Sacred Water, Sacred Wells

I recently visited a local Sacred Well.  Unlike other Holy Wells in Connemara, this one is no longer visited for a ‘pattern’ or for a saint’s day.  It is largely forgotten and ignored and as far as I know, I am the only person who visits it.  I go to it for a number of reasons, not least because it is SO beautiful, so magical and so neglected.  I love opportunities to connect with the land in different ways and to connect with my ancestors and visiting a well like this enables me to do those things.

There are Holy Wells all over Ireland and the majority are associated with saints and their healing powers.  One holy well might relieve headaches and another holy well might relieve blindness or stomach aches or some other ailment.  Almost every well in Ireland has a tree close by, more often than not Hawthorn but you might also find Ash, Holly and Oak. If the well had a reputation of offering healing and was associated with a saint, people would perform a “pattern” – a ritual walk around the well saying prayers.  The people would walk deosil or sunwise as they prayed and made offerings, perhaps a coin or something else precious to them;  and if they had a problem with their health, they would wrap a rag or cloutie on to the tree close by.  This little rag symbolised the ailment they hoped would be healed and as it rotted away, so would their ailment go; or perhaps they might leave rosary beads or a holy medal tied to the tree as an offering.

It has saddened me very much when I have seen plastic tied to a tree.  Once in Meath, close to the Lough Crew monument, there was a stand of Hawthorn trees covered in clouties made from black bin bags!!!  Obviously a group of people used something handy – perhaps a black bin bag from a coach on tour – but to my mind this was totally disrespectful to the trees and to the spirit of the land as well as to the Goddess that the monument celebrates.

In Irish mythology there are several tales of magical wells.  One of the most well known is in the cycle of tales about the Fianna, a band of warriors led by Fionn Mac Cumhail.  The story tells us that a Hazel tree, (that was the first thing to exist in the universe and contained  all the knowledge within the universe), was growing close to a well known as an Tobar Segais – The Well of Knowledge.  This was because hazel nuts would fall into it.  A beautiful salmon lived at the bottom of the well and had eaten some of the nuts, consequently becoming the Salmon of Knowledge.  By accident or perhaps it was fate(?) Fionn tasted the salmon and was immediately filled with all of the  knowledge of the Salmon, the Well and the Hazel tree – you will have to read the story for yourself!

Another story tells of Bóann, a young goddess who wondered why she was not allowed to go to her husband Nechtan’s Well of Inspiration.  No one was permitted to visit this well apart from Nechtan, (it being the same well where the Salmon of Knowledge  had lived) as it could be dangerous to approach because the water would gush out and cause injury.   Bóann decided to break the taboo because she knew that this well was the Source of All Wisdom and contained the Mother River of all the rivers of the world.  She approached counterclockwise and the waters of the well rose up and burst out becoming the mighty Rover Boyne, washing Bóann down to the sea.  There are other endings to this story that you may like to search out.

There is a similar story about the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.  Another young goddess, Sionnan also went to visit the Well of Inspiration and when she lifted the lid of the well, the waters gushed out, flowing rapidly and drowning Sionnan.  The rapidly rushing water became the River Shannon. These young goddesses did not die though, they were transformed through the knowledge they obtained and became immortal.

 

For the ancient Irish, Water was a sacred element.  It flowed through rock and opened the earth and it was believed that it must have magical powers and the ability to connect this world with the Other World.  The people then, knew of course, that water was life and that water was healing.  After all, we began life swimming within the womb and without water our worlds, inner and outer, would not exist.  Water is the universal solvent so it can dissolve rock and metal, it can wear away large areas of land and can evaporate into steam or fog, seemingly to disappear.  Water can hold memories and perhaps that is why the Sacred Wells are so important, as they connect us to a past when we knew the Earth was alive and so were the trees and the plants and the stones and of course, Water itself.

Water has been used since antiquity to cleanse and to bless, to purify and renew, to wash away and release.  We can tell our problems to a stick or write them on a piece of paper our and let it go in the water.  As it is washed away to the sea, so is the problem washed away.  This is a very therapeutic ritual.  The element of Water is associated with the Moon and many of us can feel the pull of the moon, at certain times, affecting our emotions.  Perhaps this is because Water represents our emotional body which should be flowing freely rather than becoming stagnant and causing us harm. By tuning in to our watery side we can release negative emotions and restore flow to our psyche.  Speaking of the psyche,  Water connects us to our deep unconscious – the place where our souls know everything,  In ancient Ireland poets connected to the element of Water for creativity,

“…the place where poetry was revealed was upon the brink of water..” (John Matthews.) www.hallowquest.org.uk/  Those liminal places, shorelines, river banks, by the side of a lake (or by the River Boyne – above) were the places where three elements came together – Air, Earth and Water – and created a magical place of otherworldliness and inspiration.

On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, Water is placed in the West at the Autumn Equinox.  According to Tom Cowan,  wp.riverdrum.com/?page_id=6 “…water runs downward into the Earth, like the setting sun…(it) seeks its resting point as the sun seeks its evening rest below the horizon”.  The Equinoxes represent balance and at the  Autumn Equinox, Water represents balance as it finds its level in any container. The  Autumn Equinox is a time when we can experience balance as we take time to reconnect with our deep inner selves.

As Water is indeed a Sacred element I would encourage anyone to remember that and to bring that sacredness into the mundane.. Bless the water before drinking or using for cooking and contemplate gratitude because water IS life.  When you wash or bathe bless the Water with thanks for its cleansing and purifying, soothing and rejuvenating qualities.   Be mindful of how many times a day you use water and give thanks.  Can you show your appreciation by cleaning up a beach or riverside?  Spend time with a favourite body of water and see if you can sense the spirits that reside there.  Can Water tell you anything you need to know – after all it has been used for divination throughout history.  If you have access to a well or to a spring, revive the custom of decorating it with flowers and leaving votive offerings such as coins or a gift from Nature such as a pebble or shell.

In these troubled times I will leave you with some words of wisdom from the Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, www.johnodonohue.com/

“Water enjoys freedom.  It disperses itself evenly wherever it lies.  There are no entanglements or nets at the heart of water.  It does not know the conflict and contradiction of differentiation.  Sometimes the presence and effect of friendship and love is like the dissolution that water brings.  Love unties and dissolves whatever is caught, hardened or entangled.”

 

 

An Bhean Feasa – The Power of the Elements

We have all heard of the four Elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Generally we give little thought to them, tending to take them for granted, even though they are part of our bodies and part of life itself.  Medieval herbalists were aware of the impact of the elements on herbs and prescribed accordingly. Each herb or plant is governed or ruled by one of the Elements and as each person is a combination of all the Elements, it is necessary to know something about them. Furthermore, to bring healing to a person it was necessary to bring that person back into balance, thus ensuring that Earth, Air, Fire and Water were balanced within the person.

Take water for example.

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We just turn on the tap and there it is – no effort involved at all.  How lucky are we to be able to do that and get clean water so easily?  The average person, depending on climate, environment and personal health can only survive three to five days, (a week at most) without water and yet we never really think about it, unless we are giving out about the rain. Of course water, being an element, is also wild and unrestrained,

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You can just see the white horses or foam on the waves as they are coming in to shore, blown by strong wind.

The Water Element rules our Emotional Body, our feelings, which can be calm and placid or wild and surging.  On the physical level it corresponds to our kidneys, urinary system, lymph system, mucous membranes, sinus, lungs and reproductive system. For example we may suffer with frequent urination or with congested lungs which might indicate we have an excess of the Water Element.  Alternatively, we might have dry sinuses, dry skin or poor lymph flow which might suggest we have too little of the Water Element.  Various plants can be used to reduce or increase the effects of the Element of Water, plants such as Marshmallow, Calendula, Mugwort and Cleavers.

 

IMG_1911    Calendula

 

When it comes to the Element of Air, I personally find it difficult to deal with the strong winds we get here, living on the coast in Connemara.  My husband captured this frustration perfectly in this picture.

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This element tires me out and makes working outside difficult. Look what it can do to the little Hawthorn tree; blown sideways – maybe there’s a metaphorical message there!

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Yet the Element of Air supplies us with the air we need to breathe, flooding our cells with oxygen.  Without air we would be dead within a couple of minutes. Perhaps because breathing is carried out by the autonomous nervous system – we don’t have to think to do it – and because we don’t see air, we don’t think about it.

The Element of Air corresponds to mental inspiration and is associated with the Mental Body, our thoughts and ideas and as such can affect the brain, the nervous system and the adrenal glands; and physically the large intestine and the joints.  An excess of the Air Element can cause stress and anxiety, insomnia, asthma, mental illness and a deficiency can lead to adrenal fatigue, weakness, lack of motivation and even depression.  Plants that can help to address an imbalance are Borage, Skullcap, Chamomile and Valerian.

Chamaemelum_nobile_001IMG_1907Chamomile and Borage

 

 Earth is the element which represents security, grounding and nourishment

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We need good nourishment for the building of the Physical or Material Body.  The physical structures of the body and some of the organs.  For example, bones, teeth, spine, connective tissue and liver, spleen, skin and intestines. An excess of the Earth element could lead to diabetes, constipation. calcification, tumours, growths and depression.  Too little could result in leaky gut, lethargy, low blood pressure or fluid loss.  Plants associated with the Earth Element are Nettles, Dandelion, Plantain and Yarrow.

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And what about Fire?  How can we possibly be made up of fire?  Herbalists such as Matthew Wood and others would argue that fire is the plasma in our bodies.  We are also used to metaphorical statements such as “fire in your belly”, “the fire within” which relate to our resolve or our energy.

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The Element of Fire relates to our Spiritual Body and how we motivate ourselves.  On a physical level it governs our cardio vascular system, the heart and the blood, as well as the eyes, (gateway to the soul?), the immune system and the gall bladder.  An excess of fire could cause a person to be angry, self-centred and perhaps bullying and physically would manifest as fevers, inflammatory issues, high blood pressure, auto-immune disease and rashes.  Too little of the Fire Element and a person could be easily led, weak willed, have low self-esteem and physically have low energy, anaemia, adrenal fatigue, low libido and parasites as well as a feeling of being old and past it.

Any flowering plant can assist with an imbalance with this element.  Imagine how good a beautiful show of flowers can make you feel energised and uplifted.  Some plant specifics could be Hawthorn, Ginger, Garlic, Motherwort and Angelica.

hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn

Of course, there are many other plants that work to balance each element in the body just as there other manifestations of imbalance.  I find it fascinating to make all the little connections between illness and the elements.

Just out of interest there is also a fifth element – Ether or Aether.  To the ancient Greeks, Ether was the container of the four earthly elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water; a Quintessence. To the Celtic Druids, the fifth element was the spirit or soul of all living things.  It is suggested that the fifth element is the first element because all the others come from Ether and that it is above and beyond the four.  Alchemists have  theorised that the pure refinement of the other elements leads to Quintessence or absolute purity.  The fifth element has also been described as “the possible” and as Love, from which all else comes. It all makes sense to me.

In respect of our health, the Fifth Element is associated with our hearts, our sixth sense and our physical senses and our brain.  An excess could be exemplified by too much day dreaming, being “out of it”, being nervous, disassociated and with a lack of presence.  Perhaps the field or aura has been too open and unprotected and cannot facilitate the ethereal information that is coming through.

Rigid thinking and feeling could be seen as a deficiency of Ether as could a lack of connectedness and a lack of meaning in life.  Fortunately our Green Relations, the plants are there to help.  Sage, Cedar, Sacred Basil, (Tulsi) and entheogens or psycho active plants can help to balance this element within the body and psyche.

There is so much more to this than I can explain.  The Four Elements for example were also considered in relation to the Four Humours and the Four Temperaments when herbalists were treating patients in the past.  Modern day herbalists do not learn these methods today although Chinese medicine does recognise the elements.

In my own personal spirituality, I like to seek the Sacred within the mundane and so I try to remember to acknowledge the elements as I go through my day.  Giving thanks with the candle on the table – with a flame. Appreciating the warmth and heat from the fire in the range.

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Loving the Earth for providing the means to food and for the beauty of all plants.

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I also give thanks for the breath when I do a bit of meditation and bless the water of my shower or bath.

Let me know how you find the elements manifesting in your health or personality or how you acknowledge them.