Category: Articles

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self


by Stephanie Woodfield

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

The Morrigan is best known as a goddess of battle. In Irish mythology if there is conflict and strife, chances are you'll find the black-winged Morrigan there, too. But the Morrigan fills many roles and had many guises, all of which are discussed in detail in my book, Celtic Lore & Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan. While we think of her today as a queen of battle, she is more accurately the "Great Queen" and a goddess of sovereignty.

Celtic mythology is filled with powerful, enigmatic queens, both mortal and divine. Some, like Maeve and Rhiannon, began as goddesses but were eventually demoted to mortal queens within their myths. While in most myths the Morrigan's divine nature remains intact, in some cases, as when she appears in the guise of Macha, her statue is diminished as she appears as a mortal queen. Regardless, the roles of these queens remained constant. They personify power, authority, and strength. They were goddesses of the land, and only through a union with them could kings win the right to rule. To modern seekers they offer the gift of empowerment and self-knowledge. They challenge us to reclaim sovereignty over our lives, and lead us towards wholeness.

But before we can examine what role the goddess of sovereignty can play in our lives today, it is important to understand who she was to those who worshiped her in the past, the Pagans. To the Celts sovereignty was not simply the right to rule over a clan or country; sovereignty was a divine power that was granted by the goddess of the land. The goddess and the land were one and the same, and thus sovereignty took on the guise of a mystical or divine woman. It was only through a union—either a marriage or sexual encounter—with her that the king could rule. By joining with the goddess of the land, he in turn became connected to the land and its people. It was believed that a blemish to a king would manifest in the land; if a king was disfigured in anyway, he could no longer remain king, lest he risk transferring his disfigurement to the land. Thus when the king of the Irish Gods, Nuada, lost his hand in battle he was forced to abdicate the throne.

Because kings had to enter into a symbolic marriage with the goddess of the land, there are many references to goddesses of sovereignty also being queens. The Morrigan is no exception; her name means "Great Queen," inferring a connection to sovereignty, and as Macha (one of the three goddesses who form the Morrigan) she appeared as a mortal queen who goes to battle to retain the right to rule. Macha's father had reigned along with two other kings, each taking turns to rule for a span of seven years. When her father died and his allotted time came to rule she demanded to take his place. The other kings refused, not wishing to rule alongside a woman. Macha swiftly went to war against them and won her crown on the battlefield. It is important to notes the other kings could not rule without her. When they reject her, they reject the power of sovereignty she holds. And as they find out on the battlefield, they can not hold onto power without the goddess's consent.

Like other goddesses of sovereignty, the Morrigan has a strong connection to the land. While we think of her today as a goddess of battle, her name appears in connection to numerous earth works and features of the land, making her origins most likely that of an earth goddess. In County Meath there are a pair of hills called The Dá Chich na Morrigna (The Two Breasts of the Morrigan), in County Louth we find Gort na Morrigna (Morrigan's Field), and in the Boyne Valley there is the earthwork Mur na Morrigna (Mound of the Morrigan). "The Bed of the Couple" is a depression along the river Unius that marking the spot where Morrigan mated with the god Dagda. The places she makes her home also point toward her connection to the land and sovereignty. Before she made her home in the Cave of Cruachan she was said to dwell at Tara, where Ireland's high kings were inaugurated. The Cave of Cruachan, also said to be her home, stood not far away from Cruachan, the royal seat of power for the kings and queens of Connacht.

The gift of sovereignty was not shared; instead, it was conveyed from the goddess to the king, who acted as her representative. This relationship was not always permanent; if the king became too old to rule or was unjust the goddess could leave the union and replace him with a younger, more fitting ruler. We can find this theme in the stories of Maeve, Rhiannon, and Guinevere. Although demoted to a mortal queen, Maeve's abilities and the impossible tasks she performs point to her divine origins. She takes many consorts, replacing them when she sees fit. Despite this Maeve always retains Queenship over Connacht, while the men in her life can only become kings through a union with her. Similarly, it is not until the Morrigan's union with Dagda, one of the kings of the Túatha De Danann, that the Irish gods could defeat their enemies the Fir Bolg and take over rulership of Ireland. Like other kings, it is not until Dagda engaged in a sexual union or marriage with the goddess of the land that he (and the other Irish gods) could truly rule Ireland.

In Rhiannon's story we find her willfully leaving an engagement and seeking out a worthier mate, prince Pwyll, who eventually ruled as a just king with Rhiannon at his side. It is also interesting to note that like the Morrigan, Rhiannon's name also translates to "Great Queen" from a similar root, "rigani," meaning "queen." Similarly, in the love triangle between Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot we find the sovereign figure (here represented by the mortal queen Guinevere) seeking out a mate more to her liking. Their story is most likely a distorted version of the sovereign goddess's myth. As a mortal woman she is reduced to a lustful, cheating wife, but when we return her to her original form, seeing her instead as the goddess of sovereignty, she is maintaining her right to choose her lovers and confer sovereignty to a younger, worthier mate. She acts in the best interest of the land, giving the power to rule to someone she feels is better suited to its prosperity and protection.

This same theme is mirrored in the interactions between Morgan Le Fay and her sometimes-lover brother, when she attempts to have her young lover Accolon replace Arthur as king. It is debatable if Morgan Le Fay and the Morrigan are the same, but they share many traits. The character of Morgan Le Fay is derived from the goddess Modron, who is the Morrigan's Welsh equivalent, suggesting a connection between the two. Certainly they share similar roles as sovereignty figures within Celtic lore.

The goddess of sovereignty, like the Morrigan, was somewhat of a shape-shifter; she could take the form of a young beautiful woman or a monstrous hag. When she appears as the hag it is usually to test the king or to remove him from his position, while as the maiden she grants him her loving support and gifts. At times the two themes are combined and the king must face the hag in order for her to transform into the lovely maiden.

The sovereign-hag usually appears in a story when the king has broken his vows to the goddess in some way. Usually this is after he has violated a taboo, or geis. Kings and heroes often had several geis placed upon them by a goddess or Otherworldly female. Breaking a geis brought bad luck and in most cases caused the hero or king's death. When the king broke one of his geis, the sovereign-hag would appear, tempting him to break his remaining taboos. This functioned as a sort of divine checks and balances system. If he broke his taboo, he was unworthy and the goddess relinquished the power of sovereignty, which he had abused.

We often find the Morrigan filling the role of the sovereign-hag who brings unworthy kings low. In the The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel the Morrigan (here in her guise as Badb) appeared at king Conaire's door after he had broken several of his taboos. Disguised as a hideous hag she tricked him into breaking his final geis, to never admit a single female into his house after dark, and by the morning Conaire was dead. Conaire could have chosen to not break his taboo, but he willing does so, failing the goddess's test.

The Morrigan's interactions with Cúchulain follows a similar pattern, except Cúchulain, unlike Dagda, refuses to acknowledge the goddess's power. Cúchulain may not have been a king, instead being the champion of Ulster, but by protecting and defending the land against Maeve's army he acts in much the same way as a king would. The Morrigan, charmed by his prowess in battle, appears to him as a beautiful maiden. She offers him her love, but he rudely turns down her offer. By refusing the goddess's offer of a sexual union, he in turn is refusing her offer of conferred sovereignty, and fails to acknowledge the power of the goddess who personifies the land. When she offers to aid him in battle instead, he again insults her. Fueled by his ego he believes he does not need her aid to win his battles. Like other kings who the sovereign goddess tests and find unworthy, the Morrigan takes actions against him. She attacks him in the form of a heifer, an eel, and a wolf, hindering him in battle.

Like her interaction with Conaire, she attempts to make the hero break his geis. Before Cúchulain's final battle she appears as a hag alongside the road cooking dog flesh. She offers him some of the meat, which puts him in a precarious situation. Cúchulain had two taboos, to never eat the flesh of his name sake the dog, and to never refuse food offered to him. No matter what he does, refuse the food or eat it, he will break a geis. He eats the food, and like Conaire, dies shortly after.

In mythology the goddess of sovereignty is a mighty queen; she dispenses justice and aids the worthy, all in service to the land and its people. But how does this figure of the divine queen translate in today's spirituality? The Great Queen, in all her forms, may not be testing kings in today's world; instead she offers us a different challenge. As the goddess of sovereignty, the Morrigan challenges us to champion ourselves, to claim the sovereignty of self.

Too often in life we forget to recognize our own power, our right to steer the directions of our lives. Sometimes we hand our power over to others; perhaps we have been learned to rely on other people and not ourselves, or we are afraid to take control of our lives, or maybe we have handed our power over to another out of love. Perhaps we feel too shy to speak our true feelings, or feel like the course of our lives is out of our control. Whether we have relinquished our personal power within a relationship, in our careers, or just in life in general, the Great Queen calls to us to reclaim our sovereignty.

Beverly Moon and Elisabeth Benard relate the world "sovereign" to the Sanskrit sva-raj, which means "self-rule" or "self-ruler." Another meaning of raj is "luminous" or "radiance," thus there is a connotation that sovereignty is not only ruling over one's self but being in the state of "self-luminescence" or letting our inner radiance shine through. When we self-rule our lives we do not leave our fates up to others. Empowered by this aspect of the goddess we can bravely reshape ourselves and our lives into what we desire.

As the sovereign-hag she appears to us when we need to break down the barriers that hold us back in life. She tests our strength, and teaches us to rely on the power within. As the queen she teaches us the necessity of action. If we wish to bring change into our lives, then at times, like Macha, we must go to battle and stand up for what we believe in. When we have learned to call upon our inner strength, she appears as the beautiful maiden, offering us the wealth of the land and the fruits of our hard earned labors.

While the great queens of mythology are often cast as villains, they teach us a vital truth. When we embrace the mysteries of the sovereign queen we embrace our own inner power, letting it shine radiantly into all aspects of our lives. The ancient queens of myth and legend took power into their own hands, and fought fiercely to maintain it. No matter the situations they remained resolutely true to themselves. Through self-rule they shaped the course of their stories, just as we can re-shape our own.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2011. All rights reserved.


On Wings of Change: The Dragon in Celtic Magic


by Kristoffer Hughes

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Classical Latin writers specified that a "Draco" (which forms the origin of the modern word Dragon) referred to an unspecified or uncategorized serpent. The British Celtic name for Dragon, Dreig, continues to be used to this day in the modern Welsh language and is indicative of a mythical creature that is heraldic or emblematic of a Celtic Cultural Continuum. It is probable that the serpentine nature of the dragon and their expression in Celtic myth as worms and snakes seem to imply a possible land-based nature to these creatures; it may be suggested that the dragon started its life as a snake and developed through the popular imagination to become the mighty beast with which we are familiar. The dragon can be found in several cultures around the world, and is not exclusive to the Celtic nations; many have an earthy feel to them and seem symbolic of the relationship between a people and their land.

In Celtic magic, the true significance of the dragon is subtle, and they are not simply the enormous fire breathing beasts that we have been led to believe; they are so much more than their fictionalized expression. Not only do they represent the serpentine qualities of the land, of a creature in touch with the earth and moving into relationship with the people, they are also indicative of the spirit of a people, in this case the Celts of the islands of Britain. The dragon may have started its life as a lowly snake, but it rose to become the spirit of a place, genius loci, and then something remarkable happened: it became a part of our mythology, it sprouted wings and it moved with the people across the surface of the earth, over oceans and to new lands. Whereas the ordinary spirits of place are a part of the story of location, the dragon became something else; it became transferable and could migrate with the people. In order to gain an understanding of the significance and importance of the dragon in Celtic magic, we must descend into the past and find them in the misty corridors of mythology.

Into the Dragon's Den
In the tale of Lludd and Llefelys (which forms part of the Mabinogi collection compiled from the Red Book of Hergest), the sons of Beli the great, Lludd and his brother Llefelys find they must deal with three plagues that terrorized the island of Britain. The second plague was an awful scream that was heard every May-eve. So terrible was the scream that it pierced every heart in Britain; men would lose their strength, women would lose their children, young people would lose their minds, and every tree and plant would be left barren. The tale tells us that the cause of this plague was the cries of Britain's native dragon in battle with a dragon of a foreign race who strived to overcome it. To combat the plague, Britain was measured in length and breadth to discover its center, Oxford, and here a great pit was dug. Within this pit Lludd and Llefelys placed a vast cauldron filled with the finest mead and covered with a satin sheet. In time, two monstrous creatures appeared in battle; at length they took to the air in the form of mighty dragons, and finally they fell as pigs onto the satin sheet—which sank to the mead depths of the cauldron, and there they drank and slept. Lludd and Llefelys wrapped the pigs tightly in the satin sheet and placed them within a stone cist and buried them in the securest part of the island of Britain, at the place called Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. And thus the fierce outcry ceased, and the people recovered.

The significance of the above tale is further reiterated in the Triads of the Island of Britain, which describes that one of the three fortunate concealments of Britain was, "the concealment of the dragons in Dinas Emrys which Lludd the son of Beli concealed."1 Further reference to the same pair of dragons can be found in Nennius' Historia Brittonum, compiled in the 9th century. Its title is misleading, as it does not represent a comprehensive history but rather a disparate collection of early writings that focused on locality-specific British history. The story that follows involves the famed Celtic prophet/magician Merlin and his adventures with Vortigern, the Druids, and two powerful dragons.

The story tells of the shamed king Vortigern and his attempt to build a stronghold in Snowdonia, but try as he may, the towers keep falling. His Druids inform him that the only way to safeguard the strength of the tower is to sprinkle the ground with the blood of a fatherless child. In due course, such a child is discovered and brought to the site to be slaughtered. Upon discovering that the Druids are responsible for his fate, he asks if they know what is buried beneath the tower; they cannot answer. He claims that under the ground is a lake, and within that lake a cloth tent, within which are to be found two sleeping serpents, one red and one white. The site is dug, and lo and behold, the serpents are discovered. The boy asks the Druids what the meaning of this is, and again they are unable to answer. The child explains that the cloth tent represents the kingdom and the two serpents are dragons; the red dragon stands for Britain and the white for the Saxons. So far, the white has been victorious, but eventually the red would reassert her strength and repel the invader. Eventually the boy reveals his identity: he is Merlin Ambrosius.

If we take the above three accounts—the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, the Triad, and the account of Merlin and Vortigern—there are several facts that belie the nature of the dragon. In the first tale we are told that the terrible cry on May-eve is the battle cries of a dragon, which the tale describes as "...and therefore YOUR dragon..."2, implying that one of the dragons is native to Britain and to the tribes of Lludd and his brother Llefelys, and is indicative of the land and its people, whereas the antagonist is foreign. We find the usual tripartite style relating to the shape or forms of the dragons, in that they appear initially as "monstrous animals," they then arise to the air as—one assumes—winged mighty dragons, and finally they fall to the earth in the form of pigs. Many of the modern interpretations of the tale fail to address the magical significance of this saga; firstly there are three forms to the dragons: unassigned animal, dragon, and pig. Meaning can be discovered in the original language, which states that "...yn ymladd yn rith aruthter aniveileit...yn rith dreigieu yn yr awyr...yn rith deu barchell,"3, which translates as, "in the form of monstrous the form of dragons in the the form of two pigs." That may not seem extraordinary until one examines the term "rith," which is a word that describes a form of magic, or a magical description for an object's form or shape that is altered or transformed by magic. The term "rith" used magically implies that the actual shape of anything in existence is not necessarily permanent and can be changed by the will or power of the magician. One may assume that owing to the etymology of the word "dragon" and the fact that Merlin describes the sleeping dragons as serpents, that the initial monstrous shape of the dragons may well have been in the form of serpents. Snakes are commonly associated with the Celts and may represent the spirit of the land itself, which may imply that the dragon may have started its life as Genius Loci. After they rise to the air in the form of dragons they then descend into the shape of the most common Otherworldly Celtic beast, the pig, believed to have been gifted to humanity from the indigenous Celtic underworld, Annwn. The pig appears throughout Celtic mythology as devourer of the profane, a sign of impending supernatural activity and a valued commodity, qualities that can be superimposed onto the scales of the mighty dragon.

In the tale of Merlin and Vortigern we are informed of their colouration, red and white; the red dragon continues to be the emblematic symbol of the nation of Wales and its people as the original inhabitants of the Island of Britain. The dragons and the inter-textual references between these three accounts and other Celtic myths demonstrate the nature of the dragon, its function and the impact it had on the Celtic culture—which continues to this day.

How is this of value to practitioners of Celtic magic today? Not only do we have a creature of supernatural erudition that is indicative of the lands of the Celts but which is also representative of that cultural continuum and its people. It is the magic and spirit of the dragon that connects one on an energetic level to the entire Celtic Cultural Continuum. Some Genius Loci are not transferable from one location to another whilst others are. Where one spirit is indicative of a river, a mountain, or an ancestor, the dragon is the spirit that encompasses them all; it represents the beating, pulsing, vibrant spirit of the Celts and it is transferable to another location. To call the dragon is to summon the might of the Celts, to invoke the essence of heritage and culture that swim within you.

The Spirit of the Celts is more than the sum total of heritage and genetics, for if we look to the tales we can catch a glimpse, a clue to the nature of its spirit. In the tale of Vortigern, a fatherless child is necessary to solve the riddle of the fort's continuous destruction. This lack of parenthood is a trait shared by another enigmatic and magical figure of Celtic mythology, the prophet and chief bard of Britain: Taliesin, who also claimed himself to be an aspect of mystery by stating, "Not of mother nor of father, was my birth, was my creation."4 This trait seems to eliminate the need for hard genetics to justify one's connection to the Celtic spirit—which cannot be contained to blood alone; it runs in the rivers of deep ancestry and the magic of spiritual connection. It is by means of the Celtic spirit that we connect and swim in the rivers of its powerful continuum, and the dragon with its myriad shapes and its qualities of both land and tribe is perhaps one of the most powerful symbols of this connection. Regardless of where you are or where you come from, the commonality of the dragon and its power to transcend diversity, location and time is an ancient and significant energy that can and will bring richness and connection to your devotional practice, your magic and rituals.

1Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Rachel Bromwich. Univeristy of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2006. P 94.
2The Mabinogion, Sioned Davies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008. Pp 113.
3The White Book Mabinogion. J. Gwenogfryn Evans, private press, Pwllheli, 1915. Pp 99.
4Kat Godeu, "The Battle of the Trees," The Book of Taliesin. Author's translation.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2014. All rights reserved.


Ireland’s Sacred Wells


by J.C. Manion

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Ireland is a magical place.

I don't mean this in the way guidebooks do when they promise travelers an idyllic vacation, one full of hikes in shockingly green valleys; evenings in music-, dance-, and ale-filled pubs; and encounters with gracious, ebullient people. Of course, travelers to Ireland will find these pleasures, but this is not what I mean when I say that Ireland is a magical place.

And I don't mean that the fairies and giants, the talking greyhounds and the enchanted eagles that fill Irish folk tales actually exist … though the lush glens around Kenmare or the bald mountains of County Kerry would be just the places to find such wonderful creatures.

Nor do I merely mean that Ireland—like other countries influenced by the ancient Celtic people—has a history rich in Druidic and pagan spirituality, a history in which rituals marking birth and death, transformation and restoration, sustained generations. This approaches what I have in mind, however. For Ireland's spiritual history is a living history. Scholars, writers, storytellers, and spiritual practitioners bring these rituals and beliefs to life for people around the world. Part of Ireland's magic consists, then, in the continued, vibrant connection between the spiritual beliefs of its people, past and present.

But I mean more than this. When I say that Ireland is a magical place, I mean that the land itself helps make this connection possible. For thousands of years, the inhabitants of Ireland have turned toward the earth to find outlets for spiritual expression. They have looked earthward to gain not only physical but also spiritual sustenance and rejuvenation. In return, the earth has offered what it continues to offer today, namely the elements, physical and metaphysical, necessary for cycles of growth, decay, and new growth. In this sense, there are no parts of Ireland more magical than its sacred wells.

Driving slowly on a road only as wide as a cow path, I had no idea that the walled field to my right contained anything but rain-drenched grass, though a small handmade sign indicated the presence of an ancient monastic site. Pulling over as best I could, I parked, squeezed between fence posts, and made my way towards some bramble- and grass-covered mounds. Clearly, this was an unexcavated site, and an uninspiring one at that. There were only a few grey, lichen-encrusted stones visible, and it was impossible to determine just what kind of buildings these stones once supported.

Turning to leave, I saw, some yards away, another circular-shaped mound, and decided to take the brief detour on my way back to the car. Just as in the adjacent area, a tangle of long grass and low branches covered what could have been boundary walls, or the foundation of a small building; it was too hard to tell. Here, however, something bright flashed in the grass, something like a mirror or a pane of glass, flush with the ground.

Crouching down, I saw the sky's low-hanging clouds reflected in a round pool of water about a foot in diameter and framed by a flat, hewn rock. At first I thought this was some kind of sunken basin, full of accumulated rainwater. After taking a closer look, though, I saw slight ripples in the water: this was a well, apparently fed from an underground stream. And glinting up from the bottom, among dark rocks and pale gravel, were bright, copper-colored coins.

I had come across one of literally thousands of wells scattered across Ireland, and the coins provided evidence that others had as well, either deliberately, or, as in my case, by chance. Had hikers left the coins in exchange for a cool drink? Had children tossed them in for luck? Had a neighbor left them to secure the outcome of a wish, or perhaps a prayer? Had a pilgrim left them as an offering to a local saint as thanks for divine intercession? If any of these possibilities were true, then people were using this well as had generations of local inhabitants. Likely, to those who return to this well for refreshment of body or soul, it is considered sacred, despite its now obscure and obscured location.

This well, unidentifiable to passing strangers like me but probably known to locals as associated with a particular Christian saint—perhaps one of the members of the ancient monastic community—is almost certainly much older than the ruins currently surrounding it. Further east and along the southern coast of Ireland, on a gently sloping ridge overlooking the sea, one finds a similar spring adjacent to the Stone Age Drombeg Circle.

Referred to by locals as the Druid's Altar, this impressive collection of 13 surviving standing stones—built, given its orientation, to celebrate the winter solstice—abuts the remains of two small huts. Here, one finds a Neolithic kitchen site comprised of a stone cooking-pit next to an opening leading to an underground stream. Archeologists surmise that, given such evidence of ancient "accommodations," Drombeg Circle was a place of regular ritualistic gathering. This water source, then, was probably used both for sacred rites and to meet the more mundane needs of those who gathered there, until the 5th century CE, to witness the winter solstice sunset.

Was the small, unnamed well that I stumbled across similarly associated with pre-Christian ritual? Excavation might help answer this question, since other wells and springs, long since Christianized, have yielded pre-Christian artifacts. In fact, it's often unnecessary to dig in order to find evidence of pre-Christian influence at sacred wells. Consider, for example, St. Brendan's Well, a small stone-framed underground spring remarkably similar to my obscure, grass-covered well. Located in the important 12th century monastic center of Cill Maolchéadair on the Dingle Peninsula, the well is neighbor to what's taken to be an ancient sundial. A local guidebook recounts that this stone had probably been recycled, even in the 12th century; quite likely it once functioned as part of an ancient fertility rite. Another nearby well dedicated to St. Brendan tops the peak of Mount Brandon, a location where Iron Age people celebrated the beginning of the harvest, the Celtic fire festival of Lughnasa. The well and its accompanying pillar stone are thought to pre-date the 5th century Christian saint who, in late June, is still venerated here.

Still other Christianized wells are located at sites long associated with ancient kingship ritual, including the Doon Well in County Donegal. Many of these thousands of wells are situated geographically—by a rocky outcrop, on a mountain side, or where fresh water mixes with the sea—in a way that has profound resonance with aspects of ancient Irish mythology and the Irish Celtic tradition of locating cosmic power within the earth. Furthermore, many are still found in close proximity to a tree, often a hawthorne, whitethorne, or ash, or perhaps a rowan, oak, holly, or hazel. These trees are all part of the Celtic tree calendar. Furthermore, they play significant roles in Irish Celtic myths in which certain trees possess or confer specific magical or healing properties, such as the power of divination, protection from storms, or the guarding of the sacred gateway into the underground Otherworld.

A further indication of the spiritual continuity that wells facilitate are the numerous wells across the countryside dedicated to St. Brigid, a figure from early Irish Christian history who likely never actually lived. Associated with agriculture, especially cows, St. Brigid has her feast day on February 1—a day that is also known as Imbolc and is associated with the Celtic fire goddess Brigid. Historians commonly agree that the goddess Brigid became St. Brigid as Christianity swept across Ireland. Archeologists indicate that some of the wells dedicated to St. Brigid are Celtic in origin and were once sites of fertility rites or other kinds of pagan rituals.

This sort of evidence aside, perhaps the strongest evidence that the wells and fresh water springs of Ireland unite the spirituality of its ancient and modern people are the practices still carried out by those visiting the wells. On holy days—typically the feast day of the saint associated with the well or the local parish—pilgrims circumambulate clockwise, or do a set number of "patterns," around the well while reciting particular prayers. Often the pattern requires walking around a holy tree or a sacred stone, or in and around other features of the site, such as a hill, stream, or cave.

The patterns at some wells include pilgrims kissing, rubbing, scratching, or marking stones located at the site; lying on or passing their bodies through specific features of the site; and bathing in and drinking the water. Pilgrims often add small stones to piles left by others, or they leave behind coins, holy metals, pictures, written prayers, pins, crosses, keys, rosaries, or statues as they finish their visits. At sites with holy trees, pilgrims often tie white or red pieces of cloth, or pieces of clothing such as scarves, baby bibs, or gloves, to branches. An accompanying prayer might implore that, as the cloth disintegrates, the ailment afflicting the person in whose name the cloth is left, and whom the cloth once touched, diminish as well.

This final practice of leaving behind votive offerings is nowhere more evident than at St. Brigid's Well in Liscannor, County Clare. Enclosed in a small, narrow, low-ceilinged building with a single, gently curving interior passageway, this well is situated on the side of a tree-covered rise near Liscannor Bay. A freshwater stream emerges from the hill, and is caught in a stone basin at the very end of the curved passage in the interior of the dark, damp structure; a cup hangs on a chain in the basin for pilgrims to use to drink the cold, clear water. Lining the walls are hundreds of objects left by pilgrims: photographs, votive candles, prayer cards, statues, letters, rosaries, crutches and prosthetics, clothing, books, children's toys, saint's medals, hand-written prayers, and countless other personal belongings. The damp has caused many of the objects to molder, leaving the visitor with a haunting and sobering visual impression of the grief and hope expressed in this space.

The general features of such behaviors at holy wells—such as the veneration of stones, living trees, and small hills; the drinking of water; or the leaving behind of red clothes thought to ward off evil—are clearly incorporated into an explicitly Catholic religious context. However, they do not necessarily reflect specifically Christian practices. Yet they do resonate with features of Irish Celtic mythology and, hence, quite likely reflect ritualistic practices of the early Irish people. In this ancient Celtic context, small hills were associated with the fertile swelling of the goddess, and breaks in the walls of mountains were regarded as doors to the Otherworld. Trees, such as the hazel, were thought to contain feminine wisdom and a branch of the hazel, according to legend, was made into a wand for the earthly king as a sign of authority granted by the goddess. Wells and streams were regarded as the symbolic meeting place, often the wedding site, of the earthly king or chieftain and the otherworldly goddess. Drinking water from such a sacred spring was thought to confer the wisdom of the goddess to the drinker and, when the goddess was thought to be the spring itself, symbolized a union of the spiritual and the physical worlds. It is not difficult to recognize the traces of these ancient beliefs in the practices of present day pilgrims and other visitors to Ireland's sacred wells.

When I cupped my hands and drank from the small well I discovered by chance in an empty green pasture on Ireland's west coast, I did not fully realize the spiritual legacy in which I was taking part. Countless hands had dipped into the very same water, countless supplications had been whispered there, and countless footsteps led away from the ancient spring. Like others before me, I left the well refreshed, having been renewed by the power of the land, grateful for having tasted the magic of Ireland.

Conway, D. J. Celtic Magic. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 1994.

Brenneman, Walter L., Jr. and Mary G. Brenneman. Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Logan, Patrick. The Holy Wells of Ireland. London: Colin Smyth Limited, 1980.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2004. All rights reserved.