From my Devon village in the west of England it is a short distance through winding green lanes to the once–independent kingdom of Cornwall — a land filled with ancient Celtic ruins and ancient stories. On a beautiful day near the summer solstice I drove into Cornwall with artist Wendy Froud, intent on finding the magic that lies beneath the surface of the rolling hills: water magic, pooled in crumbling holy wells and sacred springs . . . and found in the myths and legends of cultures all around the world.
Past the market-town of Tavistock we crossed the county line from Devon into Cornwall, a peninsula of land in the far southwestern corner of Britain. A mile or so past the village of Callington we parked at the edge of a farmyard, and followed the footpath through the fields that led to Dupath Well.
Like many of the ancient holy wells to be found in Cornwall (and through all of Britain), the spring that runs through Dupath Well was probably a sacred site to tribal people in the distant past, its older use now overlaid with a gloss of Christian legendry. At one time this spring may have sat in a woodland grove of oak, rowan and thorn — trees sacred to the Druids and practitioners of other animist religions. In 1510, a group of Christian monks claimed the site for their own use, enclosing the spring in a small well-house made out of rough-hewn stone. This was the common fate of many pagan sacred sites in the British Isles. Unable to dissuade the local people from visiting their holy places, Christian missionaries simply took them over — building churches where standing stones once stood and baptistries over sacred springs, cutting down groves of oak, rowan and thorn in a new god's name. One can still find numerous holy wells buried in the Cornish countryside, many of them now named for the Saints and associated with their miraculous lives. But scratch the surface of these legends and older stories emerge like a palimpsest, stories of faery creatures, the knights of Arthur, and the old gods of the land.
Inside the tiny chapel-like building erected over Dupath Well, the holy water pools in a shallow trough carved from a single granite slab. The air feels thick, heavy with shadows, with silence, with the ghosts of men and women drawn to this spot for hundreds of years. The stones are worn where they once knelt and prayed to the Virgin Mary, or to the Goddess of the Sacred Springs. At the bottom of the trough lay a few copper coins — a modern custom of making wishes not so very different from the pagan practice of throwing pins into a well to ask for blessings. I watched as Wendy placed an offering of wildflowers by the water — an equally ancient practice recalling a time when it was the land itself our ancestors worshipped, prayed to, and thanked for the gift of life.
Today, with clean water piped directly into our homes and largely taken for granted, it takes a leap of imagination to consider the greater importance of water to those who fetched it daily from the riverside or village well. Deeply dependent on the local water source for their crops and animals, our ancestors had a natural reverence for those places where good, pure water emerged like magic from the depths of the earth. As a result, water has played a role in myth, folklore and sacred rites in cultures all around the globe — particularly in arid lands where the gift of water is most precious.
According to a Blackfoot Indian creation myth, in the beginning there was a great womb containing all of the animals, including Old Man. One day the womb burst, and all creation was under water. Old Man and the animals emerged from the womb floating on a large raft. One day Old Man suggested that Beaver dive down and try to bring up some mud. Beaver was gone a very long time, but still he could not reach bottom. Loon tried, Otter tried, but the water was just too deep for them. Finally little Muskrat tried; he was gone so long that he was nearly dead when they pulled him into the raft again — yet he clutched a precious bit of mud in one of his little claws. From this mud, Old Man formed the lands of earth to emerge from that great ocean of water, and then he created all of the peoples, trees and plant-life upon it. We find variations of this "diver motif" myth not only throughout North America but in cultures around the world — including Buriat cosmology, Finnish folktales and the Hindu Paranas.
Many cultures associate water with women: with the Goddess, or several goddesses, or a variety of female nature spirits. The !Kung of Botswana attribute the origin of water to women, granting them special power over it. All-mother, in an Aboriginal myth from northern Australia, arrived from the sea in the form of a rainbow serpent with children (the Ancestors) inside her. It was All-mother who made water for the Ancestors by urinating on the land, creating lakes, rivers and water holes to quench their thirst. The "living water" (running water) of springs and natural fountains is particularly associated in ancient mythological systems with women, fertility and childbirth.
To the Greeks, springs were the haunts of water nymphs, elemental spirits who took the form of beautiful young girls; the original meaning of the Greek word for spring is "nubile maiden." Certain Greek springs were sacred to Hera or Aphrodite and reputed to have miraculous powers; Hera, for instance, regained virginity each year through immersion in the fountain of Kanathos. In Teutonic myth, the shaggy wood-wife who loves the hero Wolfdietrich is transformed into a gentle human girl when she's baptized in a sacred fountain. The Norse god Odin seeks wisdom and cunning from the fountain of the nature spirit Mimir; he sacrifices one of his eyes in exchange for a few precious sips of the water. In Celtic myth, the salmon of knowledge swims in a sacred spring or pool under the shade of a hazel tree; the falling hazelnuts contain all the wisdom of the world, swallowed by the fish.