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