The voices of the forgotten springs

Whoever opens his heart to the earth, whoever rediscovers grounding, whoever climbs down from his high horse and does not shy away from touching the mud, finds a consolation and support: the earth, the primordial mother, the co-sufferer who, thanks to her closeness in co-mourning, also gives joy. A joy that springs from the possibility of a second birth.

The voices of the forgotten springs

In the last three years I have spent over 20 weeks in the British Isles. Besides the wild green sea and the ancient stones, the sacred springs in particular have an unfathomable attraction for me. So I made pilgrimages to many springs, especially in Wales and Cornwall, which took me to the remotest corners. On the pilgrimage, I never sought only the outer spring, but through sensual contact with it, always an inner watering as well, as if something inside me was dammed up and hardened, which was in desperate need of refreshment. It seemed mysterious to me that the water that once came down from the sky as rain now flowed up from the opposite direction, from the earth’s interior, transformed and filtered. As paradoxical as it sounded, from the unfathomable depths of the ground, the former water of heaven, which had made a long night journey through the rock layers of the earth, flowed forth again into the light of the upper world.

Celtic Christianity must still have had a deep feeling for the sacredness of the springs and their mystery that spanned heaven and earth. Small chapels, altars, spring houses or hermitages were later erected at numerous pagan places of worship. Almost all of them simply blended into the wilderness without destroying the character of the primitive places. Here, nature was not forcibly pushed back by the powerful church spirit. Rather, the spring sanctuary became the heart centre of the newly built place of worship. Even today, this aura can be felt in many places, such as at St. Clether Holy Well on the northern edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. From the small spring house, the water flows directly into the chapel, crosses it along the altar and flows out the other side into a second spring basin. Thus, the chapel is criss-crossed by an underground water vein, in honour of which it was built in the first place. The holy water from the dark depths of the earth is worshipped, celebrated and praised here, and not only the Father in heaven.

Similarly enchanting is the Sancreed Holy Well in the far southwest of Britain. Even the short walk there is an experience. It begins on the edge of civilisation in a small village and leads past a few houses and gardens. But with every step it becomes more and more overgrown, especially in spring and summer, when dense ferns, flowers, grasses and shrubs grow all around, reaching high up to the chest. In between, mostly only a narrow trail remains, thinned out by all the ones who have walked towards the spring. At its end, the path opens up and spills into a sacred grove decorated with prayer flags, dream catchers and colourful ribbons. The district around the spring still breathes the timelessness of a protected sanctuary that seems removed, as if it were not of this world and stood in another dimension of being. Eventually, however, I realised that I had formulated my spontaneous perception in a misleading way and that it was exactly the other way around. The sacred place first gave me a hint of what being THERE (DA-sein) really meant and what it meant to be in the reality of the world, with both feet on the ground and so close to the miraculous.

To get to the source itself, I walked down a few narrow granite steps from the centre of the grove into a tiny, womb-like cave chamber, with moss, clover and ferns growing on its shiny green inner walls. There, I felt as if I were in the womb of the earth, in the belly of the Great Goddess, in a damp dark place that was at the same time brightly lit from within, which was not only due to the candles that I and other source-seekers had lit there. No, it was also due to the regenerative power that has been weaving in the archetype of the spring since time immemorial.

Madron-Holy-Well-CornwellEven more hidden is the Madron Holy Well, whose source is lost in the deepest mud and densest undergrowth. In search of the trail, I sank completely into the mud up to my ankles, which penetrated through my shoes and socks to the skin. I was probably not meant to remain pure and untouched, so I accepted the mishap humorously and saw it as a sign and invitation not to avoid contact with the earth. Later, I stepped into the clear spring water with bare feet and washed off all the dross as if in a renewal ritual. Again, the sensation of a motherly earth-being enveloped me, welcoming me into its shimmering night district. But how was it possible that the source places awakened such spiritual experiences in me?

The personal experiences, which I have only outlined here as an introduction, correspond with an old myth from the Celtic mythological world, which has occupied me intensively for many years. In Chretien de Troye’s Le Conte du Graal, there is a prologue by an unknown author entitled Elucidation, which has only survived in a single medieval manuscript and has, therefore, been largely forgotten.[1] The wonderous story tells of the cause of the barren land that threatened the legendary Wasteland. According to the tale, in distant times there was an agreement between the fairies and the humans on whose observance the health of the entire land depended. Anyone who travelled the forest paths and found their way to the spring thanks to the fairies’ voices was offered the most delicious food and refreshments by the maidens in a grail-like vessel. People respected the fairies and sought their proximity. The fairies, in turn, open-heartedly served humans with their nourishing gifts. In this way, the fluid exchange between the background spirit world and the foreground earth world was maintained and both lived and pulsated in their original unity. But King Amangon and his men broke the ancient agreement by violating the well girls with brute force and abusing their hospitality. Wounded, the fairies withdrew and no longer bestowed their precious gifts on the people. The springs lost their effervescence, the meadows and flowers withered and all the streams dried up. But no matter how much the people searched and longed for what they had lost, they could no longer find the hidden fairies. Their voices remained silent and the earth became sick … and with it the people fell ill.

How often on my pilgrimage was this mythical image vividly before my eyes. Always linked to the painful realisation that violence and drought had not diminished but increased since ancient times. I myself am just as much a contemporary and, therefore, cannot not escape responsibility. So what contribution can I make to help re-water the land? I remembered that the Grail Seekers had also once set out on their journeys to re-water the Wasteland. The overriding task was to free the dammed waters. I had often heard that the fairies had not completely disappeared, but had only retreated into an inner district. They could still be found in the night area of the soul springs. But – and this was the shattering experience for me – even in the outer spring places their voices could resound again, if, yes, if the inner human being turned again to the phenomena of the outer earth world with the fullest strength of the soul. I realised that the flow of my perception, which had so often digressed into the inner world and in doing so had overlooked the fact that the same spiritual forces were active in the nearby earthly matter as in the depths of the soul, was also dammed up. I had separated and made a distinction where, in truth, the two ventricles of the one heart beat. With the same intensity and attention with which I looked inwards in meditation or also in dream contemplation, I now wanted to learn the openness for everything present, no matter whether it was attributed more to an inner or outer according to the old classification.[2]

“I love you, earth! You, grieving with me!” the German poet Hölderlin writes.[3]  Whoever opens his heart to the earth, whoever rediscovers grounding, whoever climbs down from his high horse and does not shy away from touching the mud, finds a consolation and support: the earth, the primordial mother, the co-sufferer who, thanks to her closeness in co-mourning, also gives joy. A joy that springs from the possibility of a second birth. But to be born again in life is only possible if one courageously follows the path of water through the layers of night and depth.


Treating the earth with respect also means to return to it – but truly, as a lover, as an open-minded person, and not to exploit it and trample it underfoot, only so that the proud head can increase its power and escape into its own sublimity without paying a toll. Just as we all inevitably share in the outrages of King Amangon, so we are all called to transform the crimes committed against the earth and regain the trust of the well-women.

Reflecting on this, a new understanding of Novalis’ Hymns to the Night opened up to me:

“Downward I turn to the holy, ineffable, mysterious night.” [4]

Why does the poet turn to the night? Why does the path lead him downwards and not upwards?

“Does not everything that inspires us bear the colour of night? It carries you motherly and to it you owe all your glory. You would disband into yourself – you would melt into endless space if she did not hold you, if she did not bind you, so that you would become warm and give birth to the world in flames.” [5]

I no longer experienced the night side exclusively in dreams and in the spaces of the soul as before, I now also experienced it in the womb of the earth. Not only symbolically, but really, in the sensually perceptible phenomenon of the water sources of the earth. But from now on I also seek it in the encounter with all other earthly phenomena, however small and inconspicuous they may be. There is no difference between inside and outside. Everything that exists naturally carries within it a hidden night side which, as Goethe aptly remarks, is not to be sought behind the phenomena. It is already apparent, at any time, if only our senses are open to it. Only by the night binding us maternally to the earth do we receive the necessary limitation to emerge from it again as changed and moved ones with new senses.

“No longer was the light the stay and the heavenly sign of the gods – they threw the veil of night over themselves. The night became the mighty womb of the revelations – in it the gods returned – fell asleep in order to go forth in new and more glorious forms over the changed world.” [6]

Simply looking to the heavens no longer helps us today. “Don’t always think of heavenly comparisons when contemplating the beauty – but see the earth,” [7] Peter Handke   also calls out to us. But in order to see the earth and to tell of its delicate miraculous phenomena, we need the night that takes us by the hand and weaves us together with the fate of the earth. The night is the bridal gown of the earth. Only those who are not afraid to wear it can enter into a true relationship with her and be drawn into her trust. Thanks to this lived closeness to the earth, we can succeed in sparing the exploited earth and open our ears again to the voices of the forgotten sources.

Martin Spura is the author of the following works:

Das verweigerte Opfer des Prometheus: Der Ariadnefaden der abendländischen Geistesentwicklung, 2009

Autobiographie der Nacht: Ein Traumbuch, 2015

[1] Nigel Bryant, The Complete Story of the Grail, Appendix 1: The Elucidation Prologue, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge 2018, p. 557 ff.
[2] Cf. Martin Heidegger, Zollikorner Seminare, Vittorio Klostermann Verlag, Frankfurt 2006, p. 94 f.
[3] Out of: Friedrich Hölderlin, Dem Sonnengott (To the Sun God)
[4] Novalis, Werke, Hymnen an die Nacht 1 (Hymns to the Night), Lizenzausgabe für die Bertelsmann GmbH, Gütersloh o. J., p. 72/73
[5] Hymnen an die Nacht 4, p. 88/89
[6] Hymnen an die Nacht 5, p. 102/103
[7] Peter Handke, Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (The teaching of the Sainte-Victoire), Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1996, p. 56

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Date: May 15, 2023
Author: Martin Spura (Germany)
Photo: Martin Spura

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