What is a Wishing Well?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Many cultures throughout history have regarded water as a sacred gift from the gods, because of its vital necessity to human existence and surprising rarity in a potable form. The idea of a wishing well, a body of water which will grant wishes, comes from this tradition. Wishing wells can be found all over the world, ranging from man-made fountains which are believed to be lucky to natural springs which are said to have unusual powers. Many people believe that wishing wells reek of superstition, but large numbers of them toss offerings of coins into fountains and wells anyway, just in case.

The idea of throwing coins into a wishing well is ancient.
The idea of throwing coins into a wishing well is ancient.

The idea of water as a sacred object is an ancient one. Many religions view water as pure, because of the clear color and minimal flavor. Drinkable water is also extremely rare, considering the abundance of water on Earth, so when early peoples found springs, wells, and other deposits of water, it is not surprising that they ascribed the appearance of water to the gods. Numerous superstitions were associated with water by pagan religions, including the belief that if someone looking into a wishing well on midsummer's day, the water would reveal the face of the viewer's spouse to be.

Because drinkable water is so vitally necessary, most cultures built structures such as wells to protect springs and other sources of water. In addition, religious beliefs about the power of the wishing well arose, to enforce the idea that water was a sacred and valuable resource. Water was also freely offered to guests, visitors, and travelers, regardless as to where they came from and what their intentions were. Religious pilgrims often stopped at wishing wells and sacred springs for fresh water, and sometimes stayed to contemplate nature and search for inner peace.

The idea of throwing a coin into a wishing well is also ancient. According to many cultures, a wishing well will grant the desires of someone who stands over the well and either speaks the wish aloud, or concentrates on it while drinking the water of the well. The gods, however, are unlikely to give away something for nothing, and therefore most wishers left offerings, which frequently took the form of food left next to the wishing well, although money was also an appropriate symbolic offering.

Although many people are unaware of the thousands of years of history behind the wishing well, visitors to wells and fountains around the world throw a substantial amount of currency into them. This can lead to problems, as coins can contaminate drinkable water, or clog fountain mechanisms. For this reason, some wells and fountains have signs requesting that visitors not throw offerings into the wishing well, although they are welcome to leave gifts next to the well.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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