If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
From Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings
What a great poem, but Philip Larkin isn’t being original, water has always played a huge role in religion and spirituality – think of the reverence paid to the Ganges, the Nile, the Jordan. Think of the holy wells not only in Christian and Pagan traditions, but in Islam too, where the ZamZam well in Mecca appeared miraculously to Abraham’s wife Hagar, and its water is now drunk by millions on the Haj. From the Jewish immersion rituals to Christian Baptism, from the pilgrimages made today to Chalice Well in Glastonbury or St.Nectan’s Glen in Cornwall – wells, the river, the sea, the dew drop – they are all used by mystics to invoke the sacred. Why? Water brings life, of course, and its flowing quality and sheer beauty is good enough reason. But there’s another quality of water that makes it especially suitable for helping us think about and perhaps even access the spiritual, and that comes from water’s ability to shape-shift – from steam or mist, to drops and dribbles and snow flakes, to great expanses, roaring tides, and finally – densest of all – to solid blocks of ice. None of the other classical elements of Earth, Fire or Air is able to shape-shift so subtly into so many forms, and it is this ability, I believe, that has made Water the obvious candidate for representing the Sacred, or indeed Consciousness, in matter itself, which leads us to a rather interesting and fundamental question: When it comes to Spirit and Matter, or Mind and Matter, which came first? Did Mind, Consciousness, what some people call Spirit or Soul, arise out of matter? Or the reverse? Did matter somehow emerge from Spirit?
This leads us directly to the fundamental distinction between what is known in Philosophy as Idealism and Materialism – essentially the spiritual worldview vs the materialist worldview. In the spiritual worldview, the physical world that we exist in, is the result of and is produced by consciousness – whether that consciousness is called God, Goddess, Deity, Supreme Mind, Brahma, or whatever – and it is a precipitate of Mind, in other words mind or consciousness or spirit comes first, and then out of that is precipitated the material world. From the materialist viewpoint, the non-religious, non-spiritual worldview, it’s quite simply the reverse – in other words, the material physical universe came first, and what we call mind or consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon, a byproduct, the result of the interaction of neurons in the brains of humans and animals.
These two views are radically different, and there are all sorts of interesting debates to explore around them which relate to philosophy, religion and the study of consciousness. But looking from the perspective of the Idealist, taking the spiritual worldview, we can see why water provides such a useful image for the process of Matter emerging out of Mind. To explore this, we could draw on stories and images from every culture and religion, but let’s focus now on the world of the Celts and the Druids: there we find in the old stories a frequent use of imagery related to water. Mists often occur to create a sense of liminality between one world and the other. In the old folk traditions we learn about the importance of taking dew baths, as if dew is the first precipitate from the transcendental or subtle sphere that is represented by the mist.
This is why dew baths are said to be so good for you – you’re getting really close to the source if you have a dew bath. You take your clothes off at Beltane at dawn and roll in the wet grass. The dew covers your skin in material that has only recently precipitated itself out of the Mind of the Goddess, the heart of the Goddess. And then that precipitate becomes even more tangible when it flows as a stream, or bubbles up as a spring, and so springs and wells in every religious tradition, or at least many of them, and certainly in the Celtic and Druid tradition, are considered sacred. The water seems to appear from the Underworld. It bubbles up from Mother Earth Herself and we can bathe in it, and it can rejuvenate us, bring us to rebirth, and that’s what we see in the stories of the cauldron, which acts as the same symbol as the well. There are tales in which, when warriors are killed on the battlefield in Ireland, their dead bodies are taken to the cauldron of rebirth, and they are dunked in it, and they come alive again. So water, with its ability to bring life to us, is the symbol of rebirth, which is why of course it’s important in the immersion rituals in the Judaic tradition, and then later in the Christian tradition, which drew from that and developed it into the idea of baptism.
In modern Druidry we use an old Scottish prayer that was used by midwives when a new baby was born. They would splash the child nine times with nine waves of blessing as they were called. The nine waves of blessing were to welcome you into the world and so now, in the way we use it, you can wade out into the sea under a full moon, or simply fill a bowl with water, and receive nine splashes, to be initiated into a new phase of life. And we have the story of the Well of Segais where five sleek salmon swam in this pool, which is the mythological source of the River Boyne in Ireland – the river that is sacred in Celtic tradition in the way that the Jordan is in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the way the Ganges is for the Dharmic traditions, the way the Nile was in the traditions of ancient Egypt. And whether the protagonist in the story goes to the sacred well, as in the story of the well of Segais that King Cormac goes to – drinking from that well and gaining illumination, or whether it’s the story of Finneces and the young lad Finn McCool who offers to help the old man who is looking for the salmon of wisdom, it’s the same process of making contact with water, imbibing it.
In the story of Finn McCool, the salmon eventually appears out of the river and in cooking it Finn receives some of the salmon liquor on his thumb, and he sucks it and is illuminated, just as Gwion Bach is, in the story of Taliesin, when he sucks his thumb when a splash comes up from the bubbling cauldron of Ceridwen. In all these stories water is a central theme, and we could work our way through old stories and folklore from around the world and find the same recurring motif.
My suggestion here is that perhaps one of the reasons why water has been considered so significant in all spiritual traditions from time immemorial is because it’s an element that so graphically demonstrates this fundamental process of the material world being precipitated from the spiritual world – arriving as a mist – appearing as a cloud from on high and then turning into rain, or dew, and then that turning into the stream, into the river that flows out to the sea. Water is the element that most clearly demonstrates this key idea that distinguishes the spiritual worldview from the materialist worldview, which is that Consciousness, Mind, Deity comes first, and out of the mind of God, out of the heart and mind of the Goddess, out of the great Cosmos, the great intelligent, awake, aware Cosmos, comes matter just as dew drops and eventually whole oceans form from the breath of the gods that we see trailing across the sky or rolling in over the hills.