Originally written on March 2, 2021. Updated 2023
Of Norse origin, Ceadda was a deity connected to sacred, healing and underground waters and therefore also to springs and wells.
Historians have not yet come to the conclusion whether Ceadda was a god or a goddess, although many favor the latter hypothesis, given the main attributes connected to the chthonic sphere and healing waters.
Later she passed into the Celtic pantheon and here her symbol became the Crann Bethadh, that is, the Tree of Life. The tree ideally connected the underground world with the celestial one and its roots drew nourishment from the waters kept underground.
For this reason, Ceadda was syncretized in Saint Chad Abbot of Lastingham, Bishop of Mercia (which is celebrated today, on March 2) and patron saint of holy wells.
It was said that the saint spent whole nights immersed in the waters of the wells in meditation.
In honor of Ceadda, on this day the wells were cleaned and decorated with flowers and particular attention was paid to the behavior of the birds because it was considered prophetic.
Maybe you don’t know that there are thousands of holy wells in the British Isles, and some areas of the country have more than others. Over a hundred holy wells exist in Cornwall, for example.
They are usually associated with healing, either generally, or for specific ailments, such as rickets but also infertility was a common reason for visiting some wells and others were visited by people wanting to know the future, such as girls wanting to know who they would marry.
A female oracle was often associated with a well.
While many holy wells date back to pagan times, often they became Christinaised and associated with saints or the Virgin Mary.
Usually healing or future visions were only granted if people visited at the right time and performed the right ritual before bathing in or drinking their waters. You would also have to approach the well from a particular direction and walk around it a certain number of times, often in silence.
However, some of the requirements could be quite macabre: in some places, the water had to be drunk out of a human Skull or a special cup made from a human skull.
For example, Llandeilo in Dyfed, Wales, the waters had to be drunk from the skull of Saint Teilo, the titular saint of the ruined church in which the well was located.
It was common also to leave an offering behind, including coins and pins.
At some wells, a piece of rag would be tied nearby, often to a tree and the idea here was often that as the rag rotted, the disease would go away.
Another belief about holy wells was that they were entrances to the other world. As such they would have guardians, often a fish of some kind.
In the waters of Ffynnon Gybi (Gwyneth, North Wales) it was an Eel and it was believed that if it came and coiled around the patient’s legs, the request for healing had been granted, and if it didn’t, they stayed sick.
In any case, the healing properties of wells may not be entirely down to superstition, as some wells actually do have healing properties because of the minerals in them.
Many British villages still hold annual well dressing ceremonies where the wells are decorated with flower petals, leaves, berries, moss, feathers, seeds and cones, sometimes arranged into pictures of Biblical scenes.