Wishing on a Well

Coventina and Others

There are (or were, they are rapidly disappearing) thousands of sacred wells throughout the British Isles, and it is likely that most, or all, were regarded with veneration. Evidence for the sanctity with which springs were viewed is abundant. Gildas (the British monk who is one of our primary sources for the immediate post-Roman world), says in his bitter ‘state of the nation’ excoriation of the shortcomings of his fellow celts, ‘Neither do I, by name, inveigh against the mountains, valleys or rivers… upon which divine honour was then heaped by the people in their blindness.’ This is an interesting confirmation of the animism discussed by Pearson and Harrill, and more concrete proof can be found not only within the archaeological contexts of the springs themselves, but the fact that shrines were often constructed at the location, dedicated to whichever goddess (and it was inevitably a goddess) was seen to provide the life-giving water.

One of the most famous of these is close to Hadrian’s Wall, lying just outside the fort at Carrawburgh (Brocolitia). At some point, likely after the construction of the Wall itself, a walled area was built to control the flow of the water, which until then had simply risen into the field, and to provide a shrine – more than forty feet wide – for the goddess. Now known as Coventina’s Well, when the site was excavated in 1876 by John Clayton, not only were two dedications found giving the name of the tutelary deity (often beginning ‘Deae Coventinae’ – ‘To the Goddess Coventina’), but so were many altars both to her and Minerva (with whom she may have been associated) Interestingly, one depiction showed her as three nymphs, in a ‘triple goddess’ form. More germane to our inquiry, some 32,487 coins were discovered in the spring, as well as a huge amount of more mundane offerings. The shrine seems to have been in use from around the time of the building of the fort (c.128-133) to close to the end of the fourth century, a span of over 250 years (for more exhaustive detail on both the site and Coventina in general – including intriguing speculation that the city of Coventry may be named after her – see http://www.tehomet.net/coventina/index.php).

In a similar fashion, although the veneration of the springs at Bath is justifiably famous, there would certainly have been many other shrines to deities who presided over springs and wells. At the huge villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, a natural spring emerges from the hillside at the northwest corner of the villa. This flowed into a pool, which was the focus of a nymphaeum (shrine to the water nymphs) which still stands to a height of two metres, and although it seems a clandestine attempt was made at some point to exert a Christian influence (a chi-rho symbol being scratched onto the edge of the pool), the shrine was clearly powerfully symbolic for the inhabitants of the villa, who derived all their supply from it (and indeed may well have been the rationale behind the siting of the villa). Indeed the site may have even been constructed with a religious motive in mind – it has been suggested (owing to the abundance of altars and attendant iconography) that the site was primarily religious in nature, rather than privately owned or domestic. There was a Romano-British temple some 800 metres southeast of the villa, and another building was located diametrically opposite, northwest of the villa in Chedworth Woods. This was destroyed by the construction of the railway in the later 19th century, but other finds indicate it may also have been a temple. The argument regarding the original form and function of Chedworth is likely to go on – it has many puzzling features discordant with the idea of a private farm – although modern opinion tends to domestic use.

It seems that quite outside the formal arrangements of temple or nymphaeum, pretty much every spring or well in the British countryside was viewed as a place where one would either propitiate the genii loci, or simply ask for something. The extent to which the asking of boons was ritualised is hard to determine, but can be guessed at from the folklore around holy wells, at many of which people would have sought cures for illness from lameness to leprosy, from headaches to infertility. This pagan practice proved impossible for the nascent Church to stamp out, so they simply ‘adopted’ the wells, often renaming them in favour of the local saint. This also ensured that the practice of visiting the well on existing holy days could simply switch to the Saint’s Day.

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