In myths and legends, old pits or holes in the ground are often seen as ways in to a spirit world, or even hell. This includes pits that are full of water or wells. This may be because, in Celtic and Norse mythology, water was seen as the 'element' that could allow a crossing between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The ancient Celtic people saw water as a looking glass through which objects and souls entered the next world.
The idea of reaching the underworld or hell through a cave or pit (although a dry one on the far side of a river) was also part of Greek and Roman mythology. In the Christian Bible, the "Bottomless Pit" or "Abyss" is a prison for evil spirits. It is also the place where Satan (the devil) is to be chained for 1000 years. This may be where the idea of the devil's arm rising from the pit or hell comes from.
Why was it believed that treasure may be buried in the pit?
Treasure from Saxon times
Over the ages, buried treasure has been found, now and then, both on land and in the water. These were sometimes Anglo-Saxon and Vikings 'grave goods' (things that were buried with the dead) or small stores of coins that may have been buried in times of war by their owners, to stop them being taken by the enemy. So, the idea of finding buried treasure is a very old one and one that is still alive today.
Legends of buried treasure were often linked to old water pits and wells. This might be because in Celtic times people put gifts to the gods, and to the souls of the dead, in rivers, streams and wells. When a soul went into the next world, people were afraid that a punishment, like an illness, might come back to them and so, to stop this, they put valuable gifts into the water.
Historical digs near natural wells, or watery sites such as Flag Fen, have shown how important water was in the worship of ancient people and this may be how the idea of buried treasure in the pit developed. Even today, people still throw coins into wishing wells for good luck.
Is there a message in the story?
Good versus Evil - St Michael battles the Devil
The tale is most likely set during the 16th century. People at this time believed in the devil.
Most people went to church and many myths and legends grew up to show people how they should behave and what would happen to them if they did not. Many of these myths warn about what happens if you mess with the devil.
In many tales, those people brave or foolish enough to take on the devil find that they have taken on far more than they can handle. The heroes in our tale are brave, but they also boast a lot and are too daring. They celebrate their good luck too soon, before they have got the treasure chest safely onto dry land. In doing this, they end up losing everything they have worked for. They may joke about the devil but devil has the last laugh.
How did the myth become attached to Callow Pit?
A ghostly pit
Myths and legends often came about to explain the things that people do not understand or whose beginnings have been forgotten. The pit at Callow was put on the list as being very old, when the story was written in the Parish records, nearly two hundred years ago. A dead, hollow hardwood tree that had been growing out of the pit showed that it was already very, very old.
So, at the time the story was first told (about 500 years ago), the reason that the pit was there had probably been forgotten long ago. Over time, the pit would have been seen as a strange place. The legend that arose, over time, brought together a number of ideas that are very common in old myths and legends. First, that a deep hole or "Bottomless Pit" joins this world to an underworld. Second, the idea of buried treasure in water and third, the danger of taking on the devil.