Worship of Trees and Springs

Mr. J. M. Barrie is a true interpreter of the youthful mind when he
says, in the “Little Minister,” “Children like to peer into wells
to see what the world is like at the other side.” Grown-up people
are also alive to the mystery of a spring. “Look into its depth,”
observes Mr. E. H. Barker in his “Wayfaring in France,” “until the
eye, getting reconciled to the darkness, catches the gleam of the
still water far below the ferns that hang from the gaping places in
the mossy wall, and you will find yourself spellbound by the great
enchantress, Nature, while understanding nothing of the mysterious
influence.” In days of less enlightenment “the weight of all this
unintelligible world” was even more felt than now, and the minds
of men were ever on the outlook for the marvellous. What is to us
a source of not unpleasing mystery was then a cause of dread. We
marvel and make poetry. Our far-off ancestors trembled and sought
refuge in magical rites. We still speak of the charms of nature,
but the phrase has to us an altered meaning. When we remember how
little science there was at one time, we need not be surprised that
the phenomena of the outer world were misinterpreted, and hence gave
rise to fallacies. This was markedly so in the case of springs. While
quenching thirst–a natural function to perform–they became endowed
with virtues of an exceptional character, and were esteemed as the
givers of health. Even amid the darkness of those distant days we
can detect a glimmering of light, for such ideas were not wholly
false. Erroneous ideas seldom are. Springs have indeed a health-giving
power. Whether or not we accept the full-blown doctrines of modern
hydropathy, we must allow that cold water is an excellent tonic. As an
acute writer has remarked, “Cold braces the nerves and muscles, and,
by strengthening the glands, promotes secretion and circulation, the
two grand ministers of health.” Allusion has been made to the mineral
waters of Peterhead. The secret of their power is well described by
Cordiner in his “Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland,”
where he says:–“A mineral well in the summer months gives great
gaiety to the place; its salutary virtues have been long, I believe,
justly celebrated. The salt-water baths adjoining are much frequented
in nervous disorders: their effect in strengthening the constitution
is often surprising. Owing to the open peninsulated situation, the air
of this place is esteemed peculiarly pure and healthful; even the fogs
rising from the sea are thought to be medicinal; the town is therefore
much enlivened by the concourse of company who frequent it on these
accounts. Without derogating anything from the merits of the baths and
mineral, one may reasonably conclude that the custom of walking several
hours before breakfast, and meeting the morning breezes from the sea
along these cool and refreshing shores, the probability of meeting
with choice of companions as an inducement to these early rambles,
the perpetual cheerfulness indulged by society entirely disengaged
from business and care, and their various inventions to chase away
languor, probably contribute no less to the health of the company
than the peculiar virtues of the healing spring.”

Truth can commonly be found underlying superstition. The power,
possessed by certain aspects of external nature to soothe the troubles
of the mind, is one of the commonplaces of modern poetry. This thought,
when rendered into folklore, becomes the idea that certain spots
are “places of safety from supernatural visitants.” Such was the
belief connected with Our Lady’s Well, at Threshfield, near Linton,
in Craven, Yorkshire. Whoever took refuge there was free from the
power of magical spells. When sailing among the sea-lochs of Lewis,
MacCulloch had an experience which he thus describes in his “Western
Islands”:–“On one occasion the water was like a mirror, but black
as jet, from its depth and from the shadow of the high cliffs which
overhung it. The tide, flowing with the rapidity of a torrent, glided
past without a ripple to indicate its movement, while the sail aloft
was filled by a breeze that did not reach the surface. There was a
death-like silence while the boat shot along under the dark rocks like
an arrow; to a poetical imagination it might have appeared under a
supernatural influence: like the bark of Dante, angel-borne.” If such
were the reflections of an educated man like MacCulloch, what must
have been the thoughts of our ignorant forefathers when confronted
by the ever-recurring marvels of the outer world! Nature is still
misinterpreted by credulous people through a lack of knowledge of her
laws. A good example of this, bearing, not, however, on water, but on
tree-worship, is given by Dr. J. Fergusson, in his “Tree and Serpent
Worship.” A god was said to have appeared in a certain date-palm
in a village a few miles from Tessore, and the tree was promptly
adorned by the Brahmins with garlands and offerings. Dr. Fergusson
observes:–“On my inquiring how the god manifested his presence,
I was informed that, soon after the sun rose in the morning, the
tree raised its head to welcome him, and bowed it down again when he
departed. As this was a miracle easily tested, I returned at noon and
found it was so. After a little study and investigation, the mystery
did not seem difficult of explanation. The tree had originally grown
across the principal pathway through the village, but at last hung
so low that, in order to enable people to pass under it, it had been
turned aside and fastened parallel to the road. In the operation the
bundle of fibres which composed the root had become twisted like the
strands of a rope. When the morning sun struck on the upper surface
of them, they contracted in drying, and hence a tendency to untwist,
which raised the head of the tree. With the evening dews they relaxed,
and the head of the tree declined.”

In the chapter on “Some Wonderful Wells,” we glanced at the mysterious
origin of certain springs. In ancient times, no less than in the
present, strange sights must have been witnessed. We have not a
monopoly of thunderstorms, earthquakes, landslips, or deluges of
rain. The same phenomena prevailed in early times. The difference is,
that we have science to keep them in their proper place. During the
heavy rains of January 1892, a spring near the house of Rurach, at
Kintail, in Ross-shire, suddenly burst its bounds and became a raging
torrent. Usually the surplus water from the spring flowed away in the
form of a trickling stream, but on the occasion in question it rushed
on with such force and volume that it scooped out a channel twenty
feet deep and forty feet broad. The event not unnaturally caused a
good deal of wonder in the neighbourhood. Had it happened several
centuries earlier, some malignant water-spirit would doubtless have
been reckoned the active agent. During the operations connected
with the formation of the railway tunnel through Moncrieff Hill,
close to Perth, the water of a certain spring in the neighbourhood
suddenly failed. It happened that a clergyman, whose manse stood not
far from the spring, sent, when in the extremity of illness, for a
draught of its water. It was his last draught. He died immediately
after; and at the same time, the spring dried up. The coincidence did
not pass without remark in the district, but whether or not it gave
rise to a superstition we do not know. In the dark ages it certainly
would have done so. In the annals of hagiology, the early saints were
associated in a special way with water. They had, for instance, the
power of allaying storms. St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors,
exercised this power more than once. Adamnan records the same miracle
in connection with Columba, abbot of Iona; and Cainneck, abbot of
Aghaboe. According to a Shropshire legend, Milburga, when followed by
a certain prince, was saved from her unwelcome pursuer by the river
Corve rising in flood after she had crossed.

The superstition that water, under certain circumstances, assumed
the hue of blood, as in the case of St. Tredwell’s Loch in Orkney,
&c., claims special attention. We call this belief a superstition,
inasmuch as a special miracle was thought to be involved in the matter;
but we nowadays know, that such appearances show themselves without
any miracle at all, except the constant miracle without which there
would be no natural law. Modern bacteriology has proved the existence
of a certain microscopic plant, technically styled Hæmatococcus
Pluvialis and popularly known in Germany as Blutalge. In “Notes and
Queries” for 12th March, 1892, Dr. G. H. F. Nuttall of Baltimore,
observes:–“In Central Europe it has been found in pools formed
by the rain in rocky hollows and stone troughs, &c. Hæmatococcus
often becomes intimately mixed with the pollen of conifers and
minute particles of plants which are known to be carried hundreds of
miles by occasional currents of air. The rain drops in the heavens
condense about such minute particles, and in falling, carry them
down to the earth’s surface, where, under proper conditions, these
little plants multiply with enormous rapidity.” Dr. Nuttall adds,
“Besides the Hæmatococcus Pluvialis, we have a Bacterium which
has often deceived people into the belief that they were dealing
with bona-fide blood. This Bacterium is easily cultivated in the
laboratory. It is one of the so-called chromogenic or colour-producing
Bacteria, and bears the name Bacillus Prodigiosus, on account of its
exceedingly rapid growth. This very minute plant has undoubtedly been
the cause of terror among superstitious people. The organism will only
produce its colour in the presence of oxygen, and, as a consequence,
red spots appear only on the surface of the moist nutrient medium on
which it may fall.” Undoubtedly some such explanation would account
for certain red spots, alluded to by Mr. Hunt, which appeared from
time to time on the stones in the churchyard of the Cornish parish
of St. Denis. According to the belief of the district, the spots were
marks of blood, and their appearance foretold the occurrence of some
untoward event in English history.

We have spoken of the guardian spirits of lochs and springs. That such
spirits should have been thought to exist is not surprising. Since
water is one of the necessaries of life for man and beast, animals
had to frequent pools and rivers. What more natural than that, in
days of ignorance, these animals should have been regarded as in some
mysterious way connected with the spots they frequented. In the same
way, fish darting about in the water would be considered its indwelling
spirits. It may not seem to us at all needful, that lochs and springs
should have guardian spirits at all. But man, in a certain stage of
development, thinks of nature, organic and inorganic alike, as having
a life akin to his own, with powers superior to his own. From a belief
in guardian spirits, to a belief in the necessity of offering gifts
to them is an easy transition. A present is sometimes an expression
of good-will, sometimes of a desire to obtain benefits to the
giver. Offerings at lochs and springs were undoubtedly of the latter
class, and were intended either to avert evil or to procure good.

In ancient times in India, when a dragon presided over a spring, the
people of the district were in the habit of invoking his aid, when
they wanted rain or fine weather. Certain ceremonies were necessary to
procure the boon. “The chief characteristic of the serpents throughout
the East in all ages,” remarks Dr. Fergusson, “seems to have been
their power over the wind and the rain, which they exert for either
good or evil as their disposition prompts.” As we have seen, certain
wells in our own land could control the weather. This was so, even
when the guardian spirit of the spring assumed no definite shape. The
rites required to obtain the desired object were nothing less than an
acknowledgment of the spirit’s existence. The origin of the connection
between weather and wells can only be guessed at. It appears that
the splashing of a spring when an object was thrown into it, or the
sprinkling of the water over the neighbouring ground, was thought
to cause rain, through what may be called a dramatic representation
of a shower. Why this should have been so, cannot be determined
with certainty. Probably accidental acts of the kind described were
followed, in some instances, by a fall of rain, and the belief may
have sprung up that between the two there existed the relation of cause
and effect. There was thus a confusion between what logicians call the
post hoc and the propter hoc. The same explanation may perhaps account
for the belief that a favourable breeze could be obtained, as in the
case of the Gigha Well, by the performance of certain definite rites.

Few circumstances in life have more power to arrest attention
than coincidences. Two events occur about the same time, and we
exclaim, “What a singular coincidence!” that is, if we are not of
a superstitious temperament. If we are, we talk mysteriously about
omens and such like direful topics. To some minds, an omen has a
peculiar fascination. It lifts them above the level of their ordinary
daily life. The postman rings the bell, and letters are handed in. A
message boy is seen at the door, and a parcel is delivered. These,
and many more such, are incidents of frequent occurrence. They are
reckoned commonplace. We know all about them. But let anything unusual
happen, anything that stirs the sense of awe within us, we, at least
some of us, instantly conclude that there is magic in the matter. An
unprepossessing old woman takes a look at a child when passing. The
child ceases to thrive. There are whispers about “the evil eye.” Yes,
there is no doubt about it. The child must have been bewitched. Is
it not probable that the prophetic power ascribed to wells may be
accounted for on this principle? Certain appearances were observed,
and certain events followed. Water gushed freely from a spring, when
drawn for the use of an invalid. The invalid recovered. Of course
he did, for the omen was favourable. As in private, so in public
matters. Pools of water were observed to have something peculiar about
them. Some crisis in the history of our nation soon succeeded. What
sensible person could fail to discern a connection between the two
sets of circumstances? So men, even some wise ones, have argued.

Wishing-wells, from their very nature, have a special claim on
popular credulity. When a desire is eagerly cherished, we leave no
stone unturned to bring about its fulfilment. There is something, be
it what it may, that we eagerly covet. How are we to get it? In the
stir and pressure of our day’s work, we do not see any avenue leading
to the fulfilment of our wish. In the quiet morning or evening, when
the birds are singing overhead, we go alone to some woodland well,
and there, by the margin, gather our thoughts together. One particular
thought lies close to our heart, and on it we fix our attention. In
the still moments, while we listen to the bubbling spring, our mind
lights on a clew, and our thoughts follow it into the future. We
brace ourselves up for following it in reality. We see how our design
may be accomplished. We take the road that has been revealed to our
inward eye, and finally reach the goal of our desire. How does this
come about? We may have stooped over the spring, and with certain
accompanying rites, have breathed our wish. We return to our daily
work with the desire still lying close to our heart. Days, or weeks,
or months pass, and at last, behold, what we were so anxious for,
is ours! The charm has been successful. Of course it has. But what
of the impulse towards definite action that came to us, when we
were free from the touch of our ordinary troubles, and quiet-voiced
Nature was our teacher and our own soul our prophet? At any rate,
we went to the wishing well, and the boon we sought we can now call
our own. The question remains, are all desires granted, either through
visits to wishing-wells or in any other way? The experiences of life
give a definite answer in the negative. How then are believers in
the power of wishing-wells to account for such failures? The rites
were duly attended to, yet there was no result. Why was the charm
not effectual? Any sincere answer to the question ought to be an
acknowledgment of ignorance.

In thus attempting to explain the philosophy of wishing-wells, we
do not imply that the subjective element is the secret of success
in every case. We are merely pointing out that it may be so in some
cases. In other cases, according to the principle mentioned above,
an explanation will be supplied by the theory of coincidences. When
trees and springs were alike reckoned divinities, it was natural
enough to conclude, that any tree, overshadowing a spring, was somehow
mysteriously connected with it. Belief in such mysterious relations
continued, as we have seen, even after tree-worship ceased as a
popular cult. Certain superstitions, still in vogue in the west,
are undoubtedly relics of tree-worship. In India and some other
Eastern lands, the cult still nourishes vigorously. A writer in the
“Cornhill Magazine” for November, 1872, remarks:–“The contrast between
the acknowledged hatred of trees as a rule by the Bygas (an important
tribe in Central India), and their deep veneration for certain others
in particular, is very curious. I have seen the hillsides swept clear
of forests for miles, with but here and there a solitary tree left
standing. These remain now the objects of the deepest veneration;
so far from being injured, they are carefully preserved, and receive
offerings of food, clothes, and flowers, from the passing Bygas,
who firmly believe that tree to be the home of a spirit.”

We need not linger over the consideration of charm-stones in their
connection with wells. In some instances, like that of the Lee Penny,
they gave efficacy to water as a healing agent; but in others,
as in the case of the Loch Torridon Spring, water gave efficacy to
them. Indeed, they acted and reacted on each other in such a way that,
in some instances, it is difficult to determine whether the talisman
brought healing virtue to the water, or vice versa. To find the
solution of the problem, we should have to carry our thoughts back
to the remote days when stones and wells had a life of their own,
and were thus qualified to act independently.

One can understand why holy wells retained their popularity. Even
though they did not always effect a cure, people continued to believe
in them and to seek their aid. Consecrated springs might throw cold
water (metaphorically) on many a cherished hope; but, for all that,
they remained, as of old, objects of reverence. The secret of their
power lay in their appeal to the imagination. Understanding might
say, it is absurd to expect that my ailment can be removed in this
way; but imagination protested that there are more things in heaven
and earth than are dreamed of in my philosophy. The rites to be gone
through–the choice of the fitting season, the keeping of silence, the
leaving of a gift–all conduced to throw a halo of romance around the
practice. There was thus an appeal to the unknown and mysterious, that
gave to well-worship a strange charm. It stirred up any latent poetry
in a man’s nature, and linked him to something beyond himself. Springs
have a double charm. They are interesting for their own sake, and for
the sake of the folklore that has gathered round them. They are “like
roses, beautiful in themselves, that add to their own perfection the
exquisite loveliness of a mossy dell.” In conclusion, take away what is
distinctively mediæval in well-worship, and paganism is left. We find
this paganism entering like a wedge into the substance of a Christian
civilisation. It may have changed its colour, but it is paganism
notwithstanding. Well-worship has a definite value as a survival. It
serves to unite our own age of science with one in the far past, when
laws of nature, as we understand them, were unknown. As a cult it has
forsaken the busy haunts of men, but lingers still in quiet places,
especially among the mountains. Superstitions die hard. The epitaph
of this one has still to be written. Those who are waiting for its
last breath need not be surprised if they have to wait yet a while.