Visiting a Sacred Spring

This particular Sacred Spring was immediately by the side of a B-road on the Black Isle. We had not intended to visit it, it was merely that we had been driving along beside an undistinguished fringe of unmaintained deciduous wood, heading for Cromarty through the dusty golden end of the harvest, when the trees suddenly exploded into colour, which seemed to demand investigation. When we stopped the car, the effect revealed itself to be caused by hundreds and thousands of rags knotted around the branches, to dangling strings, or to the decaying remains of a fence. The governing principle seemed to be strongly that a rag/wish should be in contact with wood: preferably with a tree, though in some instances, cloths were tied round loose branches which rested on the ground. The oldest cloth formed completely decayed stratas of of grey and khaki rag with ever more brilliant colours on top. Among the unravelling wools and cottons were indestructible synthetics, lime green, tangerine, turquoise, subdued only by dirt – my occasional dippings into international folklore suggests that parallel acts here and there sometimes operate on the principle that the intention is only fulfilled when the offering has decayed, in which case, the purveyors of scraps of football shirts are going to find themselves hanging about for a good while. The actual textiles seemed to be of all kinds, a few whole garments, old socks, hankies, torn-off sleeves, j-cloths, rags, babies’ stuff, bits and bobs. An umbrella, for some reason. There was also a subsection of handkerchiefs and similar textiles pinned carefully to tree- trunks with four drawing-pins, and inscribed: ‘We Wish For Calum’, ‘A Wish 4 Chelsie’. We went into the wood to investigate, trying very hard not to step on any of the strangely horrible decaying compost of rags and human wishes, and eventually found the well, dry at the moment after this unusually fine summer; but clearly a spring emerging from a ragged mouthlike opening in the hillside, with drab pendants of rag dangling from all the branches which overhung it like Spanish moss. The whole site seemed immensely sad, futile, and a little sinister; a locus of completely contextless belief – but in what? Some kind of vaguely realized power to do good or harm? Whatever it was, there was a lot of it; the sheer concentration of human effort involved gave it a sort of power. Hundreds and hundreds of people had visited the site, over a prolonged period of time.

2 Responses to “Visiting a Sacred Spring”

  1. The Man From Maryport Says:

    Well,
    You’re being a little hard on popular superstition - in my father’s house there are many bargain basements, etc. A few years ago in Crete I visited the archaeological museum & was taken by the number (1,000s) of warped metal tokens on display in a case. Written up as prayer-tokens/offerings dug out of a Minoan spring. A good 3500 years old. Days later down the road at Spilia we visited the local church. An icon of the Panagia was on display in front of which a pool was packed with similar, but much more recent tokens. Some in the shape of an arm or a leg. Presumably fulfilling the same purpose for several 1000 years worth of Cretan peasantry as the sacred spring did/does for Calum, Chelsie & local Picts. But why do people keep coming back, contextless or otherwise? Presumably they’ll still be doing so in another 3,500 years . . .

  2. Peter Says:

    Hence the utter futility of the English Reformation. What was the first thing that they tried to ban? Going to visit the Shrine at Walsingham where was a useful spring and the fane of the Virgin. As futile as the Italian rationalist attempt to put Piero’s Pregnant Madonna in a museum: people kept falling on their knees just the same. I’m only sorry (I did say the Salve Regina audibly to the annoyance of the custodians)that I missed a chance to attach a nice tin ex-voto to one of their nasty storyboards. STOP PRESS: gossip from Italy suggests museum now closed, image heading back to shrine. Scoreline Magna Mater 100; Modern World nil.

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