Celtic Symbolism – Healing Waters

castle-2690323_960_720“Any body of water is an entrance to the Otherworld, and there are numerous tales of fairy kingdoms under lakes or under the sea. People frequently made offerings to the spirits that dwelt there by throwing them into the water. Hoards of such offerings have been found in lakes and bogs, consisting of brooches, pins, swords, shears and so on, but all bent or broken, so that they have no use in the ordinary world, but are meant for the Otherworld.” -Anna Franklin, Working with Faeries

Water has played such an integral role in our lives since the dawn of existence. We are born out of it and simply would not exist without it. It’s the essence of everything; the essence of life itself. It moves freely about the world, powerful yet ever flowing, constantly changing shape and form and facilitating that change amongst every living thing on earth as energy changes form from one organism and one manifestation to the next. Our ancestors knew they could not live without water and they knew of its healing and curative powers. They used it to drink and cook of course and to bathe and seeing that it ran directly from the earth, the water was to them what mother’s milk is to a baby, pure sustenance. Water was quite simply the milk of the land goddess.

For the Celts this role of the land goddess and essentially earth figure was shared amongst many various place name goddesses. Most rivers and bodies of water would have been associated with a goddess, that either had a story tied to it explaining how she herself became that body of water or how she created it. Some examples of this are the River Boyne, River Marne and River Shannon. She might have inhabited that locale and making offerings to that river or lake via jewelry, carvings, weapons and coins may have offered you favor or healing for a particular ailment. This is attested from an archaeological perspective from the sheer massive volume of objects that were thrown into local bodies of water and wells from Europe throughout the British Isles and Ireland. This is likely where the tradition of tossing a coin into a well, landscaping pond or other body of water and making a wish originated from.  If the Celts had one main mother goddess, her name may have been Danu whom the river Danube is named after. Although it is theoretical, many scholars believe that there may be a lost origination story concerning Danu and she is one of the characters that both the ancient Celtic tradition and the Dharmic religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism) have in common. It’s thought that these spiritual frameworks along with the Celtic culture originated in the same area and changed slowly over time as people migrated Northwest from the Mediterranean.

“However, the account given by Posidonius is the more credible. He tells us that the wealth found in Toulouse amounted to somewhere about 15,000 talents [units of money], a part of which was hidden in the chapels, and the remainder in the sacred lakes, and that it was not coined [money], but gold and silver in bullion.” -Strabo, Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE

torc-waterfall-4385546_960_720Traditions have been passed down from generation to generation for millennia concerning water. Many people would dip cloth in a river, well water or collect dew in the morning and take those cloths home to aid in healing from everything from an infection to a broken bone or childbirth. Today these are often called clootie wells. The goddess that was most sought after for her healing capabilities was the goddess Brigid and she has countless wells named after her dotting the landscape across Ireland. She was so popular in fact that the Catholic church named her a saint and allowed her followers to continue honoring her within a Christian framework. More on her later. Some other practices that were passed on up through the 18th century were sleeping next to a river or body of water to aid in a “healing sleep”. The place where three streams met was considered extra sacred and if people were not married under an oak tree, they would do so alongside a river so that the sacred spirit there could bear witness to their vows. Often, babies were and still are sprinkled with holy drops of water to bless them. The modern Christian baptism is in essence a remnant of more indigenous traditions. Ale is currently still a frequent offering in any body of water but particularly the ocean, to ask for a good fishing trip or season. Overall, all water whether it was in a river, stream, lake, well, in the form of dew in the morning or in the ocean was thought to have curative and healing powers.

“We’ll never know the wealth of water til’ the well go dry.” -Scottish proverb

In South Uist, Scotland… “According to tradition, the well of Tiobartan was famous in olden times, pilgrims resorting to it from afar. Then a man brought his sick horse to it, and the spirit of the well fled shrieking and never returned. The well is in the mohair, near the sea and is now filled up with drift sand. Healing and holy wells are very numerous in the Highlands, as elsewhere in Britain, scarcely a district being without one or more. Much interesting lore is connected with these wells, and with their curative powers and the rites observed at them.” -Alexander Carmichael, 1860 – 1909 Carmina Gadelica


Another healing modality involving water was the use of sweat houses. In a similar fashion as many other European cultures like the Scandinavians, Turks, Romans and Greeks, the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles and Ireland used sweat houses for their curative and cleansing properties and possibly for meditational practices.

“Small buildings called sweat-houses are erected, somewhat in the shape of a beehive, constructed with stones and turf, neatly put together; the roof being formed of the same material, with a small hole in the centre. There is also an aperture below, just large enough to admit one person, on hands and knees. When required for use, a large fire is lighted in the middle of the floor, and allowed to burn out, by which time the house has become thoroughly heated; the ashes are then swept away, and the patient goes in, having first taken off his clothes, with the exception of his undergarment, which he hands to a friend outside. The hole in the roof is then covered with a flat stone and the entrance is also closed up with sods, to prevent the admission of air. The patient remains within until he begins to perspire copiously, when (if young and strong) he plunges into the sea, but the aged or weak retire to bed for a few hours.” -Gage, A History of the Island of Rathlin, 1851

It’s important to note that this general use of saunas for medicinal use is different than for those of the First Nations people in the United States. This sweat lodge function had a uniquely religious purpose and is expressly forbidden to be performed outside of legitimate nations. The small stone huts of Ireland are beehive shaped and made of stone which would have allowed them to retain heat very well. They can still be seen today dotting the landscape and were used by the locals at least through the 18th century. White quartz stones have also been found in some of these ancient sites lending some proof they may have thought these stones to have magical or healing qualities as many people still do today. They also likely used various tree wood or plants in their fires that coordinated with the healing properties of that plant or wood. Young ladies would often burn kelp on the fire inside their sweat house as a way to help their complexion.

“Vapour baths were in use among the Celtic tribes, and the sweat-house was in general use in Ireland down to the 18th, and even survived into the 19th century. It was of beehive shape and was covered with clay. It was especially resorted to as a cure for rheumatism.”[27] These permanent structures were built of stone, and square or corbelled “beehive” versions are often found, mostly in the Irish and Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland, though most seem of relatively recent date. The method of construction, heating the structure, and usage was different from the North American examples, and they seem to have been regarded as therapeutic in function, like the sauna, and perhaps typically used by one person at a time, given their small size.” -L. Price, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 82. No. 2

Isle of Skye, Scotland

“Were Shannon, Boann, Pandora or other similar “troublesome” origination story goddesses actually just rebels, heroes or both?

In Indo-European cultures, we hear about sacred rivers having their sources in the Otherworld. The Ganges in India, for example originates in a realm of paradise called the Land of Truth. The ancient Celts who lived along the lower Danube named this river after the goddess Danu, who name means “waters from heaven”. In Ireland, both the Shannon and the Boyne originate in the Pool of Hazelnuts, Salmon and Wisdom that Cormac discovered in the Land of Truth. It appears that from India to Ireland there is a wide-spread understanding that a sacred river brings knowledge, power, and wisdom from a Place of Truth that lies beyond the everyday world of the senses.

When the old Irish gods, known as the Tuatha De Danann, learned that another race of humans was about to invade Ireland, their Druids decided to hide the Pool of Wisdom. They removed it from ordinary reality and sealed it up in the Otherworld so that mortals would not find the water or misuse its power.

Shannon, however, a granddaughter of the god Lir, discovered the hiding place and broke the Druidic enchantment. Her motives are unclear. Some accounts say that she sought revenge for being slighted by other gods and goddesses. Some tales say she simply wanted to enhance her own divine qualities with the wisdom from the sacred pool. But when Shannon violated the Druids’ spell in order to attain that power, the water itself roared, rose up and chased her back into the physical landscape. She fled swiftly across the length of Ireland as the waters pursued her, and the path of her escape became the riverbed for the great River Shannon. Some say the waters drowned her and she was never heard from again. Others say something different. She became those waters, and she still flows across the land, now one of Ireland’s two sacred rivers. The Boyne had similar origins in regards to the goddess Boann.

There are echoes of Eve in these stories. Pandora, too. A supposedly “troublesome” female violates a sacred taboo in order to learn, to understand, to be enriched with the wisdom of the Otherworld. But could these stories be more ancient than the versions we currently know? Could there be an even older story, now long lost, about the folly of trying to remove the sacred knowledge of the universe and to withhold the secret wisdom of creation from ordinary reality? Shannon, Boann, Pandora, Eve. Could these be local names for some heroic, primal goddess who defied the ancient taboos and released the Wisdom of the Otherworld so that it might flow through ordinary reality and enlighten men and women struggling to make sense of their senses?

Perhaps these ancestral Mothers birthed into being the pain, sorrow, joy, love and beauty that give meaning to our lives. For what the sacred literature of all cultures tells us is that the seemingly ordinary realities of our lives, whether good or bad, are the elements of Wisdom. By drinking from the Pool of Wisdom that flows into our world through ordinary daily events, we become “like gods,” that is to say we become more certain of the divine qualities out of which we were created.”

-Tom Cowan, Yearning for the Wind: Celtic Reflections on Nature and the Soul

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