- a collection of essays on Neodruidic Studies
- a journal of Post-Reconstructionist Neopaganism

Monday, March 21, 2011


My lifelong love affair with springs

When I was a boy, young as perhaps only five or six, I had begun playing in a stream that seeped down through the woods covering the hillside behind my house. That little stream winds far back into my earliest memories. I’ve always felt especially fortunate that I had it there to visit and explore, and also for the most wonderful blessing of all: yes, I had at my access the spring from which it flowed.

"The Crick" as we called it, seeped down the hill, out of the woods, and through our neighbors yard. It was not continuously deep enough to support the presence of minnows but there were tiny freshwater shrimp in the water as well as slippery wriggling salamanders and ferocious crayfish to be hunted-out from under the larger flat stones in the stream-bed. Countless hours of my youth were spent cleaning out the muck and sticks and leaves, making miniature channels, dams and pathways of stepping-stones. After rearranging the spring-head itself, the area where the waters of the stream gently welled out of the ground, there was always that endless wait, the eternity which passed while the muddiness settled out of the water to finally return to clarity again. Often the wait was just too much for me and I'd go away for a while and, upon coming back later, at last, there it was...

As the last of the yellowy haze cleared from the pool of my spring, there it was, that magical place where the clear water was arriving and replacing the cloudy water which was the spring itself. The surface of the water directly over the source welled-up ever so slightly above it and tiny particles of rock danced below in the spring’s aperture on the muddy bottom of the stream-head pool. That tiny fissure, pierced through with golden threads of sunlight, was a gateway to my imagination and even returned at night to haunt my dreams. As a matter of fact, that spring and others often figure in my dreams to this very day, especially when the seasons wind down their long road toward the end of the winter weather.

Each year as winter ended there would be a flurry of activity at my stream. Several times a week, even daily, I'd be back there happily playing in the mud and water. As the days drew on to summertime and school finally ended there would be even more time to go to the woods. Sadly though, by the middle of June my expeditions would be curtailed by the fearful clouds of mosquitoes that now occupied the streamside around the spring. Later trips in the dregs of summer revealed that most of the mosquitoes had finally left, yet alarmingly, so had the water.

Now this the part of the story where you’d expect me to tell you how time and distance came between me and that stream and that "when I was a man, I put away childish things" and the like. Well, that’s not how it went. As I grew older, the richness of the landscape around my childhood home became even more valuable to me. In my teens the mystical, poetic part of me that was developing came to further rely on it rather than rejecting it as many of my friends had done. Through wave after wave of discovery, inspiration and heartbreak it remained the palette upon which I mixed the ever-changing colors of my vision of the world.

Three decades have come and gone yet hardly a year has passed that I haven't returned to the stream and its little spring. Its remarkable how the old obsession still grabs me. All I have to do is to lift-away one stick or reposition one errant stone and that’s it... Hours later as the twilight fades to dark I return home with sore and muddy knees, hands tender from the drying effects of the mud, fingernails ringed with yellow clay and a heart strangely settled and comforted, once more reconnected with the landscape.

A spring  high on the wooded slopes of the Tor at Fairview, a recent discovery of ours...

In the old days there was a feeling I had, one I now can define more clearly because of my current detachment from its source. It was a semi-logical assumption that as I looked around myself, here and there in the green between the roads and houses - all those separate patches of woodland running up and over the hills out of sight? Somehow surely it all was still linked eventually to the Great Wilderness Beyond. Yes, and surely it remained "interconnected-back" as well, right back into the neighborhood around me. It was as if there was a continuous network where the extended bodies of nature and humanity lived side by side, interlaced in peaceful co-existence.

Sadly, I don’t have that feeling anymore. It seems a direct result of the fact that a couple years ago, for the first time in my life, I became a full-time city-dweller. At length I’ve found that living just a few miles further from the countryside has begun to weigh upon me in unmistakable ways. The density of people per square mile now and the simple tipping of the balance of the quantity and constancy of things-human dominating ones visual field, it leaves me knowing that the occasional patches of green I see around me here cant possibly be connected-back to the wild places beyond. They are just cut-off, isolated patches of green, no longer directly connected to the rest, sort of like how I now find myself.

The seasonal call to the woods...

Now, take the above issues of location and combine them with an annual factor of timing and you can see why it is that I find myself in a considerable state of distress every year as we plod our way through to the end of winter. By the time February has come and gone, the matter of whether one likes or dislikes winter is somewhat beside the point. Call it cabin fever, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or just a General Lack of Outside, it adds up to a virtually toxic level within me and just gets to be, well, too much...

Too much inside.
Too much humanness.
Too much exposure to things that 
have been made instead of happened.

Too much Media. Too much language. 
Too much art. Too much artifice.
Too much intentionality. 
Too much falseness... 

Too much you; too much me.

Too, too 

Not enough... 

Not enough 

Not enough 
of the 
awesomely profound
of the 

And once again 
I awake 
from one of those dreams...

and I know.
in the woods 
there is a little creek,
seeping down the hillside
and at its head, 
there is a spring...

I hear it
calling me.

©2005, 2011 Earrach of Pittsburgh

 Hard running spring in the Boyce-Mayview woods (click HERE for VIDEO) earrach (c)2012


A Holy Well;  
a Sacred Spring. . .

The very words evoke a sense of ancient, cthonic, underworldly power. Nourishing, revivifying and vitalizing, the Waters from Under the Earth bubble up and flow out to us; offering us renewal and purification. The places where the Waters Below enter the Middle World (wherein we dwell) were always considered a site of the greatest sanctity by our ancestors.  And so they still should be. . . 

Have you ever visited a natural spring? Do you frequent any regularly? If not, you may be surprised to learn that they are far more common than you may think. That annoying ever-present wet patch on your driveway or the damp spot along the basement wall are actually gentle reminders from the World Below that the waters are always with us, despite the grand illusions of our modern world. 

Perhaps, like myself as a child, you and your friends played in a wooded area that was graced by a stream and its spring. Do you remember the time you first discovered the stream’s source? Do you remember clearing aside the leaves and sticks and muck to reveal -amidst the muddiness- the constant, gentle upwelling of pure clear water? Do most of us share that memory? If you do not, then please consider acquiring it; it is one of the most simple, pure and inspiring sights in the natural world. It connects us to the Earth and Her great underlying, supportive and surrounding mystery; one in which we may still share as our ancestors did in days gone by.

There’s no more “grounding” of an activity that I can think of than that of working in the waters of a stream at or near its source. Beyond the basic utility of having a clean, well- (sorry,) kept, spring for their source of household water, the members of the old-time communities certainly felt much the same and this was reflected in the wealth of lore and folk-practices associated with the thousands of Holy Wells scattered over the British Isles and throughout Europe and beyond. 

Many learned volumes have been dedicated to the study of this material over the centuries; from the classical period down through the Celtic Revival of the Victorian period to the contemporary literature currently available in our libraries and bookstores. We hear from the Roman poet Lucan (C.E. 39-65,) of the haunting Celtic sacred sanctuary built over “-the many dark springs running there . . .” and the grand temple to the (originally Celtic-) Goddess of the sacred spring Sulis  by the Romans in  what is now the city of Bath in southern England. The God/dess names Don, or Danu (with their progeny, the celestial tribe- the Tuatha de Dannan ) survive to show us the sanctity of their rivers and presumably, their sources:  the Don, the Donau, and the Danube. The river Seine derives from the goddess Sequana  and the Marne from Matrona, “Divine Mother”.  In Ireland among others we have the Boyne (the goddess Boann, or B√≥inn ), the Dee (the goddess, or the holy one ) and the Shannon (the goddess Sinainn ) and from Wales, a pool known as Llyn Gwyddior, “pool of the grove sacred to the deity”.

Returning now to the smaller, local scale, we find that it is most common for a sacred spring or holy well to be named after some Christian saint; often a saint with some local history or patronage connection to the area. Long ago the pre-Christian name of the site was either replaced outright or the Celtic or other archaic patron was assimilated into the character of a Christian saint who was actually selected for its fit with the predecessor’s characteristics. This process reflects the process of cultural assimilation which has been going on in western cultures for literally several thousand years; the Christians, the Romans, and the Celts all knew that, whenever possible, the peaceful take-over of an indigenous culture through integration, cultural translation and assimilation was usually the most profitable and long lasting.  As the Celts arrived in Western Europe through the first millennium B.C.E., local deities, feasts and sacred placenames were “celtisized”; later the Romans extensively “romanized” the realm; and finally the Christians “christ-ianized” it. In the latter case we actually have “hard” documentary proof of this from the Venerable Bede’s A History of the English Church and People (C.E. 731). Bede recounts word for word, a letter of the year 601 C.E., sent from Pope Gregory to the Abbot Mellitus on his departure for Britain instructing him to inform Bishop Augustine of  Kent that-

“...the temples of the idols among that people are on no account to be destroyed...  they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, the people seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error, and flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God...
..let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of dedication or the festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there.  ...you are to inform our brother Augustine of this policy, so that he may consider how best to implement it on the spot.... ”

Needless to say; in those days, when the Pope said to do something a certain way, it was done that way.

The Old World custom of Well Dressing 
as  a modern Druidic devotional practice...

I.   “How do I find a suitable spring?”
(CAUTION: 6th-grade science class ahead...)

A.  First, get the concept.  Springs occur, usually on the side of a hill or incline, where the water-table emerges from the slope and the water seeps out and down, forming a rivulet or rudimentary stream bed. The water-table occurs at a layer of rock or clay of significantly higher density (or lower void and/or fracture -count) than the more spongy, porous layers of strata above it. This layer serves then to resist and collect along its surface most of the water filtering down through the upper layers of earth and rock. 

Try to “read” your local geology by familiarizing yourself with the sequence of the various layers of rock exposed at nearby road-cuts.  If you find springs or signs of an exposed water-table, take note of the underlying, water-resisting strata- following or watching for it in your chosen areas may lead you to springs. SECRET: in the wintertime, in deep local road-cuts, observe the ice-cascades that form on the cliff faces. They will show you how far the water is getting before it is forced out of the porous rock into the frigid air when trying to flow out and past the impermeable layers: the ice cascades start or restart at each impermeable/water-resistant layer. Knowing the kind of local rock-layers that hold-back and collect water above them is an excellent clue in the finding or predicting the location of springs.

Because of the wide-spread presence of mine-acid seepage in some districts, caution must be exercised in all but the very highest local altitudes; so look to larger areas of high ground for your spring, particularly high on wooded slopes, far from the river-valleys or deep local stream valleys. There is much ground water to be found in the valleys, flats and low-lying meadows but some (much-) of that is tainted with the chemical and biological signatures of septic-tanks and agricultural and industrial run-offs. Hmmm?  You say you’ve heard this all before? –

“Take that out of your mouth --
 It’s    D   I   R   T  Y  !”   
(thus spake Mommy.)

Well... nonetheless; in spite of the prevailing People-vs-Nature dualism that drives our culture, it is possible to find drinkable local spring water at-the-source which involves a much lower risk factor than Mommy would ever want you to believe. 

II. “Is it really safe to drink?”

Is crossing the street “safe”? The risk of ingesting harmful organisms such as giardia cysts and certain protozoae and bacteria is a real possibility, yet if reasonable precautions are taken, the true danger is minimal. We are after all, animals, like the rest of our companions on this planet, and we are well prepared biologically for such things or our species wouldn’t still be here in the first place. 
RULE #1:  Don’t drink from standing water. Always collect from as close to the underground source of flow as possible. It is most advisable to collect during periods of greatest flow; say a day or so after a rainy period or snow melt. 

RULE #2:  When possible, filter the particulate matter from your water with an efficient filtration system. Whatever filtration you can manage is always better than no filtration. Some discount stores are offering systems combining cellulose and activated charcoal filtration for as low as $10 or less. Truly “safe” filtration systems can be had from high-tech camping/backpacking suppliers, but alas, for dozens to literally hundreds of dollars.

RULE #3:  For obvious reasons, keep it cold and don’t keep it too long.  

RULE #4:  Don’t worry; be happy. 
Either take the big chance of doing it the way our species has done it for the last three million years, or don’t do it and go back to the safety of bottled water, commercial air-flight and drunk-free highways. Got it?

III. “What is Well-Dressing?”

Traditionally, the term “Well-Dressing” refers to the practice of ceremoniously decorating certain holy-wells (flowing springs with attendant masonry) with flowers and various other devices in celebration of the feast day of the Christian saint to which the well is dedicated. Here though, we will use the term to describe the range of custodial, aesthetic and devotional activities we may apply to our own, personal, holy-well.


Clean it out, clean it up; cleanliness is next to godsliness. Get wet; get muddy; reach way back there and get all those leaves and organic matter out of there till there’s nothing there but gravel, rocks and clay. Do realize though, that in removing the matter that's been choking the mouth of the spring you will be encouraging a more rapid drainage at its head, thereby incurring some destructive erosion where you least desire it. The remedy for this is to either to create a stone culvert by lining its mouth-cavity with tightly fitting flagstones or, to install a horizontal spout-pipe of either steel, ceramic, or plastic. The former is the traditional method and many examples of the structural styles are available in the literature. At the very least, the latter is desirable in that it affords an elevated stream that you can get a collecting vessel (jug/cauldron) underneath when you wish. For either style, a small collecting pool is in order, positioned slightly beyond and below-of the primary outflow. This receives and contains the outpouring flow and hinders the progress of erosion. It in turn should have its own overflow pipelet or erosion resistant drainage channel.


Somewhere immediately adjacent to the mouth of your spring - either the lintel stone over the opening, or on its shoulder to either side of the opening- there should be flat stone surfaces to serve as altar-shelves for setting idols, flowers, incense or other offerings. The positioning of these surfaces should be such that they are clearly within the “sacred precinct” of the spring. That is to say, the more closely associated with the magical place where the gift of the underworld first reaches our middle-world, the more potent the relationship and interaction which may be achieved.  
Statuary, although a good idea, is best if  it is kept simple and truly archaic in style. One primary carved figure; perhaps just a head or a triple spiral to represent the Genius Locii (spirits of place) would be sufficient in most cases. Another appropriate motif would involve a set of three simple figures to represent a triad of deities or deity-aspects to be associated with the site. 

The immediate area surrounding the spring may be enhanced by the introduction of various ferns and mosses as are found growing locally as well as any special herbs (mint is a good one,) that you may wish to encourage to grow there. Remember that generally, plants know where to grow much better than we know where is best for them, so don’t be surprised if a plant from the meadow just doesn’t want to grow in the woods or vice-versa. A privacy-hedge of rosebushes or forsythia is often a good idea. Some of the traditional trees to plant over a sacred well are Hazel, Oak, Rowan (Mountain-Ash), and Willow. 

If you are fortunate enough to control the land on which the spring is located, a simple sitting-stone or stone meditation-bench would be a nice touch. Don’t forget- whatever you create should end up looking totally appropriate to its surroundings and certainly should not convey the sense of being a “scar on the landscape”. To avoid such an unhappy result, open yourself to the guidance of the earth and water and vegetation spirits with which you are working. What they want and inevitably may guide you to is more important than your original “Better Homes and Gardens” intentions.


Offerings, Cleansing, Healing and 
Magical Communication with the Underworld

We hear of many folk-practices involving specific ritual acts to be performed at certain holy-wells; often to be done at or before sunrise on specific holy-days (the Carmina Gaedelica gives several examples). These well-rites, however simple, usually involved the deposition of offerings, at or into the waters. The nature of these sacrifices range from the most modest to elaborate and valuable objects and substances. Many pre-Christian Celtic well-offering sites seem to favor silver coins, silver jewelry and votive figures. Healing springs frequented by the Celts have been excavated and found to be literally choked with hundreds of wooden figurines, busts, whole statuettes and many more simply-carved representations of injured or ailing limbs or  body-parts. Possibly these represented the offering-party herself or himself, symbolically casting themselves into the sacred waters to thereby be borne-up and continually bathed in the healing power of the dark, pure inner source. 

It is best to always bring an offering for your spring of, flowers, silver coins or incense. On certain holy-days, special, more elaborate offerings can be made, Your ritual actions should include calling to the spirit of the spring/well, giving thanks and praise to it and presenting the gift(s) you have brought. Your offerings made, it is then allowable to ask special favors of the well-spirit. A common action is to ritually cleanse or purify yourself and/or special objects you have brought with you. Certainly there is no better way to ritually cleanse yourself, others, or important objects, than to conduct an operation of focused magical intention as that subject or object is immersed in the waters flowing into this world from the Source Below. 

Worldly and otherworldly vision can be greatly enhanced by bathing your eyes at the spring. This is also true for the portals of your other senses as well. As hinted at earlier, such an extraordinary grounding effect may be achieved  that these are operations best approached with caution. A person seeking psychic healing or freedom from a contaminating influence may find dramatic results by bathing or immersing their head directly in the waters of the spring. Again, note: the closer to the source of the waters, the more effective. In cases of extreme need, a litter may be set up at the wellhead to position the subject such that the waters pour directly from the spout onto the person’s forehead as they meditate or are inducted into trance. Do be cautious though, work only a little at a time: too much of the waters may carry away more than just negative energies.

Living creatures which abide in holy-wells have often been designated as custodians or caretakers of these thresholds between the worlds. Several Celtic stories recount to us of a saintly fish which dwells in the depths of the holy-well pool. Fintan -the Salmon of Knowledge was but one of these known to answer questions and impart all the wisdom of the Three Worlds. He may be invoked through the persons of any fish living in or close-by your spring. As the stories go, all too often the poor finny ambassador ended up rendering his magic by being eaten by the subject of the story. If eaten by the appropriate lady, a wondrous birth would follow. 


Other than the living organic creatures that may dwell in and around a spring, the worldly and otherworldly spirit(s) of the spring and its site are of primary importance to one’s conduct and relationship with the spring.  As always when working with the spiritual and magical, one needs to develop not only ones sensitivity to these realms but just as importantly, one needs to culture the faculty of discernment. To truly apprehend the spirit of a place or object one should be able to tell the difference between the products or effects of one’s own personality and of entities the existence of whom is largely independent of our own.  Such an ability, if not occurring as a natural talent, can take much study and work in spiritual disciplines to achieve. Talent does not necessarily come with wisdom so we are all better off proceeding with both our vision and skepticism. 


© 1995,2003 Earrach of Pittsburgh

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