Rite Springs Eternal: religious confluence in the origins of Irish Holy Wells.

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Rite Springs Eternal: religious confluence in the origins of Irish Holy Wells.

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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.)

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Mallery, Silas John. (2010). Rite Springs Eternal: religious confluence in the origins of Irish Holy Wells.. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/100494.

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