Folktale Origins Of Wishing Wells
In the mall, in the park, or in your neighbor’s front yard, we see wishing wells in a lot of places and we all know what we are supposed to do…drop a coin in and make a wish. But how did this custom start and what was the original meaning of it? Did our ancestors truly believe that they had to pay for their wishes? And what is the significance of a well? Let’s dive deep into the folklore of wishing wells.
Wishing Wells and Sacred Water
Since water is the key to life, finding sources of fresh water was important to our ancestors. Occasionally, fresh water sprang from unexpected places, like from underground springs or rivers. For many cultures, particularly ancient European cultures, underground springs were viewed as special, sacred waters that were given to mankind as a gift from the gods. To thank the gods for their gift, they would drop small tokens of their appreciation into the spring. Later, coins were used.
Wishing Wells and Clean Water
Clean, potable drinking water was—and still is—a concern. Anthropologists will tell you that settlements and town were established near sources of clean drinking water. To protect the water and keep it safe from contaminants, the people often built structures, such as wells or well houses and, these structures began a gathering place for the people of the town. Even if the water source was large, like a river or harbor, forts and castles were constructed to protect it. Oftentimes, it was thought that spirits or gods lorded over these water sources and kept them clean.
Wishing Wells and Ancient Rome
Wishing wells seem to be a very old tradition that was prevalent across Europe. One of our earliest written references to wishing wells came from the second century in the works of Pliny the Younger. He described several individual springs that converge into a still body of water. He wrote, “There the water, clear as glass, allows you to see gleaming pebbles on the bottom and the coins the people have thrown in.”
Wishing Wells and the Germanic People
The Germanic tribes of Europe believed that spirits lived in the waters and actually created the water. The spirits liked to intervene in the lives of the humans living near them. If a person spoke aloud a wish or hope while standing over the water, the spirits might take pity of them and grant their wish. A person could sweeten the deal by dropping a small coin or another valuable token into the well in hopes that the spirits would be pleased.
Wishing Wells and the Celts
The idea of appeasing the spirits by tossing tokens into a well was especially common in the Celtic culture. The Celtic goddess, Coventina, who ruled overhealing and childbirth, had a famous well attributed to her in Northumberland. The people built a small temple to Coventina around the source of the spring water. Archeologists have discovered small token gifts to Coventina, including coins, glass and pottery items, buttons, and beads, dating back as far as 407 C.E.
Wishing Wells and the Norse
One popular Norse legend revolves around a water deity named Mimir. According to the stories, Mimir lived in the Well of Wisdom and guarded the sacred waters. He drank from the well every day, making him the wisest being in all the land. The Norse god Odin, desperate to save the world from destruction, sought a sip from the Well of Wisdom. Mimir, however, demanded payment from Odin before he could drink. The price Mimir demanded was high. He asked for Odin’s right eye. Odin eventually agreed to pay the price and his eye was thrown into the well so others could see that a price must be paid in order to seek wisdom from the well.
Wishing Wells and the Holy Grail
The Chalice Well, or Red Well, is located in Somerset, England. Iron oxide gives the water a red color that the ancient Brits associated with human blood. According to local legends, the well was the place where Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Grail, the chalice that was used to catch Jesus’s blood at the time of his crucifixion. This legend was used to explain the red color of the water. Since then, people have paid their respects by leaving offerings at the well.
Wishing Wells are Big Business
Since tossing a coin into a wishing well or fountain in exchange for a granted wish is such a widespread custom, it had become big business. Take Rome’s Trevi Fountain, for example. More than 3,000 coins are tossed into the famed fountain each day. That adds up to about $1.5 million U.S. dollars per year! The city of Rome uses the money to fund programs for needy people in the community.