Our long-awaited second episode of HekseCast is here! Focusing on some of the folklore traditions of the UK, this episode brings you closer to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and Punkie night, among other traditions.
Listen to our episodes below:
Thanks to Grey Malkin of The Hare and the Moon for the use of music for the intro and outro.
Thanks also to Ræveðis for the backing track throughout the podcast.
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.
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.
Pin-Wells and Rag-Bushes by E. Sidney Hartland 1893 in Folklore A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution and Custom. Volume 4.
This year, the spring equinox for the northern hemisphere falls on Friday 20th March. Although this is a part of the modern witches’ calendar compared to the ancient path, it is still something that many of us celebrate. It marks a turning of the so-called wheel of the year and adds a split to the year that can be viewed as magical.
Equinoxes and solstices are seen by the modern pagans as a very special time of year. The balance between light and dark are seen as especially sacred as well as the changing of the seasons around these dates.
The spring equinox is usually associated with the christian festival of Easter. Many assume that easter is from Ishtar – but it’s really, really not. There is an article talking about that, and you can find that by clicking here.
Pagans also think in the modern times that the name easter actually originates from Ostara, a Germanic goddess that was mentioned by Bede in the work ‘The Reckoning of Time’ or, originally, ‘De ratione temporum’. However, this work by Bede is the only piece of literature to mention Ostara and it is extremely odd that in modern times this supposed goddess would come to so much notoriety.
This is the original (translated) passage from chapter 15 of The Reckoning of Time by Bede:
15. The English Months In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.
The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. …
Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day…”
The Reckoning of Time – Bede. 8th Century
So, as stated in the passage above (which I found here) it mentions that the celebration was only previously celebrated in her name. Of course, it may well be that this was actually the pre-christian era name for the time period which is referred to as easter. Anglo-Saxons are said to have been converted to christianity in the 7th century by the missionaries sent from Rome. It does seem odd that there is just one mention of her anywhere – compared to other gods and goddesses who have a multitude of stories and legends about them. It could be that it’s simply a word used to illustrate the awakening of spring. It could be an ancient goddess that has long been forgotten – many of the rivers have goddesses associated with them and not many modern people know the names.
So, whether or not there is a goddess called Ostara or Eostre, the spring equinox is an actual astrological event that happens every year around the same time. As the earth does its wonderful season-thing, the places we live in undergo their own changes. It’s why the seasons are different in the northern and southern hemispheres and why we have longer or shorter days, depending on the time of year.
Around the time of the spring equinox, the plants are starting to sprout and trees are getting their first blossom of the year. The birds start singing again, and if it has snowed, generally there will be a lot less of it from this time forward. Again, this depends on where you live – as if you are very far north, you may still experience snowfall as you are closer to the Arctic circle. As it is here in Northern Europe in more recent years, it just means things are a lot less brown and muddy and start turning a bit more green as time goes on. A bit further north there tends to be snow, but the last few years has just been a lot of rain.
Easter is also something that has become more of an ingrained cultural phenomenon like christmas, rather than specifically a time for the rebirth of the christian saviour in Europe. I know more people nowadays who celebrate both christmas and easter as a time to feast with family and enjoy the seasonal delights. Christmas is a way of getting through the long winter, just as easter is a way to celebrate the coming of spring and warmer weather. It is one of those interesting turns of events, as the original beginning of these festivals was rooted in paganism and associated with family, friends, feasting and festivity. Christianity brought along with it the advent of sin and being loyal to a higher power, but that part has faded out as the grip of christianity on Europe has loosened.
You will still find people who are ‘fair-weather’ christians – they go to church for the big holidays, but seem to ‘forget’ the rest of the year. You will also find people who are devout and follow the celebrations to the letter. However, for the most part, people just associate the times of year with good times and memory-making and leave it at that.
So how does one go about celebrating the spring equinox? What better way than preparing a fresh seasonal feast? Or, if that is not your thing, people may also choose to bake a loaf of bread for the occasion and use it for offerings to the local spirits and also for their family/friends.
Decorating your altar (if you have one) with light spring colours is also a good way to celebrate. This time of year is usually associated with the more pastel shades of purple, green and yellow, but you can choose whatever colours you most associate with this time. There is no hard and fast rule for celebrating, you can choose to do what you want to do. If you would rather celebrate at home with a book, go for it. If you are choosing to celebrate with your family, friends or coven/pagan group, have a fantastic time.
It’s a great time of year to think about a refreshing ritual. Sowing the seeds to be reaped later along the line. Follow along with the seasonal flow if that’s your thing and see what the plants and nature is doing along the way. Spring is seen as a season of regrowth and rebirth (perhaps that’s why they placed the christian story at this time of year) and is a great time to look at the coming year’s goals.
There is a rather pressing matter at the moment of the virus that is sweeping the globe – so celebrating alone or with your closest family may be the best idea. Take all the guidelines into consideration when planning your celebrations.
Above all, be safe, have fun and hail the gods. You got this!