Like many people, I grew up fascinated by the legends of Merlin, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail. The one idea in the Grail stories that puzzled me for years, though, was the legend of the Wounded King or Fisher King—the last keeper of the Holy Grail, the king whose wound is bound up with the Waste Land that he rules. When he heals, the land heals too. I finally grasped this connection on a deep emotional level when I watched the movie “Excalibur,” in the scene where the Waste Land comes back to life.
The longer I work on water issues in Florida, the more clearly I understand that profound connection between leaders and land.
My fascination with these old legends led me to read more and to discover that throughout the British Isles, many springs are considered sacred and some wells are recognized as holy. Even today, many communities continue an old tradition of “dressing” the wells as the seasons change. And people still make pilgrimages to visit the sacred springs.
Traditional societies and religions worldwide have recognized the special or even sacred nature of water for thousands of years. For an exhibition about springs that I worked on several years ago, I collected quotes about water from different faiths and cultures. Here are some of my favorites:
- Water was enchantment, certainly. But it was also deeply feared and honored, held close to the heart in both mystery and awe. It was sacred. -Bill Belleville (writing about the Timucua who inhabited Florida at the time of Ponce de Leon)
- I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. -The Bible, Old Testament, Isaiah 41:18
- Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure. -St. Francis of Assisi
- By means of water, we give life to everything. -Koran, 21:30
- The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives. -American Indian Saying
- Filthy water cannot be washed. -West African Proverb
- You don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry. -William Bell, American singer/songwriter
- By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole. -Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright/politician
- Our bodies are molded rivers. –Novalis
- The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. -Tao Te Ching #8, translated by Stephen Mitchell
- When you drink water, remember the spring. -Chinese Proverb
These quotes reveal how water and people are interconnected; they speak to the significance of a healthy relationship with water. “Water is life,” as the water protectors in North Dakota and here in Florida reminded us recently. Our bodies are up to 60 percent water. We can live about three weeks without food but only about three days without water. While water sustains us, we must in turn sustain water or suffer the consequences.
So what does the Grail legend about the Wounded King and the Waste Land have to do with the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers and their springs?
I was at Rum Island one day after a swim when I passed a young woman standing on the bank gazing at the water. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I asked. Her response was immediate: “It’s sacred.”
At the Ichetucknee headspring, area churches have baptized the faithful for years. Steven Earl’s book about the Ichetucknee is subtitled “Sacred Waters.” Talk to almost any spring visitor and these ideas about sacred water, reverence and rejuvenation (remember the “Fountain of Youth” legends?) crop up.
In the early years of the 21st century, we are not as far removed from the idea of sacred springs as we might think. But we’re polluting too much, pumping too much, and turning our “Holy Grail”—the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth—into a Waste Land.
In the Grail legends, the Wounded King and the land are healed when the knight Perceval asks the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?”
So I wonder: Are we asking the right questions? Are we like the Wounded King? Is our wound the failure to understand that as water suffers, we must suffer too? Can we heal our springs and rivers by healing our relationships with water and with each other? Do we need a stronger water ethic?
And where are the leaders with the courage to make the tough decisions needed to convert a springs Waste Land back into a Springs Heartland?
To learn more about…
The Grail Legend: http://www.jungatlanta.com/articles/winter06-the-grail-legend.pdf
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of "The Observer," a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post it here.