This is an article I wrote some years ago for the Pagan Federation South Central Newsletter, about wells and springs. I was inspired to republish it by the recent announcement of a new charity, called The Flowing Britain Trust, dedicated to the sources of natural drinking water in Britain.
Wells and springs are special places, where life-giving waters rise from secret underground places into the light of day. When the waters flow, life is abundant, but when the wells dry up all living things suffer. It is no wonder that they have been considered sacred or holy places. Where I live, some of the springs have been co-opted into the modern water system, so that you might find a sealed reservoir covering a spring, but there are still plenty remaining open, some well known and some hidden away, and I think they are well worth visiting and honouring!
There is an old story about wells which I like. It comes down to us as a kind of prequel to the tales of King Arthur and his knights. The story tells of a time when there were voices in the wells – the voices of maidens who lived in the wells and served there. Perhaps they were otherworld maidens, or maybe priestesses serving at the well – the story doesn’t say.
These maidens would give food and drink to anyone who came to the well and asked for it. Hungry wayfarers would go to a well and ask for what they desired, and the maidens would appear and joyfully serve them food and drink from silver plates and cups of gold.
It was the king’s duty to protect and maintain the maidens, but one day an evil and cowardly king came to power, and instead of protecting them he ended up attacking one of the maidens, forcing himself on her and then stealing her gold cup for his own use. When the king’s men saw how the king had treated the maiden, they followed his example, until soon no maiden would come out from the wells and serve travelers.
In this way the people lost the voices of the wells, and in the words of the story, the kingdom of Britain turned to loss, the land dead and desert so that it was scarcely worth a couple of hazelnuts.
It was not until the time of King Arthur that the kingdom was restored. When King Arthur’s knights heard the story of the voices of the wells, they all decided to swear an oath to protect the maidens who had been put out of the wells, and to find and return the cups that had been carried away, and to destroy those who had harmed the maidens. It took them many adventures, but in the end they managed to restore the land to its former richness.
To me this story is full of allusions to spiritual and ecological issues revolving around our relationship to the land we live in. If we act like Arthur’s knights, protecting and maintaining the maidens, then the land will be rich. Perhaps this means to protect and honour our natural environment, and to seek out the sacred mystery that is concealed in the depths of the everyday. If instead we act like the evil king, driven by greed to degrade the sacred for our own appetites, then a wasteland awaits us.
So next time you pass a well or a spring, pause a little while and listen for the voices.
The story of the Voices in the Well is found in The Elucidation, an anonymous prologue appended to Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval. A Translation is given here: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/elucidation.html
For more on St John’s Well visit http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/58882