- August 30, 2021 at 9:59 am #13851
I just thought this might be something interesting to share.
Not far from Lanner, near Redruth, in Cornwall (Kernow), there is an ancient holy well site at Carn Marth. The holy well is associated with a figure from Cornish folklore, Figgy Dowdy – not the pudding – who is also found in some other bits of folklore.
What’s interesting about this? Well, up until relatively recent times, the young girls of the surrounding area would go on Good Friday to have their dolls baptised with the water of the holy well. This tradition was also found elsewhere in West Cornwall, near Madron and Morvah.
Now, the name Figgy Dowdy could, and I emphasise only could, be a corruption of the Cornish (Kernowek), meaning the “good goddess of the scythe” or the “reaper goddess”. In Cornish a goddess would be “duwes”, and “da duwes” or “duwes da” would be “good goddess” whereas to reap would be myji (Welsh: medaf, medi) – bear in mind that the ancient Cornish words often altered a little when they passed into Anglo-Cornish dialect. We could, therefore, read “the good goddess who reaps” as the meaning. In other folklore, Figgy Dowdy may have become the Maggie Figgy who was a witch in a Cornish folktale, that possible connection is also interesting in itself.
Leaving aside the linguistics, the association with holy wells and water, some kind of rite carried out by the local girls and the plausible connection to a divinity connected to agriculture, water and the scythe – an earth goddess figure, makes me wonder if this is not a vague recollection of a far older belief. We know that Celtic cultures, among others, attached a great deal of importance to water sites, springs, wells, rivers, fountains and lakes, and the divinities associated with them were feminine, Coventina, Sabrina, Sulis, the Lady of the Lake, the Lady of the Fountain and so on. Obviously, you need water for agriculture and it bubbles up from under the ground, just like seeds that germinate in the darkness under the ground and grow into the light.
Finally, Carn Marth in Cornish is Karn Margh – margh meaning horse; given the importance of horses in Celtic myth, that’s also rather suggestive, because Epona and, perhaps, Rhiannon/*Rigantona may have been connected to notions of agriculture and fertility.
Anyway, I would speculate that there’s a very old folk memory of something even older here and I wonder how much else we could learn if we scrape away at folklore and customs.
Hope that was interesting.
/|\August 30, 2021 at 7:35 pm #13853
This is very interesting.
I read many moons ago, that an item (that meant a lot to a person) was dipped or dropped into the waters of a holy well for good fortune & healing.
(Much like the later tradition of asking for something & throwing a coin into a well).
So, for young girls, the item used was their toy doll to dip in the water, doing this to communicate with the little folk/pixies/fairies – the idea of the ritual being that they could ask & be granted a wish, such as good luck, or healing for oneself, or for another family member.
Maybe this got changed later to a Friday baptism when Christianity came along ?
Jules.August 31, 2021 at 6:53 am #13854
Hi True Owl,
The veneration of water sites and votive offerings does indeed go back a long time, a very long time and tossing a coin into a fountain or well for good luck is, I believe, a recollection of this.
We need to be careful not to read too much, too little or just what we want to into these things, but I’d say that given the veneration of water sites in pre-Christian Britain and Ireland and the “continuity” of the veneration of (holy) wells in Cornwall, but also in areas such as Derbyshire, there’s strong circumstantial evidence at least to give weight to the idea. In recent years there’s been a bit of academic controversy about the historiography of these sites and traditions, we just don’t have enough evidence going back far enough to be sure and some traditions were only recorded for the first time in the modern period, that’s not to say they didn’t exist before, but we just can’t say so with certainty. On the other hand, archaeological, i.e. material, data does indicate that a number of sites, for example Flag Fen, enjoyed an incredibly long history of devotion spanning different metal ages and cultural changes.
When the Romans came, native British spiritual belief merged with Roman belief and we had a form of Romano-British religion, for example, Sulis Minerva at Bath. It seems that British religion became Romanised quite rapidly. Then when Christianity came along, the native beliefs got mixed with Christian ideas and so on. I think one thing we should bear in mind is that the “high” religion of the elites, the urban upper classes, the aristocracy, the people who were literate is one thing whereas the “folk religion” of the pagani – the country dwellers – was probably something quite different and perhaps more conservative and naturally more tied to the seasons, agriculture, hunting, natural phenomena and the land and this is where our folk traditions originate. Just because a monk, a king or a scholar believed something or held a world view, doesn’t mean that it was shared by a shepherd on the moors who was probably still worried about bad weather, wolves and bandits!
Going back to Carn Marth, the hypotheses could be:
1) Ancient tradition – folk memory of when women and girls blessed by a female fertility goddess/divinity in spring.
2) Ancient tradition – the dolls were blessed as a form of sympathetic magic, maybe some connection to corn dollies, which was later forgotten.
3) Christian Easter tradition – the dolls were blessed, however, I have a doubt about this – baptism is an important sacrament and baptising dolls, well, I’m not sure how well – pardon the pun – that would sit with Christians in the past.
4) Just an old country folk tradition and game with toys/dolls, nothing to read into it.
5) Something else …
/|\August 31, 2021 at 10:46 am #13856
Yes, many things got converted from the pagan ways into Christianity to help with the conversion – ie. Churches built on sacred ground; at Yule the giving of presents, which was converted to represent the birth of Jesus & the wisemen bringing gifts (even though he was not born on Dec 25th – most likely in the summer months). The tradition of Xmas gift-giving, decorating a tree, feasting, singing, etc are all rooted in pagan traditions. Initially even some Druids joined the Church and became Priests, (incorporating some of the new ways with the old), which helped with the conversion from paganry to Christianity (and as time went by, many of the pagan ways dropped). Easter is also based on an ancient pagan festival celebrating the Spring Equinox. The term Easter was the name of the goddess Eostre. The Easter Bunny and Easter eggs are pagan traditions as symbols of fertility (new life/Spring). It is likely that the Church tried to stomp out these ancient traditions, but in the end they got incorporated.
In reference to baptism – Many Church Leaders today use a doll as a model to show children at schools how a baptism is done.
It could be that in the past, in the same way, that girls had been taught about baptism by parents (or watched one being performed), and so wished to bless their own doll in the same way, and so dipped the doll into a holy well for spiritual protection – only guessing though !
Jules.August 31, 2021 at 3:49 pm #13858
I’m glad this is turning into an interesting discussion! 😀
Ancient calendars and dates are absolutely fraught with difficulty. I’ve often heard the idea that the date for Christmas was chosen because it had been a pagan feast, Yule, the Roman Saturnalia and so on, however, there are some serious problems with this. Strangely enough, Christmas wasn’t such an important festivity in early Christianity and there were various conflicting dates for what would later become Christmas. The earliest mention of the December 25th date comes from the Donatists, a Christian group in 4th century CE North Africa, mentioned by Augustine of Hippo. Moreover, the feast of the Annunciation – the conception – was March 25th, the old Roman new year, nine months from March 25th and we arrive at December 25th and the March 25th date was also connected to the crucifixion because the conception and the crucifixion were supposed to have the same dates. Likewise Easter, Jesus was crucified at Passover, so for the dating of this we need to look at the traditions of Second Temple Judaism from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. It’s all a far cry from Yule and Saturnalia and it’s certainly beginning to look more like a tradition with roots in the Middle East, North Africa and Judaism, which isn’t all that surprising all things considered. I don’t doubt that later on non-Biblical elements were incorporated into folk Christianity, but at the same time, as I said before, I wouldn’t read too much into things either.
Eostre is also problematic. We only have one ancient reference to her, in Bede, and no evidence of her cult. Now, we could take Bede on face value and accept that there was once an Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but apart from that, there’s little else we know, Bede doesn’t describe in any detail her festivities or associate her with anything. The idea of associating the hare with Eostre originates with Jacob Grimm in 1835 and there’s not much to back it up really; furthermore, the traditional Easter hare seems to have originated with German Protestants. Another problem is that the sacred animal of the Germanic/Norse fertility and spring goddess Freyja was the cat, not the hare. As for Easter eggs, they seem to have originated in Persia and spread through what is now Iraq and Syria with Eastern Orthodox churches, thence into Greece and the rest of Europe. This appears to be a very ancient tradition, but there’s nothing all that historical to link it with ancient pagan Europe, at least not the Celtic and Germanic cultural areas. So, far from the church trying to stomp out pagan traditions, it seems that some of these pagan traditions were actually Christian in origin.
Unfortunately, starting in the 17th century, through the 19th century Romantic revival, the Celtic Twilight movement and then 20th century so-called “New Age”, there has been a lot of very poor scholarship, wild speculation and downright nonsense written about folklore, beliefs and traditions and perhaps Celtic spirituality has been in the frontline. Ronald Hutton is a good reference for clarity on many of these issues and more recent scholarship, better translations and more archaeological and historiographical work are improving things. Nevertheless, I always try to exercise a great deal of caution in a lot of the claims that are made.
Having said all that, each generation and society creates its own mythologies according to its spiritual and philosophical needs and things evolve and change.
/|\August 31, 2021 at 5:00 pm #13859
Some great research you’ve done there, and some very good questions raised.
There is also the aspect of a distinct Celtic Church being in Britain before the Roman missionaries arrived with their own version, which caused arguments between the two, such as the dating of Easter and the difference in tonsure, and the practice of penance, amongst other things. In reference to the the Easter date issue, at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, it was agreed that all churches should follow a single rule for Easter, which should be computed independently of the Jewish calendar. But, the actual way of the computation didn’t get sorted until hundreds of years later at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD. Bede mentions in his writings the argument about the different ways of computation, which is also collaborated by Columbanus (a missionary). The Roman’s won the day, and hence forth they became the stronger, diminishing the Celtic church nearly altogether (which of course, has since been revived by certain groups in modern day). There are still arguments even today for reform of the dating of Easter.
You make a good point about Ronald Hutton’s research – Some years ago, I read ‘Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain’ – it is certainly a very good book, that brings clarity to many issues – I recommend it.
Jules.August 31, 2021 at 6:45 pm #13861
The Roman’s won the day
About par for the course … what have the Romans ever done for us, eh? 😀
More seriously, going back to Figgy Dowdy and Carn Marth, my own hunch, gut feeling and instinct even though I cannot prove anything is that it’s a mixture of our first two hypotheses. For me the water connection, the corrupted name from Cornish and the possible later association with being a witch are highly suggestive and strong indications that something very old has been half-remembered here. Similar things happen in Welsh folklore with witches and giants. In this case, if it is indeed what I think, there has most definitely been some Christianisation, but this is “folk Christianity” a veneer of Christianity on something ancient.
What do you think?
/|\August 31, 2021 at 6:47 pm #13862
PS. I’ve also read Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe and I’d also recommend his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles.August 31, 2021 at 9:46 pm #13869
Out of the five choices you gave, I would agree that options 1 & 2 look the more likely, when thinking it through logically.
But, I still wouldn’t completely write off option 3 – the Christian angle of blessing one’s doll. Apparently, today, the custom of baptising dolls has been revived in Venton Bebibell and Figgy Dowdy’s Wells (see link) :
Jules.September 1, 2021 at 6:44 am #13871
I’ve no doubt that option 3 plays a part in this either. I’m sure there’s been a lot syncretism or fusion over the years. Interestingly, some holy wells in Cornwall were also associated with divination. According to folklore, Gulval Well was looked after by an elderly lady and young women would go to the well and consult it as some kind of oracle to find out about their futures. I think there are some similar traditions with holy wells in Ireland. I’ve read that Madron well also had some association with divination, too. At other wells, coins or bent pins were left to the piskies.
/|\October 17, 2021 at 11:16 am #14048
Going slightly off topic …October 17, 2021 at 11:37 am #14049
I’m beginning to wonder whether our concepts of ancient Celtic belief have not been skewed a lot by very modern ways of thinking. I’m coming to the conclusion that the core of ancient Celtic belief(s) was indeed animistic and that perhaps we’ve been looking at things the wrong way around – this being due to the later Romanised version of Celtic belief, or perhaps, the Celticised Roman religion. In one incident that was recorded, when the Celts/Gauls were sacking Delphi, it was stated that they were rather bemused by the Greeks’ anthropomorphic representations of deities. It’s also notable that before massive Romanisation, there was very little anthropomorphic representation of the divine, certainly in comparison with other contemporary cultures. Therefore, is Coventina the “goddess of wells and springs”, or is she rather the name and spirit of that spring? Is Taranis the “god of thunder” or is he rather the thunder itself? From an animistic point of view, all things – both material and immaterial – can have a spirit. Somehow, I think that fits better with the evidence we have from Celtic myth and also from archaeology, and perhaps it also calls into question our very Graeco-Roman ideas of “god/goddess of …”. This is where, to me at least, the awen comes into everything.
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