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ISSUE ONE (MAY 2000)

NOTES & QUERIES

Flow will resume with issue 2

Pin!!James Rattue writes:

Pagan survivals

   I find myself in the interesting position of having spent years arguing against naive assumptions of pagan survivals in well-lore, only to discover that others have leapt over my head and now doubt the very ground they walk on. It's a well-trodden path, I know, but now that which may be described as the 'pro-pagan' school have toned up their arguments in response to all the criticism, we could air the issues again – devote a future issue of LSJ to it, perhaps?

   I am still convinced that it makes sense to talk in terms of pre-Christian veneration of wells in the British Isles. Such continuity can only be demonstrated in very few specific instances, it's true, but in view of the universal extent of the cult of water-sources in non-Christian ideological contexts, it seems a bit over-sceptical to insist that somehow Britain was different from everywhere else because there is no unequivocal historical or archaeological evidence. Further, the persistent association of springs with folklore elements which are not observably Christian (ghosts, wishing, divination and all the rest) also argues in favour of a pre-Christian context for well-worship as such, even if, again, it can hardly ever be tied down to specific sites.

   As to the Celtic issue, I think it is unreasonable to argue that 'Celts' (whoever they were) had some kind of natural affinity with water worship and, in fact, may have originated it. Certainly in Britain it's all but impossible to distinguish between 'Celtic' and 'non-Celtic' ritual practices except where they take place in very specialised contexts, eg 'Coventina's Well', Carrawburgh, where the context is (at first) Roman and military. Is Bath Celtic or Roman, for instance? Who decides? Again, well-worship is so universal it is impossible to claim it for a particular cultural group, even if you could isolate that group from everybody else. There's a book on the folklore of the Zinacantan of Mexico, collected in the mid-20th century, which mentions all manner of Christian and pagan well sites (and those that are both), and the motifs, or at least the ideas, are very similar to those of Europe; and I recall hazily that the Maya or the Toltecs or somebody similar (apologies to the anthropologists among you) used to chuck human sacrifices into a colossal pit called the 'Sacred Well'. I believe the concept of the well, spring or pool as a point of contact with the Otherworld arises out of its physical characteristics - it goes down into the ground, emerges from it, or offers a mirror of the real world in its surface. This is an archetypal idea, not an Indo-European or Celtic one. Does anyone have an alternative account?

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