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Tag: offerings

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.

Altars and Their Uses

Many people who practice paganism have an altar of some kind- even if that is not the intention.

A special place where you burn candles, maybe some incense, in an arrangement you like can be classed as a simple altar. The more mainstream religions sometimes set the impression that an altar can only be in a place of worship- this isn’t the case, and an altar can be anywhere- indoors, outdoors, temporary or permanent. If you practice ceremonies in a certain location, you may create a temporary altar under a tree, near a river, or simply some basic offerings and symbols in the centre of the ceremonial space.

Some people dedicate an entire room to magical workings and spiritual work, and there are places like this you can visit; one of these is the Goddess temple in Glastonbury. You can go there when it is open to meditate and enjoy the energies. There are also ceremonies sometimes held there too.

Ideal places for an altar

The answer to this is: anywhere! You may choose to use the mantelpiece of a fireplace, the top section of a chest of drawers or similar storage unit, a coffee table, or perhaps just the top of a small box you keep your magical tools inside. You may choose to dedicate a part of your garden if you have one, to your chosen deity or just for spiritual work. Wherever you choose to put it, and whatever you choose to utilise as a holder for it is entirely up to you- there is no specific rule to the set-up of an altar. Many people who work away from home a lot may also have a small travel altar, which can be carried in something as small as a matchbox if desired. This allows them to stay connected even when travelling.

Many altars have ritual tools on them; this could be a cup for libation, an athame for spell work, a wand, candles, space to burn incense and perhaps a representation of the God/Goddess or both. It may be that some people would want a ‘full’ altar, with everything they need for all occasions on. Some people may just want the things they are going to use for the specific ceremony or ritual included. Either way is fine, it’s up to the individual how they wish to use their sacred space.

The main thing to remember is that your altar is your main hub for spell work, meditation, ritual- many things associated with the ‘practical’ side of Paganism. Some may choose to only set up and use an altar at times of celebration; for example, the seasonal celebrations, whereas others will set up and always have their altar present.

Just remember some simple safety tips- not to use candles on or around material that is flammable and to never leave them or incense unattended, and if you rent your property, make sure first that you can burn candles and incense in the property- some smoke alarms are very sensitive, so it’s best to check instead of setting it off unexpectedly mid-ritual!

Offerings and Gifts

Many people and groups like to make offerings to the circle or directly to the chosen deity or spirit. 

This could be as a gesture of thanks for attending the ritual, giving praise and real recognition for the changing of the seasons. An offering can be any manner of thing- people from all over the world give offerings to each other in the form of gifts, many countries also hold huge ceremonies for a chosen deity where people bring many offerings to venerate them, to give thanks for their support and their challenges.

Sacrifice is also another practice associated with giving something up- cutting of bread, a libation- whatever you feel is right personally to give up as an offering to a chosen cause. The sacrifice of grain can symbolise the coming of Lughnasadh or harvest celebrations.

Herbs are also often burned as either as an offering or as part of a spell or ceremony. Many herbs have their own spiritual significance and care should always be taken when burning as some may be toxic in that state. If in doubt about the herb, it may be a safer alternative to find an incense stick or cone that has a similar energy to the herb you wanted to use without the dangers of being toxic. It can also be handy to know that some herbs can actually bring on a miscarriage or menstrual cycle, so it’s always a good idea to speak to someone who is trained as to which herbs may be harmful to the human body.

An offering is above all your way of giving thanks- working with a chosen deity or spirit over time can be beneficial if you choose to do so, and reciprocating their help with offerings may make that relationship last longer- it’s also seen as the ‘right’ thing to do- fair exchange, etc.

So what to offer?

If your ceremony or ritual is outside and you are going to be leaving your offerings, consider leaving something natural that can biodegrade on its own and isn’t harmful to the natural environment. If an offering is of a beverage such as mead, milk, wine, ale, juice, etc, these can be poured onto the ground. Be aware of leaving things like small cups of beer or honey outside though as these are commonly used to trap outdoor mini-beasts like slugs, snails and bees. Some herbs can only be burned outside and some can be burned indoors, depending on the ritual or ceremony location. Always check before using herbs whether they can be burned in or outdoors- or at all in some cases. Incense can be burned inside or outside, and you can get special outdoor incense sticks. If you need protection from biting insects, citronella incense or candles can be great at warding them off- they hate the smell! It’s also far nicer to use something that deters them rather than something which will kill them like flypaper.

If your ritual is going to be indoors, make sure all of the tools and offerings you intend to use during the ceremony are safe to use in the area you are practising. It’s not wise to have candles on or near flammable surfaces or items, and some properties, especially rented ones, will have a mention in their tenancy agreement that they do not allow the burning of candles and similar in the property. It’s always a good idea to make sure you’re allowed to do things, especially if the property does not belong to you.

It’s not always in a longer ceremony or ritual that you may feel you want to give an offering. When taking parts of a plant or tree, many people like to give a small offering- perhaps a small amount of freshly baked bread or cake near the location the items were taken from. Some people also have prayer ties which they will hang from a tree to ask for a certain prayer or wish to be granted. It’s always wise to not tie these on too tightly- sometimes if the ties are too tight, the branch may lose its supply of nutrients and eventually die. Many people see all exchange as being an equal exchange- the tree or plant has used energy in order to grow that leaf, flower or other items, so to give something in order to say thank you make sense. Perhaps a small rodent like a shrew will pop along later on and nibble on your offering- always helping out the little spirits is a good thing!

If you are unable to get to a ceremony or a location where you feel you can give offerings, simply having some bird feeders in your garden may be considered as your way of saying thank you. Providing a food source for many of the songbirds is vital, especially coming up to the winter ahead, so if you feel you can help them out, it could be as simple as that. Some people who don’t have a garden, but have a large window they can get to will have a window bird feeder. These can be fantastic to learn about the local bird population, as they are usually clear plastic holders so you can see them visit. Do bear in mind that they will most likely see you too- so be careful not to scare them off!

An equal exchange is something that many pagans like to live by and it covers all paths- everything we do, say or use has consequences.

Photos by Artem Bali from Pexels.

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