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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Contribution to the Study of Well-Service on the Lower Rhine



The author points out the universal custom of well-worship among primitive races, and gives reasons to show that it was an essential part of divine service among the ancient Teutons. Reference is had to the prominent place occupied in Germanic mythology by the great fountains from which the waters of the world flow, more particularly the fountain of Urd, the greatest of the three Norns (fates), who sat at the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil, and took part in the daily moots of the gods at that place. This spring survives in folk-lore, as in the tale of the well which a youth watched who found that whatever dropped into the water turned to gold.

The worship of wells continued after the conversion of the race to Christianity, being in many cases utilized in the familiar way by the priests of the new faith, and the wells consecrated to saints of the church in place of the old gods. The character of the worship of these wells appears from various ordinances by sovereigns during the middle ages, limiting or prohibiting it, and clearly shows its ancient heathen nature, down to the year 1669. It consisted in divinations, vows, sacrifices, prayers, etc.

The author enumerates several springs in Bergen and Hesse which although not known to possess any real healing powers are still held sacred by the common people, and surrounded by circles of myths and traditions.

Summing up his results, the author says:

"A thousand years of Christian culture were not sufficient to suppress the heathen remnants entirely, but the ancient heathendom of our forefathers reaches down into the present time. Most of the features which were mentioned as connected with the popular beliefs and customs regarding these wells are the remains, or Christian modifications, of a primeval heathen well-worship. That this worship concerned the wells themselves directly appears from the names among which the word "holy" occurs more frequently than any other. The waters of the wells were supposed to possess miraculous virtues to cure physical ailments, diseases, and epidemics. At certain times the water turns to wine. Excursions and pilgrimages are commonly made to these wells, and festivities held around them. Myths and legends cling to them, the children are believed to come from their depths, the waters are consulted about future events. Some fountains are credited with a miraculous origin. The imagination of the country folk peoples them with nixies and elves of either sex; but there are few stories of them, as they do not like to mingle with men, and generally do so to the disadvantage of the mortals. Next to the trees of the sacred forests, the wells springing from the mysterious depths of the earth enjoyed the highest worship among the ancient Teutons. The sacred fountain of Duisburg is the most prominent and best known of the holy waters of the lower Rhine region."