Exploring new interpretations
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The Boydell Press 1995. 243 x 150mm, 183 pages. Hardback £25
THE LIVING STREAM
Holy wells in historical context
This book is unquestionably one of the best to have been published
in English on the well cult, or hydrolatry, as the author describes
it, for some time. The Living Stream is a solid piece of work, excellently
researched and fully referenced. Moreover, it is readable and manages
to steer clear of the fantasy mongering and mythology which is characteristic
of all too much writing on the subject.
The author concurs with Francis Jones who, in his book The Holy Wells
of Wales (University of Wales Press, 1954 - recently republished in
paperback), argues that the well cult had its roots in religion, reproducing
Jones’s comment: ‘It cannot be stressed too often that everything
related (Jones uses the word ‘relating’) to wells, whether in early
form or in mangled survival, traces to one source - religion’, though
Rattue modifies this to suggest the root is: ‘the religious symbolism
Whether religious symbolism was the genesis of hydrolatry is a moot
point, particularly as we do not know what pre-literate ancient peoples
actually thought about natural springs. Possibly it was phenomena
associated with water which gave rise to the supernaturalistic element.
This can be illustrated through reference to an ancient society in
which water played a crucial role, Egypt. The importance of the Nile
to life in the country was recognised from the pre-dynastic era onwards,
but the name given to it was itrw, meaning ‘the river’, which has
no religious connotations. However, the Egyptians knew nothing of
the natural processes which gave rise to the annual inundation of
the Nile so explained it through reference to the activities of a
deity called Hapy.
The Living Stream consists of a general introduction and nine interrelated
chapters which together trace the history of the well cult in England
from prehistoric times until the present day, the last chapter including
a critical evaluation of contemporary neo-pagan, wiccan and ‘new age’
views and theories about wells and their lore.
The author does not discuss in any detail the claims for wells and
springs being able to cure all manner of illnesses, usually through
the supposed intervention, at least in medieval times, of various
saints, as he says this aspect of the subject has been adequately
covered by other writers. This allows him to devote his 183 pages
to matters more in keeping with the general historical thrust of his
narrative. As well as the historical data this also incorporates interesting,
and in some instances novel, ideas regarding the distribution of wells;
the difficulties and possibilities arising from place and field name
studies in so far as these have a bearing on hydrolatry, and in a
more historical vein, the evolution of Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical
attitudes to pagan sacred wells and the extent to which these were
christianised. The conclusions the author draws, albeit cautiously
and qualified, following this analysis, which also covers the question
of churches built on pagan sites, challenges many commonly held ideas
as to the extent to which this happened. Considerable attention is
also given to what folklore records show about the well cult, this
data also being treated with praiseworthy caution by the author.
The impact of the Reformation on the medieval well cult is considered
in some detail as it brought in its wake some dramatic changes. The
author noting that while iconoclastic activity was considerable, worship
at a number of wells continued, though presumably this must also be
seen as indicative of the value the worshippers placed upon what they
believed to be healing wells. Although several writers on wells have
argued that following the Reformation many became secular spas, the
author contends this was not so as only fourteen can be shown to have
‘degenerated from holy wells’. This claim is questionable.
The Living Stream, then, constitutes a rich assemblage of information
and ideas. The scope of the well cult was, indeed is, extensive, which
makes for difficulties in categorisation and so probably explains
the author’s reluctance to define what he means by terms such as ‘holy
well’. Named wells and springs played an important part in the social
and cultural life of communities throughout England, as to some extent
they still do in parts of Ireland and Brittany. Unfortunately in the
past all too many antiquarians appear to have been indifferent to
well lore, a situation not so different amongst contemporary local
historians, as they like to be known, thus even now it is still being
lost. Perhaps, then, this book, which meets academic criteria, will
alert them to what they are ignoring before it is too late.
The book is rounded off with a seven page, double-columned index of
English wells, a somewhat inadequate general index and a valuable
twenty-three page bibliography. However, it is difficult to understand
why Bob Trubshaw’s Holy Wells and Springs of Leicestershire and Rutland
(1990) is excluded while the author’s own 1993 itinerary of named
wells in Leicestershire is present. There are other omissions, one
being Val Shepherd’s, Historic Wells in and around Bradford (1994).
Element 1995. A4, 112 pages, full colour throughout. Paperback £9.99
Philip Heselton can be considered to be one of the founding fathers
of earth mysteries. Quite appropriatly, Element asked him to write
The Elements of Earth Mysteries in 1991 as part of a generally succesful
series of low-cost paperbacks. This latest publication retains the
orignal text but incorporates a substantial number of colour illustrations
into an attractive large-format presentation.
John Michell’s View Over Atlantis (Thames and Hudson 1969) was a major
inspiration for what was to emerge as the earth mysteries ‘movement’.
Paul Screeton’s Quicksilver Heritage (Thorsons 1974) subsequently
defined the scope of topics brought together under the umbrella of
earth mysteries. However, in subsequent years approaches diversified
and no useful introductory book was written. Heselton’s concise yet
balanced viewpoint, combined with generally fruitful illustrations,
means that Earth Mysteries fullfils in an attractive manner that need
for an introductory work.
Heselton fully recognises that key to earth mysteries is the sense
of ‘spirit of place’, an awareness of sacredness which, using his
terminology, might best be thought of as ‘poetic geography’. But,
above all, his sane and level-headed approach inspires the reader
to get out and experience the countryside around them.
Those familiar with the activities within earth mysteries may consider
that the key participants have, on the one hand, become increasingly
diverse in their approaches while, at the same time, becoming almost
overtaken by increasingly open-minded approaches from more academic
practitioners. Earth mysteries might, therefore, also become a historic
document, reviewing about 30 years of ‘fringe’ exploration at a time
when professional approaches to the past had become excessively materialistic.
Element 1995. A4, 96 pages, full colour throughout. Paperback £9.99
NATIVE AMERICAN TRADITIONS
This is a companion volume to Heselton’s Earth Mysteries and serves
to confirm how well Heselton coped with the limitations of covering
a large subject in limited words. By contrast, Versluis’s book flits
frustratingly from topic to topic, tending to give too many specific
examples. The overall effect seems patchy and rarely seems to provide
a satisfactory overview.
Although dealing primarily with north American indians, every now
and again Versluis seems to remember that there are also traditional
peoples in southern America. Rather than devote his precious allocation
of words to giving further clarification of the diversity of approaches
within the Americas, on several occassions the author instead throws
in a short comparison with non-American peoples and their customs.
So in the chapter on shamanism, for instance, he gives a page of introduction,
nearly two pages of text on north American shamanism and about the
same again on south American shamanism. Another half page of text
claims to draw parallels with shamanism worldwide. Allowing for photographs
this totals seven pages. With the tersest writing possible, this is
inevitably superficial. In practice, Versluis’s use of specific details
from his sources means that this reader felt not such much that he
had the benefit of a panoramic view but rather of looking at the subject
down the wrong end of a telescope.
Perhaps it really is asking too much to effectively summarise such
a wide-ranging subject in about 30,000 words of text. On the positive
side, the book is attractively produced and generally accessible for
Capall Bann 1995. A5, 208 pages, 17 full-page photographs. Paperback £10.95
SECRET PLACES OF THE GODDESS
An entirely new book from Heselton, which picks up on aspects introduced
in Earth Mysteries but develops them into fully rounded-out approaches.
Seeking and finding special secret places in our surroundings seems
an almost archetypal human trait. Heselton contends that children
are born with the innate ability to respond in this way, but our upbringing
means that we are brought up as ‘townies’ (even if some are lucky
enough to be living in relatively rural surroundings) and lose this
Secret Places of the Goddess is an ‘instruction book’, a ‘work book’,
for re-establishing our ability to respond to place and environment.
Although essentially a very personal approach, based on what amounts
to a lifetime’s experience and reflection, Heselton is happy to link
his approaches with aspects of modern-day paganism. His usage of the
term ‘paganism’ is an individual way of looking beyond the diversity
of specific approaches to an underlying unity. As such, Heselton’s
paganism seems almost detached and abstract. To a large extent, he
is extending Quaker principles from a Christian framework into a wider
spirituality. Heselton also recognises that this also connects with
Taoist principles, especially the need for direct experience. Indeed,
in the introductory chapter he writes ‘I shouldn’t be writing a book
at all but, as a wise teacher once said, should be taking you by the
hand and walking with you through the nearest wood.’
I happened to read this book at the commencement of a week’s holiday
amid the inspirational landscape of Pembrokeshire. I can confirm that
Secret Places of the Goddess stimulated my own abilities to respond
to the spirits of place beyond the normal limitations of a book, even
if not quite manifesting as a friendly guiding hand. This is one ‘pagan’
book which deserves to be read by a much wider readership.
Blandford 1995. 242x152mm, 298 pages. hardback £16.99
ARTHURIAN MYTH AND LEGEND
The following reviews in this issue of At the Edge may lead readers
to think that Blandford consider there to be a vast market for books
on Arthurian myths. Whether this is true or not, this quantity of
output risks overlooking two first-class contributions to the field.
I had hoped that a much better Arthurian scholar than myself would
provide more informed reviews of Mike Dixon-Kennedy’s book and John
Matthew’s The Unknown Arthur. However, at a critical stage in the
deadlines, he was called into hospital for an uncomfortable operation
so, regrettably, your over-worked editor appears to hog the reviews
Arthurian Myth and Legend is an encyclopedia which runs from Aalardin
to Zitus. These entries themselves betray one of the strengths of
this compend-ium - a comprehensiveness which extends beyond the core
figures and locations. Indeed the publishers claim that there are
over 2000 entries. Nevertheless, unlike many dictionaries, the entries
are not so terse as to be dry. Instead one can dip into this book
and find meaty morsels on most pages. Anyone fairly new to Arthurian
mythology will benefit enormously from this breadth and depth of information.
Those with good knowledge will still find much of the detail informative
and relish the excellent cross-referencing.
This is one Arthurian book which genuinely contributes to the greater
understanding of Arthurian literature. If I may be forgiven admitting
to one wishful thought that is simply the hope that one day such detailed
information will form the basis of an Arthurian CD-ROM, backed up
by full texts and all-but-limitless illustrations!
Blandford 1995. 253x196mm, 160 pages, colour illustrations, hardback £17.99
THE UNKNOWN ARTHUR
Those whose interests in Arthurian mythology extend beyond the basic
tales of Lancelot, Gawain, Merlin and the derring-do of the Round
Table knights will enjoy John Matthew’s latest offering. The Unknown
Arthur is neither an erudite edition of medieval texts or a hurried
pot-boiler from an over-worked author. Instead Matthews has drawn
upon his extensive knowledge of the more obscure ‘backwaters’ of Arthurian
lore and crafted modern prose versions of little-known legends. He
claims not to have ‘improved’ on the originals by rationalising the
plots - even though they may seem rather bizarre.
Matthews recognises that the recurrent theme in these tales is some
kind of warfare with the Otherworld. Whenever the king or one of his
knights leaves the safety of Camelot or another castle then the Otherworld
awaits him. Even if the heroes stay at home, Otherworldly beings are
liable to gatecrash and offer games, quests or challenges which none
of the brave knights can refuse without loss of face.
The stories are indeed most readable although I cannot comment on
the accuracy of Matthews’ reworkings. While such matters are very
much of personal taste, for me the over-literal ‘kiddies picture book’
illustrations by Mark Robertson distract from the appeal of this book.
In all other respects this is a first-class book and should help to
widen the range of Arthurian tales which are well-known and loved.
Two books by John Matthews previously only available in hardback have
been recently reissued as paperbacks:
Merlin Through the Ages R.J. Stewart and John Matthews (eds) (Blandford) £9.99
King Arthur and the Grail Quest John Matthews (Blandford) £9.99
John Matthews and Michael J. Stead
Blandford 1995. 276 x 219mm, 160 pages, 100 colour photographs, hardback £20.00
KING ARTHUR’S BRITAIN
A photographic odyssey
If ‘coffee table books’ have become cliché then perhaps this offering
is more of a ‘bedside table book’. It is a large-format collection
of stunning colour photographs supported with informative if fairly
brief text. Assuming the reader has a basic knowledge of Arthurian
myths then the brevity of the text is not a problem, sufficing simply
to remind the reader of the links between the places photographed
and key events in the tales.
Clearly, one could be justifiably sceptical of the claims for any
of the sites to be linked with the diffuse geography of the Arthurian
literature. Instead, the places chosen by Matthews and Stead provide
the justification for publishing some highly effective photographs.
The most ‘basic’ of the illustrations are well-lit and the best of
them combine well-crafted composition with outstanding natural light.
This book will remain on my bedside table for some time yet - a browse
through the evocative images combined with the reminders of rich mythology
is an excellent way of unwinding at the close of day and inducing
a meditive frame of mind which drifts into sleep. If I have a small
gripe it is simply that, as well as the better-known sites such as
Tintagel, there are a number of little-known sites but no precise
information on their location to help any readers who want to experience
the places first-hand. Incorporating OS grid references into the index
of places would have been a worthwhile exercise.
Blandford 1995. 285 x 227mm, 128 pages, full-colour illustrations throughout, hardback £18.99
THE BOOK OF CELTIC SAINTS
Text by Elaine Gill
Few people can have missed the ‘Celtic’ artwork of Courtney Davis
in recent years. Although much-imitated, Davis was the pioneer of
modern-day ‘Celtic’ artwork. But this is not only a collection of
interlace borders and initial letters inter-twined with stylised animals.
The main images are representational although, when not rather too
Romantic, verge on the mandala-like. The all-pervasive wide coloured
borders make the pages too ‘busy’ for the main images to stand out
and this detracts greatly from what otherwise might have been an ideal
book for ‘meditative’ contemplation.
The illustrations are supported by Gill’s text which provides a concise
and reasonably sound introduction to the sixteen saints who are honoured
by inclusion, although a number of other books provide similar facts
and fables while covering a much greater number of saints. For once,
the motifs used in the illustrations are broadly contemporary with
the subject matter. Although generically termed ‘Celtic’ artwork,
it is more than a tad confusing that the stylistic devices owe much
more to Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian art of the early middle ages
than to the La Tenè or Hallstatt styles of the iron age Celtic heartland.
Undoubtedly this book includes some of Davis’s better offerings in
recent years and, from the autobiographical remarks in the introduction,
perhaps the start of a new and richer phase in his creative output.
Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.
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Created August 1996; updated November 2008