by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe


Water is a primordial element which underlay creation myths and stories around the world. The Egyptian Heliopolitan creation story recounts that the sun-god Atum (Re) reposed in the primordial ocean (Nun).


In Assyro-Babylonian mythology, first the gods and subsequently all beings arose from the fusion of salt water (Tiamat) and sweet water (Apsu). The holy books of the Hindus explain that all the inhabitants of the earth emerged from the primordial sea.

At the beginning of the Judeo-Christian story of creation, the spirit of God is described as stirring above the waters, and a few lines later, God creates a firmament in the midst of the waters to divide the waters (Genesis 1:1-6). In the Koran are the words We have created every living thing from water.

Water divinities of various kinds appear in the mythologies of many cultures. And not surprisingly, the world abounds in sacred springs, rivers, and lakes. Even within the Judeo-Christian tradition, which generally avoids the veneration of the various phenomena of Nature, there are numerous examples of sacred springs or wells, and rivers. In most cases, the spring or river has acquired sacredness through connection with a significant or miraculous event. The water of the River Jordan is sacred because Jesus Christ was baptized in it by Saint John the Baptist. The spring at Lourdes is sacred because of its healing properties in connection with the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette. In some cases, such as the holy well at Chartres, or the Chalice Well at Glastonbury were probably already sacred in pagan times.

While sacred in their own right, sacred springs also draw attention to the sacredness of water itself, reminding the Christian, for example, that water is a symbol of grace (and as such is used for baptism). Water is also one of the four elements possessing fundamental characteristics. In the Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis of Assisi praises God for water: Praised be Thou, O Lord, for sister water, who is very useful, humble, precious, and chaste. In many cultures, water appears as a reflection or an image of the soul. In Japan, water prefigures the purity and pliant simplicity of life. It can be both calm and animated, and the Japanese may contemplate the unruffled surface of a temple pond or make pilgrimages to waterfalls. The lotus-stream of the Buddha or Boddhisattva rises up from the waters of the soul, in the same way the spirit, illumined by knowledge, frees itself from passive existence.

In India, the sacred River Ganges embodies for Hindus the water of life. Bathing in the Ganges frees the bather from sin, the outward purification serving as symbolic support of inward purification. The source of the Ganges lies in the Himalayas, the mountains of the Gods, and descends to the plains of India as if from Heaven.

The identification of the sources of rivers, streams, springs, and wells as sacred is very ancient. Springs and wells were perceived as the dwelling place of supernatural beings, and stories and legends grew up around them. Often it was claimed that the waters healed the injured or cured the sick with the result that well or stream came to be regarded as a sacred shrine. The Roman philosopher Seneca declared that Where a spring rises or a water flows there ought we to build altars and offer sacrifices. This was frequently undertaken.

In some cases wells or streams were oracular. Pausanias (VII, 21. 11) reports that a sacred stream in front of the
sanctuary of Demeter at Patras served as an infallible mode of divination using a mirror. Wells and springs inhabited by spirits with the gift of prophecy were places of pilgrimage. The Celts venerated natural springs of water for their sacred and medicinal value and many examples of holy wells are known, many of them were later Christianized through rededication to a saint. This practice of venerating sacred wells continued into the Christian era in the West, though they were now referred to as wishing wells.

Springs and wells also took the form of sacred fountains which were claimed to be the Fountain of Youth, or the Fountain of Immortality, or the Well of Knowledge. A Fountain of Youth was believed to exist in the newly-discovered Americas, and the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Léon set out in 1513 on an expedition to find it in Florida. In China, the water of the fountain at Pon Lai was believed to confer a thousand lives on those who drink it, according to Wang Chia, writing in the Chin Dynasty (265-420 AD), and a similar reputation was attached to the springs of Mount Lao Shan.

Wells and springs were often associated with a god or goddess and the sacred water dispensed there could ensure life, health, and abundance. The Babylonian moon goddess, Ishtar, was associated with sacred springs, and her temples were often situated in natural grottoes from which springs emanated. Sacred springs were enshrined by the Ancient Greeks who erected artificial basins and placed icons of the deity or deities nearby. Goddesses and nymphs were connected with certain rivers, springs, and wells by the Celts and Romans. Often the river was named after the goddess, such as the Shannon River, after Sinann, and the Boyne, after Boann, in Ireland, and the Seine, after Sequana, in Gaul (France). In 1963, at the
Gallo-Roman Fontes Sequanae sanctuary at the source of the Seine, 200 wooden figures were excavated carved from the heart wood of oak to represent all or part of the human body (heads, limbs, trunks; with internal organs carved in relief on wooden plaques). These ex votos indicate that the goddess of the sacred spring was believed capable of curing a whole range of infirmities.

A special sacred significance was attached to springs and wells whose waters could heal. In the New Testament, St. John (5:2) describes the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, surrounded by five covered colonnades, where a great number of disabled people used to lie -- the blind, the lame, the paralyzed waiting to be the first to enter the pool when the water is stirred. When in the mid-19th century soon after Bernadette's vision of the Virgin Mary, the water issuing from
the grotto at Lourdes began to bring about cures in people, the spring was designated a place of miracles.

From these underground sources also bubbled forth mineral water which could be imbibed or bathed in to effect cures. Later, these springs became baths and spas. The hot (120 degree Fahrenheit / 46.5 degrees Celsius) mineral springs at Bath in England were already being used 7000 years ago. The Celts subsequently established a shrine there dedicated to Sulis, and later the Romans built on the same spot a temple to Sulis Minerva (and renamed the town Aquae Sulis).

The Romans also developed other mineral springs. In Germany the waters at Aquae Aureliae became the famous spa of Baden-Baden (bath bath). In 218 CE, after defeating the Romans, Hannibal and his armies stopped to imbibe the waters at Perrier in the south of France. The water at Evians-les-Bains, on the southern side of Lake Geneva, was discovered in ancient times; in 363 CE, the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Jovianus stopped there on his way to Germany. The natural spring waters at Evians-les-Bains are marketed today as Evian. The waters at San Pellegrino in Lombardy in northern Italy have been known since Roman times. Rediscovered in the 12th century, one of the famous pilgrims (pellegrino means pilgrim) who came to take the waters there was Leonardo da Vinci.


The spa was established there in 1848, and bottling of the water begun in 1899.