The history of tossing a coin into a well for love, for success, or for any desire, dates to proto-human nomadic times. In Africa, the cradle of humanity, natural water sources had associated spirits as far back into history as we can see.
As nomads, early hominids did not carry coins, but they traveled from water source to water source just like we do. It wasn’t long before the sources of water were ascribed deity status. Shrines and stories grew up around these waterholes.
In waves, ancient people migrated out of Africa to populate the earth, taking with them the traditions of the first hominids and humans. Migration to India, Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Americas led to the creation (or discovery) of new water spirits and deities.
Proto-humans marked the sight of springs, and spring-fed ponds as they migrated over the lands. Eventually, the wandering tribes attributed the purity of the water to a deity or spirit that resided within the water source. With the right offerings, these deities gave health through clean waters. Without the right offerings, they took lives by illness, downing, or drying up.
In order to appease these powerful beings, the people paid in coins, food, art, and other offerings, sometimes with the bodies of their enemies. Mythologies relay the stories of water diety offerings.
- Odin, the Nordic All-Father, gave his right eye to the god of wisdom who lives in the well beneath the tree of life named Mimir. In response Mimir gave Odin the knowledge of why things must be the way they must be.
- Mami Wata is relatively new combination of many water spirits in African countries. She is a manatee/mermaid/human. The modern diety Mami Wata likes food, drink, perfume, and jewelry – in exchange for wealth and feritility.
- Bronze Age Proto-Germanic tribes worshipped Nerthus. A Mother Earth diety, she came to visit her people through lakes, ponds, springs and wells. Her arrival indicated a period of peace, and her departure required the sacrifice of drowned men.
- The YawkYawk of Australia are shapeshifting mermaids that live in springs and wells. They accept offerings and if appeased, have the power to bring gentle rains or, if unhappy, they bring damaging storms.
- The Taíno people of the Caribbean worshipped Atabey, goddess of fresh water sources, sea tides, and fertility. Lack of proper worship would result in hurricaines.
- Tethys was the Greek Titan diety of fresh water and breastfeeding. She gave protection in exchange for offerings at the beginning of things; weddings, lives, ventures and journeys.
The histories of freshwater deities predate agriculture and cross every political line drawn on a map. Eventually, the freshwater sources were surrounded by cities and towns. Then humanity learned how to dig, and later, drill wells. These wells were (and are) just as important to modern humans as the old wells were to our ancient ancestors.
The types of expected offerings evolved over time, to include the offering of coins. Much early coinage was made of copper and silver. These metals (in sufficient quantities) would provide protective antiseptic or more specifically biocidal effects on the micro-organisms living in freshwater. The act of throwing coins into the well would indeed be beneficial, thus reinforcing the tradition.
Worship changed to wishing as faiths of the Book, and then Science grew to cover most of the modern world. The wishing well, or fountain that we throw coins into is a long shadow of an ancient practice.
If, this Valentine’s Day, you find yourself making a wish at a wishing well, think of all the humans and all the centuries of tradition that made your wish possible.
See you next time on Pendant and Ring.