The Wishing Well: Searching for Odin’s Eye in Dumfries
By: Lisa Timmerman, Executive Director
On a cloudy Saturday morning, Ghost Guide Jeff and I met near the historic well in Merchant Park. Tourists often ask about the structure and our Ghost Tours usually start at the well – a seemingly mysterious gathering place. Did people toss coins into the well? Was there anything underneath the wooden planks covering it besides for a possible concrete slab? As Ghost Jeff began the process of carefully removing the planks, I looked for information.
(Merchant Park Archaeological Excavations, 1975)
To our early Americans, wells provided opportunities for social gatherings and fresh water. Assuming the Town people did not dump their chamber pots or discard any carcasses in or near the well, people could and did safely consume water. People also enjoyed cider, hot chocolate, tea, milk (living on or near a farm was key for dairy), and alcohol – watered down for the little ones. Dumfries residents relied on the Merchant Park Well into the early 20th century as students at Dumfries Elementary School reportedly used it and Violet Merchant, the last person to live in the historic house, relied upon it until she left the house. Jeanne Martin remembered Violet’s inability to switch to public utilities when Dumfries connected in the mid-20th century, noting the kindness of the Dumfries community in providing her well water, chopped wood, and groceries. However, unless you are consuming the water from the well, you may see it and start to daydream, thinking about wishes you may have. For example, I may cast a wish the squirrels stop hiding in the waste bins during the spring only to jump out at my approach.
The belief and practice in wishing wells is centered on the water. Early civilizations adapted and thrived around water sources, whether offering regular reliability or unpredictable flooding (the Nile vs. the Tigris & Euphrates). Celtic and Germanic folklore associate living spirits guarding this fundamental source and historical records indicate people made a wish with coins and other small offerings. When archaeologists excavated Coventina’s Well in Northumberland, they discovered thousands of coins from different eras of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists reclaimed almost 16,000 coins, mostly low denomination but ranging from the first to fifth centuries. Located within temple ruins, people may have used this well in their religious ceremonies, fitting with the idea people made offerings to the Celtic goddess Coventina. While that specific well centered on the goddess, other wells may have the same insignificant offerings (ex: buttons) with people hoping for superpowers – an offering in exchange for good health or a cure. Note that people did not toss items of significant value but still placed quite a hefty expectation on one coin or button.
The lore of Odin and Mimir’s Well (possibly the Well of Urd amongst the world tree Yggdrasil), indicates another fascinating association with wells and water. Mimir, an advanced being with almost unrivalled knowledge, maintained his high intellect by drawing water from the well – the water itself giving him power. Odin, seeking wisdom, arrived at the well hoping for a satisfying drink of cosmic knowledge but Mimir refused unless Odin offered his eye in return. Odin agreed, gouged, and dropped his eye in the well finally acquiring his cherished drink. Try not to think too much about this, like the flavor, possible eye bits... Hopefully, Odin found his sacrifice for this new level of perception and wisdom worth it! Scholars even note the eye itself was petty (a common organ that witnessed troublesome and petty conflicts and stress) in exchange for what Odin was gaining, divine and ancestral wisdom.
(Ghost Guide Jeff @ the Merchant Park Well, September 2020)
Checking back in at the Merchant Well, we find that the well contained no treasures (or organs). Concrete properly capped the historic water with some discarded trash on top, possibly from the early 1970s while HDVI was forming and restoring the property. Anthropologists still find people making wishes whether they can clearly explain the reason for their actions. Perhaps people toss coins for a specific reason, a vague but grand hope, or even for the hope of possibility…the hope that something different will happen, the wish will add a new random and fortuitous element to their lives. As you gather around the well this October, consider what conversations were had around the Dumfries well. What secrets have the well guardian spirits heard?
Note: We still have a few tickets remaining for both Ghost Walks: Return to the Shadows and Ghost Walks: Locked Inside! Claim your ticket before we are officially sold out! Click here for the evening walking tour and here for the investigation!
(Sources: HDVI Archival Records: Merchant Family Stories & Folklore; HDVI Archival Records: Hoagland, Ann. Transcript (Draft) of Interview with Cecil Garrison. Prince William County Historical Commission Oral History Project, 02/1988. Note on draft: Due to editing for clarification purposes, this document cannot be classified as a true verbatim transcription of the conversation with the aforementioned persons; Ancient Origins: Reconstructing The Story of Humanity’s Past: The Ritual Behind Wishing Wells: Buying Good Favors and Good Fortune, 03/24/2015; Tabila, Lauren, James Green, Jonathan Kwok, Kara Thurn, Meagan McLaughlin. “Wishing Wells: The Practice of Buying Good Fortune.” University of California Irvine, Department of Anthropology; Norse Mythology for Smart People: Why Odin is One Eyed, https://norse-mythology.org/tales/why-odin-is-one-eyed/)
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