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Holy Wells and the Power of Water

By Michael Berman

Wells have long been believed to possess the power to heal, if not cure, illnesses of various kinds. After some background information on the subject, three of the many that can be found in the west of England will be presented in this article.

Wells have a long tradition of marking sacred places. The Waters have been described as the reservoir of all the potentialities of existence because they not only precede every form but they also serve to sustain every creation. Immersion is equivalent to dissolution of form, in other words death, whereas emergence repeats the cosmogonic act of formal manifestation, in other words re-birth (see Eliade, 1952, p.151). And, following on from this, the surface of water can be defined as “the meeting place and doorway from one realm to another: from that which is revealed to that which is hidden, from conscious to unconscious” (Shaw & Francis, 2008, p.13).

A large number [of wells], having been hijacked and “sainted” by the early Church, became places of pilgrimage connected with the cult of a local saint, such as the famous well of St Winifred at Holywell in North Wales which in the Middle Ages was one of the important pilgrimage centres in England and Wales. Many wells and springs had suitably Christian legends attached to them during the 7th – 9th centuries, during the main centuries of the struggle between the Christianity (especially of the Celtic variety) and paganism, usually to “account” for their discovery or origins. … At St Ludgvan’s well in Cornwall, [for example,] local legend has it that the waters appeared in response to the hermit saint’s prayers for something wondrous which would draw the heathen locals to his ministry. [And] both Gwynllyw’s Well in Glamorgan and Illtud’s well on the Gower peninsula … originated when their respective saints stuck their staffs in the ground and fresh water sprang forth

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