Sacred Springs and Wells
Being fundamentally geological features rather than human artifacts,
flowing wells and springs provide some of the most ancient sacred sites in Britain and
Ireland. Originally they were regarded as sacred to the earth goddess, but many
were later Christianised and associated with female saints. The ancient pagan custom of
well-dressing (decorating the well with garlands) has survived in a few places, despite
vigorous persecution during the Puritan era and attacks from modern fundamentalists.
In Celtic times the Goddess was strongly associated with wells and springs (eg the rituals surrounding Coventina's well and the numerous Brideswells, Marywells, St.Anne's wells and Ladywells throughout Celtic Britain and Ireland). The usual explanation is that our fertility-obsessed ancestors regarded these watery orifices as the vagina or nipple of the Earth Goddess.
The presence of the Sheela-Na-Gig in the vicinity of some holy wells in Ireland does suggest a connection with the vagina. But a more spiritual interpretation is possible, for we must not forget that one of the most enduring aspects of the Celtic goddess is that of the wise woman (only finally eradicated from Anglo-Celtic spirituality by the last witch-burnings of 16th and 17th centuries).
But what does wisdom have to do with the pregnant earth-mother and the fluid symbolism of springs and wells?
To get a coherant picture we need to look to the Tibetan tradition, where ancient teachings have survived into modern times with no intervening attempts to masculinise everything (at least not until the appearance of Mao Tse Tung).
In Tibetan Buddhism, wisdom is very definitely feminine. Lady Tara is a wisdom Goddess. Wisdom is primarily the understanding of the ultimate nature of reality - Sunyata - which is sometimes translated as emptiness, but in fact comes from a Sanskrit root meaning 'pregnant' or 'swollen with possibility'. The concept of 'sunyata' has similarities with that of 'awen' in Celtic spirituality - the source and upwelling of all creative possibilities.
This interpretation may account for the metaphysical significance of the pregnancy symbolism. Sunyata is the ground of all being. Sunyata is also sometimes known as 'the plenitude of the void' and is seen as a constant upwelling of possibility, freedom and potential. Sunyata is the primary fountainhead of the flow of free-will (non-determined action, intuition and creativity). Only by having the ultimate nature of sunyata can anything change or develop or be created.
'Water symbolizes the whole of potentiality; it is fons et origo, the source of all possible existence' - Mircea Eliade. Hence the well and spring symbolism may have a meaning which transcends the cruder interpretation of physical fluids.
To conclude, in contrast the the patriarchal male God, the Goddess is not a static, stagnant, inherently-existent monolith. She is the clear wellspring of liberation, and the source of all the potentials and possibilities which flow out of the ground of being.
Holy well websites: