The Origin of Wishing Wells

By Rebecca Shaw

Wells have inspired everything from songs and ballads to fables and poems. Throughout centuries and across cultures, water has been thought to have healing powers. Therefore, many springs, lakes, and wells full of water were protected and used as places of worship. Water is a necessity for life, making it no surprise that fresh bodies of water were so appreciated. As Audrey Hepburn, the actress and UNICEF ambassador, once said, “Water is life, and clean water means health.” People are still striving for clean water across the world and in ancient times it was much more common to have contaminated water.

Due to this, small wells and springs became sacred, and many people would bring offerings to the water. For the Germanic and Celtic people, they believed bringing these gifts would appease the deity that resided in the water. They would throw weapons and armor of their fallen enemies into the water as offerings. They believed this would cause the deity to give the water healing properties. Eventually, the Celtics took this farther when they began paying for their miracles. By throwing a coin into the well, it was believed that the deity would grant a wish. However, if the coin landed tails up, the dweller of the well would ignore the wish. Only if the coin landed heads up would the wish

Other myths surrounding wells focused on the Norse gods. In Nordic tradition there is a well that can be found at the bottom of Yggdrasil (the World Tree). This belonged to Mímir, the god of wisdom. The myth states that wisdom would be granted to anyone who sacrificed something dear to them into the well. Odin, the god of royalty, knowledge, and battle, sacrificed his eye to the well in order to gain wisdom and the ability to see into the future.

Beyond their connections with folklore, some modern scientists believe that leaving coins may have contributed to the water’s unique properties, but for less mystical reasons. As previously stated, fresh water was not always good to drink in ancient times. These springs and wells were often loaded with bacteria that could cause infection if it was ingested or used to clean wounds. However, the addition of copper and silver coins to the well killed most of these bacteria, making it safer to drink. There were even cased reported that people with infections were cured when they drank from these purified wells.  

Wishing wells have survived into the current era, making appearances in parks, malls, and backyards. Though many of the traditions and folklore have not survived along with them, the idea of paying for a wish has. In many public wishing wells, people will throw coins in as they pass. Some companies have even resorted to using the wells as a means of getting charity donations. The money that the wells collect are taken out and donated to different charitable organizations. Though these wells most likely do not possess a deity, as once believed, they are still beneficial to society.

References:

“Audrey Hepburn.” UNICEF, 19 June 2003, www.unicef.org/people/people_audrey_hepburn.html.

Hepburn, Audrey. “Audrey Hepburn Quotes.” Brainy Quote, 2018,

www.brainyquote.com/quotes/audrey_hepburn_700248.

“Wishing Well.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wishing_well.

 



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