All running water (not just spring water) can prove to be the haunt of faeries, for crossing over (or through) running water is one of the ways to enter their realm. Here, one still finds country folk who avoid running water by dusk or dark, for the spirits who inhabit water can be troublesome, even deadly. The water spirit of the River Dart, for instance, is believed to demand sacrificial drownings, leading to the well-known local rhyme "Dart, Dart, cruel Dart, every year she claims a heart." The water-wraithe of Scotland is thin, ragged, and invariably dressed in green, haunting riversides by night to lead travellers to a watery death. In the Border Country, the Washer by the Ford wails as she washes the grave clothes of those who are about to die; this frightening apparition is similar to the dreaded Bean-Sidhe (Banshee) of Irish legends. The Bean-nighe is a similar creature found in both Highland and Irish lore, a dangerous little faerie with ragged green clothes and webbed red feet. (Yet if one can get between the Bean-nighe and her water source, she is obliged to grant three wishes and refrain from doing harm.) Jenny Greenteeth specializes in dragging children down in stagnant pools. The Welsh water-leaper (Llamhigyn Y Dwr) is a toad-like creature who delights in tangling fishing lines and devouring any sheep who fall into the river. The fideal is a faery who haunts lonely pools and hides herself in the grasses by the water; the glaistig, half-woman and half-goat, tends to lurk in the dark of caves behind waterfalls. The loireag of the Hebrides is a gentler breed of water fairy, although — as a connoisseur of music — even she can prove dangerous to those who dare to sing out of tune.
In Ireland, a faerie creature known as the Lady of the Lake bestows blessings and good weather to those who seek her favor; in some towns she is still celebrated (or propitiated) at mid-summer festivals. Her name recalls the Welsh Lady of the Lake, who gave King Arthur his sword and now guards over his body as he sleeps in Avalon. Brittany, on the west coast of France, also claims the home of the Lady of the Lake. The Chateau de Comper, where she is said to have lived and raised Sir Lancelot, still stands near the old Forest of Paimpont (called Broceliande in Arthurian lore): a magnificent manor house of golden stone, crumbling romantically at the edges. Nearby is a lake whose origin is attributed to Morgan Le Fay, located in the mysterious Val san Retour (Valley of No Return). In Somerset, England, the town of Glastonbury is one of several sites where the Holy Grail is reputed to be hidden. At the foot of ancient Glastonbury Tor is a lovely garden where one can drink the red-tinged water of Chalice Well — colored, according to legend, by the blood of Christ carried in the Grail. Although the well's association with Arthur may be (as some Arthurian scholars suggest) a legend of recent vintage, archaeological excavations in the 1960s established the site's antiquity — and the place manages to retain a tranquil, mystical atmosphere despite its transformation from sacred site to tourist attraction. One often finds small offerings in the circle around the well's heavy lid: flowers, feathers, stones, small bits of cloth tied to a near-by tree . . . remnants of ancient pagan practice carried down through the centuries.
Today, we generally view such practices as quaintly (or foolishly) superstitious; we dismiss our early ancestors as ignorant savages, worshipping natural phenomenon because they lacked the rationality of science. Yet a look at animist religions that still thrive in certain cultures around the globe indicates that this may be a simplistic view of nature-based religions. Rather than focusing on the hocus-pocus of the supernatural (as they are often portrayed), such religions are rooted in the natural world, celebrating and regulating the relationships between mankind, other species, and the land which sustains us all. In America, animism runs through the various indigenous religions of the land. Various springs, wells and pools are sacred to Native tribal groups; and in such holy places, one also finds offerings similar to those by Chalice Well: feathers, flowers, stones, sage, tobacco, small carved animal forms, scraps of red cloth tied to trees, and other tokens of prayer. The Native American sweat-lodge ceremony uses water sprinkled over red-hot rocks to create the steam that is called the "breath of life"; the lodge itself is the womb of mother earth in which one is washed clean, purified and spiritually reborn. Water is sacred through its absence in the four-day Sundance ceremony, or the ritual of Crying for a Vision; after four days without water (or food), the first drop on the tongue is a potent reminder to be thankful for this precious gift from mother earth.
The words attributed to Suquamish Chief Seattle* upon the forced transfer of tribal lands to the U.S. Government in 1855 make painful reading in light of the ecological ravages of the last hundred years. "The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father. The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother . . . .This we know: The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to earth." Standing at Dupath Well, a century later and an ocean away, these words seem to me to be as vital as ever. I am reminded here at this ancient sacred site that I too had ancestors who did not consider themselves greater than the land on which they lived; who did not take good, pure water for granted; who knew man belonged to earth.
An old English folklorist told me once that nature spirits would live in a well, a spring, a lake or a grove of trees only so long as they were remembered and addressed respectfully. If the spirits were neglected, they'd leave the place; the land would feel soul-less and dead henceforth. Remembering this, I dropped a pin into the brown water of Dupath Well. The well-house stands near the work-yard of a farm; I could hear the traffic of the roads nearby; and yet somehow the spot still seemed quite peaceful, timeless, magical . . . and very much alive. I felt a little foolish saying "Thank you" right out loud — and I couldn't even tell you now who exactly I thought I was addressing there: a nature spirit, a well faery, a Celtic goddess, or the earth itself.
And yet, as we turned to go, I'd swear that someone was listening.
*This quote is attributed to Chief Seattle in Joseph Campbell's "The Way of the Animal Powers" — but the attribution is controversial. For more information visit the Chief Seattle web site.
Spell of the Senuous by David Abrams (Vintage, 1997) )
Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland by Janet and Colin Bord (Granada, 1985)
People of the Blue Water by Flora Gregg Iliff (University of Arizona Press; Reprint edition, 1985)
The Desert Smells Like Rain by Gary Nabhan (University of Arizona Press; Reprint edition, 2002)