Finding our way out of the Wasteland: reclaiming the Voices of the Wells

Those of you who have read If Women Rose Rooted will know that the journey offered within the book begins with a remarkable old story from the Arthurian/Grail tradition which describes the coming of the Wasteland. If you haven’t read the book, the story, in my retelling, goes roughly (without the help of a particularly heron-like old woman – or is it a particularly old-woman-like heron?) like this:

In the kingdom of Logres – for that was what the land of England was called, in those days – were all the riches of the world, and they all came from the court of the Fisher King. Gold and silver, splendid furs, nourishing foodstuffs and beautifully woven cloth – the people did not lack for health and comfort and beauty. But more than this: from the court of the Fisher King came falcons and merlins, goshawks and sparrowhawks; wolf and bear, badger and fox. All the beautiful wild things of the land. In those days, when the King’s court could still be found, there was such an abundance of riches throughout this land that everyone was awestruck by it.

In those days, the land offered nourishment for all, for it was properly tended and cared for. People understood that there’s a contract people and the land. You care for it, and it cares for you. The source of the kingdom’s life, the life-giving blood which surged in its veins, was the sacred water of the wells, which flowed up out of the deep potent waters of the Otherworld. The wells were tended by maidens, and these maidens were the Voices of the Wells. And this is how they served: if a traveller in need should pass by a well in those times, a well-maiden would appear and, if he asked reasonably, offer him the food he liked best, and a drink of well-water from her golden grail. This gift was given to all, freely given in the spirit of service to the land.

But then there came a king in the land who did not cherish the old customs, or understand his contract with the land and the duties of hospitality, which travel both ways. That king’s name was Amangons. As king it was his duty to guard the land and those who lived on it; it was his duty to tend it and see that all was in good heart, for this is the sacred contract which maintains the balance of the world. It was his duty to keep the well-maidens safe, for they were the Voices of the wells, and without the wells the land would lose its heart. But Amangons wasn’t much of a man for duty, and the day came when he broke faith. On that day a well-maiden, seeing him pass by, offered him food and water, as was the custom. After eating the food and drinking the water, Amangons tore off her white dress, threw her across the stone wall which surrounded the well, and raped her while his men looked on.

But it did not stop there. After this violation, Amangons stole the well-maiden’s golden vessel and kept it for himself – though it did not stay with him, for the well-maiden’s grail might not pass into hands such as his. He carried the maiden off, and made her serve him.

Then, seeing what the king had done, and taking their lead from him, all around the country his men began to rape the other well-maidens. So the maidens no longer came out of the wells, and withdrew from the land altogether. And so it was that the people of Logres lost the Voices of the wells, and the services of the wells ceased. This is how the land was laid waste. The leaves on the trees shrivelled and died, plants withered, fields and meadows turned brown, and the earth lay barren and scorched. The waters of the land diminished and the rivers ran dry, and no one could find the enchanted court of the Fisher King, who had once made the land bright with his treasures.

This old story, which constitutes the first part of a 484-line text entitled ‘The Elucidation’, was composed in the early thirteenth century to serve as a prologue for Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal. The text itself is anonymous, though the story is attributed in line 12 to a ‘Master Blihis’ (more of whom below). ‘The Elucidation’ is a perplexing text not just because it offers information which isn’t included in Perceval, but because some of its passages simply contradict the version of events given in Chrétien’s romance. The Maidens of the Wells are not to be found in Chrétien’s story, and instead, in Perceval the Wasteland is a consequence of the wounding of the Fisher King. A clear reflection of the usual downgrading of the importance of women, over the centuries.

The focus in ‘The Elucidation’ on wells, well-maidens and women who are identified with the health of the land has led a number of scholars to speculate that this version of the story, although committed to writing after Chrétien, is actually older. For example, Jessie Weston, in her 1920 book, From Ritual to Romance, suggested that ‘Master Blihis’ could be identified with a Welsh storyteller (often called Bledri) who preceded Chrétien, and there is evidence that storytelling traditions from Britain passed into France via stories told to the Norman nobility who ruled Britain at that time, as well by more direct routes, such as storytellers travelling directly to Brittany.

Weston’s suggestion is still open to debate, but the suggestion that the story of the well-maidens might originate in Wales makes sense. It is known that the Welsh folklore tradition was often influenced by Irish material, and in his 2007 book Ireland and the Grail, Celtic scholar John Carey cites a story which seems likely to have inspired the story of the rape of the well-maidens in ‘The Elucidation’. Bran, learning from a druid that a treasure of great value was guarded by Otherworldly women at the bottom of a spring well in his territory, set out to discover it and to take it for himself. Chances are, Carey suggests, that Bran and his men also abused the Otherworldly women of the well. Whether or not they did, their aggression against the well resulted in disaster: the waters of the spring burst forth in a deluge, engulfing the whole of Bran’s beautiful and fertile kingdom and leaving it drowned, lost forever at the bottom of the newly created Lough Foyle. There are clear parallels here with the theft of Otherworldly treasure from the maidens of the wells, with their rape, and with the coming of the Wasteland which followed. (It is interesting that, among a group of gold objects dating to the first century BC which were found on the east shore of Lough Foyle, is a small vessel, similar to a cauldron.)

The well-maiden theme also occurs briefly in the Irish tale Immram Curaig Ua Corra. In it, three brothers and their jester companion set out on a penitential sea-voyage; as with all immrama, the themes are predominantly Christian, and the Uí Chorra are converts to Christianity. The travellers visit an island where they meet a woman carrying pitcher of brass in one hand, and a drinking-cup (or grail) of silver in the other. She gives them food, and water from a well on the strand. The woman tells them to leave the island, ‘for though your kindred is the same as ours, not here is your resurrection.’ Throughout native Irish literature Otherworldly women were associated with wells, with the serving of unusually nourishing food, and with a drink offered from a special cup which could also bestow Sovereignty on a chosen hero. This section of the story acknowledges that the Uí Chorra have passed out of the native spiritual tradition into the Christian: their ‘place of resurrection’ is no longer in the pagan Otherworld, whose authority is represented by women.

Old as it is, this story has profound resonance today. ‘The Kingdom turned to loss, the land was dead and desert in suchwise as that it was scarce worth a couple of hazel-nuts. For they lost the voices of the wells and the damsels that were therein.’ So says the unknown author of ‘The Elucidation’. They lost the voices of the wells, the source of the land’s life, and the voices of the women who tended them. As a consequence they lost the land’s spiritual heart: the court of the Fisher King. And so we came to live in a Wasteland, barren in body and soul. The parallels of this old story are clear in our culture, which has for centuries suppressed those qualities (dreaming, creativity, openness, nurturing, community) which are perceived to be feminine. Much of the unique wisdom that women hold has been eradicated or driven underground, out of sight, away from the dangerous, damning eyes of men. It’s no accident that this systematic suppression of the feminine has been accompanied down the centuries not only by the devaluation of all that is wild and instinctual in our own natures, but by the purposeful destruction of natural ecosystems. We long ago turned our backs on the planet which gives us life.

That is why I wrote these words, in If Women Rose Rooted:

‘If the power of the Celtic woman is the power of place speaking, then this is the gift that we can offer to our world, the contribution that we can make to the healing of our Wasteland. We are the carriers of the wisdom of our native places, the knowledge of the plants and the animals, the rich intelligence of the cycles of life and the seasons. We are the mediators of the wisdom of the Otherworld, the Voices of the Wells. We are the Wise Women. … Be the power of the land speaking. Pass the gift on. Pass it on, and in this way we, like our female ancestors from long ago, like the goddesses of Sovereignty in our native mythology, become guardians and protectors of the land. By taking up these ancient roles, we begin to restore life to the Wasteland. Refuse the continuing destruction, because what hurts the Earth hurts us. Because we are the whole Earth. We are the Voices of the Wells; we are the power of the land, speaking. Use your voice. Speak.’

If you’re a woman, and interested in the ways in which it might be possible to become a ‘Voice of the Wells’ again, please check out this new programme, beginning in spring 2017: https://mythmaking.org/the-voices-of-the-wells/

Featured image: ‘Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind’, by Jean Leon Gerome

6 thoughts on “Finding our way out of the Wasteland: reclaiming the Voices of the Wells

    1. Yes – a cautionary tale, one of many about wells. There’s a similar tale in Scotland that the Cailleach neglected to put the lid back on a well she allowed her cattle to drink at, and it overflowed and formed Loch Awe 🙂 And then the Irish stories of Sionan/the Shannon and Boann/the Boyne … Always treat a well with respect …!

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  1. ​This felt like a soothing antidote for the disrespect of women being played out on the U.S. news in so many ways right now. And some still wonder why the world is so out of balance! Nice to know the warnings have such deep mythical roots in Western culture. Thank you, Sharon

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