When most people hear the phrase “holy water” they think of either vampires, water blessed by a Catholic priest, or both, but holy water isn’t restricted to the Christian church. The ancient Greeks used holy water to purify people and places as well as to extinguish temple and shrine torches. They and the Romans would also dip sacred herbs or tree branches in holy water to flick on people, around homes, or pieces of land to bless them. The Hindus use holy water for sacred bathing today and Buddhists use blessed water for ceremonies and protection. The followers of Shia Islam drink consecrated water for healing and to connect with the divine. Prayer drinking is also found in the Old Testament. The drinking of blessed water is a very ancient practice and, as you’ll find out, is not restricted to Abrahamic religions. Bathing before ceremonies, spirit work, or even mundane acts like fishing and huntings goes back into Prehistory with animistic practices. To purify yourself before doing anything is to bring yourself luck and blessing in your endeavors as well as make yourself pure to be in the presence of gods and spirits.
The rural people of the British Isles also believed in the power and sacredness of water and used holy water in many of their folk magic rites. Even though the British Isles have been Christianized for centuries, it is the farmers, fishermen, and housewives, men and women alike, who consecrate the holy water and not a Catholic priest. This goes against the teachings of the church as well as more modern Christian and Hoodoo superstitions that holy water can only be blessed by man of God. I believe the consecration and use of holy water in the British Isles is a remnant from Paganism as are the magical rites the water is used for.
How to Make Holy Water
The following folk method for creating holy water comes from Scotland, but similar practices can most likely be found in Ireland, Wales, and England, etc with local variants, of course.
Water is sacred to the Moon and so a piece of silver is dropped into the water to be blessed. The silver can be a ring, a coin, a bead, or other object made of real silver, not silver-coloured. If the water was to be used for healing or exorcism sometimes gold was dropped in the water instead to call upon the healing and banishing powers of the Sun. Stones with mystical properties were also used in some localities or by specific individuals from witch doctors to lairds. The most common stones used were adder stones (naturally holed stones), lava rocks, or fulgurite (really a glass tube created by lighting striking soil). Sometimes instead of a coin or stone, a cunning person would spit in the water or pass it through their mouth spitting it onto a person or animal they are blessing or treating. This is very similar to the practices of Haitian priest/esses and South American curanderos who spit water or alcohol from their mouths in a spray onto their patients.
Once the coin or stone was dropped in sacred charms were recited over the water (the object isn’t removed until the rite is complete). One can hold their hands, palms spread open, over the water as they bless it or speak so closely to the water that your breath touches the surface of it. What charm was spoken depended on what purpose the holy water would be put toward. Here are some traditional and modern charms:
Water and earth
Where you are cast
No spell or adverse purpose last
Not in complete accord with me.
As my word, so mote it be!
~ Paul Huson (for purification)
Hale fair washing to thee,
Hale washing of the Fians be thine,
Health to thee, health to him–
But not to thy female enemy.
~ Gaelic (used by midwives to sain newborns)
To remove from thee thy sickness
In the pool of health
From the crown of thy head
to the base of thy two heels.
~ Gaelic (bathing charm)
God bless your eye,
A drop of wine about your heart,
The mouse is in the bush
And the bush is on fire.
~ Gaelic (to avert the evil eye)
The type of water used to make holy water is important as differing waters have different magical attributes. Morning dew is collected and blessed for rites of healing, recovery, as well as beauty and longevity. Dew was especially potent if collected before sunrise on Beltuinn, but any holy day in Spring and Summer would be auspicious (also before sunrise). Spring water is best for saining (blessing and purifying for protection) as well as cleansing one from a bad experience, negative emotions, or the evil eye. Sea water is best for exorcism and expelling evil spirits from a person, home, or piece of land — “nothing evil ever came from the sea”. Sea water is not offered to the dead, nor used in ancestral rites. Salt protects from and exorcises spirits. Rain water is used for fertility, abundance, and, of course, rain-making. Rain water is best for land blessings and for blessing a woman who wants to conceive. Lake water is generally not used, but well and spring waters from underground sources were considered connected to the ancestors and a held great powers of fecundity, blessing, and healing.
Harvest these waters at full moons, new moons (not dark moons), holy days, at dawn, dusk, or even high noon depending on your intended use of the water (sea water collected at high noon is excellent for exorcism and banishing). You can even leave your waters out in bowls to absorb moonlight, sunlight, or starlight. Collect waters in a non-metal container. I like canning jars, but glass or ceramic bottles with corks can be quite lovely and more romantic.
Sometimes herbs were added depending on the rite the water was used for. Leaves of Vervain added to spring water to anoint ritualists before a ceremony, St. John’s Wort to bless a house or a sick person, a branch of yew dipped in well water to sprinkle over a corpse and purify them for their journey to the underworld… It was once a common practice to dip a sprig of a fresh herb or tree branch in the blessed water and then flick it on person, animal, earth, or doorways of a home or farm building to purify and bless them. The Romans did this with the fresh blood of an animal sacrifice. I prefer water as it’s easier to wash off than chicken blood spattered from a juniper twig. When hosting rituals I flick holy water on the attendees using a sprig of Cedar or Hemlock (the tree not the poison) and when I perform rituals alone I first wash my face, hands, and feet with holy water before beginning. I also make pilgrimages to local springs on the mountain and wash my whole body in the water to purify myself on holy days.
In other folk rites the water was drunk. In Scotland, holy water was drunk for healing an illness, for protection from a curse or the evil eye, or as a way to connect with the divine. Water was always left out by a corpse so the spirit need never thirst and water was also left out for the Cailleach in case she stopped by one’s house and needed water for washing or drinking. It was also common for farmers and livestock witch doctors (aka cunning folk) to get their cows, horses, and/or sheep to drink of holy water to protect them from being overlooked or cursed. When a farmer purchased a new animal he would either sprinkle it with or get it to drink holy water before letting it join the rest to purify the beast of any illness or curse that may effect the rest of the farmer’s livestock.
Modern uses of holy water can include the saining and “feeding” of an altar, ritual tools, ritual costume, ritual jewelry, amulets, talismans, sachets, and statuary. Charm makers can use holy water to activate their charms. It can be used to cleanse and bless a house, a sick room, a piece of land, or even any new furniture, items, or animals you bring into your home. If you are having an outdoor ritual, sprinkle the ground, trees, and stones with blessed water using a twig from a sacred tree. Folk healers can use holy water to bathe or sprinkle on their clients or give it to them to drink for an internal cleansing (be sure to boil any wild harvested waters before drinking!). Wild harvested holy waters are also commonly used in spiritual cleansing baths for both physical and metaphysical healing as well as for purification baths taken before rites and ceremonies. To treat someone of a physical or supernatural illness the following runes from the Carmina Gadelica can be used. I’ve used them accompanied by my hand drum with success. They are spoken monotonously and steadily as with a chant.
The first is to gain power over the illness or intrusion. Rain, dew, and sea water can be sprinkled over the patient:
Power of moon I have over it,
Power of sun I have over it,
Power of rain I have over it,
Power of dew I have over it,
Power of sea I have over it,
Power of land I have over it
Power of stars I have over it,
Power of planets I have over it,
Power of universe I have over it,
Power of skies I have over it,
Power of ancestors I have over it,
Power of heaven I have over it,
Power of heaven and God I have over it,
Power of heaven and God I have over it.
To dispose of the illness (or evil spirits) this second rune is spoken, during or after which the patient can either be bathed in sea water, spring water, or instead drink a glass of cold spring water.
A portion of it on the grey stones,
A portion of it on the steep mountains,
A portion of it on the swift cascades,
A portion of it on the gleaming clouds,
A portion of it on the ocean whales,
A portion of it on the meadow beasts,
A portion of it on the fenny swamps,
A portion of it on the cotton-grass moors,
A portion of it on the great pouring sea–
She’s the best one to carry it,
Oh the great pouring sea,
And she’s the best one to carry it.
After the patient has left the practitioner can then repeat this rune to expel any of the illness or intrusion that went into them or effected them during the rite. This rune protects the healer from harm and accumulating too much mire from their patients:
You, healer of my soul,
keep me at evening,
keep me at morning,
keep me at noon,
On rough course faring,
Help and safeguard
My means this night.
I am tired, astray, and stumbling,
Shield me from deceit and harm.
One could even anoint themselves with holy water whenever they come home to wash away the stress of the day and any emotions or metaphysical dirt picked up from other people while out and about in the world. You could keep a small bowl by your front door and dip in your fingertips – rub your hands together with the holy water then wipe your face (don’t miss the third eye) and the back of your neck. This will cleanse the openings to your spirit and allow things that don’t belong to exit your body. Plus it’s better than keeping a shaman at your front door to spit holy water on you as you enter and then you wouldn’t have to worry about feeding him.
To dipose of holy water it must be poured directly back onto the earth. It is not to be dumped down the drain into the sewers like household waste water. If you need to dispose of any extra holy water I recommend using it to water sacred plants or pour it out onto the roots of a tree in offering.
By Sarah Anne Lawless