Water and Liminality

In the following article, the liminality of water will be explored and related to Fyrnsidu-specific application. Prior to this, it may be of some service to the reader to explain what liminality means.

Liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning ‘threshold’ or ‘doorway’. Liminal is that which occupies the transitional space at a boundary or threshold[1]. Geographically speaking, bridges, springs, crossroads, caves and rivers possess liminal characteristics and function as a gateway to new or different locations[2].  When one enters the mouth of a cave, they are leaving the outside behind and entering a dark, subterranean world and when one crosses a bridge, there is a clear distinction between the area of origin and the destination.

Liminality transcends geography and can also be used to describe transitions in time or status, with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day being a prime example of a liminal period between two distinct years.  Likewise, the period of twilight represents a liminal period between day and night.

States of liminality are not necessarily held exclusively by periods of time, but also by certain beings, who are also considered ‘between’, or liminal in nature.  Ancestral spirits occupy space both here and not here, simultaneously.  Deities who are psychopomps – those that are guides to the departed dead – too are liminal, as they traverse both the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.  Among the quintessential liminal Gods in antiquity are Janus, the Roman God of doors and thresholds, and Hecate, the Greek Goddess of the crossroads.

With this basic understanding of liminality we can now explore the historical qualities of liminality in water.

Native British Examples

Even in the most mundane way, water possesses qualities of liminality, as its surface divides terra firma from the aquatic realm. Water’s liminal aspect was not lost on ancient peoples, and water-sites are among the most common locations of deposited votive offerings into rivers, lakes, bogs and wells. Finds throughout Celtic-speaking Europe suggest a widespread belief in water as a gateway to the ‘Otherworld’. This belief seems to predate the Celtic expansion, as many of the offerings stretch back as far as  the late Bronze Age[3]. Aquatic British finds are particularly common, with the river Thames being the site of several notable discoveries. The Waterloo Helmet, the Battersea Shield and the Wandsworth Shield were all dredged from the Thames and appear to have been placed deliberately as votive offerings.

In Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, a timber circle named “Seahenge” was discovered in what was once a salt marsh and is dated to the 21st century BCE. It consisted of a timber enclosure with a centrally located tree stump. This stump had been purposely flipped upside down, exposing the roots to the sky where the tree would have otherwise been, symbolically growing into the water and earth. Although Seahenge’s purpose is debated, Francis Pryor suggests that the upturned tree likely acted as an axis-mundi, a sacred centre which connected the terrestrial realm of the living to the aquatic realm of the dead[4]. This idea is found elsewhere in ancient religious symbolism, where trees, pillars and mountains were perceived as sacred centres and provided a means of communicating with the divine[5].

Another site which is suggestive of a native British belief in water-as-threshold, is Aquae Sulis. Located in what is now Bath, Somerset, Aquae Sulis was home to a thermal spring which locals believed possessed curative powers.  During the first century BCE, Aquae Sulis and the surrounding area was ruled by a Celtic tribe called the Dobunni who believed the spring was sacred to the Goddess, Sulis and made offerings to her in placation[6].  This practice continued into the Romano-British period, where Sulis was syncretised with Minerva.  Approximately 130 tablets have been found in the sacred spring of Sulis which petition the Goddess to exact curses on behalf of her devotees[7]. The curse requests range from disruption of a good night’s sleep, to bodily harm and eventual death.

While votive offerings left in bodies of water, holy wells and other aquatic cults can be found throughout the British Isles, this phenomenon is most pronounced in Wales. The Anglesey Hoard, found at Llyn Cerrig Bach, is easily one of the most impressive water deposits ever found in the United Kingdom.  Hidden within the peat were swords, spears, daggers, scabbards, shields, chariot harnesses and fittings, animal bones, two bronze cauldrons, a trumpet, iron chains and bars used for currency[8]. This shows a clear continuum of practice and suggests a liminal regard for water that was widespread throughout the Isles.

While this does not constitute the totality of water-related deposits or lore found in either Wales, England, Scotland or Ireland, it is beyond the scope of this article to cover the plethora of sites and folklore in-depth. Suffice to say, the aforementioned examples are not isolated incidences and are suggestive of a larger, widespread cult practice that has existed in Britain for millennia prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons.

Southern Scandinavian and Germanic Examples

Water being viewed as a threshold to the ‘other’ is not restricted to Celtic-speaking people, or proto-Celtic areas, however.  A number of deposits have been found in Denmark, which suggest a shared conception of liminality.  Peat bogs in particular seem to have held a special significance and votive deposits appear to stretch as far back as the Neolithic period.  Ceramic vessels filled with food, sacrificial animal remains and axe-heads were counted among those things deposited in Danish bodies of water. Pots containing foodstuffs were  typically found in open bodies of water, whereas the ritual deposition of axe-heads seems isolated to peat bogs[9].  The Bronze Age saw an upsurge in ritual depositions of a more refined type. The lurs, discovered in 1797 at Brudevælte Mose in northern Zealand, exemplify the grandiose deposits associated with Bronze Age peat bog finds[10].

The period directly preceding the Roman Iron Age and the Iron Age itself had their share of peat bog deposits. Zealand is a place of particular importance to this study, as there are a number of scholars, including Chadwick and Davidson, who believe Zealand was the site where Tacitus’ account of Nerthuz occurred. In his Germania, Tacitus describes Nerthuz, an Earth-Mother deity worshipped by the Suebic tribes. In his account, the Goddess’s likeness makes its rounds on a wagon and during this period, men do not take up arms, instead feasting and rejoicing in her presence. At the very end of his account, things take a less joyous turn as Tacitus describes the ritual washing of her effigy by slaves, who are subsequently drowned as sacrifices[11]. This piece of evidence is of particular importance, as Tacitus lists the ‘Anglii’ (the Angles) among the tribes who worshipped Nerthuz.  Considering the Angles were among the three predominant Germanic tribes who settled post-Roman Britain, it is possible this idea of water-as-gateway traveled with them.

In terms of distinctly Anglo-Saxon examples, we have little to work with. Though we are lacking in the votive deposits common in pre-Germanic Britain and southern Scandinavia, we can still observe like ideas in Beowulf.

In Beowulf, the water plays a key role in dividing the land of living men from Grendel’s aquatic underworld. According to Lecouteux, Grendel fits all of the criteria of being a revenant. Grendel emerges from the fens and marshes, is larger and weighs more than any man, devours the living and emerges at night.The fact that Beowulf also feels the need to decapitate Grendel after he is already dead also fits with European revenant lore. Lecouteux draws parallels between this idea of the dead returning from the marshes and Tacitus’ earlier account of criminals being cast into bogs as punishment or as sacrifice.

Discoveries of cadavers in the peat bogs of Jutland and northern Germany confirm this fact and show that the return of these dead men was particularly dreaded. Out of the twenty-one bodies collected at these sites, four had been impaled inside the pit, four others may well have been, and one had its head shattered and wrapped in linen[12].

This idea of the dead emerging from bogs and marshes is suggestive of a belief in water as a gateway and, as Lecouteux rightly points out, may have travelled with the Anglo-Saxons from their former home on the Danish peninsula.

Grendel’s Mother’s lair is also found at the bottom of a lake and as such, Beowulf must penetrate the surface in order to reach her realm. This realm is referenced as ‘ælwihta eard’, or all-creatures land, which suggests it is dark, paranormal place, apart from the land of living men[13]. Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s Mother, which takes place beneath the surface of the lake, adheres to the physics of fighting on land. This too is suggestive of an alternate reality reached through a watery threshold. It takes the titular hero the better part of a day to reach the bottom of the lake – a lake which we might conclude is actually the Underworld. 

As with Grendel, Grendel’s Mother cannot be harmed with conventional iron weaponry, a common trait in revenant lore. Only with the assistance of an heirloom sword, ealdsweord eotenisc , or “the work of giants”, is he able to decapitate Grendel’s Mother and win the day.

Post-Conversion Survivals

Now that we have covered, albeit briefly, pre-Christian examples of water liminality, we can move onto post-conversion survivals. Surprisingly, after the adoption of Christianity, the practice of well and spring worship did not cease and was instead preserved through the worship of saints. Holy wells and sacred springs played an integral role in the hagiography of the saints, who acted as replacements for preexisting deities connected to those locations.  People still visit holy wells throughout the United Kingdom to benefit from their curative properties, leaving coins, pins and rags as votive offerings. This idea of do ut des via votive offerings can still be seen in the concept of ‘wishing wells’ and fountains, where pennies are offered in exchange for wishes granted by a supposed power which dwells in the water According to a study conducted by a marketing agency called, Teamspirit, one in five adults regularly throws change into wishing wells and fountains. According to their calculations, western people spend just under 3 million pounds sterling (3738000 USD) each year, which works out to 31 pence ( roughly 50 cents American) per person[14].

Another survival of importance is that of well dressing, as is practised in Derbyshire and Staffordshire into the modern era. While there is no consensus as to the origins of this particular tradition, there are those who suspect it began in pre-Christian times as a decorative offering to the Gods[15]. In well dressing, flower petals, beans, seeds, mosses, berries, lichen, bark  and small tree-cones are used to create mosaic images which are pasted onto wooden frames covered in a soft clay. The finished mosaic is then affixed to a particular well or spring, where the (typically Christian) images can be viewed by all in the community[16]. In A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Christina Hole provides a detailed description of well dressing and its possible origins.

Springs and wells have always been venerated, from exceedingly remote times onward, because water is a basic necessity of life, and to our forefathers it seemed a mysterious and spirit-haunted thing. A lively spring which brought fertility to the land where it flowed, and to men and beasts who depended upon that land, was once almost universally supposed to be the dwelling place of some powerful spirit to whom prayer and sacrifice were due.”

Water being considered awe inspiring and a separator of realities has not disappeared in modern times, instead evolving and flowing like the water itself.

Contemporary Fyrnsidu Praxis: A Conclusion


In this final section, we will attempt to tie the previously mentioned ideas of water liminality to contemporary Fyrnsidu practice.

In our explorations, we established that the conception of water-as-threshold was not limited to Celtic-speaking peoples, as is usually accepted by modern Heathens. The ancient people of Southern Scandinavia observed a similar practice and this practice appears to have followed their descendents as they migrated to England.

Considering the extent to which well and spring cults survived and flourished throughout the subsequent centuries, even in areas where the native British population were not known to have kept a foothold, we can posit that the Anglo-Saxon migrants either adopted the belief or had a shared belief in the liminality of water of their own.  

As modern practitioners, this leads to the question of how we can incorporate this belief into contemporary praxis. If we are to accept water as being the doorway to which the ‘other’ is accessed, then placing a prominent water deity in a liminal / chthonic role, akin to Roman Janus, would be most appropriate. In the theology of the Lārhūs’, Wada oversees all bodies of water, great and small. It is for this reason that we have placed him in a position of liminality, where he can be invoked at the beginning and end of each ritual as divine gatekeeper. Working in tandem with Frīg as hearth-Goddess, this role provides a much-needed service of intermediation on behalf of the devotee, where Wada is invoked to “open the gates” between our world and the next and Frīg ferries the offering to its intended recipients.

It is also obvious from the information gathered in this work, that votive offerings placed into bodies of water are indeed appropriate for the Fyrnsidu practitioner, especially when dealing with deities associated with liminality or the underworld.

In conclusion, liminality as it pertains to the water \ chthonic cults survived massive cultural changes and religious conversion in England. As such, it has been made an integral part of contemporary Fyrnsidu praxis according to the Lārhūs Fyrnsida and will continue to evolve and inform conceptions of liminality and the Underworld as we progress as a distinct religious expression.

seahenge2
Seahenge

[1]Oxford English Dictionary
[2] Joseph Henderson, in Jung 1978, 152
[3] Cunliffe, Barry (1997). The Ancient Celts. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 194.
[4]Britain B.C: Neolithic & Bronze Age henges, tombs and dwellings
[5] Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. pp.61-63, 173-175
[6] Cunliffe, Barry. The Roman Baths at Bath
[7] Wilson, Roger (1988). A guide to the Roman remains in Britain. p. 109.
[8]Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland, 1985
[9] Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe, Richard Bradley
[10]http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/the-lurs-of-the-bronze-age/the-lurs-from-brudevaelte/
[11] The Germania, Tacitus
[12]Lecouteux, Claude. The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind (2009). Inner Traditions International
[13]http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/iconic/GrendelesHeroicMother.htm#2
[14]http://uk.reuters.com/article/oukoe-uk-britain-wish-idUKL2825321520061130
[15] Christian, Roy (1976). The Peak District. British Topographical Series. David & Charles. pp. 206–7
[16] Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs

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