Clootie wells and trees: Ancient celtic places of purification

Now that both my Iron Warrior novels are out, it’s time to talk about one of the themes that runs through them–the idea of defilement and purification.

In Warrior, Ride Hard one of the protagonists–Wynn, a young trainer of wild ponies–is beset by druids who are bent on defiling him along with other men they have captured and drugged. In plain language, the druids are intent on raping him as they have abused other captive men.

(Please note that I am not intent on disparaging the druids. My story is just that–a story. No one knows about the personal lives of those long-ago priests, and so I have exercised “poetic license” to tell a compelling story about individuals, not about a group of people.)

Wynn is bent over the sides of a sacred well by two malevolent druids. He escapes, but not until he is convinced that the high king’s two chief druids, Loch and Lucet, have assaulted him while he is unconscious. In the following novel Warrior, Stand Tall, Wynn seeks out the place of his defilement–the sacred hill of Tara–along with a few friends who are there to help him seek justice. But Wynn doesn’t want justice. He wants to be cleansed of what he feels is a deep disease, or inner contamination.

I’d like to talk about the healing and purification, through the means of the clootie well and the clootie tree.

This is not the only instance in my books where I bring up the clootie well and the clootie tree. In The Wakening Fire, the crippled Owen Sweeney MacNeill is taken to the sacred well each month by his loving wife, where she seeks to bathe his ruined legs in the holy waters. Later in that same novel, Owen is taken to sacred waters at Cloudy (Clóidigh) near Derry to bathe his legs. Later still, Caylith brews a “gruit,” or special herbal mix for Owen, using the branches of the hawthorn as well as other plants growing around the well.

In Wynn’s mind, the way to cleanse himself is through the common means of a clootie well, a well filled with water sacred to a spirit or a local goddess. For centuries, folks throughout the celtic world would cleanse a diseased or malformed part of their body in the sacred water. After the advent of Christianity, when the wells’ spirit was transposed to a saint or other religious figure, the wells became the focus of folk pilgrimages.

The word “clootie” or “clougthie” is actually Scotttish Gaelic meaning “cloth” or  “clothing.”

The tradition of dipping rags or cloths into sacred water is apparently a very old one found throughout modern celtic locales–Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales, and other places. Those seeking purification would dip a strip of cloth in the water, then apply it to the affected body part. After hanging the cloth on a nearby tree–in Ireland, usually a hawthorn–they would leave it to the elements. They believed that by the time the sun had bleached it and the passage of time had cleaned it, the part of the body it had touched would be cured by the attendant spirit or goddess.

Usually, the wells one sees today are adorned with Christian crosses, and there are areas designated for pilgrims to leave tokens. Originally, however, the wells were probably declared “holy of holies” by some attendant druid or representative of  the spirit that watched over the  healing waters.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

The well pictured here is from a site called Madron in Cornwall. The large cross, called the Boswarthen Cross, is located nearby.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

There are scores of sacred wells throughout the countries commonly called “celtic.” But sadly, many of them are beginning to disappear–usually through the ignorance of people, but often enough because of the lack of local laws preserving such precious sites from urban development.

An example of such desecration is the recent complete ruin of the Well of St. Brigid in Co. Dublin, Ireland, razed to make way for a building work. An article in Wikipedia mentions the destruction of such a well at Rath Lugh in the Tara-Skyrne Valley of Ireland that has recently been razed during the construction of a motorway.

The tree where the cloths were hung is known as a “clootie tree,” always located at or near the well itself. Both the wells and trees are seen to this day throughout celtic locales, especially in Scotland, but also in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and other parts of Britain. I mentioned that in Ireland, the sacred trees were commonly hawthorns, long thought of as sacred; in Scotland and other places, Wikipedia mentions that the sacred trees are usually whitethorn, though sometimes ash.

It is noteworthy that right up to the present moment, there are “clootie” trees throughout the celtic world. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see trees from apple to oak festooned with cloth, paper tags, even religious and other icons. There is even a modern offshoot of the clootie tree called a “wish tree,” sometimes seen as “wytch tree,” whereon one hangs good wishes for the future and other signs of luck. Students of religion will no doubt see similarities to India’s sacred Bodhi tree, and even to our modern Christmas tree.

Although I have not seen any sources that make the specific connection, I see the ancient “celtic tree” motif in the clootie tree. The motif, common nowadays in celtic design, seem to be an archetypal symbol of the tree of life. The hanging of cloths–and later, yarn, pieces of paper, even shoes and neckties–seems to reflect a universal human longing for the connection between our souls and the trees whose deep roots wind through the earth itself.

Below, I list the links to the works I have mentioned in this article. The last one (Warrior, Stand Tall) was published Sept. 5 and is available at a 15% discount for a limited time.

The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

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10 thoughts on “Clootie wells and trees: Ancient celtic places of purification

    • Kim, I think you almost have to live in the rural area of some of these places to know about them. I know you’re of Irish heritage, and probably some of the older members of your family have heard of clootie trees or clootie wells. But I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of them! Thank for the visit today.

  1. My Cornish grandfather’s name was Wells–it’s my maiden name–and I would like to think his Celtic ancestors lived beside just such a well. And then he married my Irish grandmother whose maiden name meant “Son of a Druid.” Is it any wonder I’m strongly attracted to such places? So this was of great interest to me.

    • Ah, Miriam, ye’re a spirit-woman come to scratch out me eyes for saying bad things about the druids….In all seriousness, I’m hoping on your upcoming trip to Ireland you’ll ask about some of these places, and even see one of the sacred wells/trees. Take a picture, and I’ll add it to this blog. What do you think about the connection between clootie trees and the celtic tree of life?

      • I think the whole elemental concept of trees–their roots sunk into the Earth, drinking its knowledge–was so sacred to the druids that we feel that power even in our times. Do you remember Trago the Alcinic healer in The King’s Daughter freaking out the General’s sister by eating mushrooms or whatever he did and then conferring with the trees? So, too, my ancestors in all likelihood. I’m told I spoke to trees when I was very small, though I don’t remember it. I believe the tree of life was simply that–the symbol of this life or any other. It was all the same to the druids. Nothing was ever lost, only changed, just as the water of the earth became the leaves that sheltered it. A very simple concept, really, yet so profound it represented an entire civilization.

  2. Very well said, Miriam. I’ve been meaning to look more deeply into the druidic tree of life and attendant mythic subjects. Maybe we can work together on a blog for your CelticRose site? I’ve found some lovely and compelling art, and you can no doubt suggest some sources of info. Let’s talk about it, now that neither of us have a second of time to do it! :-D

  3. Good afternoon, Erin, and my thanks for an interesting post.
    (Well, afternoon for ME at this moment!)
    On one of my ‘research trips’ in the ancient Kingdom of Tara I [almost literally] stumbled across a well smack in the centre of the location of my yarn. Tradition says that Patrick performed several miracles there, and from the number of ‘clooties’ hung on nearby bushes (and a considerable number of “coins in the fountain”) it was pretty obvious to me that people still take such things seriously.

    In another (totally unrelated) work I’m currently editing, the central character is a “Healer woman” who used medicines distilled from plants to cure people.

    • A mo chara Paul,
      I’d say good afternoon to you, too, but it’s evening there in Liverpool! It’s interesting that you were close to Tara when you discovered that well, because I put my own literary well right there on the sacred hill and surrounded it with a circe of sacred hawthorn trees. I know that these days people hang any kind of cloth–handkerchief, necktie, sock–on trees and bushs nearby. Part of it, I think, is the urge to leave part of ourselves near a sacred or healing site. Another deep need is older–like the urge to throw coins in a well or fountain–and that is the urge to ask intervention from a higher power.

      The subject of “white witches” who heal, and the whole area of plant healing is one I, too, am fascinated with. Now there’s a subject as old as mankind. As usual, Paul, I am happy to see you making that long trip from the UK all the way here to Texas. Tráthnóna . . . G’night to you, Erin

    • I thought maybe you’d seen some, Pat. You’re such a superb photographer that I’m going to ask you to send me a pic via FB if you ever find a clootie well or clootie tree on one of your sojourns to the UK. Thanks for your ongoing interest in this blog. :-) Erin

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