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HOME > Religious Fiction > Paganism Surviving in Christianity > CHAPTER IV. WATER-WORSHIP IN NORTHERN EUROPE AND IN MEXICO.
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Water-Worship Prominent in Many Ways, and Associated with Holy Seasons—Infant Baptism among the Scandinavians and Teutons—Pagan “Christening of Children”—Sacred Water as a Safeguard against Disease, etc.—Virtue of Water Used for Mechanical Purposes—Water Sprites—Similarity between Roman Catholicism and Paganism of Mexico—Aztec Baptism—Prayer for “Baptismal Regeneration” of Child by Mexican Midwife.

The existence of a widespread system of water worship in Northern Europe is attested by the direct history of paganism, by the history of Christianity at its first introduction, by the decrees of councils, capitularies, and similar documents. These sources show that the Allamanns, Franks, and others worshipped rivers and fountains, and used water in various ways for sacred purposes. They prayed upon the banks of sacred rivers and at sacred fountains. Springs which gushed from the earth were considered especially sacred, as being produced directly by divine agency. Lighted candles were used in the worship of fountains and wells. This custom continues until the present[99] day in the semi-religious habits of the people, who gaze into wells by the light of a candle on Christmas and Easter nights. Sacred brooks and rivers were believed to have been produced from the pouring of water by the gods out of bowls and urns.

Water drawn at holy seasons, such as midnight and sunrise, has always been known as “holy water.” Running spring-water gathered on holy Christmas night, while the clock strikes twelve is yet known as heilway, and is believed to be good for certain diseases. At the present time the common people of Northern Europe believe that between eleven and twelve on Christmas night, and on Easter night, spring water changes into wine. A similar faith is found as far back as the latter part of the fourth century, which is noted by Chrysostom in an Epiphany sermon preached at Antioch.

The following quotation will show that pagan water-worship was indigenous in Northern Europe as well as in the Orient:

“It is no less remarkable that a kind of infant baptism was practised in the North, long before the dawning of Christianity had reached those parts. Snorri Sturlason, in his chronicle, speaking of a Norwegian nobleman who lived in the reign of Harald Harfagra, relates that he poured water on the head of a new-born child, and called him Hakon, from the name of his father. Harald himself[100] had been baptized in the same manner, and it is noted of King Olaf Tryggvason, that his mother, Astrida, had him thus baptized and named as soon as he was born. The Livonians observed the same ceremony, which also prevailed among the Germans, as appears from a letter which the famous Pope Gregory the third sent to their Apostle Boniface directing him expressly how to act in this respect. It is probable that all these people might intend, by such a rite, to preserve their children from the sorceries and evil charms which witched spirits might employ against them at the instant of their birth. Several nations of Asia and America have attributed such a power to ablutions of this kind; nor were the Romans without such a custom, though they did not wholly confine it to new-born infants.”[91]

S. Baring Gould testifies concerning pagan baptism in Scandinavia as follows:

“Among the Scandinavians, infant baptism was in vogue long before the introduction of Christianity, and the rite accompanied the naming of the child. Before the accomplishment of this rite, the exposition of the babe was lawful, but after the ceremony it became murder. A baptism in blood seems to have been practised by the Germans and Norsemen in remote antiquity; to this the traditions of the horny Sigfrid, or Sigurd, and Wolfdietrich point. Dipping in water, and aspersion with water, or with blood of a victim, was also customary among the Druids, as was also the baptism of fire, perhaps borrowed by them from[101] the Ph?nicians. This was that passing through the fire to Molech alluded to repeatedly in the Jewish Scriptures.”[92]

There is an excellent picture of baptism among the pagan Teutons, by Konrad Maurer, in which the author shows, in detail, the relation between infant baptism among the Greeks, Romans, Teutonic pagans, and Teutonic Christians. The Nation for September 22, 1881, speaks of Mr. Maurer’s work as follows[93]:

“A large portion of Maurer’s monograph is devoted to showing how the ceremonies connected with heathen baptism were adopted by the Christian Church, and in tracing to a heathen source the rights and privileges secured to children by baptism in the Church. The author suggests that the laying at the breast was a recognition of the child on the mother’s part, and that the granting of the right of baptism was a recognition of the child on the part of the father, and that this was the chief significance of the latter ceremony; although it would seem from Havamal, in the Elder Edda, that spiritual blessings were also secured to the infant by the sprinkling of holy water. Baptism made the child an heir both among the heathen and among the old Teutonic Christians, and the fact that among both it had so many things in common, that it took place soon after the birth of the child, and was connected with the naming of it; that there were god-fathers[102] and god-mothers, and that presents were given, makes the question an exceedingly interesting one. But the author goes farther, and proves from ancient laws of the Germans, Visigoths, and Anglo-Saxons, that the rite of baptism is to be performed within the ninth day after the birth of the child; and here he calls attention to the ancient Roman custom of giving the name to a female infant on the eighth, and to a male infant on the ninth day after birth, and quotes Roman law to show that this naming day was of legal importance to the child. A similar custom is also found among ancient Greeks, where the seventh day after the birth of the child was celebrated with cleansing, gifts, sacrifices, banqueting, and other ceremonies. Maurer suggests that this seventh day of cleansing among the heathen Greeks was of the same legal value to the child as the day of sprinkling with water among the Teutons, and that it determined whether the child should live or be exposed. Roman law establishes the fact that the eighth day after birth for girls, and the ninth for boys was a Dies lustricus—that is, a day on which a religious rite (lustratio) for infants took place, and on which names were given to them, whence it was called solonnitas nominalium. The day was observed by bringing the infants to the temple, by banquets, etc.[94] We find, therefore, among the old Greeks, and what is of vastly more importance, in the old Roman laws, a day set apart for infants on which they get their names, and this naming connected with the observation of certain ceremonies. What the precise nature of these rites was, we are not told; but inasmuch as the Roman documents designate[103] thereby the term lustratio, there can scarcely be room for doubt that it must have been a symbolic cleansing by means of water. And since the Dies lustricus confessedly secured legal rights to the infant, the question lies near at hand whether the old Teutonic heathen borrowed the baptismal right from the ancient Romans, or whether baptism was an original institution among the Aryans before they became divided into Teutons, Romans, etc. There can be no doubt, on the one hand, that the Dies lustricus of the Romans obtained among the Christians in fixing the day for baptism, especially since it corresponded so nearly with the Mosaic day for circumcision; and on the other hand, that just as many of the old Teutonic feasts were turned into festivals, so the form of the Teutonic baptism was largely adopted by the Christians in Northern Europe.”

Baptism was undoubtedly an ancient Aryan rite, which existed before the division of the race, of which Mr. Maurer speaks. For supplementary proof of the lustration and naming of infants among the Greeks and the Romans, consult Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, pp. 800, 801. Also, for lustration, by holy water, of children and adults, see The Life of Greeks and Romans, by E. Guhl and W. Koner, p. 282, London (no date, but since 1862). See also Tertullian, Concerning Idolatry (chap. xvi.), for reference to pagan “Naming Festivals.”

Jacob Grimm (Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols., London, 1883), a most painstaking and scholarly[104] authority, shows that the Christianity of the present century is yet deeply imbued with the residuum of the ancient pagan water-worship. He says:

“Superstitious Christians then believed two things: a hallowing of the water at midnight of the day of baptism, and a turning of it into wine at the time of the bethphania. Such water the Germans called heilawac, and ascribed to it a wonderful power of healing diseases and wounds, and of never spoiling.

“Possibly even in Syria an old pagan drawing of water became veiled under new Christian meanings. In Germany other circumstances point undisguisedly to a heathen consecration of water: it was not to be drawn at midnight, but in the morning before sunrise down stream and silently, usually on Easter Sunday, to which the above explanations do not so well apply: this water does not spoil, it restores youth, heals eruptions, and makes the young cattle strong. Magic water, serving for unchristian divination, is to be collected before sunrise on a Sunday in one glass from three flowing springs; and a taper is lighted before a glass, as before a divine being. Here I bring in once again the Hessian custom mentioned at page 58: On Easter Monday youths and maidens walk to the Hollow Rock in the mountains, draw water from the cool spring in jugs to carry home, and throw flowers in as an offering. Apparently this water-worship was Celtic likewise. The water of the rock spring Karnant makes a broken sword whole again. Curious customs show us in what manner young girls in the Pyrenees country tell their own fortunes in the spring water on May-day morning.”[95]

Water Securing Immunity from Disease.

Sacred water as a means of lustration and of immunity from disease is yet a prominent characteristic of Northern European water-worship. Grimm thus describes it:

“In a spring near Nogent men and women bathed on St. John’s eve: Holberg’s comedy of Kilde-reisen is founded on the Copenhagen people’s practice of pilgriming to a neighboring spring on St. Hans aften to heal and invigorate themselves in its waters. On Midsummer-eve the people of Osterg?tland journeyed according to ancient custom to Lagman’s bergek?lla near Skeninge, and drank of the well. In many parts of Germany some clear fountain is visited at Whitsuntide, and the water drunk in jugs of a peculiar shape. Still more important is Petrarch’s description of the annual bathing of the women of Cologne in the Rhine; it deserves to be quoted in full, because it plainly proves that the cult prevailed not merely at here and there a spring, but in Germany’s greatest river. From the Italian’s unacquaintance with the rite, one might infer that it was foreign to the country whence all Church ceremonies proceeded, and therefore altogether unchristian and heathenish. But Petrarch may not have had a minute knowledge of all the customs of his country; after his time, at all events, we find even there a lustration on St. John’s Day (described as ancient custom then dying out). And long before Petrarch, in Augustine’s time, the rite was practised in Libya, and is denounced by that Father as a relic of paganism. Generally sanctioned by the Church it certainly was not, yet it might be allowed here and there, as a not unapt reminder of the Baptizer in[106] the Jordan, and now interpreted of him, though once it had been heathen. It might easily come into extensive favor, and that not as a Christian feast alone: to our heathen forefathers St. John’s Day would mean the festive middle of the year, when the sun turns, and there might be many customs connected with it. I confess, if Petrarch had witnessed the bathing in the river at some small town, I would the sooner take it for a native rite of the ancient Germani; at Cologne, the holy city so renowned for its relics, I rather suspect it to be a custom first introduced by Christian tradition.”[96]

Water used for mechanical purposes was also looked upon as possessing peculiar virtues. Down to the present time the Servians catch the water which rebounds from the paddles of mill wheels. Women go early on St. George’s day, April 23d, to catch such water for bathing purposes. Some carry it home on the evening before the twenty-third and sprinkle broken bits of green herbs and boughs upon it. They believe that all evil and harm “will then glance off their bodies like water off the mill wheel,” as the result of such bathing. A trace of the same superstition remains in Servia in the popular warning, “Not to flirt the water off your hands after washing in the morning,” else you flirt away your luck for the day.

Many religious and superstitious practices are prevalent in Northern Europe in times of drouth,[107] in order to propitiate the divinities, either good or evil, and secure a rainfall. Certain goddesses which were prominent in the Northern European mythologies, especially Nerthus and Holda, were closely connected with water-worship. The former represented the earth and is spoken of as “the bath-loving Nerthus.” Holda lived in wells. She was identical with the Roman Isis. “When it snows, she is making her bed, and the feathers fly. She stirs up snow as Donar does rain.” In Prussia when it snows the people say: “The angels are shaking their beds, and the flakes of down drop to the earth.” It was believed that Holda haunted the lakes and fountains and might be seen bathing at the hour of noon. Mortals could reach her dwelling by passing through a well. She was supposed to pass through the land at Christmas time, bringing fertility by her presence.[97]

On the fifth of August the lace-makers of Brussels pray to Mary that their work “may keep as white as snow.” It was believed that Holda appeared as an ugly old woman, long-nosed, big-toothed, with bristling and thick-matted hair. The common people still say of a man whose hair is tangled and in disorder: “He has had a jaunt with Holda.”


The pagan fear of water sprites still exists in Sweden. On crossing any water after dark it is thought advisable to spit three times, as a safeguard against their evil influences.[98] It is also thought to be dangerous to draw water from a well without saluting the divinity which governs it. This custom remains among modern Greeks. A thief is supposed to be safe in his evil course if he sacrifices to the water sprites, by throwing a little of that which he has stolen into a stream. In Esthonia, the newly married wife drops a present into the well of the house where she is to reside. In 1641, Hans Ohm, of Sommerpahl in Esthonia, built a mill upon a sacred stream. Bad harvests followed for several years until the peasants fell upon the mill, burnt it down and destroyed the piles in the water. Ohm went to law and obtained a verdict against the peasants. But to rid himself of new and grievous persecutions, he induced pastor Gutslaff to write a treatise especially combating this superstition. The Esthonians replied, when asked how good or bad weather could depend upon springs and brooks: “It is our ancient faith: the men of old have so taught us. Mills have been burnt down on this brook before now.” They called it “Holy Brook,” and believed that when[109] they wanted rain it could be produced by throwing something into the stream.[99]

Many similar stories abound in the modern literature of Esthonia. Although less refined, the water-worship mythology of Northern Europe was as widespread and persistent in its influence as that of Southern Europe or of Asia. Its influence upon Christianity was not less strongly marked, and the modifications which it produced in Christian baptism continue in a great degree to the present day. The universal sway of pagan baptism and its essential unity are shown by turning from Northern Europe to the extreme point of another continent and considering
Water-Worship in Mexico.

Prescott speaks of the amazement with which the early Spaniards beheld the points of similarity between the customs of the pagan Mexicans and the Roman Catholic Church; he says:

“With the same feelings they witnessed another ceremony, that of the Aztec baptism; in which, after a solemn invocation, the head and lips of the infant were touched with water, and a name given to it; while the goddess Cioacoatl, who presided over childbirth, was implored that the sin which was given to us before the beginning of the[110] world might not visit the child, but that, cleansed by these waters, it might live and be born anew.”[100]

A full account of this pagan baptism in Mexico is given by Sahagun-de-Bernardino, as follows:

“When everything necessary for the baptism had been made ready, all the relations of the child were assembled, and the midwife, who was the person that performed the rite of baptism, was summoned. At early dawn they met together in the court-yard of the house. When the sun had risen the midwife, taking the child in her arms, called for a little earthen vessel of water, while those about her placed the ornaments which had been prepared for the baptism in the midst of the court. To perform the rite of baptism, she placed herself with her face towards the west, and immediately began to go through certain ceremonies.... After this she sprinkled water on the head of the infant, saying: ‘O my child! take and receive the water of the Lord of the world, which is our life, and is given for the increasing and renewing of our body. It is to wash and to purify. I pray that these heavenly drops may enter into your body and dwell there; that they may destroy and remove from you all the evil and sin which was given to you before the beginning of the world; since all of us are under its power, being all the children of Chalchivitlycue’ (the goddess of water). She then washed the body of the child with water and spoke in this manner: ‘Whencesoever thou comest, thou that art hurtful to this child, leave him and depart from him, for he now liveth anew and is born anew; now he is purified and cleansed afresh, and our Mother Chalchivitlycue[111] again bringeth him into the world.’ Having thus prayed, the midwife took the child in both hands, and lifting him towards heaven, said: ‘O Lord, thou seest here thy creature, whom thou hast sent into this world, this place of sorrow, suffering, and penitence. Grant him, O Lord, thy gifts and thine inspiration, for thou art the great God, and with thee is the great goddess.’ Torches of pine were kept burning during the performance of these ceremonies. When these things were ended, they gave the child the name of some one of his ancestors, in hope that he might shed a new lustre over it. The name was given by the same midwife or priestess who baptized him.”[101]

A full discussion of baptismal ceremonies among the pagans of Mexico may be found in H. H. Bancroft’s works,[102] which discussion fully supports the foregoing from Prescott and Sahagun.

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