Sacred waters: A cross-cultural compendium of hallowed springs and holy wells (Ray, 2020)

Aaron T. Wolf

HD Ray, C. (Ed). 2020. Sacred waters: A cross-cultural compendium of hallowed springs and holy wells. New York & Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 9780367445133, 416 p., £36.99.


Aaron T. Wolf

Professor of Geography, Oregon State University;


To cite this review: Wolf, A.T. 2021. Review of "Sacred waters: A cross-cultural compendium of hallowed springs and holy wells", Routledge, 2020, edited by Celeste Ray, Water Alternatives,


I have a strong suspicion, based on my 30+ years in the field, that most water people believe at some level that there is magic in water. We see this manifestation whether we are explicit about our beliefs (nodding knowingly about water’s role in spiritual transformation worldwide) or not (referring rather to its “intangible” attributes). If ever we needed academic confirmation of both the breadth and depth of water’s transcendent attributes, we find it in Celeste Ray’s comprehensive edited volume, Sacred Waters: A Cross-Cultural Compendium of Hallowed Springs and Holy Wells (New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2020).

Ray is a Professor of Environmental Arts & Humanities and Anthropology at The University of the South, USA. She is trained in cultural anthropology, ecological anthropology, and archaeology, and her work spans each of these fields and their intersections, publishing on Scottish Americans, ritual and ethnicity in the US South and, to our purposes, an examination of Ireland’s holy wells. Her broad training and innate care she has for people and the landscapes in which they dwell is evident in all aspects of this valuable work.

Ray offers us two major contributions in this exceedingly readable volume:

  1. She pulls together comprehensive expertise on springs and wells that house deities, heal the sick, and/or offer spiritual enhancement from, quite literally, the furthest reaches of the globe.
  2. In what feels like an exceptionally formidable task, she weaves examples from each of the case studies together into a comprehensive narrative that helps us understand the vast and nuanced aspects of holiness found in our relationship with water sources worldwide.

Either of these would have been valuable in and of themselves – the combinations makes the case for every water scholar to make space on their bookshelf (or hard drive) for this text, both to read through as one can, and as a resource to be able to refer to as needed.

Each of the contributors to the 36 chapter is clearly “the” expert (or at the least “one of the top” experts) on their particular case study. Methods span the academic toolkit, including site studies, archival research, interviews and (at least to this reader’s delight), one instance of historical fiction (Nicholas Dunning’s lyric fictionalization of an ancient Mayan rain-summoning ceremony). Thus we learn about the universality of sacred springs, from antiquity until today, and among the peoples of each and every inhabited continent on the globe. We get inspired descriptions of the Tewa origin legend from Richard Ford, infused with hydrologic allusion and, from Ahmad Ghabin, how the well of Zamzan in Mecca is connected spiritually to sacred springs throughout the Middle East. We learn about the divinity of the headwaters of the Blue Nile (Oestigaard and Firew) and about healing waters from Lourdes (Agnew) to Nigeria (Oluwafunminiyi and Omojeje) to South Korea (Yoon).

We learn of how our relationship to holy waters evolves as does our relationship to each other over time. For example, though their mystical aspects have historically been discouraged by the Communist government, “dragon wells” in China are now being promoted as tourist sites, allowing those who honor their sacredness to continue as ever (DeBernardi, Jie, and Junhong). Similarly, Robert Phillips describes how a ritual bath outside of Jerusalem is caught up in modern gender politics between male and female users.

While the case studies are fascinating and uniformly readable individually, they collectively lead to the question, “Well, what can we learn from them as a whole?” Fortunately, Ray takes on the challenging task of answering that question, and does so with aplomb. Her introductory chapter, “Holy Well and Sacred Springs,” should, to my mind, be required reading to anyone studying water in any capacity. She starts by noting that water sources were likely the earliest sacred sites, and that the spread of people was largely a search for water. Water is holy both where it is abundant (the Ganges) and where it is scarce (the desert peoples of Africa and the Americas). Water sources house deities, heal the sick, and offer gateways between the worlds above and the worlds below. They retain their holiness even as the politics and faiths of their inhabitants change, and are sometimes harnessed for the purposes both politics and faith. While they are seemingly insulated and isolated from each other, they are integrally connected, both through the hydrologic and spiritual cycles. Finally, we ignore the lessons of relating to water through holiness at our peril as, for example, in lost sustainable practices in Bali and along the Nile.

I really only have a couple of minor quibbles in this tour de force. For one, the strain of publishing a work on spirituality within Western academia only occasionally shows through. Ray and the contributors are refreshingly loose in what is considered legitimate discourse, although I’m not sure what is gained by developing terms like “panhuman hydrolatry” (which feels both a tad forced and imprecise – any deity being worshipped is not necessarily an idol, nor is the holy water itself, and both are often considered manifestations of the divine), or a chapter with the temperature and salinity of a dozen individual springs listed out paragraph by paragraph.

Again, those examples are refreshingly rare, and magic, spirituality, and deities are generally given the legitimacy and academic space they deserve. Brava to Ray and her contributors for gifting us this valuable volume.


Chapters referred to:

Agnew, Michael. “‘Go drink from the spring and wash there’: the healing waters of Lourdes.”

DeBernardi, Jean, Yan Jie and Ma Junhong. “Dragon wells and sacred springs in China.”

Dunning, Nicholas P. “Life and death from the watery underworld: ancient Maya interaction with caves and cenotes.”

Ford, Richard I. “Sacred springs of the Tewa Pueblos, New Mexico.”

Ghabin, Ahmad. “The well of Zamzam: a pilgrimage site and curative water in Islam.”

Oestigaard, Terje and Gedef Abawa Firew. “Divine waters in Ethiopia: the source from Heaven and Indigenous water-worlds in the Lake Tana region.”

Oluwafunminiyi, Raheem and Victor Ajisola Omojeje. “Ori Aiye: a holy well among the Ondo of Southeastern Yorubaland, Nigeria.”

Phillips, Robert. “A higher level of immersion: a contemporary freshwater mikvah pool in Israel.”

Ray, Celeste. “Holy wells and sacred springs.”

Yoon, Hong-key. “Yaksutŏ: Korean sacred mineral spring water.”



Additional Info

  • Authors: Celeste Ray
  • Year of publication: 2020
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Aaron T. Wolf
  • Subject: Water and community, Water history
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English