Water is revered by most religions and in most countries. It is endowed with magical or divine properties with powers to heal or protect. There is no life without water.
The Healing Powers of Running Water
At one time rivers were thought of as deities with powers to cure all kinds of ailments. South-running rivers had special potency. For example, twelve stones from twelve south-running rivers were collected and slept on to cure stomach pains; a cure for whooping cough was to make porridge over a stream running from north to south.
Rivers taking human sacrifices
Ways of appeasing rivers were devised in an attempt to stop them from claiming lives. The River Tweed was known as a bloodthirsty river, so salt was thrown into it and onto the nets. The Ribble, on the other hand, was less demanding and the spirit of the river, Peg O'Nell only took one life in seven years, but could be placated with a sacrificial animal instead.Other rivers had unhappy spirits - the Tees, Peg Powler "who laid in wait for victims at Pierse Bridge". There was Jenny Greenteeth who inhabited more than one river in Lancashire, and a kelpie "ranged along the meadows at Middleham in the evening, seeking for prey" along the Yore. Often people who had drowned in a river were said to haunt it.
It was widely believed that witches and 'enchantments' were unable to cross running water. This is reflected in Robert Burns' poem 'Tam o' Shanter' in which Tam just manages to escape from pursuing witches by crossing a bridge over the River Doon. But it is only when he reaches the keystone at the centre of the bridge that he is safe. "A running stream they dare na cross. But ere the key-stane she could make."Superstitions are hard to dispel. A native of Gillingham recently recalled his visits to a school friend in the town and his journey home. "Once I had crossed the Town Bridge and the River Shreen I always felt safe and I can't explain why, even now."
Holy water (blessed by a priest) was kept by church doors in holy water stoups for the congregation as they entered. The water in fonts left over from a baptism was carefully guarded as it was thought to have special healing qualities. In some churches the fonts were locked to prevent witches from stealing the water. The Baptists believe in baptism by total immersion. The River Lark in the Fens is known as the River Jordan because it was such a popular place for baptisms. These continued until 1972 when they thought the river had become too polluted. The picture at the top of the page shows holy water flowing at St Peter's Church, Shaftesbury, Dorset.
Springs and Holy Wells
Water gushing out of the ground or bubbling up from the bottom of a lake is an amazing sight, and it is not surprising that springs were bestowed with magical, powers. Often they have been built around, and may be called wells - they are actually upwellings. Many wells and springs were thought to have curative powers and became places of pilgrimage - such as St Augustine's Well in Cerne Abbas and the hot springs at Bath. Some were thought to be good at healing sore eyes - such as at Purewell in Christchurch and Eye Well in Symondsbury where "eyes were cured when the morning sun first touched the water". After taking the waters, it still remains the custom at some wells to hang a piece of cloth on a nearby tree, usually a hawthorn. These Clootie Wells are quite common in highland Scotland and are also remembered in Devon and Cornwall. Pins are often found in wells and lakes, they seem to have been votive offerings, and we still feel the need to toss a coin or metal object into water and to make a wish. The Wishing Well at Upwey and Fortune's Well on Portland both had a reputation for being able to make a wish come true. Some wells were thought to be able to foretell the future. The famous Drumming Well at Oundle, Northamptonshire, predicted a number of unfortunate events by making a loud vibrating sound resembling a drum roll. St Helen's Well at Rushton Spencer, Staffordshire, anticipated the outbreak of the Civil War and the execution of Charles I by drying up.
"The 'cream' is the first water from any well or spring - best of all from a holy or curative one - on New Year's Day" (Kightly). It was much in demand, especially by young women, for its possession brought luck and the prospect of marriage.
The comparatively waterless state of hill-top Shaftesbury led to a bizarre annual event called the Byzant ceremony. Some water came from deep wells within the town, but a better tasting water came from springs at Enmore Green in the neighbouring parish of Motcombe. Water carriers earned a living bringing spring water up the steep incline of Tout Hill.In order to ensure a constant supply, the Mayor of Shaftesbury made an annual payment to the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham on the Sunday before Ascension Day. This gift was made up of the best local produce - ale, white wheaten bread, a calf's head and gloves.The Byzant was "like a May garland with gold and peacocks feathers" which the Mayor took in procession along with the other gifts. The Byzant was returned to the Mayor and the people of Shaftesbury danced back up the hill and May festivities and games began. In 1662 the festivities were moved to the Monday before Ascension Day. A Lord and Lady were chosen for the day and were bought new clothes for the occasion. The main contenders for this title were the last couple in the borough to be married. The ceremony became increasingly flamboyant and expensive. In 1830 it ceased, having become unnecessary and much too costly. The picture shows a reproduction Byzant made for Shaftesbury's Millennium Community Play.
(3 days before Ascension Day)
Beating the Bounds
An ancient custom of crop blessing and boundary processing. Each year the clergy and parishioners would walk the parish boundary to make sure no incursions had been made into it. Landmarks, boundary markers such as trees and boulders would be memorized. Children would be dipped into boundary rivers or streams to make sure they didn't forget them and then rewarded with Rammalation biscuits and Ganging Beer. A good account of beating the bounds is in the Marn'll Book:"From thence round Ham Meadow to the Watering Place, opposite to a Meadow called Hayward's Meadow, where John White swam across the River, with Levi Warren on his back, and landing in the said Meadow proclaimed Two Acres thereof as belonging to the Parish of Marnhull". A Perambulatiom of the Parish and Manor of Marnhull, 1808.
(40 days after Easter)
Ascension Day Rain
The rain which "falls straight from a Heaven opened for Christ's entry" was thought to have special powers and was eagerly collected to treat sore eyes. Water taken from wells on Ascension -tide morning was also bestowed with curative properties. It was often mixed with sugar or liquorice and given to children to drink.
As part of the May Day celebrations, young girls went out before dawn to wash their faces in the May dew to improve their complexions, remove freckles, and, most importantly, to wish for marriage within the year.In some places dew gathered from hawthorn or ivy leaves or from under an oak tree was thought to be more potent in curing illnesses from poor eyesight to gout.
In Derbyshire, in the White Peak, many of the villages amongst the limestone still take time to dress their wells on spring and summer days. In Tissington, where the well dressing tradition is longest, the practice possibly began in 1350 in thanks for the pure water maintaining the villagers through the Black Death. Wirksworth holds a week long festival, including crowing the Queen of the Wells. Ceremonies cluster where once taps succeeded wells but which now have little visible sign, save once a year when the flower pictures pressed into clay adorn them. Well dressings based around Biblical tales probably date from the early 19th century, displacing the ribbons, boughs and garlands - remnants of less orderly pre-Christian thanksgivings.
The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain - an encyclopedia of living traditions, Charles Kightly, Thames & Hudson, 1986.
English Folklore, Christina Hole, Batsford, 1940/5.
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Cassell, 1959/1999.
The Marn'll Book, The Blackmore Press, 1952.
Shaftesbury. An Illustrated History, Brenda Innes, Dovecote Press, 1992.
A Dictionary of Superstitions, Iona Opie & Moira Tatem, eds., Oxford 1989.