There is a well in my village, simply know as the “Ffynnon Sanctaidd” (Sacred Well). Though just outside the bounds of a church dedicated to Mihangel (Michael), the well itself does not have a particular dedicatee and would, of course, have been here, like the nearby ancient yew tree, before the church was built. There are some springs a mile or so along the valley in an area associated with Ffraid (Bride or Brigit) and a story that the church was originally to have been built there and dedicated to her. This, I know, is a story told of other churches: that attempts to build in one place are thwarted by the structure falling down each night until a voice from the heavens tells the builders to build elsewhere and/or to a different saint. These stories clearly reflect conflict in the past as much about who would be honoured rather, I suspect, than where the church should be built.
Wells are older than churches, their springs of water carrying the blessings of saints or deities variously named back to prehistory when the Earth last shifted to the shape she has now in each particular place. So when I sat by this well, as I often do to contemplate the changing seasons and dwell upon the pulse of water beneath me, I did not feel that I had to be bound by a name to embody the sacred space I inhabited – and yet the identity of she who brings sacred water into our world could not be denied for this season, this time, this point of correlation between myself and a goddess.
How does this work? The gods reveal themselves to us at different times, in different places and at different stages of our lives. It’s as if their identity can shine through a dedicated space or one in which we find ourselves ready to receive them, or shine through, even, the identity of another god’s dedicated space or persona. Or is it the same god? People may assert that their god is the only god, that their saint is the one to whom the church should be dedicated, or argue that one space is special not for others but only for them (consider Jerusalem). The god who calls to us is one identity at that moment of experience; the goddess who whispers her secrets is the only voice that matters in that moment which is forever.
Here the pronoun breaks down. It needs to change from plural to singular. I’ve spoken of ‘we’ and ‘us’ because I’ve tried to communicate a common experience. But, for each of us, it is ‘I’ that finds the god and ‘me’ that the goddess finds with words whispered on the winds. Although we may seek communal affirmation and desire to share our experiences, although we may congregate to honour the gods, the experience is not congregational but individual. Dedications to the gods in the ancient world were usually from individuals rather than social expressions of devotion. I can think of a few examples of community dedications such as the one to Epona by the burgesses of Trier, but these seem to be political or commercial rather than purely devotional inscriptions.
So now, as I sit by the well savouring the last of summer before autumn, watching bees go from flower to flower in the fuchsia bush, my experience of grace from the water of the well is a personal one, though by no means regarded by me as exclusive. I think of Odysseus and his personal devotion to, and relationship with, Athene, a goddess who was also acknowledged across the world that Odysseus inhabited. His covenant with her was intensely personal; her concern for him unquestioned. So my own relationship with the water of the well here where the church was built, and the springs there, further down the valley, where it wasn’t built, can centre on my developing relationship with Coventina whom I honoured with a visit to her well by Hadrian’s Wall over two hundred miles away. Nor does this detract from my acknowledgement of Bride of the Springs, or of any other deity which this well by the church of Michael may have embodied, or whose nature it may have expressed, or of other devotees with whom I share a love of this land and the springs that flow into and across it from the abode of the gods.