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Curative, Sacred Waters


A drive on the A832 to the famous Clootie Well near the village of Munlochy, Scotland, reveals a curious location. As the road enters a forested area, passing motorists are treated to a strange sight of hundreds of bits of rags and cloths hanging from the trees and bushes. These cloths have all been in contact with a sick person. Such clooties, still placed here near the well are the remnants of a tradition dating back thousands of years.

Archaeological evidence dating to c. 1500 BCE has shown that wells, ponds, springs, rivers, and especially thermal water sources were places of pilgrimage throughout Europe. These were regarded as sacred sites, piercing deep into the Earth’s bowels and hence seen as linking the world of the living with the underworld. 

Water from such sources was believed to have great curative powers, and tales of miraculous healing waters are common in the folklore of most nations. In fairy tales, such waters are usually described as the Well of True Water, the Well of the World, Cordial Balsam, or Living Waters. The quest for such Water of Life, which was thought to have the power to cure the sick, revive the dead, cure blindness, and impart strength, youth, and loveliness, forms the nucleus of a large group of fairy tales worldwide.

Around Europe, thousands of votive offerings, dedicated to the water spirits or gods thought to dwell within, have been found in wells, ponds, lakes, and other water sources. High on the popularity poll of offerings were wooden and stone figurines. Often, the figurines represent only a certain body part, such as a leg, an arm, or a head, implying that people suffering afflictions in certain parts of their body, would throw a representation of only that particular body-part in the curative waters, in the hope that the powers of the water spirits or the gods would cure them. 

Representations of specific body parts as votive offerings are very common. A fitting example is the Isola Tiberina on the Tiber River in Rome, where a large temple was built to Aesculapius, the god of healing. Archaeological remains have been found indicating that votive offerings were made to the god here. Such votive offerings included countless representations of arms, legs, heads, and other body parts. 

Similar rituals are still found in modern times at Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France. At the many small shops outside the shrines of Fatima and Lourdes, wax casts representing countless body parts and organs are for sale to devout pilgrims seeking a cure. The devout buy and ceremoniously burn the appropriate wax cast as a votive offering in a specially enclosed area, in effect, psychologically dispelling the malady through the offering.

The hot spring in Bath, England, is another example of votive offerings made to cause healing and good fortune. In Celtic times, the spring was renowned as a gateway to the underworld. Until the present time, hot water at the rate of more than a million litres a day rises to the surface here and has been doing so for thousands of years. The Romans built a temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, a deity with healing powers, next to the spring. The mineral-rich water supplied the ornately decorated bathing complex, which attracted pilgrims from across the Roman Empire. Many votive offerings, including more than twelve thousand coins, were thrown in the sacred spring, where the spirit of the goddess of healing was thought to dwell in ancient times. Similarly, in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Denmark, such votive offerings have been found in almost every lake and pond. 

In later times, such offerings were often replaced with pieces of cloth, tied to the surrounding vegetation overhanging various healing springs, lakes, ponds, and wishing wells, as is still the case at Munlochy, Scotland. Everyone afflicted with disease who came to these healing waters hung a piece of cloth torn from their clothes on a bush nearby, in this way symbolically transferring the disease or ailment to the vegetation. As the piece of cloth rotted away, the illness was also believed to slowly recede. All who ventured here took great care never to touch or remove any pieces of cloth – otherwise, the sickness or disease would simply transfer to that person. 

During Christian times, such wells, ponds, and springs were given the names of local saints to divert the faithful from the pagan customs linked to these water sources. By Christianising the springs, they were, in effect, put under the protection of the local saint, who then simply took over the healing powers originally related to water spirits. All superstition attached to holy wells in Britain and Europe date to ancient times when the belief in water spirits prevailed, and this has sometimes resulted in a curious synthesis of Christian and pagan practice. At St-Jean-du-Doit, in France, for instance, the parish priest leads a procession yearly to renew the spring’s healing qualities by dipping a relic, St. John the Baptist’s finger, into the water. 

On the other side of the globe in Australia, it was similarly customary amongst the Aborigines to apply water’s healing powers. In Healers of Arnhem Land, John Cawte describes various healing practices amongst the Aborigines, and how a healing well is excavated by hand in a dune near a billabong.24 The supplicant is a man who has lost his vitality. The medicine man ministers to him and lowers him into the healing well, while chosen onlookers sing to the Earth’s spirits to dispel the bad spirits causing the sickness. Then, the ‘cured’ man is raised from the well – an account that once could have come from any country in Europe. 

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