Celeste Ray, “Holy Wells and Sacred Springs,” in Sacred Waters: A Cross-Cultural Compendium of Hallowed Springs and Holy Wells.

Edited by Celeste Ray. New York: Routledge, 2020. Used by permission of the author.

Celeste Ray, “Holy Wells and Sacred Springs,” in Sacred Waters: A Cross-Cultural Compendium of Hallowed Springs and Holy Wells. Edited by Celeste Ray. New York: Routledge, 2020. Used by permission of the author.

Nullus enim fons non sacer.
There is no spring which is not sacred.
Marius Servius Honoratus ad Aen. VII, 84

Water existed before any form of life as we know it. The earth’s most abundant molecule is Dihydrogen Oxide or H 20. A simple covalent bonding of two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom, water is the solvent mediating all molecular processes of life, and its movement as liquid and ice has also shaped earth’s topography (Ball, 2001; Solomon, 2010:9). An adult human body consists of at least 60% water, the same water that has form to other living bodies over and over again through the eons. Fresh water is continuously recycled as sea water evaporates and condenses into clouds which carry rain and snow over the land. Our blue planet is a watery world; only 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh and almost 70% of that is locked in glaciers and ice caps-figures that stay relatively constant over time.1 In societies where reliance on indoor plumbing is now multiple generations deep, water’s actual scarcity makes little impression, but reverence for fresh water is likely as old as humanity. The spread of Homo sapiens around the globe was arguably driven by the search for freshwater springs (Finlayson, 2014; Cuthbert et al., 2017). Water sources were likely the earliest sacred sites-the first places at which people sought access to the supernatural (before they did so at other topographic features considered holy around the globe such as mountains, trees, rocks and caves). Water’s obvious necessity meant that it was not only venerated, but protected, and access to it was no doubt contested between groups as it is today. People experienced, and then feared, the loss of their most precious resource. Guarded by taboos, rites and supermundane forces, some fresh water sources are considered thresholds to otherworlds. Taking a variety of physical forms around the world, such water sources are regularly called sacred springs or holy wells.2

Springs are, of course, places where groundwater issues at the earth’s surface.3 A holy well is most commonly a sacred but can be any natural source of fresh water that is a focus for [p.2] ritual practice and engagement with the supernatural. Containing the majority of the earth’s liquid surface fresh water, lakes are sometimes called “holy wells,” especially when spring-fed. Ponds, seepage pools and even natural rock crevices or cavities in trees left by broken branches, where dew and rain collect, can be holy wells and recipients of votives. Sometimes adorned with superstructures, or deepened and enhanced with stone impoundments and steps to aid water retention and access, these sacred “wells” remain distinct from human-excavated holes or shafts dug purposely for the collection of water for non-ritual use. Often perceived as curative, holy wells and sacred springs may be dedicated to deities or saints, or be considered the abodes of ancestors and marvelous genii loci. Most languages encode the sacrality and healing potential of fresh water springs: for example, Heiliger Brunnen/Heilige Quelle (German), puit sacrelsource sacree (French), kisima kitakatifu (Swahili), pozo santo (Spanish), ayazmalar (Turkish) or yaksuto in Korean. India has its hallowed pools (kundas) and tirthas (sacred places along rivers); Varanasl alone has 60 sacred ponds and 31 sacred wells or kups.4 Mexico has its holy water aguajes and Mayan cenotes (which gave access to Mayan deities and the underworld). In a tribute to Fontus (a god of wells and springs), Roman wells and fountains were decorated with garlands every October 13th for Fontinalia.

Sacred springs and wells of some form have been venerated through time around the globe perhaps simply because, as the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus noted in the sixth century BC, water is the originating principle of all things. The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade expressed this as “water symbolises the whole of potentiality; it is fons et origo, the source of all possible existence” (1958:188). Water is not merely sacred where it is limited (the desertified Middle East or parts of Australia or Mongolia) or where it is bountiful (Ireland, Fiji or Bangladesh), but it is particularly sacred everywhere. No structuralist or Jungian formula is required to explain this cross-cultural commonality; global hydrolatry derives from the most basic material similarities of life. Servius’ appealing aphorism that all springs are sacred still resonates around the world, but there are, of course, springs and other water sources that are considered cursed, or that have neither retained nor acquired sacrality; even many healing water sources are not considered holy. Those identified as places of hierophanies (manifestations of the sacred) are often in unusual landscape contexts or sometimes waters with distinctive mineral content-sites attractive to people of different times and ideologies.5

Veneration of the same spring site in different eras could be sponsored by quite distinct cosmologies and rituals, but around the globe and transtemporally, patterns emerge at sacred spring sites. Whether venerated by members of a state-level society or a hunting and gathering band, sacred water sources often have associations with other landscape features, and folk liturgies that relate to their unique topographic setting; these natural sites of sacrality are also linked to ancestors worldwide and to similar categories of genii loci. Understanding their veneration and stewardship is especially significant now that our ever-renewing amount of fresh water, which has supported all life on earth since “the beginning,” is becoming inadequate for the new consumption levels demanded by a burgeoning human population.

Creation and renewal

Water is indicative of life’s inception (a woman’s “water breaks” before she gives birth); not surprisingly, water figures prominently in stories describing creation Holy wells and sacred springs [p.3] and demiurges cross-culturally. Just as Carl Linnaeus modeled his scientific classification of all living things on Swedish folk taxonomies, people around the world have long understood water’s formative role in making life possible and encoded ethnoscientific understandings of its significance in religion long before the succinct epiphany of Thales of Miletus. Explaining creation, the second verse of Genesis describes an earth without form: “darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (KJV, 1:2). In the Babylonian creation epic (Enuma Blish), all life begins with a mingling of the salt waters of the mother-goddess Tiamat and the fresh waters of Apsu (a deep abyss). According to the Hindu Rig Veda, “in the beginning, all was water, and there was darkness which engulfed it” (Dwivedi, 1997). The Koran places God’s throne upon the waters from which all living creatures emerge (de Chatel, 2007:25). Common to the folklore of Native Americans, the Siberian Chukchi, the Finno-Ugric-speaking peoples (Estonians, Finns and Hungarians) and the Turkic-speaking Tatars of Russia, “earth-diver” myths describe various animals selected by a creator being to gather mud or grains of sand from the depths of the primal waters and construct land.6 Of the Greek Titans (the children of heaven and earth), Tethys was the source of all rivers and fresh water, and Rhea, whose name means “to flow, run, stream or gush,” was the mother of all the Olympian gods (Hiland, 2009:137).

Fresh waters are not only sites of creation, but are prototypical symbols of renewal during life. Called “the universal solvent” because water dissolves myriad substances visibly, it also washes away sin in many traditions. Varied forms of baptisms in multiple faiths represent a cleansing of vice and symbolic rebirth. Favored for such rituals, the ever-flowing waters of rivers were eponymous for deities around the world. In India, the ancient Sarasvati is an embodiment of the enlightenment-granting Rig Veda goddess, bathing in Yamuna’s waters enables an easy death, and immersing oneself in the ever-renewing Ganga offers remission of sin? Water from such sacred sources is carried around the world for rites of passage, as water from the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized is sometimes brought for christenings and Christian baptisms across the globe. Taoist pilgrims to China’s Mount Lao drink from springs enclosed within temples of “great” and “supreme” purity that give imbibers a thousand lives (which is considered desirable rather than punishment). Ever-elusive on the ground, those springs that restore youth appear so frequently in global folklore as to merit their own genre. The Romances of Alexander the Great mention three magical fountains including one in the liminal “lands of the blessed” where the sun does not shine, but the spring’s water does, and also flashes like lightning. A dried fish set in the spring revives, and those who drink the water, including Alexander’s daughter Kale, become immortal (Cook, 2009:113-117).8 The tale is thought to have inspired one of the fourteenth-century well stories in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. This fictional “travel memoir” places the well at the foot of a mountain in an ancient port city in contemporary India’s southwestern state of Kerala. Describing a well that changes scent and taste with each hour, the fantasy traveler notes: “Some call it the Fountain of Youth, because whoever drinks often from it seems to be always young and lively without any illness, and they say that this spring comes from Paradise and that is why it is so powerful” (Higgins, 2011:106). The motif of youth-giving springs has continued to resonate through the ages. Ponce de Leon’s fabled search for a Fountain of Youth left later generations claiming candidates among sacred fountains from Florida to Bimini, and Honduras to Jamaica.

[p. 4] FIGURE 0.1 St. Winifred’s holy well, North Wales.

A curative spring burst from the earth where the seventh-century Winifred was beheaded by a rejected suitor. Her uncle, St. Bueno, miraculously reattached her head and, bearing a small scar as testament to her martyrdom, Winifred became a nun as she had wished. Her cult spread to England by the twelfth century and her curative well became a site of international pilgrimage. Unusual compared with modifications of other holy well sites, the Perpendicular Gothic structure dates to the fifteenth century. An arcaded well chamber encloses the source beneath a second-story chapel. Bathing rites are still available daily in the outer pool. Photograph by author.

Around the world, water sources arc celebrated as life-giving and even floods could bring bounty and renewal. The Nile’s annual flood is still celebrated in mid-August. Before 1960s damming, the inundation deposited rich sediment that replenished agricultural fields in a desert environment and was anciently deemed a gift of the god Osiris-a personification of the river. Yet, floods are also universally considered a particularly painful form of divine punishment (Dundes, 1988; Oestigaard, 2006; Doniger, 2010; Tvedt, 2016:68). Describing the otherwise inexplicable reversal of life-supporting water bringing death, flood myths are perhaps embellishments of folk memories of a widespread and recurring phenomenon, and commonly attribute disaster to supernatural displeasure. In the indigenous tradition of the hunter-gatherer Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 5] Andaman Islanders, the creator god Puluga sent a flood when his commands were ignored. In Yoruba legends of West Africa, the goddess of the oceans inundated the first dry land as her permission was not obtained for its creation. After wiping out the unruly products of his first attempt with a great flood, the creator deity Viracocha re-established humanity on islands of the vast Lake Titicaca-the sacred center of the Andes. Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgarnesh and the Mayan Popol Vuh (the creation narrative of the K’iche’) likewise describe world-ending floods and a cultural hero who restarts humanity and redirects its path. The Noah of the Hindu Puranas is Manu (humanity’s progenitor) who builds a boat in preparation for the flood, and in Hawaiian mythology, Nu’u is the ark maker. In China, a legendary Great Flood lasting two generations plagued the third millennium BC reign of Emperor Yao. Stealing expanding soil from the supreme deity, the hero “Gun” fails to control the flood and turns into a dragon, but his virtuous son Yu succeeds and founds the possibly-mythical first dynasty. The banks of the Huang He (the Yellow River) were the favored abode of the pre-Taoist creator deity Hebo who blessed farmers’ fields with floodwater silt, but vented his displeasure with disastrous inundations and required regular appeasement with sacrificial offerings.

Veneration and votive deposition

Spirits of springs and water holes have also required gifts to keep their blessings flowing. Veneration of water bodies in the past is evidenced archaeologically through the deposition of votives (objects left by petitioners to emphasize the sincerity of a request or in thanksgiving for a desired outcome). Due to the use and reuse of water sources and the decay process of varied types of votives (metal as opposed to organic gifts of wood, bread or cake, for example), the surviving record is partial (Ray, 2014, 2019). Detectable remains of offerings in watery places can reveal period-specific veneration, but also veneration of a site in different eras or even across the periods by which we divide “the past.” To point out that many sites have been reused in different eras does not imply continuity of use or continuity of meaning. Reuse of sites for seemingly ritual purposes (the deposition of votives) can occur after long time gaps and presumed breaks in cultural knowledge about a site (Ray, 2014). As the sacrality of springs can endure through changing populations, elites, technologies and religions, their biographies can encapsulate local and regional societal trends across the longue durée (Ray, 2019). Research on springs in France, Hungary and England that were assumed to have first been venerated by Romans, for example, reveals that sacred places deemed significant enough to remake as part of Roman conquest, of course, yield evidence of previous Iron Age and earlier devotions (Andrews, 2007; Jerem, 2007; Roymans, 2009).10

Watery site propitiation could be long lived: one of the largest Iron Age artifact deposits in the Baltic region was found in an Estonian spring-fed site where deposition continued for close to a millennium (Oras et al., 2018). Ritual landscapes could also expand around and far from an original source of sacrality-a spring. The 2,000 acre palimpsest of over 400 Neolithic earthen and stone monuments now featuring Stonehenge may have Mesolithic origins at the sacred spring Blick Mead which received thousands of pristine stone tools as votives Qacques et al., 2018; see also Lewis et al., [p. 6] Celeste Ray 2019). Among the Neolithic standing stone rows at Carnac is the healing well now belonging to St. Cornély, Brittany’s patron of cattle. Not only offering votives, the Nuragic people of Bronze Age Sardinia embellished holy wells m their own characteristic style with a hypogeal chamber for water access and stone block, tholos-like superstructures with benches on their outer walls (Lillu, 2006). In addition to being sites of votive deposition, sacred water sources have been monumentalized around the world. Ancient Egypt’s Karnak, still the largest religious complex in the world, was built beside a spring-fed sacred lake representing the primordial site of creation. The spring sources of the Tigris River in Upper Mesopotamia were where Assyrian kings communed with the ancestors, accepted the submission of local kings, gave offerings to the gods and had reliefs carved on nearby rocks to illustrate their acts and divine connections (Harmanah, 2014:150-154)11 Similarly, springs and water-filled sinkholes received sacrifices as passages to the Mayan underworld and the world of ancestors, and were the landscape features to which monumental structures were often aligned (Brady and Ashmore, 1999:129; Scarborough, 2003). Susan Evans and Deborah Nichols have argued that the largest monuments in the western hemisphere, the pyramids of Teotihuacan, were built by water worshippers in conjunction with an elaborate hydrological grid system that harnessed the flow of the area’s nearly 80 springs (a special place in a dry valley) and canalized a river to visually reference the Feathered Serpent cult (associated with rain and flowing water) and the power of the ruling elite.12 Perhaps representing a watery underworld, the Ciudadela, an immense sunken square at the center of Teotihuacan, had at its core a well/pit that received diverted water and was a focus for rituals (2015:25-34).

Folk liturgies and the body politic

In many places and eras, state- and chiefdom-level authorities have sanctioned and perpetuated sacred water rituals when these bolstered public reception and legitimized power, but they have also contested rituals and beliefs associated with this most basic resource when folk devotions could be perceived as a source of popular resistance. At locally-sacred springs, contemporary rituals are more often folk liturgies. In contrast to liturgy (the officially prescribed form of public religious worship), folk liturgical practices are those accepted as efficacious through generations of repetition rather than through sanction from religious authorities. Heterodox and regularly renegotiated, folk liturgics may be challenged, qualified or supplemented by professional religious practitioners, but their ownership remains with the populace. Especially at natural sacred sites, place-based rituals literally arise organically and similarly respond to changes in their setting over time. Just as hydronyms are the oldest-lived placenames (because of water’s centrality to life, they are more likely to persist through changes of powers, populations and languages), types of popular devotions associated with sacred waters, such as votive offerings, can be some of the most perdurable through changes in faiths. Even though beliefs and intentions may transition or be replaced, ritual visitation of a spring can continue.

In the year 452, the Second Council of Arles prohibited the “pagan” veneration of springs, trees and stones for Christians; yet in the sixth century, the Gallo-Roman Bishop Gregory of Tours complained that “rustics” offered bread, cheese, beeswax Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 7] and clothing to lakes and St. Martin of Braga sermonized against ongoing Galician devotion to rivers and springs (Alcock, 1966; Richert, 2005:6). In the same cen[1]tury, the British Gildas likewise assessed popular attributions of supernatural presence to mountains and water sources, but a holy well is nonetheless dedicated to him at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys. Originally advocating destruction of native pagan shrines, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) decided that their reuse for Christian worship would speed conversion and suggested that foodstuffs generally left at such sites should instead be eaten there to enhance “good fellowship” among believers (Demacopoulos, 2008:353). While sixth-century religious officials were clearly worried about water veneration, the fact that bans continued across Europe for over a millennium-into the twelfth century in England and after the Reformation into the seventeenth century in Sweden, for example, means that syncretic folk pieties endured (Stjernquist, 1997:84; Oestigaard, 2011:46). Sacred springs that already attracted devotion and provided ready baptismal water were some of the first locations of Christian churches, small and large. England’s cathedrals at St. Alban’s, Wells, Winchester and York, Scotland’s St. Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow, Germany’s Regensburg Cathedral and St. Kunibert’s Church in Cologne, Norway’s Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, and the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati, Georgia (to mention only a few) were all built over or immediately adjacent to sacred springs.

Concerns over folk rituals waxed and waned with the power of religious authorities (and with the varieties of festive behaviors supplemental to gatherings at sacred watery places). Even nineteenth-century holy well practices were still discouraged in many countries such as Ireland where a recently emancipated Church sought to regain control over holy well devotions (converting local folk liturgies to prayers at the Stations of the Cross, for example) and to stamp out well side “patterns” (gatherings on the patron saint’s feast day) that could feature distinctly unrelated activities such as drinking and fights between factions of the assembled (Ray, 2015). Just a few decades after the height of ritual conversions and pattern day suppression, holy wells emerge in antiquarian journals and newspaper editorials as endangered symbols of national identity and by 1934, as the Irish Free State was still straining towards complete independence from the British Commonwealth and fashioning an Irish focused school curriculum, holy wells were selected as the subject for Ireland’s first national folklore survey. Similarly, some forms of Buddhism view the use of holy water as Brahmanic (Hindu) or indigenous and therefore un-Buddhist; yet, one of the most common practices in Thai and other East Asian forms of Buddhism is the pouring of “lustral” holy or mantra water (nam mon) (Olson, 1991:75). Sometimes antithetical to a faith, water devotions can endure within new belief systems and water sources can be persistently sacred places.

Some sacred springs are global pilgrimage centers such as at Tirta Empul in Bali, Lourdes in France or Zamzam in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Lesser-known sources also attract international pilgrims who return home with bottles of restorative water from sites such as Miracle Spring in the tiny town of Natadradave, in eastern Fiji’s Tailevu district. Since a local discovered its ameliorative properties in 2016, thousands of hopeful visitors can visit in a day. Holy wells associated with Marian apparitions in Poland attract visitors from across Europe and the Polish Diaspora. The international Greek Diaspora likewise visits the most important pilgrimage site in Greek Orthodoxy, the 8 Celeste Ray Aegean Island of Tinos, where Mary is venerated as Panajia (the Life-giving Spring) and the nineteenth-century Church of the Annunciation was built over the ruins of a Byzantine church and a holy well. The world’s largest pilgrimage gathering is also the largest sacred water festival. In a struggle over a bowl (kumbh) of sacred nectar (amrita), gods and demons spilled a drop at each of four river locations which host the Kumbha Mela in rotation. In 2019, the Mela drew 105 million people to Prayagraj (Allahabad) at the confluence of three rivers: the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati.

Yet, sacred water pilgrimage is more often quite localized. Cross-culturally, water sources are perceived as liminal places (thresholds between the natural and supernatural) and visiting even a local sacred water hole requires an inward journey of reverent thought manifested through appropriate behaviors that pauses ordinary time.13 Pilgrimage to engage with natural sacred sites, rather than to enter temples or view relics, usually entails localized or regionalized folk liturgies, but can also be similar around the world. Walking ceremonial circuits in the direction of the sun is the most predominant pattern in the human veneration of topographical features. Excepting China and Tibet, Yi Fu Tuan has noted the almost universal perspective of the left side as profane and the right and front as sacred (2005 [1977]:35, 42). Moving from east to west, “sunwise” or clockwise, is fortuitous; counterclockwise ritual can be dangerous or curse-invoking. Marshall Sahlins wrote that the Hawaiian “splashing water” ceremony in sacred chief; initiations occurred sunwise and sovereignty was annually renewed by carrying an image of the fertility god Lono on circumnavigations of each island in a “right circuit” that kept the land always on the right hand (Sahlins, 1987:118). Lisa Lucero, Jean Larmon and Aimee Carbaugh have noted that the Maya traditionally walk ceremonial circuits which mirrored the path of the sun to reaffirm their relationship with sacred places; their own study focuses on a ceremonial circuit between 25 pools that were underworld portals and pilgrimage destinations at Cara Blanca, Belize (2017:249; see also Lucero, 2018). Wherever they are found, such circuits incorporate ritual at accessory landscape features.

Thaumaturgy-supporting natural features in sacred well landscapes

Folk liturgies and traditions about sacred watery sites often subsume other topographical features such as trees, stones, caves and heights. Water has its own materiality, but these graspable, textured repositories for prayer offer a different sensory connection to belief. Perhaps also considered thaumaturgical (miracle-producing), these have at some point come within the orbit of the spring or well where ultimate power resides. Anthropology provides several interlinked concepts that undergird our understandings of folk liturgies at sacred water sites and their associated natural features around the globe. From the Latin anima for soul, animism is common to humanity and is the belief that aspects of the material world can possess a soul or supernatural force. While devotees often commune with a larger sacred power willing to manifest in natural features for veneration and supplication, trees and stones can also be perceived as sentient members of a spiritual community in which animals and humans are also a part. Many historically documented hunting and gathering societies and tribes view trees and stones as “elders” that require the respect given to ancestors or older relatives. Across the continents, traditions hold that Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 9] sacred water sources, trees and stones can “move” (leave their sacred precincts) if offended. The commonality of such perceptions around the globe led Sir Edward Tylor (a formative thinker in socio-cultural anthropology) to argue that animism was everywhere the first form of religion (1871). In fact, some have argued that explaining perceptions of animated nature gave rise to the discipline of anthropology itself and that animism was perhaps its first concept (Bird-David, 1999:67). Seeing ourselves as apart from nature, rather than a part of it, is a product of agricultural subsistence strategies and the emergence of state-level societies (with a “state-state of mind”) (Scott, 1999). Animism may still pervade folk traditions in states however, and sit alongside adherence to the world’s major faiths in localized popular belief. Certain species of plants or trees, or particular rocks and stones in which the supernatural abides can become totems (spiritual symbols). Trees and stones have been totemic from prehistory, serving as emblems for clans, lineages and tribes. Totems are a reminder of a group’s identity and beliefs, of mythic origins, and of ancestors and tutelary deities. Anthropologists borrowed the concept of “mana” from Austronesian languages to describe the power which animists believe some stones and trees contain. Mana is an impersonal force that can inhabit some objects, places, plants and people, but not others (for example, mana can reside in members of chiefly dynasties, but not other social classes; four-leaf clovers, but not those with three leaves; a horseshoe mounted above a door with heels up rather than heels down). Mana-possessing sacred trees and stones, particularly those perceived as totems, are loaded with taboos (prohibitions against actions/behaviors). Taboos prevent offense to the mana-possessor; transgressions bring supernatural punishment. Sacred trees and stones associated with holy wells are totemic and usually swathed in ritual taboos meant to protect and direct their mana towards thaumaturgy (miracle production/cures) and good fortune.


Venerable trees have been symbolic places of assembly, covenant and prophecy where vows taken were considered sacred and binding. With roots reaching underground and branches stretching towards the sky, trees are axes mundi par excellence.14 As agriculture’s Middle Eastern invention was accompanied by deforestation for crop production, early animist farmers reserved groves as the dwelling places of otherwise dispossessed spirits. Agriculture enabled a human population boom and these sacred groves could be whittled away to single sacred trees as farmlands, dwellings and livestock pastures gradually encroached on even tabooed sacred precincts. Today, a few individual sacred trees are world renowned such as Indra’s paradisiacal and wish-granting Kalpavriksha which emerged from earth’s primal waters, or Gautama Buddha’s Enlightenment-inspiring Bodhi. The ash that links and shelters all worlds and planes of existence in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, has three roots drawing from three wells: one to the wisdom-giving well of Mimir, another to the spring Hvergelmir and a third extending to Urd ‘s well where the gods gather and from which the Norse (the Norse Fates) water Yggdrasil itself. The pairing or proximity of a life-giving tree and water source is ubiquitous around the globe. This coupling is not only practical (sacred trees survive longer with a constant water source), but [p. 10] mana and symbolism are intensified when they co-occur. Both trees (as axes mundi) and wells (as entrances to the otherworld) are boundaries between the supernatural plane and our own. As liminal landscape features, they arc both places of dread and blessing. Recipients of votive offerings or rags (which symbolize an affliction), the venerated trees in healing springs’ sacred landscapes arc the points where illness or worry is symbolically left when seeking grace from the waters.15

Stones In some places, natural landscape features where prayers are said or rituals are performed as constituent parts of a larger pilgrimage are called “stations.” Stone stations offer a comforting materiality to faith, remind devotees of transgenerational ritual practice and may perform a crucial role in traditional healing rituals. When natural springside rocks and boulders are recipients of votive offerings, these are often foodstuffs, alcohol or oil. Not always amenable to official, orthodox visions of international faiths, particular stones arc made holy worldwide by their shape or by indentions perceived to be imprints made by the foot, hand, fingers, elbow, back, head and even the tears or face of a saint, deity, hero or ancestor (see Bord, 2004). Aligning one’s relevant body part in the stone’s depressions can be part of their ritual visitation. Imprint stones can even be contested between folk interpretations, for example, at the summit of Sri Lanka’s 2,243-meter high mountain called Adam’s Peak; a sacred footprint is claimed to be that of Shiva by Hindus, the Lord Buddha by Buddhists, the apostle Thomas by some Christians and, for Muslims, it is the imprint left by Adam when exiled from paradise (Aksland, 2001:16). Other stones might be referenced as the “chairs,” “beds” or “boats” of cultural heroes and supernatural figures. After symbolic purification by drinking or anointing themselves with sacred water, petitioners may anticipate the arrival of a curative moment while sitting or lying on these thaumaturgical stones.16

Like trees, stones have provided a focus for veneration, ritual, revelations and inaugurations cross-temporally and cross-culturally. Stone cairns in memory of the dead and of heroic deeds may be found worldwide. Repeatedly erecting stone pillars, the Biblical Jacob arose after his famous dream about a ladder to heaven and “took the stone that he had put for his pillow, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it” (Genesis 28:18 KJV) and “vowed a vow” (28:20). Jacob and Laban commemorated a covenant by building a cairn and offering a sacrifice on it (Genesis 31:45-47). The Phoenicians arc thought to have worshipped at stones considered to be houses of God (baetyls) which were likely meteorites. The most venerated meteorite on earth would be that embedded in the Ka’ba at Mecca. The much-debated Germanic “Irminsuls” (interpreted as universal pillars) seem to have been tree trunks resurrected in a space selected for ritual focus and sometimes replaced with stone pillars; Charlemagne notably ordered their destruction during his eighth-century wars with the Saxons (Dowden, 2002:118-119). Hinduism and some types of Buddhism have the lingam (a cosmic pillar without beginning or end). A complement to the fenule yoni, the lingam is associated with fertility and power, most commonly represented in stone (in both private shrines and temples), and offered flowers, milk, oil, fruit and rice. From New Guinea to India to Morocco, megaliths arc often associated with Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 11] power structures and memorializing the dead, but have also been associated with fertility into the twentieth century even at sites such as Men-an-Tol in Cornwall. When beside sacred water sources, natural or human-modified, mana-possessing stones can play supportive roles in water veneration.


Springs emanating from caves are special wherever they occur, their waters are considered the most miraculous and ritually pure from Greece to Mexico, and some have evidence of prehistoric veneration.18 Bronze Age cults engaged the underground pool within the cave at Psychro on the edge of the Lasithi Plateau on the island of Crete (Rutkowski and Nowicki, 1996:18). Visited by Greeks in antiquity to cure leprosy, the two thermal springs of Kaiafas flow from within a cave at the foot of Mount Lapithas and the resulting pool is still frequented by contemporary spa-goers.

In the first officially Christian nation, Armenia, the missionizing saint who converted the populace in 301, “Gregory the Illuminator” founded a church at the site of a sacred spring within a cave at Geghard (the later medieval monastic complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Mexico’s second most significant Roman Catholic pilgrimage site after the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the spring, cave and tree complex at Chalma. Pilgrims immerse or splash themselves with sacred water from a spring-fed pool sheltered by an ancient Montezuma cypress tree near a cave that was dedicated in pre-Aztec times to Oztoteotl (the god of darkness and night). Surrounded by mountains, Chalma was an abode of TlaJoc (the celestial waters) who was the god of water, rain and lightning, and Chalchiuhtlicue (the earthly waters) who was the goddess of running water (de Orellana, 1972:71; Claassen, 2011).

The oldest place of Christian pilgrimage in Norway is a cave/spring complex dedicated to a legendary Irish martyr who was Norway’s first saint. Fleeing a marriage to an invader Viking chieftain, St. Sunniva was said to be an Irish queen who put to sea with her followers and landed on the island of Selja on Norway’s western coast. Hiding in a cave there from a local Viking menace and praying for aid, their deliverance came in a quick demise when the cave collapsed (Mikaelsson, 2005:107). Sunniva was known from Finland to Germany and even in the Faeroe Islands; her sacred spring was a significant place of pilgrimage before the Reformation, and Lutherans continue to use Sunniva as feminine given name (ibid:104; Hommedal, 2018).

Built in veneration of a spring emerging from a cave, one of Bali’s most famous water temples is Tirta Empul (meaning Holy Spring). Rather than a sacred place along a river, the Hindu concept of tirtha came to refer to holy springs on Bali, and from at least the ninth century, Balinese temples were located beside springs for the creation of sacred bathing pools (Lansing, 2006:51). A temple has existed at Tirta Empul, the spring source of the Pakerisan River, from the tenth century and the site now draws thousands of international pilgrims, new yoga enthusiasts and spiritual tourists who move between two pools of spring water to dip their heads under a row of waterspouts in each. Expanding accommodation for visitors has led to garbage and sewage pollution directly entering the water (causing boil notices most recently [p. 12] in 2017); E. coli contamination has now compromised the holy waters where pilgrims have sought ritual purification for over a thousand years (see Warren, 2002).

Archaeologists James Brady and Wendy Ashmore note that in karstic landscapes, caves are geological conduits for the movement of groundwater. In the cosmology of the Mayan Lowlands where they research, water surfaces were viewed like mirrors and were an aid to scrying (foretelling the future). Cenotes (sink holes) there are known for their sacrificial depositions and their attractive colors where surface bedrock has collapsed to reveal the water table (1999:137). At Dos Pilas, Guatemala, Mayan kings positioned public architectural complexes beside caves with springs[1]the largest is today called El Duende, but was in ancient times known as K’inalha’ for the springs to which it orients (ibid:128-129; see also Brady, 2010). The rush of water within the caves would have been an aural manifestation of the sacred. The Inca regularly enabled auditory hierophany through their placements of Andean shrines beside flowing water (Curatola Pctrocchi, 2016). Recent archaeological research on the ritual use of caves has focused on their multisensory perception (how ancients experienced them and not just viewed them) and has particularly considered the links between sound and manifestations of the divine. Caves with springs were sacred soundscapes where particular areas could offer optimum acoustics for ritual or listening for a divine presence (Yioutsos, 2019).

Genii loci

Springs and riverbanks around the world are favored venues for receiving ritual purification, blessing and wisdom and serve as boundary markers between territories, villages or towns, and also between this world and supermundane domains. Liminal places cross-culturally, sacred springs and holy wells also have a numinous quality-many were perhaps selected as special because their physical distinctiveness suggested a supernatural character or presence. Supernatural guardians monitor these watery portals between realms and assist petitioners in accessing grace and thaumaturgical power across perceived divides between the natural and the supernatural. The protective spirit of a place, the genius loci may be imagined as a tutelary deity, a variety of supernatural beings, a muse or a totemic animal. While a genius loci can also simply be the characteristic atmosphere of a place, similar forms of genii aquae appear worldwide and their form shapes expectations of place-appropriate behaviors.

Dug by the hooves of the divine, winged stallion Pegasus, the famous Hippocrene spring on Mt. Helicon was the haunt of the Muses and imbibers of its waters received poetic inspiration. 19 The Greeks associated so many supernatural beings with fresh water sources that they classified these Naiades by abode and power: the Crinaiae occupied wells and fountains, the Limnades lived in lakes and the trickster Eleionomae dwelled in marshes and wetlands. While these could manifest as youthful beauties, more common genii are fish, eels and dragons. Across many faiths, fish and eels residing in sacred waters arc considered embodiments of the genius loci. Just seeing them is thought to indicate the success of a petition, and their movements are considered prophetic (foretelling a return of health or impending death). From Scotland to South Africa, a change in the color of special water sources is also thought Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 13] to be oracular and to either indicate the mood of ancestral spirits or the answers to questions posed to an aid-giving genius loci. Regular cast members in Han Chinese water myths, dragons reside in spring-fed pools where important events transpire. Again, perhaps because waters have to break before a birth-explanatory tales of babies emerging from water sources are found in many parts of the world and the Pumi (an official minority in China’s Yunnan Province) visit “dragon pools” on the first day of the lunar calendar to request babies from water-dragon deities (Yun, 2010:419). In Japan, the Shinto kami (spirits) are associated with springs and waterfalls and can appear as dragons in devotees’ dreams (Schattschneider, 2003). Dragon deities are also honored at Korean sacred springs in a blend of indigenous shamanism and Buddhism.

Snakes are ubiquitous supernatural protectors and residents of sacred waters. Except in a few cases of obvious diffusion, water-dwelling serpentine beasts appear so regularly in tales around the world because of the centrality of water in mythic cosmologies and an almost panhuman fascination with the silently undulating and sidewinding snake. Routinely molting their skin (ecdysis), they seem to regenerate themselves and appear more vibrant after sloughing a layer. As sacred water sources also have renewing powers, and as many snakes prefer watery habitats, their conflation in legend is unsurprising-varieties of actual “water snakes” affirm the association on six continents. On the southern slope of Mt. Parnassos is the celebrated Castalian Spring where those seeking the oracle at Delphi stopped to purify themselves; Apollo famously killed the resident serpent Quuti et al., 2015:2327). In the cosmology of the Tewa in New Mexico, all rivers, arroyos, springs and lakes are linked underground and are traveled by prayer-carrying sacred water serpents (Awenyus) which deliver requests to the relevant water spirits (Ford and Shapiro, 2017). In northern Swaziland, a seven-headed snake lives in the sacred Mantjolo pool and grants poolside requests for rain from the site’s Mnisi clan stewards (van Vuuren et al., 2007:18). While ancestral snakes live in the bottom of Australian waterholes created in the Dreamtime, for the Mae Enga of New Guinea, ancestors coalesce into huge, invisible pythons that dwell in forest pools where they receive pig organs and fat and around which men position images of both ghosts and living clan members (Meggitt, 1965:118).

Historical and ethnographic accounts demonstrate that from Peru to Indonesia and Siberia, water sources are common venues for engaging the ancestors in a variety of forms. 20 In Madagascar, springs (and stones) are associated with the more-feared than-venerated vazimba (the earth’s first inhabitants) who require offerings and can cause illness and calamity if displeased or enable haleness and fertility if placated. Malagasy springs could be called into being wherever sacred ancestors were invoked (Radimilahy, 1994:83-86). Stephanie Bunn has described how Kyrgyzstan’s sacred Lake Issyk-kul is protected by the Mistress of Water Bugu enye who is considered the ancestor spirit of local people. There and at sacred springs, waterfalls and pools associated with ancestors or Sufi Muslim saints, the Kyrgyz may wash their faces, collect restorative and fertility-inducing waters to carry horne, and tie rags on nearby bushes and trees. In another example of how sacred water beliefs and folk liturgies can devi[1]ate from a majority faith, they may also roll around on the ground beside the source and sacrifice sheep to the resident e’e-the powers or masters of the water (Bunn, 2013:131-132).21 Similarly, linked notions of ancestry and treating water sources [p. 14] respectfully are also found in the Limpopo Province of South Africa (Ratiba, 2013). The health-giving Lake Fundudzi (the only natural inland lake in Southern Africa) is the abode of the ancestral spirits of the Vhatavhatsindi (people of the pool) and of a python fertility god. The lake is considered “a sacred burial site in which their ancestors continue to live” so that irreverent swimmers may be dragged under the water by displeased spirits (Van der Waal, 1997; Van Vuuren et al., 2007; Sharfrnan, 2017:106). On the Southeast-Asian island of Timor, each descent group stewards a particular spring where the ancestors were traditionally addressed in water-drawing rituals that reaffirm consanguineal kinship at “the door” to their ancestors’ world (“the threshold of the spring”) (Traube, 1986:188-191; Jennaway, 2008:24). Protected also by sacred eels, crocodiles and pythons, health and fertility-granting springs there generally have an associated stone where offerings oflive animals are made (Kehi and Palmer, 2012:460-464). In Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, a naga (nagini in female form) is one of an array of snakey-water deities that can adopt human form and protect springs, wells and rivers (though they can also cause these to flood).22 With some parallels to European Melusina legends (in which fish-tailed supernatural women beget noble lines), serpent-tailed nagini are considered ancestors in parts of South Asia. One naga king, Mucilanda, sheltered the Buddha from rain and storms while he obtained Enlightenment, and now appears in Buddhist art and state ritual in Thailand. As in many places, sovereignty is still associated with holy water in Thailand and in 2019, sacred waters were collected from each of the 76 provinces across the country for a traditional purification shower in the new king’s coronation ceremonies.

While not regularly ancestral themselves, varied fonns of African mermaids may guard sacred watery thresholds to the realms of the ancients or the recently departed. Zulu speakers in South Africa consult the mermaid deity of healing and fertility, Inkosazana, at the edges of pools that she inhabits and through which she may drag the petitioner to an underwater land of ancestors (Bernard, 2008). In South Africa’s Ukhahlamba Mountains, a series of waterfalls flow into Gxubuse Pool which is dangerous to visit without an invitation through a dream, or for rainmaking or therapeutic purposes. Mermaids (abantu bomlambo) dwell there with a giant mystical snake (Bernard, 2013:145-146). Mami Wata (derived from Pidgin English for “water as mother”) has become the generalized name for healing spirits who inhabit a variety of water bodies in Cameroon, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria and now have a homogenized representation as mirror-using mermaids (Drewal, 2012). In Benin, favor-granting spirits dwell in sacred pools called fbu (Sd6 at numerous points along the Oueme and Okpara Rivers and receive cheese gifts or annual goat sacrifices (Ceperley, 2012:399-401). Notions of female water supernaturals moved abroad with the African Diaspora and Bettina Schmidt notes ongoing creolization in Brazilian Candomble of water goddesses from the West African pantheon. The mother of living waters, Iemanja, is also sometimes regarded as the mother of all Candomble orixas (deities and spirits) and Oxum (a fresh water goddess of rivers, lakes, springs and waterfalls) is represented like Mami Wata as a mermaid with a mirror (2017). Many of these numens can drag unattended children into their realms; the “Water Woman” version of Inkosazana, who occupies a pool beneath a waterfall at the South African mountain gorge of Meiringspoort, can grab them Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 15] from any nearby water hole (van Vuuren et al., 2007). Her stories echo those of La Llorona in Mexican myth who wails for her lost children near water, the serpent- or fish-tailed Greek Lamia who grieves for her lost children yet devours those of others, and the Catalonian donas d’aigua who snags children venturing too close to one of her wells with a hook and keeps them. Combing her hair by water like a mermaid, an Estonian water spirit also acts like a banshee in lamenting the impending deaths of locals though it is sometimes she who drowns them (Vastrik, 1999:28, 33). The third-century Christian theologian Tertullian even commented about “those wells called ‘snatching wells,’ where malignant spirits violently snatch people” Qensen, 1993:40). Transcultural characters like these all speak to a panhuman fear of childloss and specifically to the dangers of water sources for the young. At wells sacred in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, genii loci more regularly take the form of a monotheistically agreeable zaddik, saint or wali. Jerusalem had the healing Pool of Siloam and the Pool of Bethesda where angelic visits activated the waters’ curative abilities. Divinely provided for Hagar who stewarded it, Mecca’s Zamzam spring is thought to cure illness and hunger (now a part of the hajj, the well preceded Abraham’s legendary construction of the Ka’ba which makes Mecca holy).23 In Morocco at the ruins of Shalla in Rabat, a shaded spring beside a wali’s tomb is inhabited by eels which children feed; the eels are understood to be the embodiments of jinns that have become servants of the wali or Muslim saint. 24 Arising in Christianity as early as the third century, “saint cults” may be briefly defined as systems of beliefs and rituals associated with a holy person’s relics or frequented places that induce a saint’s intercession with the divine on behalf of the devotee, and foster friendship and communion between patron and individual (Brown, 2014). At Lourdes, apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary instructed the nineteenth-century French teenager, Bernadette Soubirous, to dig the earth with her hands in a cave to reveal a healing spring that now yields up to 40 liters of pure water per minute.


Today, sacred wells, trees, stones and caves can be considered isolated oddities in many parts of the world because of the radical editing of the landscapes in which they happen to survive. More likely, they were part of an interconnected sacred topography which is now largely inaccessible to us. What we think of as numinous nodes on an otherwise disenchanted map may have once derived meaning by their connection to multiple seemingly discrete sites and landscapes. It is now popular to speculate about articulated placelore of sacred topographies-to consider “Dreamtimes” beyond Australia (Mallory, 2016). The “Dreaming” is an unending beginning or temporal continuum in which heroic Ancestral Beings created the land, its resources and lore about the same in a still-ongoing process. Songs about the Dreaming (Songlines), which describe the paths traveled by revered Creator Beings, not only encoded knowledge about seasonal changes in flora and fauna, but also provided nomadic hunters and gatherers with cognitive maps of water holes, rock shelters and landmarks to navigate in their own travels. The interconnectivity of landscapes is, of course, always punctuated with water sources-as such generationally layered Indigenous Knowledge is elsewhere.

[p. 16]    While people everywhere might consider “their” well or spring as the most pure, the most powerful and the most ancient, adherents to international faiths might acknowledge a distant source as the ultimate sacred water and if fortunate enough to visit as a pilgrim, bring that water home to increase the mana of their local fountainhead. Almost literally iconic themselves, the blue and white bottles shaped like a statue of the Virgin Mary in which pilgrims carry away water from the Lourdes spring are regularly left at holy wells in Ireland and can also appear at those in Italy and Austria. The full bottle is placed somewhere near the access point to the well, bolstering the capabilities of the home site, perpetuating the intention of the distant pilgrimage, and also linking the numinosity perceived at Lourdes to the experience of one’s local shrine. In an age of inexpensive airline travel, such long-distance links can replace older pilgrimage circuits. Linked sacred topographies are also still evident in saint cults elsewhere. Chalma water is poured on or placed beside shrines elsewhere in Mexico. This is particularly so in the towns of the region where different communities engage in an elaborately choreographed schedule of Lenten pilgrimages based on a hierarchy of local patron saints whose statues are brought to “visit” the Christ of Chalma in a set order (though on a slightly different calendar than the official Church reckonings of Lent) (Gomez Arzapalo, 2009). In Ireland, holy wells dedicated to saints remembered as siblings were often visited in conjunction, or the site of one was ritually acknowledged as a distant station while offering devotions at the other. Devotees performing ritual circuits at St. Elva’s well at Derrysallagh, County Sligo used to bow toward the well of her sister, St. Lassair, in Kilronan, Co. Roscommon. The Shinto spirits/saints known as kami merged into Japanese Buddhism and, both the good and the bad, dwell at water sources, caves, stones and trees, particularly those on sacred mountains. Worshippers undertake vision-granting austerities at the shrines of various kami and Buddhist deities that reside at different locations and elevations of a sacred mountain, and through their asceticism, ritualists ascend a spiritual hierarchy embedded in a mountain’s topography (Schattschneider, 2003).25

It also happens that devotees may acknowledge some transcendent sources as the ultimate origin of their local site, or as in some way linked to their sacred waters which makes them holier and more phenomenal. In various parts of the globe, sacred fresh waters are deemed extraordinary through perceived connections with saltwater seas. Springs of East Timor are thought to recede with the ocean’s low tide and to fill at high tide (Kehi and Palmer, 2012:456). Likewise, the Tullaghan well in County Sligo (made famous by Yeats as “the Hawk’s Well”) is thought to be the holy well Gerald of Wales reckoned as one of Ireland’s twelfth-century wonders because, despite its inland, hilltop location, it ebbed with the tides of the sea (which local residents still claim in the twenty-first century) (Wright, 1863:65). In eastern China’s tea-growing area of Longjing (a placename meaning Dragon Well), waters of the eponymous well were believed to be connected with those of the Eastern Sea where dragons lived and from which rain could be requested.26

Waters deemed unusually powerful are thought to have paradisiacal origins. Gish Abay, or the source of the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia is thought to be “Gihon,” one of the four rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (the others being the Hiddekel or Tigris, the Euphrates and the Pishon). Genesis 2:13 describes Gihon as encircling Holy wells and sacred springs 17 the land of Cush which is identified elsewhere in the Bible with Ethiopia. Unlike the other rivers diverging across Mesopotamia from the primal Edenic source, Gish Abay emerges after a journey under the Red Sea. While Gish Abay is a center of pilgrimage, devotees do not have direct access to the ultra-holy water to avoid its defilement (attendants approved by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church provide water in bottles and cans) (Oestigaard and Gedef, 2011). The source of the White Nile in Uganda, by contrast, is more mundane, and while healing, it is not thought holy (Oestigaard, 2018). The most sacred waters for Muslims, those of Zamzam, are thought to mingle with those of every other spring in Islamic countries one night a year and refresh their mana; a pilgrim losing his drinking cup when reaching for Zamzam water claimed to have retrieved it from a well at a Cairo mosque (Canaan, 1927:65).27 In what Rana Singh has called “Gangaization,” the Ganga is perceived as the ultimate source of all Hindu sacred waters. Other sacred rivers, all sacred tirthas, kundas (pools) and kiips (wells), are thought to ultimately derive from the Ganga which also sacralizes all that is between them (1987:316-317). This perspective traveled with nineteenth-century immigrants to the island of Mauritius off the southeast coast of Africa where in the 1890s, a local priest dreamed a crater lake called Talao in the island’s mountainous center was linked to the Ganga. The idea gave comfort to indentured workers who had moved there, and temples now line the water’s edge where fruit and incense offerings are made and devotees perform ritual purifications. In 1972, Ganga water was brought to pour into the sacred lake which was renamed Ganga Talao and now pilgrims walk barefoot to the lake during Shivaratri (the annual festival honoring Shiva). Whether Dreamtime-like interconnections or newly imagined links to the greatest sources of mana, cosmovisions of sacred water highlight the natural fact that, while ever renewing, fresh water is a limited and precious resource.

Sacred waters as a subject and their relevance for socioecological resilience

Until the arrival of plumbing, knowledge of water sources and their associated qualities was part of the most basic education for living and was acquired through oral traditions. The earliest “science” of life was encoded in religious creation stories and the earliest scholars whose works are known to us considered the meanings of water. James Smith’s examination of the classical authorities on legends or locations of springs included Aeschylus, Apollodorus, Xenophon, Thucydides, Herodotus and Euripides, and many poets who also described their physical appearance and traditions (1922). Smith noted that Hesiod, Homer and Ovid wrote about magical transformations in the waters of springs (which count as the first landscape features in Ovid’s description of creation). The second-century cultural geographer and travel writer Pausanias recorded traditions of ancient Greece as they edged from folk memory under Roman domination. Across his ten volumes, the names of springs that he documented still indicate the route of his travels (Ibid: viii; see Elsner, 1992). While the secular Chinese scholar Wang Chong was accurately describing the hydrological cycle in the first century, the era of the Han Dynasty was also the period during which a growing body of topographical lore, the mythical geography of China [p. 18] known as The Classic of Mountains and Seas, was evolving into its set form in which spring and river waters arc described as divine and immortal (see Birrell, 1999).

For the naturalist Pliny the Elder, sacred waters were interesting for their curative potential and he classified springs according to their remedies for eyes, ears, head, bones, stomach, infertility and miscarriage, gout and insanity. This focus also characterized Renaissance and post-Reformation studies of springs in Europe and impacted views of holy water in places to which European cultures were exported. Sixteenth-century Italians were intrigued with balneology (from the Latin for bath, balneum) or the study of bathing (particularly therapeutic), and revived interest in the theories of Galen (the second-century Greek physician) about bathing in natural spring waters. The English physician and Reformer chaplain William Turner began publishing on the virtues of the waters at Bath in the 1550s, crediting their health giving power to brimstone.28 Turner’s publications ushered in an insular enthusiasm for analyzing mineral waters that, in turn, fostered “taking the waters” (both drinking and bathing) for health benefits and for socializing as a form of proto-vacation. During “the season,” those with the leisure time and funds mixed with invalids at Tunbridge Wells, Bath and Malvern (where the source of medicinal water was a holy well known for cures in medieval times), or they traveled abroad (with the excuse of a spa visit for health).29 The rationalism of Enlightenment thinkers had largely finished off vestiges of animism and reduced once numinous waters to resources valued for their mineral content and recreational potential. By the mid-nineteenth century, medicinal water spas numbered close to 250 in England and in the thousands across Europe and North America (Mather, 2013; Robins and Smedley, 2013). Likewise, in volcanically-active Japan, the onsen (a hot spring with bathing facilities and nearby inns) may have replaced much earlier Shinto conceptions of genii loci at thousands of springs. From Japan to Bulgaria to Argentina, multiple international associations now pursue balneology both in academic terms as Medical Hydrology, and to promote spa tourism.

A century ago, sacred wells were a scholarly interest. In 1918, Rustom Pestonji Masani published Folklore of Wells: Being a Study of Water-Worship in East and West and four years later, James Reuel Smith published a 722-page book on the legendary springs and wells in Greece, Asia Minor and Italy (mentioned earlier). Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, holy wells and sacred springs were regularly featured in folklore studies and in local history journals-so many that Arthur Gribben published a 114-page bibliography of works mentioning or dedicated to holy wells and sacred water sources just in Britain and Ireland (1992:31-150). Recently, it is sacred rivers that have attracted scholarly attention. Considering the paradox of India’s rivers’ enduring sacrality and their pollution, David Haberman focused on the Yamuna (2006). Peter Ackroyd examined the Thames from its prehistoric sacrality to the present (2008). Considering the Hudson, the Volga, the Seine, the Thames and the Shannon, Tricia Cusack (2010) has explored the significance of ancient river mythologies and painted riverscapes in shaping national identities in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and America. Rachel Havrelock (2011) considered the political and symbolic borders of the Jordan-one of the holiest rivers (from which, as mentioned, water is flown around the world for christenings and baptisms). Catherine Knight has offered an Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 19] environmental history of New Zealand’s rivers, some of which the Maori consider ancestral (2016). Terje Oestigaard’s 2018 volume, The Religious Nile, considers how ancient and contemporary religious perspectives of the river have shaped the societies along its course.

While not focused on the sacrality of water, the subfield of wet site and wetland archaeology has grown particularly since the 1980s (Menotti and O’Sullivan, 2013).30 Neither water bodies nor land, liminal wetlands have received both votive deposition and burials around the globe. Northern European bogs are famous for their Iron Age “bog bodies”-perhaps victims of sacrifice or executed criminals (Aldhouse-Green, 2015). Underwater burials in peat at Florida’s much older, Archaic-period sites (such as Windover, Bay West, Little Salt Springs and Republic Grove) occurred over a millennium (see Purdy, 2017 [1991]). In both locations, bodies could be staked into the peat to prevent their re-emergence so that wetlands do attract some similar forms of ritual activity. The cross-cultural sacrality of marshes, fens, bogs and other wetlands deserves further attention. While interpreted and venerated differently than sacred water sources, such depositional locations are sacred waterscapes.

Employed since the mid-nineteenth century, “waterscape” is analogous to landscape and, as defined by Ben Orlove and Steven Caton, refers to “the culturally meaningful, sensorially active places in which humans interact with water and with each other” (2010:408). Whether we describe them as therapeutic, “ordinary,” sacred or spiritually neutral, we can now speak of waterscapes, riverscapes, seascapes, lakescapes, blue spaces and waterworlds. Kirsten Hastrup’s concept of waterworlds references the ways water connects all of life’s different domains (2009; Orlove and Caton, 2010). In current and anticipated water crises, more aquacentric language can only be an aid to better stewardship. Beliefs, knowledge and traditions (Intangible Cultural Heritage) about sacred waters have fostered biocultural diversity around the globe. Cross-cultural similarities in visions and treatments of sacred waters, particularly those forms that can have either highly localized or international appeal (hallowed springs, holy wells, pools and water holes) can inspire adoptable paradigms for responsible water cultures.

Current academic, media and popular obsession with “difference” is hardly productive for a world population in excess of 7.7 billion which increasingly embraces lifestyles that overconsume and pollute basic resources. Understanding the myriad ramifications of culturally constructed categories of difference is essential for social and environmental justice, but so too is an appreciation of what we share in common. Anthropologist Peter Van der Veer has in fact specifically called for a revitalization of the comparative approach (2016).31 Better understandings of shared values and of similarities between worldviews enable us not only to learn from each other more effectively across difference, but to collaboratively shape answers to environmental issues that impact us all. Sacred water sites and their traditions have many striking similarities around the world, and are also humanity’s shared biocultural heritage. Their stewardship (only recently failed in many places) models routes to reconnecting communities to better treatment of water generally. Designating four main types of sacred places as World Heritage Sites (mountains, landscapes, forests and waters), UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) deems the conservation of both their cultural and biological diversity to be significant [p. 20] for humanity (Dudley et al., 2009; Robson and Berkes, 2010:199). Sites of biocultural diversity are those where cultural belie£~ and practices help protect and maintain habitats, ecosystems and stocks of particular flora and fauna (because these are perceived as curative, numinous, or as totems, metaphorical kin or valued resources). Likewise, those flora and fauna influence cultural traditions and identities, along with languages that encode local ecological knowledge and cultural worldviews about how to relate to landscape features, resources and biota (see Maffi, 2001). With the loss of animism and disenchantment of the natural world has come its anthropocentric abuse. Water sources were likely the first sites humans venerated and those that cross-culturally and cross-temporally have remained the most common category of sacred natural sites worldwide. Religious beliefs that perpetuate biodiversity conservation deserve our attention (Frascaroli, 2013; Lazzerini and Bonotto, 2014).

While we have the same amount of fresh water on earth as did all previous generations, we now overexploit our most important resource (70% of all drawn water is expended on agriculture and 20% on industry) so that what was an ample and self-renewing vital resource for smaller human populations is for much of ours, a limited or scarce one. The intensification of agriculture to meet increased food demands has caused significant depletion of aquifers and their pollution from the application of fertilizers and pesticides. The lowering of water tables through current consumption levels means that formerly reliable springs are running dry around the world. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized access to water as a human right and, in 2015, acknowledged the separate but equal right to water sanitation. Yet, close to two-sevenths of the world’s population lacks access to safely managed drinking water (Klaver, 2012). This lack, combined with lack of education, cultural hygiene practices and changing weather patterns that result in changing water supplies, leads to millions of deaths each year from consumption of unsafe water (Grojec, 2017). Never reaching one billion until the first decade of the 1800s, the human population has exploded in 200 years by more than 700%. Neo-Malthusian worries are about water as much as food. The cultural devaluation and disempowermcnt of women that creates unsupportable overpopulation, coupled with human choices about settlement locations, urban expansion and consumption levels have created water crises that arc now exacerbated by the shifting rainfall patterns accompanying environmental change. Megacities such as Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Istanbul and Mexico City arc all experiencing water stress and scarcity. In some cases, unmaintained infrastructure causes significant loss of water, in Bangalore rapid expansion and pollution are to blame, and in Jakarta aquifers have been drained by illegal well digging. No longer treated as something considered sacred, water is in short supply.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development first recommended an international observance “for” water in 1992. Anthropologists such as Veronica Strang (2009; 2015), John Richard Wagner (2013), and Kirsten Hastrup and Frida Hastrup (2015) have addressed the inequity issues prompting “World Water Day” and importantly considered watery environments in relation to settlement, ownership and subsistence. What is also needed is a greater understanding of the religious significance of water and what motivates people to steward water sources in ways that enable socioecological resilience. As protection of water sources came early in humanity’s colonization of the globe, water sources are perhaps the oldest conservation areas. Holy wells and sacred springs.21

Transdisciplinary efforts now link traditional ecological knowledge about sites of natural sacrality with solutions for water crises (Groenfeldt, 2013; Willems and van Schaik, 2015; Bryan, 2017; Jackson, 2018). How people view their world directly shapes how they act in it (Sharfman, 2017) and knowing how people value and use water can enable better stewardship, but we need to first understand water cultures. Sometimes, perceptions of Mother Nature or “God’s Providence” can foster both veneration and a lack of responsibility. In March 2017, New Zealand granted the legal rights of a living entity to the 90-mile-long Whanganui River which is considered ancestral to the Maori people and will now be represented by two guardians in future legal matters. Inspired by this, and a few days later, the High Court in India’s Uttarakhand State granted the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers (and the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers that feed them) the same legal rights as a person to protect them from pollution. Because the rivers extend beyond Uttarakhand, and because identifying and punishing polluters in the same ways as offenders committing assault or murder was deemed to be legally unsustainable, the Supreme Court quickly overturned the ruling in July (see O’Donnell and Talbot-Jones, 2018). Even though Hindu scriptures encourage environmental stewardship (Dwivdei, 1997), because the Ganga and Yamuna are both perceived as living goddesses, they are expected to receive not only the ashes from regular cremations along their banks (permitted in scripture), but human corpses (Sharma, 2004; see Haberman, 2006). They also receive trash, sewage and industrial waste. Yet perceiving them as self-renewing and inviolable, devotees still immerse themselves in their waters (see Colopy, 2012). As is known too well, sometimes religion backfires. When people believe in a “giving environment,” as the very name “Ganga Mata”/Mother Ganga implies, the suggestion that they can protect or conserve what they view as the source of all life can seem inconceivable (Milton, 1996:118-120).

On the other hand, religious worldviews often explicitly require stewardship and conservation practices that ostensibly honor and please the supernatural, but also have practical benefits. Anthropologist Stephen Lansing has studied how the traditional Balinese production of rice in flooded fields depends on a precise control of water enabled by religious tradition (1987, 2012). Irrigation is regulated through a hierarchical network of water temples and festival calendars so that fields are irrigated during the temple visits of particular deities. A typical village can have between 10 and 50 temples that receive holy water from central Balinese lake temples for purifying irrigation water. Water rituals at each temple relate to nine stages of planting and harvesting rice. As the growing period of native Balinese rice is 105 days, major temple festivals occur at intervals of105, 210 and 420 days-a cycle that allows enough algae growth for fertilization, yet not enough to attract unmanageable numbers of pests in the form of fish, insects and rodents. When the “Green Revolution” arrived in Bali in the 1970s to push new technologies for higher yields, Balinese famers were instructed to put away their incense and ignore the gods’ temple visits around which irrigation was scheduled. Along with bacterial and viral diseases, rat and insect populations surged. The pesticidal remedies for these then killed fish and eels and some farmers (Lansing, 1987:339). “Celebrated” as they are, science and contemporary technology disregard religion and the biocultural heritage religion protects. Folk technologies are honed across centuries for fit with local environments. Bali’s rice cultivation had been [p. 22] based on generationally layered ecological knowledge and farmers had enshrined best practice within religion so that it would not be forgotten. Dismissing religious tradition can eradicate a wealth of practical wisdom.

In the twentieth century, close to 800,000 dams were built worldwide and they now yield close to 20% of the world’s electricity, but divert, or otherwise fragment, 60% of the world’s largest rivers (Wu et al., 2004; Johnston, 2012; Hammersley et al., 2018). 32 Nehru identified dams with progress and famously called them the “temples of modern India”; yet with damming, river sediment is deposited in reservoirs rather than nourishing the floodplains. These reservoirs are breeding grounds for snails that harbor disease-causing parasites and mosquitoes that carry the viruses for the Yellow, West Nile, and Dengue fevers, Malaria and Zitka (Bartram, 2015). Dams are often damnation for traditional beliefs about water sources. Terje Oestigaard has described the hydropower project in the Bujagali Falls area of Uganda which encompasses multiple sites sacred to the Busoga including waterfalls, groves and rocks (2015). Years of opposition to damming the falls for hydroelectric power focused on the multiple resident waters spirits, but especially the waterfall-dwelling healer Budhagaali who had to be ceremonially relocated before the nearly one-billion-dollar dam project could be inaugurated. In Uttarakhand, India, a local version of the goddess Kali, Dbari Dcvi, is venerated along the River Alaknanda with a temple and statue. Both were to be inundated by a hydropower project at Srinagar. Frances Niebuhr noted that the local resistance which emerged due to cultural epistemologies about water demonstrates the need for “water-based environmental dialogue” (2017:246, 257; see also Drew, 2017).

Brokering solutions or pre-emptions to the predicted water wars of climate change requires reasserting commonalities in human valuations of water. Our two most immediate needs arc for air and water and while outdoor air quality is mostly beyond individuals’ control, water must be gathered and can be owned and privatized by cities, states or corporations. John Wagner has suggested that “‘imagining’ water as a commons can help us build the types of institutional networks we need to manage water wisely, equitably, and sustainably” (2012:627). To do so, we need to identify and emphasize what is common in our evaluations and uses of water; panhuman perceptions of water’s sacrality seem a good way to start. Understanding water cultures and how humans everywhere protect and manage sacred waters is constructive in promoting behaviors and policies that enhance socioecological resiliency-what religious practices at watery sites evolved to foster in the first place.


1 See Shiklomanov (1993) and Ball (2001). Thanks to Bruce Misstear for comments on a draft of this essay and his prompt to also note that, additionally, 97% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water occurs beneath the land surface as groundwater while only 3% exists in lakes, rivers and the atmosphere.

2 Across two decades of researching holy wells in Ireland and Scotland (with field work in Wales, Cornwall, the South Tyrol, Norway and Austria), this book was a pause Holy wells and sacred springs [p. 23] from a longer project on Irish holy wells begun in the year 2000. As I read about comparative sites elsewhere to make sense of the Irish cases, I found colleagues from New Zealand to Iceland, and from China to Peru who were also fascinated with watery sites of natural sacrality. I contacted many to pose comparative queries and from those exchanges, this book emerged. Along the way, I organized a two-day workshop on sacred springs and holy wells with medievalist Shane Lordan in Waterford, Ireland which was generously hosted by Eamonn McEneaney of the Waterford Council and the Waterford Museum of Treasures. Eight of the presentations from that gathering were revised for inclusion in this volume. Many thanks are owed to Cari Shepherd Reynolds for global sourcing of interlibrary-loans and to David Syler for editing images across the volume. Thanks also to Hannah Marie Garcia and Kennedy Jones for reading drafts.

3 Springs are further classified by flow rate, mineral content and formation, for example, via a fissure in the earth’s surface, as a seepage spring (where water has slowly filtered through permeable ground), within a cave (“tubular springs”), or through pressure in a confined aquifer creating artesian springs.

4 See Diana Eck’s essay on tirthas (1981).

5 What Jacques et al. (2018): call “persistent places.” For a discussion of natural sacred site selection, see Bradley (2000).

6 For the obvious reasons of their work ethic and building skills, ants are a kind of earth diver in many parts of the world. In Lithuania, they bring soil out of water and even in the Homer’s Illiad, Achilles’ Myrmidons created his island from the sea and were known as “ant people.” (Their ancestress Eurymedousa was oddly seduced by Zeus in the appearance of an ant, and/or Zeus gave them ant-like immunity to the plagues Hera sent in punishment of her husband’s lover.)

7 Yamuna’s twin sister Yama is the deity of death.

8 Thanks to Christopher McDonough for this reference.

9 The As wan High Dam has blocked the flow of sediment since the 1960s.

10 The hot springs at Bath are perhaps the most famous Iron Age water shrine because of their Roman reuse. Roman engineering eradicated native treatments of the site, excepting a possible pre-Roman gravel causeway to the spring. Pairing or equating native deities with their own as part of imposing Romanitas, Romans likened the indigenous genius loci Sulis with Minerva. Sulis is cognate with the Irish sui! (meaning eye, but also hope/expectation and sometimes gap). Rather than a proper name for a singular divinity, the name may reference perceptions of the sacred spring; the water, like an eye, reflected an image and was an orifice to the otherworld (Ray, 2014:41-42). Viewing the surface of sacred waters as reflecting special visions is common elsewhere and the Mayan perception is noted in this chapter.

11 “Sources” of rivers refer not only to an originating spring, but feeder springs along the course of a river.

12 The largest, the Pyramid of the Sun as known by a later Aztec name, was built over an artificial cave and what was thought to have been a former spring.

13 Most works on pilgrimage have focused on journeys to distant sites (Turner and Turner, 1978; Eade and Sallnow, 1991; Morinis, 1992; Badone and Roseman, 2004; Di Giovine and Picard, 2015). Pilgrimage to local sites of natural sacrality is in many ways distinct. Even when a site is overlain with an international faith, the biocultural setting shapes devotions and belief.

14 Water sources are often considered in similar ways as axes mundi, but their fluid materiality means that they have not been generally referenced as such.

15 For a wonderful comparative essay about tying rags on trees, see Dafni (2002). 16 Folk liturgies can, of course, vary; such engagements can precede physical contact with sacred spring water. [p. 24]

17 Debate continues as to whether the Ka’ba’s “Black Stone” is a meteorite or pseudometeorite (a terrestrial rock attributed with meteoritic origins) or possibly basalt lava or pumice. In Writing about pilgrimage in Western Europe, the Nolans argued that if a shrine has three such topographic features (for example, a mountain cave with a curative spring or a sacred tree and stone beside a holy well), then chances are “twelve to one that additional evidence proves or strongly suggests that the place was holy before the advent of Christianity in the region” (1989:303).

19 Pegasus was the creator of many such springs (Smith, 1922). Another is the famous “wellspring of Western Civilization,” the Peirene Fountain in Classical Corinth (Robinson, 2011).

20 On Siberia, see Breyfogle (2017).

21 While the hajj to Mecca is a pillar of the faith, voluntary pilgrimages such as these are “ziarat” which Bhardwaj might call “parallel Islam” (1998). On the Indonesian island of Lomboka, both Hindu and Muslim pilgrims undertake a tirtha yatra (a sacred water journey) to the home of a Hindu-Balinese goddess Dewi Anjani, a crater lake on a volcanic mountain that is considered the center of the world. Along their route, they pray, ritually purify themselves in hot springs and gather water at local springs, waterfalls and the lake to bring home. This sacred site-sharing is tense, but combines localizations of both Hinduism and Islam (Gottowik, 2016).

22 Before Spanish colonization, Philippine nagini were snakey mermaids and in Cambodia and Laos, they were water serpents.

23 The Saudi Arabian government prohibited Zamzam water’s commercial export, but bottles (often fakes) are sold globally. Testing purported Zamzam water sold in London, Britain’s environmental agency found high arsenic levels (de Chatel, 2007:27).

24 Thanks to anthropologist Emilio Spadola for this account.

25 Links between sacred places are more readily researched in documented religions where gods traveled between them (and humans imitated their circuits). Kaljiirgen Feuerhenn has described the “daisy chain” of divine travels of Ancient Mesopotamian deities who frequented the stones and trees and water sources people should venerate; their “descents to the lake” were marked with festivals (2011). Thanks to Jean deBernardi for this reference.

27 Thanks to Ahmad Ghabin for this reference.

28 As noted by B.W. Richardson in an article “The Medical History of England” for The Medical Times and Gazette, March 1H, 1865 (p. 292).

29 The Latin phrase sanitas per aquas is sometimes referenced as the origin of the concept, as is Belgium’s fourteenth-century discovery of a curative thermal spring in the town of Spa.

30 Barbara Purdy organized an International Conference on Wet Site Archaeology in 1986 at the University of Florida that she and, my then graduate student idol, Lee Newsom kindly allowed me to attend as an undergraduate. Hearing Byrony Coles and John Coles, Sander E. van der Leeuw, Tom Dillehay and William Watts there fanned an early interest in watery sites that became instead a fixation on sacred water. The Coles went on to found the Wetland Archaeology Research Project (an international network of researchers in wetland archaeology).

31 The comparative approach, for some, remains tied to Lewis Henry Morgan’s thoughts on unilineal social evolution, Van der Veer instead calls for post-Durkheimian, post-Weberian endeavors with historical grounding.

32 NASA even estimated that the weight of the water and trapped sediment behind the thirty-billion-dollar Three Gorges Dam in China could slow the earth’s rotation and lengthen each day by O.Oh microseconds. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news. php?feature=71 h.

(p. 25)


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