from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

restoring soul to the wasteland: the holy wells

Sancreed holy well – as you descend the steps you can see phosphorescence
Tomorrow is the next session of my year-long WELLKEEPERS course in Cornwall.

The sacred springs, the holy wells, of our land have long preoccupied me. (I see I’ve blogged about them several times during the years I’ve written this blog, too; you can see a post from January 2011 here.)

I suppose I’d have to come out and say wells have been a part of my inner life since my dad took us to see the ones in West Cornwall when we were young. (
As a mother myself later, I passed this on by taking my young daughter to various of them, including our frequent visits to the red and white springs at Glastonbury at the heart of Albion, as a kind of pilgrimage.)

Of course, as a child I didn’t properly understand the significance of them; I knew they were places where people used to go to draw water, or ask to be healed. But even then, they set up a profound resonance in my psyche.

In my late teens, having learned to drive, my then-boyfriend and I plotted all the wells we could find on large scale maps of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Cornwall, and drove each weekend to visit some. I think it was about then that I also started to clear some of them, the deeply-neglected ones, out, physically, as personal inner practice.

I already knew it was a symbolic gesture as well as a physical one, but my thinking on it wasn’t clear.

It wasn’t until I read the various versions of what later became loosely grouped together as the Grail corpus in their original languages of Middle Welsh and Mediaeval French at Cambridge when I was 20 that I started to really understand the impetus. I already knew the stories, along with the Welsh Mabinogi which preserves older versions of some of these tales, from my childhood, growing up in a deeply Celtic family.

Ten years later, partway through my training in Transpersonal counselling, rooted in Jungian and archetypal psychology, I had a personal revelation – two, in fact – in relation to the Grail legends that turned my life around, and out of which all my further work would grow and continues to grow. Everything came into focus at that time for me.

I’ve written of this in my first book Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey, so won’t repeat it all here.

That book was commissioned by the then leading mind body spirit publishing house, Element Books, in 1993. 

The book came out of some workshops I began leading in 1991 on ‘Myth as Metaphor’. I’ve never known quite what umbrella term to use for them; I used to refer to them as Personal Mythology workshops (this was a label used by some people working in a similar field, though in a different way, in the States), or the Psychology of Myth. Later on, it seemed they would almost fit the title of ‘narrative therapy’, also from the States (but in my case with a psychospiritual element and with a wider brief than the health of the individual alone; although of course a healthy individual will be contributing that health to the whole).*

The model I was using in those days was Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’. I retitled it ‘The Heroic Quest’ and adapted it for an equal focus on the differing needs of the feminine principle, so incorporating other myths and also ideas drawn from symbolic systems such as the Tarot, and Jungian-based astrological psychology, both of which I’d studied.

 In the intervening years, I've revisioned it a few times.

I’ve led many workshops in the decades since on different aspects of myth and the psyche, and how it informs the way we live, but they all had the same theme at core. 

Basically, I was and am still trying to draw attention to the fact that, in my belief, the planetary state of our land and waters was – is – at least in the Western world a direct result and reflection of a gross neglect, violation of, the needs of the ‘lost feminine’ in our culture, and therefore of course in our collective psyche/s (for they are so utterly interwoven). 

Some, including Jung and various Jungians, and myself, too, call this principle ‘soul’, or anima, which has long been associated with the feminine principle in the psyche (whichever outward gender we identify with, each of us has that psychological transsexual component; this is really important to understand).

Simplistically speaking, the characteristics of ‘soul’, as opposed to what has long been identified with ‘spirit’/the masculine principle, are the complementary ones to the latter’s valuing of the qualities of the rational mind, logic, goals and objectives, achievements, light, height, the macro and abstract, ‘straight line thinking’ etc (remember I’m not talking about men but about a mode of being in the world).

The feminine principle demonstrates rather navigating by intuition, imagination, feelings, the subconscious realm, darkness, moistness, depth, circuitousness, the micro and particular, being rather than doing. The irrational, in this way of being, is not something to be avoided or feared. 

While I’m speaking in stereotypes here, this is a hugely important concept that lies beneath, I think, much binary thinking as well as suppression, shadow projection, and hate. 

For me, a key question to changing the future, even the world, is can we move forward through thinking in terms of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’?

Those early workshops of mine were rooted in the myths, the ‘big’ myths, that have shaped significant aspects of European and our collective psyche/s.

For a little while, around the time that the collection of stories now known in their more sophisticated forms as the Grail legends were being carried by troubadours, minnesingers and bards around the courts of Europe, the feminine principle was brought up from its long oppression back into the light. (Remember that the place of women, from the warrior-cult Bronze Age onwards at the least, until the early centuries of the last millennium, and afterwards, too, was only and firmly in the home, and that they – we – were basically tools to be bartered for land, status, goods, etcetera. We’re still not out of the Dark Ages in many parts of the world, including the so-called developed world, in relation to this.) 

We have Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Courts of Love to thank for this (I explore this in part of my novel Imago, written in 1994 but not published till 2011). There’s an enormous amount to say about this; some of which I’ve written about in both books mentioned and in essays, and also, I see, several times in the nearly 7 years I’ve been writing this blog.

These stories are a remarkable collection, for their time, of wisdom about the need for a synthesis, an equality, a co-rulership, of King and Queen, masculine and feminine principles, both. For a little while in the early part of the last millennium, the divine feminine as well as Woman was restored to her rightful place in the psyche and our Western culture; though in two or so short centuries after that the European witch hunts would make sure that was stamped on. At the Enlightenment, this persecution continued; albeit in a very different and generally more subtle – and insidious – form.

Anyway, there is a passage in some of the Grail myths that leaped out at me, and of which I wrote at length in the books above.

In it, the Grail maidens, the guardians of the wells – which of course provide the waters utterly necessary for life – have been raped and the wells dry up. Not unconnected with that fact is the incurable wound of the Fisher King, which means that he has no generative powers.

Without water, there is wasteland (it is this motif from the Grail legends that inspired T S Eliot’s poem of that name). Water has always been seen as sacred, for as long as we can fathom; remember there’d have been no piped water in those days – quite apart from its more subtle connections. 

Wells were where we might meet the Otherworld, as well as drinking our fill. Many wells were considered to be healing wells; many still are. In West Cornwall, several wells are still tended. One of them, Sancreed, very close to the origins of my family, I’ve now been visiting for over 40 years on a regular basis and in all that time it's always been tended, with its attendant 'cloutie-tree', a hawthorn, bearing offerings.

The upshot of all this is that though I’ve been writing about this, and leading workshops for 26 whole years now in (amongst other things) how we might restore the ‘lost feminine’ so that the waters may flow, and flow clean, again (symbolically/psychologically, but there is of course a physical correlate that is an urgent and ongoing danger), this is the first time I’ve offered a year-long course in what it might mean to do just this: restore the lost feminine, through the notion of, once more, tending the wells ‘out there’, and tending the wells ‘in here’ too. So it’s exciting to be immersed in this so thoroughly.

It seems to me that at a time when there is so much darkness around, sometimes the best and maybe only thing one can do is to keep on cleaning up, tending the waters, in the individual psyche as well as in the outer world, knowing that it may only be a drop but is still a drop in the Ocean of all Being.

* The Joseph Campbell Foundation in the USA, who contacted me, let me know that in those days they knew of no one else offering such work in GB. Now variations of such work are more prevalent (and some people have kindly credited me with being an influence, either through my books or through workshops of mine on this theme they’ve attended over the decades). The ripples spread, and the capillaries of the land, metaphorically speaking, are beginning to fill again. The collective psyche is soaking it all up. Let’s hope we can give it back in time. 

THE WELLKEEPERS course will happen again next year.

the cloutie-tree at Sancreed

© Roselle Angwin 2017


  1. Thank you for this, Roselle. You're doing such important work, and I'm really inspired to reread RTD now.

  2. How kind of you, Therese. Thank you so much!


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