Advance ticket sales have ended but plenty of additional tickets remain available at the door.
Profs and Pints Nashville presents: “Holy Wells and Sacred Waters,” on the spiritual veneration of natural water sources as cure providers and portals to other worlds, with Celeste Ray, professor of anthropology at the University of the South in Sewanee and author of The Origins of Ireland’s Holy Wells.
Around the world and in every faith there exist wells, springs, and even ponds and lakes that are sites of religious devotion. Ireland stands out as having an exceptionally large number of “holy wells” firmly entrenched as part of the identity and traditions of the communities where they are found.
Join Professor Celeste Ray, an anthropologist who has conducted more than 20 years of fieldwork in Ireland and edited two books on sacred water sites, for a fascinating look at “holy wells” and other sacred water sources in Ireland and beyond.
She’ll discuss how such sites represent more than mere water sources. They’re believed to be guarded by taboos and supermundane forces and to serve as thresholds to grace. Their visitation requires rituals and prayers prescribed by organic folk practices rather than religious authorities.
Dr. Ray will describe how Irish “holy well” veneration fits into the broader global context of panhuman hydrolatry, or water worship. Then she’ll look at how certain water sources in Ireland came to be considered holy, and she’ll discuss how beliefs and practices connected with holy wells can be found across Ireland but also represent unique, local responses to the landscape of each well site. The sacred topography of a holy well might be bounded by other grace-inducing natural features such as trees and unusually shaped boulders, where prayers are also offered in a circuit. The supernatural patrons of wells are commonly “saints in the Irish tradition,” having never officially been canonized and in some cases being reimagined pagan figures connected to those particular places.
Many holy wells have "a cure" for a particular ailment and a storied role in Irish traditional medicine. You’ll learn how the ritual practices at such sites often actually encode folk science based on generations of local ecological knowledge, because chemicals that are the building blocks for many of today’s medicines can be found in the waters or the soils or plants that surround them.
More than 3,000 holy wells were documented in Ireland in the nineteenth century. While fewer survive today, even Dublin, the most urbanized county of Ireland, retains more than 100 such sites. In fact, holy wells are experiencing renewed popularity in Ireland's so-called “Post-Catholic” era. You’ll love drinking in knowledge about them. (Advance tickets: $13.50 plus sales tax and processing fees. Doors: $17, or $15 with a student ID. Listed time is for doors. Talk starts 30 minutes later.)
Image: A “holy well” in Clondrohid, Count Cork. (Photo by Celeste Ray.)