An article by Dr Jean Hansell of Bath, the world’s leading expert on dovecotes
Water being a primeval need in nature it is not surprising that during centuries older than history, rivers, springs and wells were of enduring importance in many parts of the world. The ancient cults of northern Europe are believed to have had their roots in earlier Indo-European culture which was originally based the headwaters of the rivers Rhine, Rhone and Danube. As early as the first millennium BC they had begun to expand their borders so that by 600 BC they were familiar among the Gauls, Greeks and Romans.
Early on, rivers were often linked with ancient Mother Goddesses of whom there were many local variations. The Danube for example was associated with the goddess Danu who was known as ‘she of the winding rivers’. In Britain the Thames was sacred to the goddess Tamesis. Sharing a more specific relationship with water were many other female deities including Nantosuelta of Gaul, Britain and Germany who also symbolised domesticity, fertility and the Underworld, She is sometimes depicted with a dove, or pigeon or raven peeping out from behind her shoulder and she holds a house-shaped structure on top of a pole, believed to be a dovecote.
While many different kinds of bird occur in Celtic iconography, the raven and dove, both of which were believed to possess oracular powers, are particularly notable. The raven was linked with the god Bran who was known as the Raven God and whose symbol it became. He features in one of the earliest Welsh mythological texts of the 14th century known as Mabinogion. One tale relates how Bran crossed the sea to Ireland to rescue his half-sister Branwen, who had been given in marriage to the Irish king, and who was in distress. As the story relates “…and meantime Branwen reared a starling on the end of her feeding trough and taught it words and instructed the bird what manner her brother was and she brought a letter of her woes and dishonour that were upon her. And the letter was fastened under the root of the bird’s wings and set towards Wales. And it came to his hand…And it alighted on his shoulder and ruffled its feathers so that the letter was seen and it was known that the bird had been reared among dwellings. And the letter was taken and examined. Counsel taken.” Surely this text does not describe the behaviour of a starling or even of a raven? On the contrary, certain features seem to be typical of a domestic pigeon or dove.
The French discovery last century of remains of the so-called ‘Dove Deity of Alesia’ (Cote d’Or) dating from the days of Romano-Celtic Gaul is of great interest It is among several others found elsewhere in Gaul. A typical example shows the bust of a god bearing on his shoulders a pigeon/dove on each side with their beaks pointed inwards as if to convey a message into his ear. Detailed work published in 1948 established that the remains of Alesia were linked with the local deity known as Moritasgus, the deity of springs and hence that a close relationship must have existed between them and pigeons/doves. Supporting evidence for this was traced back to the ancient Greek legend of the temple of Levs at Dodona in Epirus where oracles were delivered in the sacred grove. On this site it was believed that a spring flowed from beneath the roots of ancient oak trees in which doves were perched and that their oracular voices together with the sound of the spring contributed toward the powers of prophesy. In the early Celtic world the northern Gaelic word for dove is Cam which with Lann meant a sacred enclosure where pigeons/doves were kept. The later word Camlann sometimes meant dovecote.
The link between pigeon/dove and well-springs in ancient Gaul poses the question whether a similar association might have existed in Celtic Britain. It is known that Celtic speaking people had reached parts of Britain by the first millennium. The later arrival of Christianity created what one writer has described as an ‘extraordinary symbiosis’ between it and the earlier religion which it superseded. This explains why so many abbeys, chapels and parish churches have been erected on the site of scared well-springs. Today for example at York Minster there is what is called a draw-well in the eastern part of the crypt. Legend holds that King Edwin was baptised there in 627. Another unusual link with Yorkshire is recorded by R.C. Hope in his work “The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England” (1893) concerns the ancient well-spring of St Farmin a Bowes, Yorkshire (N. Riding). It is believed to be named after the French bishop of Usez in Languedoc; legend suggests that it had been dedicated to him by the Norman clergy who had settled there as chaplains at the castle shortly after the conquest.
The publication of several works in the past century on the subject of wells and springs particularly in Ireland, Wales and Cornwall brings the hope that information might be gleaned concerning the role of the pigeon/dove. In Ireland there are believed to have been 3000 holy wells of which 200 were recently visited and recorded. The majority are named after local saints and linked with pilgrimages to the site and the custom of throwing votive offerings into the water. Since earliest times the use of water for baptism, even in the open air, has been recorded. Well-springs were believed to predict the future, grant wishes and offer cures and occasionally bring curses. Offerings made include a wide variety of objects including pins (also bent ones), coins, buttons, buckles, flowers, cups, semi-precious stones, birds (skeletal remains found) and sometimes animals. Occasionally walking sticks and crutches were left behind, presumably in gratitude for a cure. There is an unusual account of the spring found under a wall at Checkley in Staffordshire. Apparently the flow of water sometimes brings up the bones of small birds described as sparrows or chickens. Could they have been pigeons/doves? Long before the rite of baptism had become established in Christianity, the sprinkling of water or even immersion at well-spring sites had been common practice. Even today it occasionally takes place in the open-air as for example at Charlecombe parish church near Bath.
Saint Columba of Ireland also called Saint Columcille and known as ‘Dove of the church’ was one of the most revered saints in the country. He was ordained a priest and established several monasteries in Kells and Derry but he later crossed the sea and founded the monastery at Iona sometimes called the ‘Isle of the Dove’. It was here that the monks created the Book of Kells which was once described symbolically as a work representing the human soul in flight liberated from earthly ties and having the ability to see spiritual communication with the heavens. This was qualified with a mention of the Dove of Peace. The legendary sixth century Saint Columba the virgin of Cornwall is known in legend and probably of pre-Celtic origin at a time when goddesses were more commonly worshipped.
In Wales the so-called Lord Penryhn’s well-spring near Betws-y-Coed was founded originally by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, to give safety, rest and refreshment to visit pilgrims in Wales. It was later known as Pistyll-y-Llan the parish fountain and finally adopted its present name in 1864 at the time of the wealthy Lord Penryh of Penryh castle. He established a model hospital in the village to care for the local workers, presumably following the example of the original Knights Hospitallers who together with the Knights Templar were founded in the 11th century in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. Both these orders were linked with the pigeon/dove. An offshoot of the Knights Hospitaller order was moved to Malta in 1530. Their symbol was the Maltese Cross and the dove.
Another well-spring founded by the Order is to be found at Muswell Hill, Middlesex at a site behind Alexandra Palace. It was originally used for the care of lepers. Legend relates that Robert Bruce was granted access to me waters to cure his leprosy by the King of England.
The ancient custom of well-dressing was common in northern parts, of Britain, particularly Derbyshire. Dating from the days of Greece and Rome when it was possibly linked with the goddess Flora whose birthday was celebrated at her shrines with floral displays. Today boards plastered with clay are decorated with leaves and flowers often arranged in elaborate designs. A fine example at Mill Green Way, Clowne in Derbyshire depicts the Baptism of Christ with the dove above.
It has been interesting to discover symbolic links, both past and present, between well-springs of the pigeon/dove. However, it is disappointing that nothing comparable with the finds in Gaul in Celtic times, particularly those relating to the Dove-Deity of Alesia, have been traced. These remain elusive, but it is hoped that further searches will reveal a more direct connection.
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