, the supplicant would hope that the illness or affliction would gradually dissipate.
In modern times this concept seems to have become somewhat distorted, with many well-trees now bizarrely festooned with non-degradable pieces of fabric - which would seem to rather negate the object of the exercise.
Various types of votive offering have long been the custom at holy places generally, but particularly at locations associated with water. It is academically documented that large quantities of deliberately broken, but highly prized, bronze and iron swords, and also of pieces of exquisite jewellery, have been found in bogs and in ancient watercourses.
At holy wells, it is more common to find such items as pins and coins. Notwithstanding the absence of logic, the throwing of coins into wishing wells (at least some of which might indeed be considered to be holy) continues to be practised into the modern era.
Are Holy Wells Female?
Holy wells and springs certainly figure strongly in the ‘old religion’, and that would imply an inherent orientation towards the female. My own earth energy dowsing hasn’t generally come up with a significant bias towards the feminine, but maybe that is an area to which I need to give more attention.
Taking the author and dowser Peter Knight’s stance of looking at the pre-modern world through the eyes of those who were present at the time, the unaided emergence of pure, life-giving, health promoting fluid, straight out of the ground, would have seemed quite miraculous. Indeed, it still seems pretty remarkable today. If their impression of the biosphere was essentially one that regarded it as the female provider and sustainer (as in the Gaia principle), then to find ‘her lifeblood’ flowing so freely at certain sacred places would have provided them with an even stronger gender tendency towards holy wells.
Even after the incremental Christianisation of many of the old sacred sites, there still seemed to be a quiet predominance of wells and springs bearing the names of female saints. Whereas (outside of the Catholic tradition) the vast majority of churches built over pagan sacred places became, and remain, dedicated to male patrons.
In summing up this aspect of the phenomenon, the authors and folklorists Colin and Janet Bord write:
“We designate the spirit of the well as 'she' because in most of her personifications she takes a female form, though not invariably. She appears in many guises - ghost, witch, saint, mermaid, fairy, and sometimes in animal form, often as a sacred fish - and her presence permeates well lore, and indeed water lore generally.”
It can be all too easy to dismiss locations such as holy wells as historical novelties. However, there is too much anecdotal evidence of people, right across the human timescale and living in diverse cultures, gaining benefit from visiting - and creating - such places, to sweep them aside without a second thought.
Modern earth energy dowsing, together with a resurgence in interest in sympathetic medicinal practices, are rehabilitating holy wells as places of both cultural and practical significance.
Nigel Twinn November 2019
(with input from Alan Neal)
Some books on the subject:
Helen Fox: Cornish Saints and Holy Wells (three volumes)
Terry Faull: Secrets of the Hidden Source: Holy Wells in Devon