The Search for Bride's Well

by Cheryl Straffon & Caeia March


     Bride (pronounced Breed) was one of the principle Celtic goddesses, and was celebrated throughout the pagan Celtic world as the Goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry. She is particularly associated with wells and her main festival was that of Imbolc (February 1st) which celebrated her return to the land, seen in the lactation of the ewes and the first flowers of Spring. She was so important a Goddess that the Christian church could not suppress her. Instead they turned her into St Bridgit or Brigid, and she became one of the most revered saints of the early Celtic church. Legends and customs associated with her can be found in most Celtic lands, in particular in Scotland (where Bride’s Well can be found on the Isle of Lewis) and in Ireland, where she is still venerated until this day.

     As a pagan Goddess, Bride has particular resonance for us, and since Imbolc 1992 we have found that she has played an important part in our lives and in our researches. It has always puzzled us that she appeared to have no particular place in the folklore and mythology of Cornwall, despite Cornwall’s strong Celtic traditions. Our researches and personal journeyings have however over the last years revealed to us her presence in Cornwall in a very exciting and original way.

     For a time now we have both been interested in the 5th - 7th century links between Cornwall (then part of the kingdom of Dumnonia) and other Celtic lands, principally Ireland and Wales. It appears that early potters came from Ireland to Wales and then on to Cornwall, probably landing in the Tintagel area and settling initially along the valley of the River Camel [1]. There are the well-known maze carvings on the walls of Rocky Valley near Tintagel which are undated but could easily be from this period. There is also a little-known link between them and Ireland, for on a rock in the Wicklow Hills (now in a museum in Dublin) was found another maze carving, the exact mirror image of the Rocky Valley ones (Rocky Valley is a left-handed and Wicklow Hills a right-handed labyrinth carving) [2]. We would suggest that both carvings may have been made by the same peoples, who left their mark in their homeland of Ireland, and travelled to Cornwall where they carved its mirror image as a thanksgiving for their safe arrival.

     There are other clues to the links between Ireland and Cornwall from this time: many of the early saints were supposed to come from Ireland and Wales, and several of the names are common to the three countries and nowhere else. For example, Saint Breaca who gave her name to Breage in Cornwall was supposed to be born in East Meath in Ireland and educated at St Brigid’s convent nearby. So if the Celts did travel trade-routes here they must have brought their legends and beliefs with them. One of the principal beliefs would have been of the pagan Bride, given a thin veneer of Christian nomenclature as Saint Brigid. There was a shrine to her at Kildare in Ireland tended by 19 priestesses (later nuns), and St Bride’s Bay on the coast of Wales, where the Irish migrants would have landed, was named after her. As they moved across Cornwall on the old route through Launceston and on into Devon, it seemed to us unlikely that they would not have left some mark behind of her central presence in their lives.

     For us the breakthrough came when we started work on our books, for Caeia research on the Cornish myth of Tristan and Iseult [3] and for Cheryl a book on the Goddess in Cornwall [4]. It was our hypothesis that Iseult may have been a localised version of the Goddess Bride that set us searching for some evidence of her presence here. As Bride was the Goddess of poetry (creativity) and smithcraft (workmanship) as well as healing (inner and outer work) this was not without significance for us.

St Bride's Well   While researching the possible trade routes across north Cornwall we ‘chanced’ on a listing on the OS map (at SX 3500 7962) for St Bridgit’s Well. Here was the missing link we had been seeking! However, there appeared to be no source material on this well at all: no books listed it, not even Meyrick’s comprehensive collection of over 130 Cornish wells [5] and there was no information on it in the Sites & Monuments Register of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit. The name was the clue we had been seeking, but for all we knew the well itself may have been a muddy hole in the ground or simply a lost tradition. However, on a beautiful early Spring day in February 1993, Bride’s month, we travelled through the snowdrop-filled lanes of North Cornwall to the spot given on the map, and discovered we were entering the private estate of Landue near Lezant. Now Lezant is Cornish for ‘holy place’, and Landue probably means ‘sanctuary’, so our surmise was that we had stumbled upon the site of a very early holy well around which a sacred settlement had grown. Confirmation for this came later (in Meyrick) in the discovery that a chapel to St Bridget is also recorded there. On our way, we had stopped at the cross of Holyway (SX 2727 8232), another clue to the route followed by the early migrants. Traced further eastwards, one comes to Bridestow in Devon - literally ‘Bride’s Place’. So it seems we had found the early route from the Rocky Valley through the Camel Valley, Landue, and on to Devon. Perhaps the Irish/Welsh Celtic migrants were only following a well-known trade route of their ancestors from the sacred lands of Ireland to the sacred sites of Dartmoor?

     But what of Bridget’s well? A special delight was to await us. By the kind permission of the owner of the estate, we followed a secret path through a bower of trees surrounded by snowdrops and early daffodils, to a beautiful well. The old gate was kept in place with shining white quartz stones, and when we gently removed them and opened the gate the water was clear and fresh. The midday sun shone through the trees straight into the well, with all the stones glistening deep red and brown. It was an enchanted place!

St Bridget   We thanked Bride for bringing us there and showing us the well, a well hidden for so many years, yet quietly cared for and looked after. Talking to the owner a little later, she told us that in fact a number of other wells in the area were also called by the local people Bridget’s Well. Now there are no others listed on the map or in the SMR, so this is likely to be a very old folk memory of the importance of the area as a settlement on the trail, a trail we were now beginning to call ‘Bride’s Way’. And so our search was completed. It had taken us a full year to track down and discover the presence of Bride in Cornwall, and the route taken by the Celtic forbears who brought her here from Ireland. There is further research to be done on other possible significant places along the way, and the links between the Insular Celts and their Continental cousins. But for the moment we were happy to have discovered the gift of Bride in Cornwall, and her special place in our lives.

 


References

 

1. Charles Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, University of Wales Press, 1994.
2. Nigel Pennick, Mazes and Labyrinths, Robert Hale, 1992.
3. Caeia March, Reflections, Womens Press: (to be published), 1995.
4. Cheryl Straffon, Pagan Cornwall - Land of the Goddess, Meyn Mamvro Publications, 1994.
5. J. Meyrick, A Pilgrims Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall, Meyrick, 1982.

 


Correspondence

 

17 October 1994

     Thanks for ‘The Search for Bride’s Well’. It’s really great that your researches have ‘uncovered’ her well in this way, and we certainly feel that your account should appear in Source. One or 2 points:

  1.    Would it be possible, please, to add page numbers to the 5 references you cite?
  2.    Could I ask you, please, to supply some form of referencing for the statements in paras 1 & 4, that the Celtic goddess Brigit became St Brigid: i.e. that St Brigid was a euhemerised deity? I am aware that scholars such as Miranda Green & Anne Ross write as if this was an established fact, and beyond argument; but this certainly is not universal: cf. e.g.:

As O’Brian pointed out, what may be the oldest extant reference to the saint is that contained in an early genealogical poem on the Fothairt [dated by Kuno Meyer to the 6th cent. - i.e., within the lifetimes of those who could have known Brigid, whose traditional obit is given as c. 525 - TGH]. There is no doubt that the enormous cult of Brigit, as well as many of its features, must have benefitted from the coincidence of the saint’s name with that of the Celtic goddess...However, Macalister’s thesis - that the Christian saint was an avatar of the goddess, who as head of a community of virgins at Kildare was converted together with her community to the new religion - must always remain outside the realm of proof. - Donncha hAodha (ed.), Bethu Brigte, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1978, p. xxv. - while Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell 1991, esp. pp. 153-4, suggests that the problem of the goddess Bride is by no means as clear, or the evidence as satisfactory, as Ross, Green, and others have accepted them as being.

     And whereas many of our readers, like ourselves, will be familiar with the Bride=St Brigid equation, there will be many others who aren’t, and will simply be confused. As Source is not an ‘earth-mysteries’ magazine - for want of a more exact generic! - much that earth-mysteriographers would assume to be common knowledge, cannot be so assumed for our purposes. Thus, a reference (references would be better) to discussions of the Bride/St Brigid identification has to be a desideratum here.

     (My own view is that St Brigid was an historical woman, an ‘abbess’ during the early, fluid period of the establishment of ‘Celtic’ monasticism; whose cult absorbed many of the features of the goddess - indeed, the (hypothetically) wide distribution of the goddess’ cult may be one of the reasons for the early and wide-spread nature of the saint’s cult. I think the goddess/saint identification is ultimately untenable, because the Vitae of St Brigid are early (tho’ not early enough to be historically reliable in every detail); and because, already in the 7th cent. we have an account of a developed cultus (Cogitosus, Vita) centred upon Brigid’s bodily relics. The developed cultus presupposes, following the criteria established by modern hagiographers, a considerable time for this development to occur - thus taking us nearer to the time of the ‘historical’ Brigid - and also occurs at a period long before the cult of false or invented relics was a possibility in these islands.)

     (With regard to the last sentence of your first para: I presume you know of St Brigid’s cult in Wales? This was highly developed, and of long standing; with numbers of churches named for her, at least 8 holy wells, and a developed legend telling of her visit to Wales - she floated across the Irish Sea on a turf! Some work has been done on these dedications, which suggests - as Prof. Bowen noted - that though ‘her cult appears in Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, Brittany, Cumbria and Scotland, and most likely it belonged originally to the areas which were colonized by the Irish in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., and spread subsequently over all the Celtic lands’, her wide-spread popular cult begins in these lands only in the 11th century - so that wells & church & chapel dedications cannot be definitely used as evidence of cult in the dark age period - cf. E.G. Bowen, The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales, Univ. of Wales 1956, pp. 97-9.

i.e. - the areas were settled by the Irish in the dark ages; but it was only in later times (in Wales, the Viking and post-Viking periods) that Brigid’s cult was established. Prof. Bowen later devoted a study to the problems presented by Brigid dedications in the Celtic lands: E.G. Bowen, ‘The Cult of St. Brigit’, Studia Celtica VIII/IX, 1973/4, pp. 33-47.)

  1.    This will, I anticipate, be a rather harder thing to ask: it is not conventional usage to use an upper-case initial letter for ‘goddess’ - whether this refers to any single goddess (or aspect of the goddess), or to a universal Being revered as the One goddess (the exception is the modern mythologic concept of the Mother Goddess; & only then whenever the word ‘Mother’ is written with it) - thus, could I beg your tolerance, and remove the upper-case G where you have used it, please? I am aware that for you this is not a matter of conventional linguistic usage, but an expression of personal belief and committment, and this I must and do respect. However, for most people still, the concept of the One Goddess is a modern construct, derived from and in apposition to the use of the term ‘God’ in monotheistic religions, unsupported either by archaeological or historical data with regard to earlier pagan religions or by comparison with surviving pagan systems; and is generally unfamiliar outside the pages of some feminist literature and specifically (neo-)pagan publications - & thus renders its use difficult in publications not aimed exclusively at these audiences. (I know that one’s religion, whatever it is, if deeply held, is not a matter of historical records, but of personal knowledge and experience - but this only compounds the problem, for our society in general, however secularised, is culturally conditioned not to comprehend your use of ‘Goddess’.) If you would prefer not to remove the upper case, may I suggest another footnote at some point, succinctly expressing your own belief in the Goddess as a personal understanding of the Divine Being, which will serve to explain the usage to our widely-catchmented readership?

     I’m sorry if all this is a bind; but - editor yourself - I’m sure you’ll understand my dilemmas over this article - knowing your readership seems to be half the battle!

     If you would prefer not to alter your article in any way (which I would of course understand), perhaps Source could publish it as a ‘letter’ - this of course removes much of the onus of editorial responsibility, and permits readers to take from it as much or as little as they require personally - articles require documenting references for all facts or opinions which cannot be assumed to be common knowledge!

Tristan

 


1 December 1994

     Many thanks for your letter and your interest in our article. We are both on writers’ deadlines for our forthcoming books, so do not really have the time to reference the piece with as much detail as you need, so suggest you publish it as a letter. However, I (CS) would just like to answer your points in brief:

  1.    The identification of St Brigid with the Celtic Goddess Brigit. I understand that you are anxious to disassociate Christianity from a necessarily pagan origin, but in reality I believe that it only established a hold (which at first was most tenuous) because it built on existing pagan belief. In the case of Brigid/Brigit, there are many alternative spellings of her name (Brighid, Bride etc) which seemed to have been used in different sources, though clearly they all refer to the same ‘being’. Whether that ‘being’ was conceived of as saint or pagan deity, or a combination of both, or a shape-shifting between the two, depends largely on context. For example, in the 10thC Cormac’s Glossary, which draws on an earlier oral tradition, Brighid is described as a patroness pf poetry and also as a deity of ‘inspiration and prophecy’, a daughter of the Daghdha, a pagan Irish god. In the Life of St Brighid she is of course a Christian saint, but one with many pagan attributes (magical cow, feast day of Imbolc, etc). She continued in folklore as a saint, but one with elements of the pagan deity about her, including some Gaelic hymns to her. At this distance in time, such matters as the saint/goddess link will always be a matter of interpretation, but in the light of the evidence (that St Briget as a saint has the same attributes as Brigid as a pagan goddess) I feel that the onus of proof is on those who would question the identification, rather than those who make the (what seems to us) obvious link.
  2.    Yes, we were very much aware of the St Bridget cult in Wales. Our contention in the article is that the (Irish) Welsh brought St Bridget with them when they came to Dumnonia in the 6thC onwards. This was the time of the interface between paganism and Christianity, and whether they brought her as a saint or a pagan deity or something of both we cannot now know. We do know that they did come at this time. That our earliest documentary evidence of the cult dates from several centuries later does not invalidate the likely probability that she was brought at a much earlier date, for very little is recorded before the 9th-10th centuries.
  3.    Goddess or goddess. We have been wrestling with this ourselves in Caeia’s new novel Reflections (Women’s Press, published 1995) and eventually decided on small g where it was academic research and large G where it was in the context of celebration of deity. Our article probably falls somewhere between the two, or contains elements of both! Cheryl used capital G throughout Pagan Cornwall: Land of the Goddess (Meyn Mamvro Publications, 1993). We don’t really mind, as long as there is consistency: - i.e., all references to deity, God, Goddess, Allah, whatever, are treated the same way in the same context. We expect the same respect to be given to our spiritual deity, as we would give to others, howsoever that is expressed. That does not seem an unreasonable expectation to us!

     Hope this is of some help. Sorry about the detailed referencing, but we just wouldn’t have time before your next deadline.

Cheryl & Caeia

 


Afterword

 

     At this point (7 December) TGH could, if he wished, answer the points raised by Cheryl; who, in turn, could then reply as ably as before with further counter-arguments: but the fact is, in the areas of knowledge here under consideration, there are few certainties, but rather a fragmented, amorphous, heterogeneous mass of information, which each one investigates and interprets to the best of her or his capabilities, but which in all probability will never be susceptible to such treatment as will yield interpretations liable to be found acceptable to all researchers. From this data, Cheryl and Caeia have drawn one set of inferences, and from the same data, Roy Fry and TGH have drawn an alternative set. Both sets are arguable, and both have been, by others than the four of us. RF and TGH both understand and respect the interpretations of CS and CM, without being convinced by them; while CS and CM remain unconvinced by the interpretations of RF and TGH, though they fully understand and respect them. All four of us recognise the value of new interpretations of given data, and are not afraid of confrontations by interpretations or conclusions which differ radically from our own; but we are sure that a position of mutual respect and openness to others’ considered opinions is the one best calculated to maximise the results of research, and to provide the most complete and thorough overall picture of a complex and obscure object of study. Only by such an approach can we hope to understand, as fully as is possible at this remove of time, our common past; which the four of us recognise still to have signal messages for our present and future.

Cheryl Straffon, Caeia March, Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse

 

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Text & Illustrations Cheryl Straffon & Caeia March (1995)

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