Holy Wells: Wormholes in Reality? - 1

by Alan Cleaver

An Examination of Dragons And Their Fascination With Holy Wells.

     As more and more information is gathered on holy wells, certain common denominators are sure to become apparent. The link between holy wells and holy trees has already been noted by researchers. So too has the repeated occurrence of certain legends such as the well springing up when a saint died near the spot or hit the ground with his (sic) staff. One link that has intrigued me is that between legends of dragons and holy wells. The motif is always the same: a dragon prevents local people reaching the well, spring or other source of water, but is eventually slain by the hero.

     The most famous example is probably the Lambton worm in County Durham. In this tale a newt-type creature is fished out of the River Wear and discarded into a well. Many years later the small creature has grown into a terrifying serpent which is eventually slain. The well still exists, having been restored in 1974, at the foot of Worm Hill at Penshaw on the north bank of the River Wear.

     In Longwitton, Northumberland, a serpent prevented local people from reaching three holy wells which were renowned for their healing qualities. The serpent keeps its tail in one of the wells to maintain its strength but is eventually slain. Note also the importance of the well in the Dragon of Wantley ballad;

'It is not strength that always wins,

For wit doth strength excell;

Which made our cunning champion

Creep down into a well;

Where he did think, this dragon would drink,

And so he did in truth:

And as he stoop'd low, he rose up and cry'd "boh!"

And hit him in the mouth.

"Oh" quoth the dragon, "pox take thee, come out,

Thou's disturb'st me in my drink."'

     The dragon is eventually defeated by 'our cunning champion'. The well, next to a natural spring, still exists today but is in a poor state of repair. There are many more examples showing the link between dragons and wells. At Griffydam, near Werthington, Leicestershire, there is an identical motif except the monster is referred to as a Griffin. The legend tells how a Griffin curled up in front of the village's well and, as everyone was too scared to go near it, they had to walk two miles to the well at Grace Dieu priory. After about a week a Knight rode into the village and asked the villagers for water for his horse. They told him of the Griffin guarding the well and the Knight called for the strongest bow and arrow. Just as the Griffin was yawning he fired the arrow into the air and it fell straight into the Griffin's mouth, killing it [1]. The well, called Griffy Well, still exists today, but is also in a very poor state. It is a spring on the side of a hill with stone work around it.

     To examine the link properly it may be necessary to widen our scope from just holy wells and study the link between dragons and water in general. As Jacqueline Simpson points out [2]; 'There is in fact a remarkable preponderance of water in all its forms - river, well, pool, lake, marsh, bog and sea'. So, for example, the Knucker (meaning a dragon) of Lyminster lived in a deep pool in the Sussex countryside; the Mordiford dragon in Herefordshire was 'wont to resort to a particular spot for the purpose of allaying his thirst, and this was at the confluence of the Wye and Lug' [3]; and the dragon at Moston, Cheshire, lived in a pool. While investigating dragons I was rather surprised to learn of a serpent legend in my home town of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire! It told how this too lived in a pool [4]. So it seems to be the source of water which is important.

     It would be wrong to dismiss this as coincidence because the link between dragons and water occurs throughout every country in the world and throughout all time. If we go back 400 years to 26 May, 1499, a dragon came out of a lake near the city of Lucerne, Italy. Going back 700 years to the Saga of the Volsungs, the dragon Fafnir is slayed by Sigurd when he comes to drink water. Nearly 2,000 years ago St Martha of Bethany was subduing the dragon Tarasque with holy water on the banks of the Rhone. Ancient Greek legend tells how a dragon stopped people reaching the spring of Ares in Thebes - a legend almost identical to the serpent at Longwitton, Northumberland, which was described above, yet they are thousands of years and hundreds of miles apart. What inspired people all over the globe throughout all time to create the same myth?

     One explanation might be that story tellers used natural landmarks as loci for their stories. Hence they would use a nearby wood as the dragon's lair, a local hero as the dragon slayer, and the local well as the dragon's drinking place. This seems to be at least partly true of the legend at Griffydam and at Wantley. Another theory - the mythological theory - suggests the dragon and water were originally symbolic as chaos and the wild face of nature, it finally being controlled by man. As Peter Hogarth and Val Clery moot in their book, Dragons, 'the Dragon usually symbolises evil or primeval chaos which might explain a frequent association with the sea, and storms and such unpredictable and violent forces of nature stirring dread even today' [5]. The link can even be psychologically explained with the water as a feminine symbol and the dragon as a masculine symbol. Or it might be sociological; the monster being 'created' by parents to keep their children away from water.

     They all seem to be plausible explanations and in some cases are almost certainly partial answers. However, in the second part of this article [Source 4(First Series)], I would like to put forward some ideas that may eventually lead other researchers to form a more viable theory and perhaps also make some new discoveries about the properties of holy wells.

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1. Green, Susan, (1974); Further Legends of Leicestershire and Rutland. Leicester Research Services, Imperial Buildings, 4 Halford Street, Leicester.
2. Simpson, Jacqueline, (1979); British Dragons.
3. Harper, H. C., (1978); The Mordiford Dragon. Torsdag Publications.
4. Harper, H. C., (1985); The Hughenden Dragon. Torsdag Publications.
5. Hogarth, Peter, & Clery, Val, (1979); Dragons.


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Text Alan Cleaver (1985) | Illustration unknown copyright

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