Water itself, is, of course, the stuff of life, and the idea that a spring or well would have the power to heal is an ancient one. Holy wells and healing waters played an important part in worship before the advent of Christianity. In a previous video, I talked about the healing spring at Glanum, that was dedicated initially to native Celtic gods, and then went on to become sacred to Roman gods as well. A similar situation occurred, as I also talked about, in Bath, where the holy pool was dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sul, and then to Minerva. Neither of these sacred spots continued to be sacred to the inhabitants after the Roman period.
In Wales, however, healing wells were just getting started. In the Bible, water acts as a metaphor for cleansing and purifying. Baptism, of course, takes place via water. The Bible also speaks directly of healing by water.
For example, in the second book of Kings, verse 5:14, it says: “Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like to the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” There are also two verses from John, one 5:4 “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatever disease he had,” and a second from 9:7 which reads: “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.” Both these latter two are associated with miracles of Jesus.
While the most famous well in Wales is probably that of St. Gwenffrewi, who we will get to in a later video, one website documents over a hundred sacred wells and water sites throughout the country. Many of these are credited, like the early churches, to a specific saint. The founder’s holiness thus gave the place its potential power to heal, and is usually accompanied by an apocryphal story. In these instances, the saint is often depicted as striking or piercing the ground with his or her staff in the manner of Moses, whereupon water gushes forth. One quote, from the story of St. Cadog, reads. ‘For if any sick person drink from that fount, trusting firmly in the Lord, he will receive soundness of belly and bowels, and he will throw up in his vomit all slimy worms out of himself.’
It was in the medieval period that many of the structures surrounding the wells that we see today were built, and many wells and healing springs continued to be places of pilgrimage for healing through the 19th century. Because many wells were associated with churches, like Llangelynnin from last week, they have survived until modern times, but others have been paved over or forgotten. Fortunately, we do still have a few we can visit, the first of which is St. Cybi’s well, which we’ll be talking about next week.