The Otherworld Well

In Liscannor, just a little bit inland from the Cliffs of Moher on the rocky coast of County Clare, there is a well fed by a cold wild spring, where Brighid was honored once as a goddess and now as a saint, at the foot of a mound where new and old graves stand above the ancient tombs of chieftains and kings, buried close to the waters that could carry them into the arms of their wild lover, the land. A short way up the hill is a clootie tree—a tree where people tie strips of cloth as they make prayers for the health of their families and the fertility of their land.

In the first days of September in 2017, I found myself standing by the tree, looking down into the well, praying for the healing of the forests I had just learned were burning in the Columbia River Gorge where I then made my home. I hung one of my most prized possessions from a branch—the tip of a Deer antler on a rawhide string given to me by someone I loved when I first came to the Gorge—hearing a voice echo within me saying, “a big prayer requires a big offering.”

I went down to the well itself, contained now by stone walls lined with photos of the sick and the dead, Brighid’s crosses woven with reeds, and candles burning in small grottoes, drank deeply of the cold, cold water, light brown with the tannins of the peat it had filtered through.

There was a steady stream of people coming, Bearing photographs and rosaries, even on a weekday morning. After making their prayers, many would gaze in the water. Tradition says that if you see an image of a Salmon in the play of light and shadows on the water, the person you are praying for will be healed: echoes of a still older way of seeing the world.

The Salmon has long been connected with the health of the body and the health of the land in Irish tradition.

Naturalist and folklorist Niall Mac Coitir writes:

“The Salmon was regarded in Irish folk belief as the epitome of good physical and mental health, and the phrase sláinte an bhradáin (‘the Salmon’s health’) was synonymous with robust good health. Indeed, every person was said to have an internal ‘Salmon of life’ in their body, which overexertion could cause to be expelled, resulting in death if it were not immediately restored.”

What does it mean to see the life force flowing through someone’s body as a Salmon swimming through the rocks and waters and tree roots and rivers and vast seas of an internal landscape?

To begin with, it conjures up a visceral sense of flowing motion. A human pulse is like a Salmon swimming with the rhythmic rippling movement of its silvery muscular body.

Salmon swim upstream from the ocean to their spawning places in forest streams to give life to another generation. Unlike Pacific Salmon, who die right after they spawn, some adult Atlantic Salmon make it back to sea alive, but some die of exertion on one leg or the other of their journey.

Over-exertion would leave a Salmon stranded on the rocks of a stream. Spending life force unwisely would leave a person exhausted, unable to continue to move with the once smooth flow of their life, and in danger of death—a ubiquitous condition in contemporary society, a rare and serious one in precolonial Ireland.

The life and death of the Salmon was also deeply connected with the life and death of the land. Until the sixteenth century, most of the west of Ireland was covered with forests of Oak, Birch, Hazel, and Yew. (In 1585, British officials ordered the cutting of the forests of the province of Munster to deprive rebels of a place to hide, clear land for English plantations, and provide timber for the British navy and merchant marine which would soon begin the colonization of North America in earnest.) When Salmon died of exhaustion or fell prey to otters or ospreys or eagles or herons, their carcasses would wind up on the riverbanks and be dragged into the forest by scavengers, nourishing the soil. In turn, the trees growing in soil fed by the bodies of Salmon filtered water through their roots and staved off sedimentation, keeping the streams clean for the Salmon who survived the spawning run and the Salmon being born in their waters.

So, to understand someone’s life force as a Salmon is also to understand their health as bound up with the health of the forest, the health of the waters, the health of the land. The only way to experience the “health of the Salmon” is to live in a world where Hazelnuts fall into streams fed by underground springs and rainwater, where life can be led fluidly, and when at last life is done and you are floundering on the rocks, your body goes to feed the land that fed you.

When the forests are gone and the waters no longer run clean and cold, there a Salmon or a person can only be so healthy.

Water was and is at the center of folk magic and folk healing in Ireland.

There is no surviving evidence of an Irish creation storyperhaps the birth and origin of the world is not as universal a fascination as our contemporary culture assumes. But the origin of springs and rivers is another question—though as much a geographical question as a temporal one.

John Moriarty, said:

"To learn to speak is to learn to say 'our river has its source in an Otherworld well,' and anything we say about the hills and anything we say about the stars is a way of saying 'A Hazel grows over the otherworld well our river has its source in.'"

Within this framework, there is no distinction between physical and metaphysical geography—the dark world beneath our feet from which the wild waters come, from which the elemental essence of our being is drawn and to which it returns when we die, is not another dimension or another reality but a place, just like a hollow hill or an ocean or the surface of the moon or the cold black space between stars.

In that Otherworld, the oldest creature in the world, the ancestor of all Salmon, swims in the well, eating the nuts that fall from the Hazel trees whose branches spread over the well from which the rivers flow, taking in all the wisdom the Hazel drew from the soil of that Otherworld and carrying it into our own. The Salmon of life within us is a descendant of that Salmon that knew the waters of that Otherworld. Wild water welling up from the ground brings a reminder of that world and our relation to it and can bring a new infusion of life or carry someone more smoothly toward death.

Our health depends on the health of the waters of both worlds.

(Parts of this essay previously appeared in Plant Healer magazine.)

Seán is available to provide personal guidance and counsel for your healing journey.

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