In the water

The Skeptic, 5.5

Eating an over-priced lunch in an over-priced and over-plush hotel recently, I watched as people passed the Hotel Pool, a concrete monstrosity surrounded by plastic flowers, installed, rather unnecessarily, plum in the center of the dining lounge. And, I kid you not, almost every one of the people threw a coin into the water. There were no signs exhorting them to do so; no Charity boxes; no religious icons or paraphernalia; no encouragement whatsoever, save the coins already in the water. Gazing into my extortionate cappuccino, I wondered what these people were doing worshipping water in twentieth century Manchester.

People have been throwing things into water for thousands of years, believing that water is accompanied by controlling spirits which need to be appeased. And what better gift could there be (apart from blood, or a subscription to The Skeptic), than money. The custom of throwing coins and other gifts into water, and making a wish, is still as strong as ever today. You can see it everywhere: look into any public well, pool or fountain, and the bottom will be covered in coins. The older and more distinguished-looking the site, the more financial attention it attracts: Charles Kightly in his Customs and Ceremonies of Britain (Thames & Hudson, 1986) reports that a well in the crypt of York Minster was full of modern coins within a few weeks of it being opened to the public. Of course, it's absurd to imagine that the act of throwing gifts into water will affect one's destiny, or anything else, but as with many customs, that's not the point. It is the act of participating that is important.

Most people think of wishing wells as sources of benevolence, but as Janet and Colin Bord point out in their book Sacred Waters (Granada, 1985), some wells were `cursing wells' specifically geared up for granting nasty wishes to the detriment of chosen victims. But it is important not to insult the well itself, or it may withdraw its favours. In this respect wells can be quite finicky: they do not like women washing clothes in them, for example, or animals bathing in them, and certainly not mad dogs.

Today, we take water for granted. Just turn on the tap, and there it is. In fact, when it doesn't, it can be quite worrying. Working at home (now there's a euphemism) recently I turned on the cold tap to fill the kettle. When the only thing that emerged was a metallic rattling, I had a moment of panic - visions of windswept sand dunes and gasping nomads flashed before my eyes. In a historical sense, if you imagine the social impact of a rural well running dry, it is not hard to see how the importance of wells became the focus of much superstition. Well dressing, for example - the annual ritual of placing vegetation and gifts around a well - is a very ancient pagan practice. It still flourishes each year in Britain and Europe, although for hundreds of years it has been appropriated by the Christian Church, and varnished with a non-pagan respectability, like so many other customs.

Back at the Hotel Swanky, I was still contemplating the mystery of it all when the waiter arrived brandishing a very large bill. As the air became thick with after-lunch conversation (`Good grief, £6.40 for a roast beef sandwich?') I looked towards the pool and its hoard of waterlogged loot, sitting invitingly. No... I wouldn't dare. The water spirit would be displeased.


©Toby Howard 1995

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