We’ve all been there. You’re down at the mall, or walking through a park, and you come upon the sound of splashing water. You dig through your pocket change to see what coins you’re willing to part with, and you smile as you throw good money into the water and make a wish. You smile and head off on your way, musing that you could have just as easily put that coin in your savings, or took a few of them and bought a cup of coffee. Why did you throw it into the well? The answer goes back very, very far.
Perhaps the earliest confirmed wishing well was in ancient Rome. When unearthed, the waters were filled with coins from all over the globe and by various makes, but just like modern wells the coins were low value, bronze and copper that was the equivalent of a pittance. Why did the Romans throw the coins into the waters? To invoke the spirit of the goddess that watched over those waters and who could if she wanted grant wishes and look out for the fates of those who gave her offerings.
It sounds overly simple, but water is a powerful symbol throughout religion, Abrahamic and pagan. The waters were created before land in the Bible, Excalibur came from a deep and powerful lake, and the ancient Vikings knew well to fear the oceans where things moved in the deep that were best not provoked. Water is the bringer of life, and it was considered one of the main elements in European and Asian alchemy. Even specific wells had important parts to play in many mythologies, such as the well of wisdom where the heathen god Odin sacrificed his eye for visions of wisdom, or the wells in Celtic Ireland that were watched over by the goddess Brigid of the Tuatha De Danann that were supposed to bring healing and relief to the sick if offerings were made.
It’s not that much of a stretch, if you think about it. Ritual, by its very nature, comes from belief. And even though the old myths and religions were replaced with the newer myths and religions, brought through by crusaders like Saint Patrick, the customs and rituals often stayed the same and were passed down from one generation to the next. So while it might seem silly to beg a well for some good luck, keep in mind that people just like you have been trying to buy good fortune with pocket change for hundreds of years.
“Wishing Well History,” by Anonymous at Garden Statue Shop
“Brigid, Celtic Goddess of Fire,” by Anonymous at Goddess Gift
“Wishing Wells,” by Lauren Tabila, James Green, Jonathan Kwok, Kara Thurn and Meagan Maclaughlin at UCI