I was sitting in a surgical centre the other day, waiting for word on a loved one. The waiting area was designed well. In addition to comfortable chairs, lamps and reading materials, it had a large indoor atrium. Sunlight filtered through fern fronds and a good-sized waterfall splashed soothingly down one storey to a grotto-like recessed pond below.
Filled with the heartfelt prayers of others, the pond welcomed my own wish penny on its coin-strewn bottom. With the music of the water in my ears and the sun in my eyes, I sat down to wait and think.
At its simplest, water is made of two atoms of hydrogen bonded with one atom of oxygen. There are almost a billion cubic miles of water on earth, and it exists in three states of matter -- liquid, solid and vapor. Our bodies are two-thirds water and it is one of our most precious resources. Life began in the salty solution of the primordial seas and it is from the waters of our motherís womb that we all issue.
Water flows through many of the world's greatest creation and flood myths. Ever changing, it brings life as well as death. Water take life and land; the relentless force of erosion shapes our globe. Water carries the memory of all it has seen - sun, moon, mountain, cloud. Revered by the Hindu, the Shinto and many others, water absorbs and reflects the vibrations of healing words, songs, prayers and suffering. The Bodhisattva rises from the waters of the soul.
Water is the lifeblood of our Mother, Earth. Her many rivers, lakes, streams and oceans are home to water divinities throughout world tradition. Beyond its necessity for the biological nurturance of life on this planet, water is valued as a source of healing, initiation, knowledge and oracular direction.
The early people of the European continent venerated water as did the Celts who followed. The mutability of water manifested its supernatural nature. Mediating between sky, earth and underworld, water carried the communications of the Otherworld. Places from which water came forth from the earth and the courses upon which it ran were areas of life, sanctity and divine spirit.
In a number of diverse cosmologies, a mountain exists at the centre of the world from which all rivers originate. Features of this centering place include the mountain itself, a fire-altar, a pillar stone, a sacred tree and a well of life -- all possessed in Irish legend by the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath, Ireland. During the mythological accession of Diarmait, son of Cerball, a great hailstorm fell on the Hill of Uisneach. The storm was so great as to leave 12 rivers flowing forever in Ireland.
Rivers also issue forth from sacred wells. Connla's Well is known throughout Irish mythology as the Well of Wisdom. Over Connla grow nine hazel trees that drop their nuts containing wisdom and knowledge to the salmon below. Whosoever drinks the water of the well or eats of the salmon of knowledge shall possess Otherworldly wisdom and inspiration.
Sinann, granddaughter of Lir approached Connla's Well and was drowned by the waters that suddenly rose from the well. The water that drowned Sinann roared on to leave her body on the banks of the river named for her, the River Shannon. Similarly, waters that rose violently from the Well of Segais drowned Boand, wife of Nechtan. Like Sinann, Boand became goddess of the waters named for her, the River Boyne.
Connla's well and the Well of Segais may be synonymous and exist in the secret "white-rimmed" well of Uisneach. Connla's Well is considered the mythological source of the seven chief rivers of Ireland and finds its parallel in Tir Tairnagire, the Otherworldy Land of Promise wherefrom the five rivers of the senses flow.
Surrounded by water, it is not surprising that inhabitants of Ireland, Britain, Scotland and Wales considered water a boundary between this world and that. To go "beyond the seventh wave" was to disappear entirely. Throughout these lands from the Neolithic period forward, rivers, lakes, springs and wells were the cult foci for receiving blessing from Otherworldly entities. Elementally, the nature spirits that inhabit water are called "undines," from the Latin "unda" meaning "a wave."
Some water sources, such as the Chalice Well with its iron rich water in Glastonbury, England were visited for their healing properties. Many other rivers, lakes and wells were sites for the ritual deposition of valuable goods into the water to propitiate resident deities.
The act of throwing costly and beautiful items into the water was both a sacrifice and an offering - a sacrifice from this world and an offering to the Otherworld. Oftentimes ritual damage was done to the offerings undoubtedly to overtly display the faults of man (humility) and to make the votive material less than desirable to would-be thieves.
At Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, 300 weapons and votive objects dating from 1200 to 200 BC were found in the river. At Llyn Cerrig Bach, on the druidic stronghold island of Anglesey, England, a cache of swords, weapons, bronze cauldrons and vehicles of clear pre-Roman origin were discovered in 1942. At the shrine to the indigenous British water goddess Sulis at Bath, more than 16,000 coins were recovered, many of them clipped to make them worthless in this world.
From the River Thames in England came weapons, body armour and the famous Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet all deposited during the Celtic era. The Waterloo Helmet is horned and the shield purely decorative, too thin for use and decorated with red glass.
From springs, wells, lakes and bogs comes a view of the submerged Celtic past - coins, jewelry, metalwork, cauldrons, votive figurines and human heads. The enigmatic Gundestrap Cauldron was discovered in a peat bog in Jutland, Denmark and the Lindow Man, a ritually sacrificed Celtic prince was recovered from Lindow Bog in England. Celtic and pre-Celtic treasure caches have been recovered from Lake Neuchatel at La Tene, Switzerland, Llyn Fawr in Wales, Walbrook Stream, London and Lough Gur in Ireland.
Ireland is replete with wells, once sacred to the goddesses of the land now to the saints. Often located near a solitary hawthorn or ash tree, many wells are densely adorned with token offerings from devotees. Strips of cloth, tied with hope and a prayer, flutter in the trees that stand near.
Today, throughout the world, in parks, plazas, gardens, shopping malls and private homes, it is rare to find a fountain or "wishing well" without a coin laying quietly on the bottom, a silent offering from someone in need.
On reflection, it seems that the two prominent emotional states of the Celtic psyche find a home within a watery metaphor; the melancholic dark of a moonless night over a Lough and the sparkling effervescence of sunlit water droplets -- with little room in between.
But, for today, the word from the surgeon who found me in the atrium was good. As I turned to go, I dropped another coin in the pool and whispered "thank-you," watching as my smiling face dissolved in the widening ripples of water.