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

Friday, 14 January 2011

holy wells & the Celtic tradition

I have been thinking a lot lately about the 'anam cara', the 'soul friend' (not to be confused with 'soul mate' – though if those two coincide, then you are truly blessed).

The late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue was at least in part responsible for bringing that Celtic concept to modern attention; but the passage I was looking for in his book of that title could not be found (actually I couldn't find the book either). So I shall leave that for another time.

Meantime, in his book Eternal Echoes – exploring our hunger to belong (in many ways, I feel, a stronger book), I was waylaid by a reminder of my at-the-moment-latent (ie not actively active) passion for holy wells.

As a teenager with my first boyfriend and a car we'd bought for a tenner – was it a little Austin A40? A30? – it ended up as a duckhouse! – we travelled the leylines and holy wells of Exmoor, Dartmoor and my native West Cornwall, mapping them and, more importantly for me, cleaning them out. I saw this rather vaguely as 'practice' – though I wouldn't have used that word then; but I guess now it was a symbolic gesture towards care of the earth and spiritual awareness of the importance of the waters of the world, on many levels.

Later,  in my studies of the Grail legends both at university (often stumbling through the original mediaeval Welsh!) and in my later training in transpersonal psychology, which is rooted in aspects of Jungian thought, I started to realise the true symbolic significance of water and wells (we already know about the material significance). In the Grail legends (which are a Christianised version of much older pagan truths), from this perspective, water represents the 'feminine' principle and 'heart', as opposed to 'head', values: the importance of the feeling nature, of soul, of the imagination, and of the sense of relatedness, cooperation and belonging, crudely put. In the legends, the land has been laid waste and the well maidens raped; and what is needed is a restoration of counterbalancing qualities to pair with those of reason, personal achievement, the sense of a separate self,  and 'forging ahead', 'progress', no matter what the cost. (Again, crudely.) There is much information on all this in many Jungian and post-Jungian texts, and some novelists, like Lindsay Clarke, speak of the restoration of this part of human nature alongside our restoration of relationship with the earth. (In my first book, Riding the Dragon – myth and the inner journey, I devote some space to all this.)

And a well is a healing place.

You may know that in parts of the UK – often of course the Celtic parts, but not exclusively (eg Derbyshire) – well-dressing is alive and – well, well. Going to some of the holy wells in West Cornwall, of which a couple are very dear to my heart, one goes to a shrine that is clearly loved and tended by many people. This is heartening. It's also an exchange. And still, sometimes, I find myself making a small pilgrimage to a lost or forgotten well, clearing it, sitting by it awhile. How would it be for more of us to do this? – And quite possibly there are already many who do, quietly, on their own. Clearly, this will not solve the world's problems; but it might go some way towards adding to an attitude of working with, rather than against, the natural world.

I leave you with some thoughts from J O'D: 'The Celtic tradition recognised that we need to invoke blessing on our suffering and pain. It is wrong to portray Celtic spirituality as a tradition of light, brightness and goodness alone; this is soft spirituality. The Celtic tradition had a strong sense of the threat and terror of suffering. One of the lovely rituals was the visit to the holy well. These wells were openings in the earth-body of the goddess... It is quite a poignant thing in a bleak, stolid [mountain] landscape to find these little oases of tenderness bedecked with personal mementoes, where people have come for centuries to the goddesses of the earth looking for healing...'

Coda, a bit later: walking the long way home (about 8 miles!) on lanes, footpaths and byways from dropping the car at the garage, I thought I'd check out for the first time in about a year the ancient Leechwells in the old part of Totnes, so took a diversion. I'm delighted to report that they are being cared for: there were three little scented red candles (tealights) burning on the lip of the main well.

This in itself, of course, was also a diversion from work, so back to it...

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