Wishing well, wishing well, wish me a wish…
Well, it’s not quite like that. Or maybe it is. You see, we are very much drawn to water – it is very important to us. All our rivers have deities – like Tamesis, for whom the Thames is named, and Hafren, Goddess of the Severn. Is it any wonder, then, that there have been votive offerings in bodies of water since antiquity?
Okay, so perhaps a penny in a water-feature, on the premise that you can make a wish, isn’t particularly votive as there isn’t any presumption that the wish is made of any deity – the intent is often absent, just as saying “oh god” isn’t necessarily a precursor to worship.
But it has its origins in a most sacred action.
Whilst King Arthur is, to us, a cliche and something with which we don’t necessarily wish to associate, nonetheless his tales offer something in the way of instruction regarding ancient British religious practice. For instance, the Lady of the Lake can be seen as a Goddess. Nimue gave Arthur the power to rule through Merlin; this is cognate with the principle whereby one’s power is borrowed from the Source, rather than being owned by the user. Incidentally, if we realise that then the practice of religion becomes far more meaningful. But this borrowing from the Source has parallels in other societal structures too, where power is vested in underlings by a lord. Then, when the underling dies, the power is once again absorbed by the lord, who may then pass it on to another underling. When a king dies, however, there is no lord temporal, but rather a spiritual superior from whom his power has come, so that power is returned thence.
In the case of Arthur, Nimue bore him the sword, so to Nimue it returns: in the case of a more everyday person, the offering is a sacrifice. There are many watery shrines offered up by nature where a meaningful gift, such as a tool of a man’s trade, has been given. Sometimes these are unused, but then if it has been used it becomes infused with the person’s spirit – and then it’s almost like he casts himself into the water. In a way, giving of oneself to a deity is little different to giving of oneself to a another – the more it costs relative to what one can afford, the greater the meaning behind it. But then one gives of oneself relative to the need for the gift: if a loved one is in danger, then it makes sense to put oneself out in an effort to save that loved one, but it could be possibly considered overkill to put oneself in extreme personal peril if the kernel one is attempting to crack could easily be overcome with a harmless swat.
Nevertheless, the everyday business of being alive, healthy and whatever else one can be thankful for is always worthy of devotion. And while, obviously, there are many ways of showing that devotion, neither should it be forgotten that even so trivial-seeming an action of putting money or material sacrifice in a wishing well, whether it be a novelty water-feature or the great spring of Sulis in Bath, if done with the right heart can yield surprising results.