In this dissertation I explore the origins of contemporary Irish holy well veneration. There
are three main theories that have been suggested to account for this religious practice.
The first is the long held belief that these sacred springs represent a survival from pre-
Christian, “Celtic” religious practice. This view was held fairly universally by scholars
well into the twentieth century, and is today still promoted by non-academic, largely
New-Age works treating holy wells. The second theory I consider is that the cult of the
holy well was indeed pre-Christian, but was introduced through contact with peoples of
the Roman Empire, thus representing some degree of culture change through contact with
foreign practices and ideas. The third theory holds that the phenomenon is Christian in
origin, although whether it is a product of ancient Christianity or a post-Reformation
development is another matter.
To discern which theory, or indeed combination of theories is the most accurate, I
looked to documentary evidence from Classical sources, from Saints’ vitae, and from
mythological narratives. I also consider the archaeological evidence for ritual deposition in watery sites across Europe, and crucially from the limited number of archaeologically
excavated holy wells, as well as aerial photography and satellite imagery. To aid in
interpretation of this body of evidence I use the case of sacred springs in Catholic Latin
America as an ethnographic analogy of how such sites have been used to facilitate
conversion of a pagan populace to Christianity.
Considering all of this, I found that the holy well complex is an amalgam of
different cultural strains, with much of the ritual performed deriving from Christianity, iv
but with the healing shrine aspect having been introduced from Roman Britain. However,
I demonstrate that the holy wells that evidence deposition in the Romano-British period
are all near the “royal sites” of Iron Age and Early Medieval importance, and illustrate
the many springs and ponds that exist at these sites, and that I believe will prove to have been an Iron Age precursor to the holy well.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. December 2010. Major: Anthropology. Advisor: Peter S. Wells. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 194 pages. Ill. (some col.)
Mallery, Silas John.
Rite Springs Eternal: religious confluence in the origins of Irish Holy Wells..
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