Rivers, Streams, Lakes and Wells
Water has always played an integral role in human life but was held with exceptional reverence by the Celts. Reverence for springs and wells specifically, was very widespread. There was an underlying belief that water held very strong curative powers. Not only is water necessary to survive but it often seemed to magically flow from underground (the Underworld or Otherworld). It can easily be understood why this reverence persisted from early Celtic practice all the way up to the present day in various ways. The most common way this reverence is attested to is by the sheer amount of objects that were thrown into water as an offering from ancient Gaul to every corner of the British Isles. It was most likely thought that whatever you threw into a well or source of water, would equate to some sort of healing for an ailment in return. Ancient artifacts have been found in wells displaying a specific body part that would have needed healing such as a bronze plaque with eyes engraved on them or a carved wooden arm. Two famous Gaulish examples are the Shrine of Sequana and the Chamalieres near Clermont-Ferrand that contained many of these unique artifacts. The Sulis and Coventina in Britain are two other great examples. Many rivers, streams, springs and wells were thought to be the home of many various deities, usually of female form or they were created by that goddess herself such as the River Boyne, River Marne or River Shannon. This may have very well lended to a body of water’s healing powers. Countless wells in Ireland are dedicated specifically to the goddess Brigid who was especially known for her healing and curative powers.
Through the passing of traditions and folk memory we are given countless examples of water reverence. Up through the 18th century, people may have slept at wells or other bodies of water to increase their chances of being healed or to gain insight from whatever healing deity inhabited the area. The trickling sound of springs or rushing river waters was thought to be quite meditative and could induce a “healing sleep”. The place where three streams met was considered exceptionally sacred. People were often married next to a river that provided a “sacred” witness to their vows. Often, when a baby was born the midwife would sprinkle nine drops of water upon its forehead and sing a blessing song as a protective ritual. Ale was often poured into a particular body of water as an offering, asking for blessings, likely a good fishing trip or season. Dew was thought to be particularly magical and especially on mornings after fire festivals. Articles of clothing may have been laid out in the morning or night before to collect dew and could then be used to wrap a sick person, child or animal. At minimum, this was practiced on Imbolc eve. Many divine rituals today still include water, such as the Christian baptism.
“However, the account given by Posidonius is the more credible. He tells us that the wealth found in Toulouse amounted to somewhere about 15,000 talents [units of money], a part of which was hidden in the chapels, and the remainder in the sacred lakes, and that it was not coined [money], but gold and silver in bullion. But at this time the temple of Delphi was emptied of these treasures, having been pillaged by the Phocæans at the period of the Sacred war and supposing any to have been left, it would have been distributed amongst many. Nor is it probable that the Tectosages [Celtic tribe] returned home, since they came off miserably after leaving Delphi, and owing to their dissensions were scattered here and there throughout the country; there is much more likelihood in the statement made by Posidonius and many others, that the country abounding in gold, and the inhabitants being superstitious, and not living expensively, they hid their treasures in many different places, the lakes in particular affording them a hiding- place for depositing their gold and silver bullion. When the Romans obtained possession of the country they put up these lakes to public sale, and many of the purchasers found therein solid masses of silver. In Toulouse there was a sacred temple, held in great reverence by the inhabitants of the surrounding country, and on this account loaded with riches, inasmuch as there were many who offered gifts, and no one dared to touch them.” -Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)
In South Uist, Scotland… “According to tradition, the well of Tiobartan was famous in olden times, pilgrims resorting to it from afar. Then a man brought his sick horse to it, and the spirit of the well fled shrieking and never returned. The well is in the mohair, near the sea and is now filled up with drift sand. Healing and holy wells are very numerous in the Highlands, as elsewhere in Britain, scarcely a district being without one or more. Much interesting lore is connected with these wells, and with their curative powers and the rites observed at them.” -Alexander Carmichael, (1860 – 1909) Carmina Gadelica
In a similar fashion as Scandinavians, Turks, Romans and Greeks, the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles and Ireland used sweat houses or lodges for its curative and cleansing properties and possibly for meditational practices. It’s important to note that the use of sweat houses or sweating in general in saunas as a curative function is much different than those of the First Nations people in the United States. Their sweat lodge function has a uniquely religious purpose and is expressly forbidden to be performed outside of legitimate nations. The two can’t be compared readily and it can’t be said that the use of sweat houses in ancient Celtic times is comparable to what the First Nations used or currently practice. The small stone huts are typically beehive shaped and made of stone which would have allowed them to retain heat very well. They can still be seen today dotting the landscape and were used up through at least the 18th century by locals. Many of them are well built alluding to their spiritual significance. Often, they are tucked away in liminal places, near a little stream or by a cliff’s edge probably also for the easy access to water. The amount of peat that was needed to construct a fire large enough to produce the heat needed to maintain steam lends many to believe these structures were likely used by the upper echelon of society at the time. In recorded methods, they would first start a fire in the center on top of rocks until the fire was burning at high temperatures. Then, they would have put out the fire with water, swept out the embers and continued pouring water on the hot stones until the little hut filled up with steam. White quartz stones have also been found in some of these archaeological sites lending some proof they found these stones to have magical or healing qualities as many people still do today. They may have used various tree wood or plants in their fires that coordinated with the healing properties of that wood or plant. Writers of antiquity mention that young ladies would often burn kelp on the fire which was thought to help their complexion.
“Small buildings called sweat-houses are erected, somewhat in the shape of a beehive, constructed with stones and turf, neatly put together; the roof being formed of the same material, with a small hole in the centre. There is also an aperture below, just large enough to admit one person, on hands and knees. When required for use, a large fire is lighted in the middle of the floor, and allowed to burn out, by which time the house has become thoroughly heated; the ashes are then swept away, and the patient goes in, having first taken off his clothes, with the exception of his undergarment, which he hands to a friend outside. The hole in the roof is then covered with a flat stone and the entrance is also closed up with sods, to prevent the admission of air. The patient remains within until he begins to perspire copiously, when (if young and strong) he plunges into the sea, but the aged or weak retire to bed for a few hours.” -Gage, A History of the Island of Rathlin, 1851
“Vapour baths were in use among the Celtic tribes, and the sweat-house was in general use in Ireland down to the 18th, and even survived into the 19th century. It was of beehive shape and was covered with clay. It was especially resorted to as a cure for rheumatism.” These permanent structures were built of stone, and square or corbelled “beehive” versions are often found, mostly in the Irish and Gaeligue-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland, though most seem of relatively recent date. The method of construction, heating the structure, and usage was different from the North American examples, and they seem to have been regarded as therapeutic in function, like the sauna and perhaps typically used by one person at a time, given their small size.” -L. Price, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 82. No. 2
More on Irish sweat houses with pictures here!
For more information check out Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life by Kenneth McIntosh!
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.