Wells, springs, water… life. Wells are not like rainwater tanks. They don’t collect and preserve water.
Wells provide access to moving water, to a spring, to clean, drinking water – life giving water.
Before the invention of centralised water supplies that bring water straight into our houses, the people needed to go and fetch water from a river or a well.
In many countries, people still have to get water from wells – the wells are a crucial source of life and survival. The ones who are to fetch the water from the wells are usually the women.
When we immerse ourselves into Germanic history and traditions, we will find out that the village or town wells have been the central point of people’s lives until the 20th century.
If a disease spread within the community, somebody was blamed for poisoning the well.
Fetching water from the wells was the task of the women. As drawing and carrying the water was considered a task for young, strong women, the wells were a location where women met. That’s where they exchanged their news and would have found the fellowship that was so important in a life that consisted mainly of hard physical work. While standing at the wells, they would chat with their friends and dream of a better future.
There was also the belief that the powerful Norns (Germanic goddesses) spin the threads of fate at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of the world, and at wells or other sources of fresh water.
Today, when you want to meet someone in Germany and you don’t know exactly where to meet, you say that you meet at the well. This might not work in modern settlements, but certainly in medieval towns. In some areas, the well has a specific name. In Bamberg, for example, the meeting place at the well is called “Gablemo” (= the man with the fork). This name refers to the statue of Neptune, the Roman god of fresh water – whose huge statue stands in the centre of the town well to protect the water.
During Christmas and Easter, the wells in some parts of Germany are decorated according to the different seasons of the year. People sit around the well, and whereas it used to be a meeting place for young women who were drawing water, it has become a meeting place for people of all ages.
According to ancient Germanic belief, the well was seen as a place of fate and of future. If a small child died, the child would return to the mother deity. The journey of return went through a well.
The well as a gate to the future, is featured in fairy tales published by the Brothers Grimm.
In one of the fairy tales, Mother Holle decides on reward or punishment – and she is so powerful that she even controls the weather as she decides when it would snow.
The way to Mother Holle’s world leads through a well. The girls in the fairy tale were made to jump into the well which surprisingly didn’t bring death but opened up to a new world, surreal but at the same time with fair judgements. A world of tests that would decide their fate.
Without water, there is no life. Water that moves, living water is at the centre of our lives – and so are the wells in the traditional villages, towns, cities and castles. As a meeting place for people in times of organised water-supplies, the wells still contribute to life, nourishment and future – simply by connecting people with one another.
My thoughts go to Jesus meeting “The Woman at the Well” and promising her “living water”…
BM © 2022