Clouties hanging from a tree near Madron's Well, Cornwall - by Jim Champion (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Clouties hanging from a tree near Madron's Well, Cornwall - photo by Jim Champion

From the waters of Nu, the primeval ocean of Egyptian myth, to the river Styx, which deceased souls cross on their final journey, from the world-encircling oceanic serpent known as Oceanus or Jormungand, to the celestial river of The Milky Way which flows to the land of the soul, water has always denoted the confines of earthly existence, both at its beginning and at its end, and in both a physical and spiritual sense.

This belief evolved because water is the life force of Mother Earth. Just as blood flows through the veins of our bodies, so water flows through the rivers and oceans of the Earth, in a lovely demonstration of the macrocosm-microcosm relationship: “as above, so below.” No living thing can survive without water, and as birth is heralded by the breaking of the waters, so it was believed that the soul was also carried out of this world by a celestial river. Therefore it is no surprise that water has always held such importance in belief and tradition.

Breaking Boundaries

Like all boundaries, those defined by water can be breached. Oceans, rivers, lakes and springs have all been traditionally considered liminal zones - places where the metaphysical boundaries between our world and the spirit world are weak. Crossing of water was often associated with physical and spiritual journeys to other worlds. The Irish folk heroes, Oisin and Bran and also the Japanese hero Urashima all sailed across the ocean to reach a paradisiacal land, and Gawain in the 14th century saga, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, had to cross water to reach the Green Knight's castle, an allusion to the spiritual initiation or test that he was undergoing. "Beyond the seventh wave" was a Celtic metaphor synonymous with the land of the spirit.

And just as these portals were open to humans, so these liminal spots were considered places where Gods, spirits and a vast array of otherworldly beings could manifest in our plane of existence. Rivers, springs and wells, especially, are very commonly associated with legends of fairies, dragons and other mythical creatures. Even today, this belief persists in the superstition that neither ghosts, witches nor werewolves can cross water, and conversely that trolls are wont to lurk beneath river bridges.

Waters From The Deep

Springs, especially, have always received great reverence in traditional cultures. As the water flows directly from underground - from the body of the Goddess - it was thought to provide a direct source of divine inspiration. In an Irish legend, Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge, lived in Nechtan's well of inspiration until caught by the fabled hero Fionn MacCumhail, to whom his wisdom passed.

Many springs revered throughout Europe in ancient times retained their sanctity into the Christian era, becoming Holy Wells dedicated to early Christian saints, often famed for their healing properties. As one example, St Non's Holy Well, found in St Non's Bay, South Wales, was fabled for its healing properties in the 18th and 19th centuries. A clue to the long sanctity of the spot, the well and the associated chapel of St Non are located near a Bronze Age stone circle, built thousands of years before the Christian era.

Many of these dedicatory saints are female, a fact that links back to their earlier origins as the Mother Goddess in her many guises. And several of these saints indeed originated as Celtic Goddesses, for example St Bridget, to whom many Holy Wells were dedicated, was originally Brigit, an aspect of the Triple Goddess symbolising a woman's transition from maiden to mother. Both Brigit and St Bridget were at one time invoked during childbirth.

Archaeological excavations reveal that since time immemorial, votive offerings have been dropped into water. In Coventina's Well in Northumberland, dedicated to a local but highly revered British Goddess, a vast array of coins, pins, jewellery and other offerings have been recovered, mostly dating from the Roman period.

Bronze axes, arrowheads and cauldrons dating to Iron Age and Bronze Age periods are frequently discovered in one-time sacred sites. These have often been deliberately broken, possibly signifying their transition from material use to a spiritual purpose. And even in the 21st century we feel compelled to drop coins into wishing wells and fountains.

A legacy of millennia of respect and veneration, our belief in the sanctity of the waters of the Earth runs as strongly as ever. And it is likely to remain so for millennia to come.