The banks of Sulphur Creek in southern Ontario were my childhood haunting grounds. The creek lay at the bottom of a ravine, a beautiful place where a remnant of the old Carolinian forest of eastern America stretches into Canada. One of my favorite memories is being hot and sweaty on a summer’s day and taking a drink. Unknown to me then, the water was foul with toxic waste, two major steel factories and other mid-twentieth century industrial activities taking place nearby. But what did it matter? I believed that where the water bubbled, over logs and other debris, it was pure. And I longed to go to “the other side,” that magical realm of possibility.
All running water, not just spring water, can prove to be the haunt of fairies, for crossing over (or through) running water is one of the ways to enter their realm.
For most of human history, water has been drawn from wells. In many ancient stories (in the Bible and in fairy tales, for example) life-changing conversations take place near one. As a social gathering space that also holds the key to life, the well is a literal and figurative echo chamber where your true voice is magnified and your intentions cannot be hidden. A visit there might be a blessing, or a curse.
Charles Perrault’s fairy tale “Diamonds and Toads” begins with a mother and her two daughters. The mother and the eldest daughter are miserable people and they force the youngest, who is mild-tempered in comparison, to work like a beast. One of her tasks is to fetch water from a well a great distance from their home.
One day, when the youngest daughter is filling her bucket, an old woman appears and begs for a drink. She is a fairy in disguise, and very pleased with the girl’s fine manners, rewarding her by turning every word she speaks into a precious jewel or a delicate blossom.
Of course, we know what happens next: the mother wants to ensure that her wicked daughter will meet the fairy at the well and receive the same treatment. The fairy rewards her with toads and other foul creatures for every syllable she speaks.
“The Well of the World’s End,” an Anglo-Scottish fairy tale collected by Joseph Jacobs, tells the story of a girl sent to the well of the world’s end to collect water with a sieve, and told by her step-mother not to return until she does. A frog finds her weeping beside the well, and he says that he will help her if she will do anything he asks for one night. She takes his advice, covers the sieve with moss and mud, collects the water, and returns home. The step-mother is not amused, and for a punishment insists that the girl keep her promise to the frog, who turns out to be a handsome prince in disguise.
“The Water of Life” is a German fairy tale recorded by the Grimms. A king has grown old and weary, the fire of his life dying. Ironically, it’s the water of life that will bring the renewal he desires. And it’s the youngest son, the king’s own intuition, and his deepest instincts that will guide him back to the source.
From a spiritual and/or psychological perspective, water symbolizes purification and renewal (baptism), and also power (Holy Spirit). It is reflective, and being the first mirror, sometimes a means of predicting the future (hydromancy; Galadriel’s mirror). Water symbolizes healing, knowledge, wisdom, and transformation.
Water can even capture the fire of the cosmos. In his essay “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” J.M. White describes a surprising discovery about ancient Incan astronomers:
Ruben took us across the plaza through a complex of buildings into a large room that has two stone cylinders carved out of the bedrock of the floor. They are about four inches tall and fifteen inches wide with a lip about a quarter inch tall around the top-edge. They were full of rain water when we first came upon them … He said these were used as reflective mirrors for watching the sky, that the room was an observatory where, by comparing the images in the two cylinders, the ancient astronomers made calculations charting the movement of the stars, planets, sun and moon. Then he instructed us to stand where we could see the sun reflected in the shallow pool of water. I shifted around until I had the gleaming light of the sun reflected in the center of the pool. As I stared at the reflection, I noticed there was a perfect circle of smaller suns reflected over and over around the outer lip in a radiant parhelion of gem-like points of light … He said that in the Andean traditions there is a color spectrum that runs through the body and each part of the body is associated with a color … It was a marvelous room with an esoteric technology uniting the above and the below, reflecting outward to the distant stars and inward to the inner state of the body.
Sunlight on water is a primal delight—two life essentials coming together, reassuring us that everything we need is there for us, in abundance. Our bodies contain within them both the fires and waters of life, in delicate balance.
- First Image: Prawny at Pixabay.com
- Second Image: CC BY-SA 3.0
- Third Image: MabelAmber at Pixabay.com