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Category: Folklore

Pins in wells and rags in bushes – why are these traditions?

Image of the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. Image by Rbe2057

For many centuries, sacred wells, springs and other naturally occurring sources of freshwater have been seen to have medicinal or even magical properties. With the coming of christianity, many of these sites have been forgotten or completely destroyed. However, a fair few of these were reformed into christian saint worship sites – so even though the meaning is different, the places still exist today.

Many of the sacred sites are simply open pools or streams that are unfortunately no longer venerated. It was said that if you were suffering from an illness or ailment, you would be healed if you drank or sometimes even bathed in the water depending on the size of the spring. Of course, looking at the so-called healing properties from a modern perspective, it is said that it is, in fact, minerals and filtration that lent to the health benefits of the water rather than a supernatural reason. However, the springs were seen as extremely sacred and were thus treated as such.

These beliefs followed on through the centuries with ill or injured people travelling to these sacred places. It could be that they had scurvy or leprosy. Perhaps they had broken bones or just some form of arthritis. Whatever they felt they needed help with, the springs were seen as the answer. Some even travelled to these springs in a bid to become fertile. There is a well in Oxford known as Child’s Well which ‘had vertue to make women that were barren to bring forth children’. One particular well became famous after Henrietta, the wife of King Charles I was rumoured to wish for a child at St. Agnes Well, Whitestaunton in Somerset. It is said that she became pregnant soon after.

Just like nowadays when people may throw a coin into a wishing well, people who were looking to be blessed would bring a form of offering. Sometimes it would be a bent pin which would be given to the well itself – literally thrown into the water. Another tradition is said to be the tying of cloth to the bushes or trees surrounding the wells. These would be known as ‘pin-wells’ and ‘rag-bushes’.

From an article written by E. Sidney Hartland in 1893, he remarks upon an example of how these rag bushes are used.

“…Ffynnon Cae Moch, about halfway between Coychurch and Bridgend in Glamorganshire: “People suffering from rheumatism go there. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.””

E. Sidney Hartland – Pin-wells and rag-bushes 1893

Another example is thus;

“…In another case, that of Ffynnon Eilian (Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire…some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool—not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well…The well in question, it is noted, had once been in great repute as “a well to which people resorted for the kindly purpose of bewitching those whom they hated”.”

E. Sidney hartland – pin-wells and rag-bushes 1893

So these two examples show two different sides to the story. The first of these detailing how a sacred well was used for healing of rheumatism, the second detailing how one such well was thought to have been used to bewitch those whom they hated. Other specific wells may be used as cures for all kinds of ailments – it was not just a case of going to your nearest well with whatever was wrong with you and expecting a cure. The different locations offered different cures to various ailments and sicknesses.

Here is another example from Llanfaglan, Carnarvonshire.

“…The old people who would be likely to know anything about Ffynnon Faglan have all died. The two oldest inhabitants, who have always lived in this parish (Llanfaglan), remember the well being used for healing purposes.
One told me his mother used to take him to it, when he was a child, for sore eyes, bathe them with the water, and then drop in a pin. The other man, when he was young, bathed in it for rheumatism, and until quite lately people used to fetch away the water for medicinal purposes.
The latter, who lives near the well at Tan-y-graig, said that he remembered it being cleared out about fifty years ago, when two basins-full of pins were taken out, but no coin of any kind. The pins were all bent, and I conclude the intention was to exorcise the evil spirit supposed to afflict the person who dropped them in, or, as the Welsh say, dadwitsio.
No doubt some ominous words were also used. The well is at present nearly dry, the field where it lies having been drained some years ago, and the water in consequence withdrawn from it. It was much used for the cure of warts. The wart was washed, then pricked with a pin, which, after being bent, was thrown into the well.”…”

E. SIDNEY HARTLAND – PIN-WELLS AND RAG-BUSHES 1893

These pin-wells and rag-bushes were seen all over the British Isles at one point in history. How amazing it would have been to see these acts of folklore being enacted by people of the local populace. As well as rags tied onto bushes and pins dropped into wells, there were also some traditions of hammering a nail (most likely iron) into a tree near the well. They would attach a piece of the afflicted person’s clothing to the tree with the nail. As time went on, the tree would eventually ‘swallow’ the nail as it grew. It is said that as the bark grows over the nail, the problem will eventually go away.

Another way the wells and springs are used was for a form of divination. From the same article by E. Sidney Hartland it is said:

“At Croisic, in Upper Brittany, there is a well, called the well of Saint Goustan, into which pins are thrown by those who wish to be married during the year. If the wish be granted, the pin will fall straight to the bottom. Similar practices are said to be performed in Lower Brittany, and in Poitou and Elsass.”

E. SIDNEY HARTLAND – PIN-WELLS AND RAG-BUSHES 1893

Old Beliefs Dying Out – Sacred Wells in Modern Times

By the end of the 19th century, it looks as though the majority of these practices surrounding sacred wells and springs amongst the common folk were dying out. Presumably, as modern medicine began to make its way out from the larger towns and settlements to the countryside, people started to put more faith into the doctors than they did into the old folk traditions.

Sacred well at Patra

What is clear is that these traditions are not just tied to the British Isles. Accounts of these forms of folk magic and beliefs can be found the world over. There are examples from all over Europe, in Japan and even in the Congo. These practices are said to be carried out for a wish. Whether that is a wish for good health, to find a husband or to grant some kind of prayer or wish to improve their life, they can be found all over the world.

Although in more modern christian times, these acts are seen as simply to remove or add sickness from a person or persons, the original meaning may have been lost. There is said to be a spirit or deity attached to the wells or springs themselves, and the older belief is that you were communing with that spirit. You were not just offering something to ‘god’ or whatever you wish to call a higher power. You were actually communing with and bargaining with the spirit of the place you were utilising.

Thinking about the environment

In sacred spaces reclaimed by neo-pagans, you will often find so-called prayer ties on trees and sacred areas. This includes sacred wells, springs and other magical or sacred places. This is true of places like Avebury in England. A large and growing problem with more modern prayer ties is that our clothes and fabrics are not all of a natural or biodegradable nature. In actual fact, many of the ‘offerings’ which are given actually add to the problem of littering and making an area full of rubbish.

It is unfortunate that people will have good intentions, but will not have communed with the spirit for long enough to know what it is that is needed to be given in exchange. Shrines to Ganesha in Hindu practices are usually covered in sweet treats or the favoured flowers of Ganesha himself. These degrade easily and do not hurt the surroundings. However, tying a piece of acrylic or man-made materials somewhere is extremely damaging to the environment and the wildlife in the area.

If you are looking to leave an offering or ask for help from the spirits of a place, be sure to choose your method and inventory wisely.

References:

Pin-Wells and Rag-Bushes by E. Sidney Hartland 1893 in Folklore A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution and Custom. Volume 4.

Creatures of Folklore

Over the years, there have been many weird and wonderful creatures reported in folklore. Many of these are tales told to curious children to prevent them venturing down a mine shaft, or out into the dark woods alone. Just the thought of going somewhere like that alone as a child is a scary thought, and it is likely because of these stories.

If you have ever read any of Grimm’s fairytales, you will know that things are said to go bump in the night. They also go thud, squelch and all manner of other noises! There was a brand new edition of Grimm’s fairytales released in recent years which was actually the uncensored version. Definitely going to be picking that one up!


Boggart

Also known as: Bogart, Boggles, Bogle

The Boggart is a being most commonly found in the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. There are a few places named after Boggarts such as Boggart’s Clough and Boggart’s Hole in Lancashire.

Boggarts are mischievous spirits who are most commonly blamed for the noises that go bump in the night! They have lots of fun rearranging the furniture, breaking pots and other items around the home.

It’s thought that a home has a boggart if the little fellow has fun breaking plates or if the house is generally struck down with bad luck. It’s thought that in some tales the boggart would follow the family if they tried to outsmart it and move location. That is not going to rid you of your boggart problem! It’s likely to just hide in some unassuming furniture or another household item until you reach your new destination.

Like spiders and fungus, these fellows like to hide out in dark spaces – perhaps an unused cupboard, the cupboard under the stairs, crawl space in a house, under the bed etc. It is thought that the boggarts were shapeshifters, lending to the origins of the ‘bogeyman’. Whereas a boggart would be blamed for misfortune and ill-will, the bogeyman would be more of a warning to children.

For example, one might say, ‘Don’t go down to the cellar alone or the bogeyman will find you!’

This is just one example of how beings like these can be used to prevent bad behaviour and children poking around in potentially dangerous places, or getting stuck somewhere alone.

It has been said that if you leave offerings out for them, they would not cause trouble.

They are often attached to families, and they can be helpful within the home; unless they are insulted in some way. They have the ability to shapeshift and they can also appear in the form of animals. It is said that if you name a boggart – even in jest – it can actually make them more likely to stay exactly where they are and become even more ill-tempered.

There is another possible explanation for Boggarts. It is said that the ghosts of people were also called ‘Boggart’, so this word may have been used to explain any strange phenomena in the past. Many authors choose to use the influence of a boggart in their stories. Although the stories may vary, the premise is the same: if you have a boggart, you have trouble!


Changelings

The stories of the changelings are one of the less pleasant sides to fairy lore. Some say that they are a result of good intentions, but it still boils down to the theft of a child by the fey.

A changeling, in a nutshell, is the result of a human child (usually a baby) being taken by the fey and replaced with a substitute which isn’t quite right.

The concept of a changeling is sometimes used in a wider metaphorical sense for describing someone who doesn’t quite fit in with their family or cultural roots. These stories are also told almost exclusively from the point of view of the emotional and upset parents. It could be that their child is simply in some way disfigured or that they have a learning difficulty preventing them from meeting milestones in usual development. For example, the child may not speak until it is much older, or it may not begin to show signs of walking until way past when it should. These children would be seen as being switched.

It is also important to note that these stories are usually very old, so the parents would not have the same health checkups as we would have nowadays. There was no way of testing for medical problems in advance, and there was no way of scanning to see that the child was perceived as normal. I think we take the medical advancements now for granted a little. We can see our babies as they are growing, and we can guard them against illnesses with preventative vaccines and other measures that were not available when these stories began. A child with an illness would be considered ‘abnormal’. If your baby was ill and constantly cried and cried, it would be seen as a changeling. The same was likely true if the baby never cried. There are also reports of babies actually beginning to speak way ahead of their time, as well as being very delayed with speech.

In the stories, the theft of the baby or child will usually take place at night when everyone is asleep. The faeries would always leave something in place of the child; sometimes it was a lump of wood, other times they would leave one of their own faery children.

The child would then be brought up by the human parents who, because of a little fairy ‘glamour’ would not notice the switch.

Although the child seemed ‘normal’, there would usually be tell-tale signs that the child was different. It was usually through physical deformities or often problems with learning or intelligence. Some people also believed that if the changeling was forced to reveal itself, the faeries would have to return the original child.

So why did these switches happen? Some people believe it was for good.

For example, the faeries would come and take the babies from parents who are careless or abusive. Through this, the abused children would then be given a better upbringing, but some still don’t believe the switch is justified.

Other times the motives are sometimes much more selfish. Some stories say that the fey cannot bear healthy children of their own and so have to take human children as a replacement. Or it may just be that the fairy takes a liking to a certain human child, and they just take what they want.

Some of the worst stories have been where the children are taken as servants or slaves. The ‘luckier’ victims might become favoured pets at the faery court.


Brownies

A Brownie is most commonly known in English and Scottish folklore as a small industrious fairy or hobgoblin which inhabits barns and houses. Although they are rarely seen by people, they are heard cleaning at night if they are feeling happy with where they are; but they have also been known to re-arrange rooms if unhappy. They have been known to tend gardens and bring gifts to those who keep a nice house. If you want a helpful brownie, now is the time to get cleaning and make it welcoming for them!

As an offering, cream or bread and milk might be left for him, but other gifts would offend him. If someone were to make him a suit of clothes, he would put them on and vanish, never to return again.

The bogle of Scotland and the boggart of Yorkshire were mischievous, hostile brownies which were very similar to poltergeists.

The Irish version is known as pooka and the Welsh pwcca are also similar household spirits.


Puck

A similar being to the brownie is the Puck. They were seen in medieval English folk lore as a malicious fairy or even a demon. The word itself in Old and Middle English meant ‘demon’.

In Elizabethan lore, he was seen as a brownie-like fairy also known as Robin Goodfellow or Hobgoblin. He was also mentioned in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of the leading characters who boasted of shapeshifting abilities, misleading travellers at night, tripping venerable old dames, frightening young girls and also spoiling milk.


Piskies

The Piskies are another helpful creature. They are known as piskies in Cornwall, but many other places may call them pixies.

They were generally thought to be good-natured and kind, especially to the old or to the infirm. However, there are reports of being ‘piskie-led’ where you are led off the track and into some kind of misfortune when they were feeling mischevious!

In folklore they are often described as appearing like little old men, being only a few inches tall. Their clothing choices are those of a natural origin, such as leaves, lichen and moss.


Spriggans

Spriggans are not so friendly. They are more likely to punish humans with some rather nasty consequences.

It is thought they send storms to blight the crops, and it is also said that they are responsible for switching human children to changelings. Most often found in old castles or barrows, they would be guarding treasure. Much like a dragon, but far more troublesome.

As the countryside vanishes in the UK, it would be interesting to know where exactly these, and many other creatures would be going. Do they stay with the land, or end up in houses? I guess time will tell!


Goblins

Goblins are a very famous creature. They are described as evil and grotesque, and are attributed with various temperaments, appearances and abilities, depending on the story and country of the story’s origin.

In some cases, they are not considered evil so much as annoying and somewhat related to the gnomes or brownies.

They are usually seen or depicted as small beings, sometimes only a few inches tall. Some places describe them as around one or two feet, but again it all depends on the source of the story. They are also said to possess various magical abilities. They are also generally quite greedy and love money.

The English name of goblin is said to come from the Old French gobelin or Medieval Latin gobelin, which may come from the Germanic kobold. Alternative spellings include gobblin, gobeline, gobling, goblyn.

It is said that the more ‘traditional’ goblin has wild, messy hair and green skin. The appearance does vary from the country of origin however, as many cultures see them in different ways. Another version is the hobgoblin. These are thought to have dark, shaggy hair and they are well known for their practical jokes, most of which can be viewed as spiteful.

The friendliest goblin is thought to be the Hogboon. Many who have come into contact with these have said that they don’t look or act like goblins at all.

‘Goblin’ is often used as a more general term to mean any small mischievous being.

There are a lot of Goblin-related place names, like:

  • The Gap of Goeblin, which is a hole and underground tunnel in Croxteth under the Green.
  • Goblin Combe, in North Somerset, UK.
  • Goblin Valley State Park, Utah, US.
  • Goblin Crescent, Bryndwr, Christchurch, NZ.
  • Yester Castle (aka Goblin Hall) East Lothian, Scotland.
  • Goblin Bay, Beausoleil Island, Ontario, Canada.
  • Harrison High School, Harrison Goblin Gardens, Harrison, AR.
  • Cowcaddens and Cowlairs, Glasgow, Scotland. (‘Cow’ is an old Scottish word for Goblin, whilst ‘cad’ means nasty. ‘Dens’ and ‘lairs’ also refers to the Goblin homes).

Knockers

Throughout the world, there has been a long history of mine spirits. In Cornwall, these were known as the Knockers. They frequented the tin mines that were the base of the local economy in the 18th and 19th Century.

‘Knocker’ is not the only name given to these beings. They were also known as: Knackers, Buccas and Spriggans to name just a few. They didn’t just haunt mines either; the Knockers were also thought to haunt wells and other natural features.

According to various descriptions, the Knockers took the form of small, thin-limbed entities with large, hooked noses.

They dwell in the deepest, darkest corners of the mines or natural features of the earth. They could sometimes be heard moving their lodes in the darkness. Any distant rock fall or creak would be amplified in the dark, claustrophobic depths of the mines. Just a thought of the supernatural could send a shiver down the spine of even the hardest worker.

They generally kept to themselves and were thought to be benevolent, knocking at the best of the lodes in the mines and only showing themselves to the miners that they favoured.

As with all the fae, they still need to be treated with respect. Many things could offend them including whistling, intentionally spying on their activity and making the sign of the cross. In order to appease them, small offerings were left in the more remote areas of the mines and failure to do this could cause bad luck. Strange tricks were usually played on those who offended them and sometimes a miner could find himself being led into the more dangerous parts of the mine.

The origins of the Knockers are varied. Some people think they were the ghosts of miners working down there for penance. Another theory has said that they were the spirits of the souls who could not gain access to heaven or hell. This was also used as a much wider explanation for the occurrence of fae folk.
Understandably, belief in the Knockers has died with the tin mining industry, although they are still thought to be down in the unworked tunnels away from human interactions.


April Fools’ Day

Thought to be created because of the new calendar in 1582, April Fools’ Day’s origin is not entirely certain. Many ancient cultures and peoples celebrated their new year at the beginning of what is now April. Of course, with the Gregorian calendar (named so because of Pope Gregory changing over the system in 1582) our new year generally falls in January, a full four months prior to the old system.

April Fools’ Day is a day you may want to hide!

Many of the countries still celebrated the new year on what was now known as April 1st. It is thought that the countries which had switched to the new system were making a mockery of those who decided to stick with the old way – many pranks and mockery was done on this day to those who wished to keep the previous ways still going.

There are a lot of issues with this explanation, however. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in the UK until the 1700s, yet April Fools Day was well and truly up and running by that time. Although it is worth noting that many of the UK’s traditions are celebrated in a light-hearted way.

With all the theories and ideas floating around for the origin, there really is no real way of knowing exactly where it came from. There are many celebrations held around the beginning of April, or more generally around the beginning of Spring which are very light-hearted and fun. Welcoming in the new life and growth all around. It makes a lot of sense to have a new year celebration when the new growth is springing compared to when we are in the middle of winter.

The celebration was linked to Hilaria, a festival celebrated in ancient Rome near the end of March. This involved people dressing up in disguises and much fun was had. It’s also thought that this celebration was thought to be tied to the vernal equinox when spring was seen to really begin and mother nature was fooling around with the weather – hot one day, cool and windy the next and so on.

What still stands, however, is the fact that in Europe many people will try and make a fool of others. Usually through making up elaborate stories which end up being hoaxes, or through more practical tricks and hijinks. There have been many pranks over the years between people, and with the advent of the internet and modern communication, many companies will now host some kind of prank on their customers or colleagues. It is certainly a day to double-check everything!

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