Springs have always been treated with great admiration. This has shown itself through the diversity of myths they inspire. Even in pre-historic times springs were treated as culturally significant, as excavations show. The Celts paid respect to the Earth mother here and even the later Christianisation did not manage to destroy the spring culture.
Washing eyes in Spring water
Today there are still many places with names such as ‘Holy Virgin’s Well’ or ‘St Marys Well’ where Pilgrim Churches can be found which possess a ‘holy’ well. The practice of ‘Eye washing’ or ‘Coin throwing’ is still practiced at many wells.
Archaeological finds at springs prove that these areas were believed to be something special, even in prehistoric times. In Tunisian stone tools were found at a now dried up spring, which were dated back to the Stone Age (100,000 – 30,000 BC). It is believed these were offerings. The culture of bringing offerings to springs continues back throughout the Iron Age and the Bronze Age till the early Stone Age.
In the Antiquity
The honouring of Water gods played a very important role for the Romans. The extravagant fountains created by them are evidence of this. A holy Roman spring was found in Hochscheid in Hunsrueck. Statue pieces of the honoured gods of that region and age were found near to the buildings. In the shrine, which was surrounded by a Gallo-Romanic Temple, a spring-fed stream was created; adjacent was a public bath with three buildings.
It seems that the shrine was a much visited pilgrimage site. A group of hostels, with several rooms, were built in the vicinity of the bath.
The Worshipping of Springs
In 1898 Weinhold wrote; ‘The culture of wells and springs can be seen throughout the history of our people in the form of ancient god worship, with changes taking place in the recipient of the worship, but with the same general outline, it has continued from unknown beginnings to the present day.
One question has always puzzled humanity; from where does the spring water stem?
Mythology says; The water comes from Heaven, the seat of the gods. Lightning splits the clouds so that the heavenly water can fall to Earth. Lightning hits the Earth and the spring flows through. But it’s not just the mechanism of the springs that fill the fantasy of mankind. Even before Christ divinations were read from springs. The form and the behaviour of the eddies were supposed to foretell the future.
Springs were and still are special places. Springs as sanitarium, springs as a place of judgement or springs as a place of sacrifice. Animal sacrifices were the most common in order to ask the Water gods for mercy, but also food, the most common being bread, were offered. The traditions of decorating springs with flowers and the giving of plant offerings are still upheld today in Upper Franconia, through the Easter Well decoration (Osternbrunnen Schmückens). The throwing of coins is also still practiced at some of the more impressive springs and wells, and is itself a throwback to the worshiping of sacred springs.
For the Catholic Church the practice of spring worship was an act of profanity. For hundreds of years the church fought hard against this Nature worship, which had been in existence since before Christ. In the year 731 AD Pope Gregor III commanded the princes and the people to give up the profane use of springs for divining purposes. In 789 AD Karl the Great forbad the placement of lights at springs. However all of these restrictions made little difference and so the old uses were taken up by the Christians. The old sacred springs were Christianised. Crosses or chapels were erected. The name of the worship had changed but the object was still the same.
In place of the spring goddesses, who stood for fruitfulness and the purity, came the honouring of the holy Virgin Mary, who was very popular in the 12 th century, and who still today gives her name to many places; such as Marienbrunn or Frauenbrünndl.
Places of pilgrimage were created by these springs and large churches were sometimes built by them, for example the Würzburg Cathedral where springs were integrated into its construction. Especially in the Alpine region there are many small pilgrimage churches, which are built near springs, or sometimes have springs flowing directly into the Alter room.
During the Roman period the transfigured sight in the clear spring water of a lovely spring nymph or spring god became once again a favourite motif in drawings and poetry. Later the theme was also taken up by such artists as Pablo Picasso or Aristide Maillol, and has been continually revisited to this day.
Like the spring of the ‘Stempfermühle’ and also the ‘Bergbrunnen’ outside of Burggaillenreuth were supposed to at one point have been home to silent and secretive mermaids. They once lay happily on the flat areas of the meadows and let the sun warm their shimmering silver bodies. On the warm spring and summer days they would step out of the cool water onto the land and dance between rocks and bushes. One legend tells of a young squire who came from the town castle in the valley below to see the Mermaids, despite the fact that his Knight had forbidden it.
Nevertheless he stole up on them, being full of delight for their beauty. But as he tried to touch them they disappeared, back into their home, placing a curse on the impudent young man. He now lives out his days as a grey butterfly, fluttering around the high cliffs, until one day he finds salvation.
Taken from: H. Büttner: Legends from Franconian Switzerland, Erlangen 1988