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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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James Rattue
Holy wells in historical context

The Boydell Press 1995. 243 x 150mm, 183 pages. Hardback £25

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 of water’.

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).

Robert Morrell

Philip Heselton

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.

Bob Trubshaw

Arthur Versluis

Element 1995. A4, 96 pages, full colour throughout. Paperback £9.99

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 the novice.

Bob Trubshaw

Philip Heselton

Capall Bann 1995. A5, 208 pages, 17 full-page photographs. Paperback £10.95

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 capability.

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.

Bob Trubshaw

Mike Dixon-Kennedy

Blandford 1995. 242x152mm, 298 pages. hardback £16.99

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 section.

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!

Bob Trubshaw

John Matthews

Blandford 1995. 253x196mm, 160 pages, colour illustrations, hardback £17.99

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

Bob Trubshaw

John Matthews and Michael J. Stead

A photographic odyssey

Blandford 1995. 276 x 219mm, 160 pages, 100 colour photographs, hardback £20.00

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.

Bob Trubshaw

Courtney Davis
Text by Elaine Gill

Blandford 1995. 285 x 227mm, 128 pages, full-colour illustrations throughout, hardback £18.99

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.

Bob Trubshaw

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created August 1996; updated November 2008