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As Mr. Gray points out, in the early annals of Ireland there are many references to wells, and their use in the baptism of early converts. In Dr. Reeves's Vita St. Colum. bæ Auctore Adamnano we find that St. Columba strove against the Magii (Druids) at a well in the country of the Picts. He exorcised the heathen demon of the well, which thereafter, as a holy fountain, cured many diseases. In the Life of St. Columbkille, preserved in the Leabhar Breac in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, it is said:
He blessed three hundred miraculous crosses:
We have, therefore, abundant evidence that well- or fountain-worship was extremely rife in the British Islands before Christianity was introduced, and that the early missionaries were instructed not to root up the old religion before replacing it with the new. We know that these good men took
their abode by the side of a sacred well, appreciating the fact that as the sacred waters would be continually visited, so they would always have devotees to instruct. Thus it came about that the wells mostly retained their old virtue, but the sanctity was annexed by the missionaries, and in later times the waters almost invariably bore their names. One point is clear,—the holiness and efficacy of the wells were in the vast majority, if not in all cases, pre-Christian and probably also pre-Celtic.
The question next arises, Why were springs or streams considered holy ?
Savages are not fools; their ways may not be as our ways, or their thoughts as our thoughts, but there is something at the back of their beliefs and customs, if we could only get at it. The persistent forms of water - cult in the British
I The Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy; written by Adamnan. W Reeves, Dublin, 1857, p. 119.
Islands open up many and interesting problems which cannot now be considered.
By far the majority of the customs are related with the reputed healing powers of the well or spring, but there are traces of other virtues, such as a connection between wellworship and the worship of a rain-god, as Mr. Gomme has suggested."
There is common sense in the association of curative powers with water. It is well known that the wounds of primitive peoples heal with amazing rapidity; wounds that would be of a most serious character amongst ourselves heal almost of themselves when the body is in rude health and when the air and clothes are practically free from putrefactive microbes. All that is necessary is to wash impurities out of the wounds. It is most probable that the uncultured mind would attribute the healing of the wound to the water, and not to the removal of dirt.
Many of these sacred springs have distinct medicinal qualities; their water is impregnated with salts of various kinds; there are sulphur and iron waters, chalybeate springs, and so forth. Experience has shown that these have definite curative properties, and there is no doubt that these were early recognised.
A perennial supply of pure water has ever been appreciated by man, and it would always be remarked if a spring continued to flow when others ran dry.
It would naturally be argued, there must be some reason for it, and, as always happens, some explanation would be forthcoming. Such a spring was pointed out to me in the island of Mabuiag, in Torres Straits, and it arose in this way: One day, Kwoiam, the legendary hero of the island, was thirsty, and he thrust his javelin into the rock, and water has gushed forth ever since. Before running away as a
| Ethnology in Folk-lore, p. 94.
stream the water fills two small rock pools. Any one may drink from the lower basin, but only old men or “big" men may drink from the upper, the penalty being premature greyness. I asked whether I might be permitted to drink from the upper pool, and I was told that I might, but evidently I was not worthy of the honour, as I have paid the penalty!
There is no need to say more. The advantages of a perennial spring, the undoubted healing properties of many wells, and the cleansing functions of all, are benefits to be devoutly thankful for. An expectant attitude of mind, the “ suggestion ” of modern psychology, and those obscure mental conditions which all recognise who have impartially considered the “ miracles worked at shrines even in our own day—these have always been operative in addition to the more material benefits of the water, and so has inevit. ably grown up a recognition of virtue in the water.
Primitive folk do not draw a sharp distinction between things animate and inanimate; this is an essential fact to remember when we consider their religious beliefs and practices. The bubbling spring, the running brook, the waving boughs, the rushing wind, the burning sun, the sparkling stars, are all as much alive as far as they can tell as are men or animals. Man, too, feels himself weak before the forces of nature; he by no means has subjugated nature; he does not yet possess the earth. As his forceful fellow-men have to be appeased, so must the activities outside man be appeased or interested in his favour. The appreciation of the vast unknown all around him gives origin to the feeling it is essential for his welfare that he should be put into friendly or harmonious relation with those powers which can benefit him and may do him harm, and so Religion is born into the world.
Morality may be regarded as the acknowledgment of the claims others have on our conduct. According to this view it is the quintessence of etiquette, the habit which any particular society has found to work well in practical experience. In other words, it is the working basis of society.
Religion, on the other hand, has originally nothing to do with morality,--of this there is abundant proof,—but it has for its aim the putting of man into harmonious relations with the forces outside him. It is how this can be accomplished, and the various conceptions that have arisen concerning these outside forces, that constitute the science of Comparative Religion.
We are now beginning to realise that this is the true “inwardness" of many so-called " savage conceptions and rituals. At first there is a vague feeling-after if haply something may be found, and it is from this nebulous state that systems have been evolved.
The application of this principle to the subject of sacred wells and the offerings made at them has been so ably stated by my friend Mr. Hartland in the chapter “ On Sacred Wells and Trees " in his great work on The Legend of Perseus,' that I do not hesitate to transcribe his general conclusions:
“To sum up:-We find widely spread in Europe the practice of throwing pins into sacred wells, or sticking pins or nails into sacred images or trees, or into the wall of a temple, or floor of a church, and sometimes accompanying this, more usually alonea practice of tying rags or leaving portions of clothing upon a sacred tree or bush, or a tree or bush overhanging, or adjacent to, a sacred well, or of depositing them in or about the well.
“ The object of this rite is generally the attainment of some wish, or the granting of some prayer, as for a husband or for recovery from sickness.
1 Vol. ii., pp. 175-231.
“In Asia we have the corresponding customs of writing the name on the walls of a temple, suspending some apparently trivial article upon the boughs of a sacred tree, flinging pellets of chewed paper or stones at sacred images, and attaching rags, writings, and other things to the temples, and to trees. Trees are adorned in the same way, with rags and other useless things, in Africa-a practice not unknown, though rare, in America. On the Congo a nail is driven into an idol in the Breton manner. It cannot be doubted that the purpose and origin of all these customs are identical, and that an explanation of one will explain all.
The most usual explanations are: First, that the articles left are offerings to the god or presiding spirit; and, secondly, that they contain the disease of which one desires to be rid, and transfer it to any one who touches and removes them. Professor Rhys suggests that a distinction is to be drawn between the pins and the rags. The pins, he thinks, may be offerings; and it is noteworthy that in some cases they are replaced by buttons or small coins. The rags, on the other hand, may be, in his view, the vehicles of the disease. If this opinion were correct, one would expect to find both ceremonies performed by the same patient at the same well: he would throw in the pin, and also place the rag on the bush, or wherever its proper place might be. The performance of both ceremonies is, however, I think, exceptional. Where the pin or button is dropped into the well, the patient does not trouble about the rag, and vice versa.
“ Nor can we stop here. From all we know of the process of ceremonial decay, we may be tolerably sure that the rags represent entire articles of clothing, which at an earlier period were deposited. There is no need to discuss here the principle of substitution and representation, so familiar to all students of folklore. It is sufficient to point out that, since the rite is almost everywhere in a state of decay, the presumption is in favour of entire garments having been originally deposited; and that, in fact, we do find this original form of the rite in ancient and several modern examples. Such was a chalybeate spring in the