magic


Random quote of the day:

“In almost everyone’s childhood there is some magical spot; some nexus where the everyday world touches another universe.”

—Robert J. Howe, Introduction, Coney Island Wonder Stories

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Lucy and Ethel, Justin Bieber, or the Kardashian Klan. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.


1. Let me Thread you a story…(1-16)
2. We got us some spooky properties here in town, left over from the days of the Great Spirit Invasion of ’07.
3. Spirits poured into town from all over through a rip in the Space-Time Continuum, taking up residence in homes and businesses.
4. Madame Nimby, town exorcist, & her son Rupert sewed up the rip with existential thread and that kept new ghosts from coming through.
5. But they were so busy exorcising the ones already here they couldn’t keep up. It took a deal of time for things to settle down.
6. Most ghosts was just lost souls sucked through the rip by accident and easily persuaded to move on to a higher place.
7. Some, though, were stubborn & not inclined to persuasion. Folks who had those spirits in their homes & businesses had a tough choice.
8. Either move out or learn to live with haints. Some businesses made deals with the ghosts to stay quiet during business hours.
9. Likewise, some residents made similar deals, asking that the hauntings stop after everyone had gone to bed.
10. Still others just couldn’t live with the ruckus, or the spirits refused to cooperate. But we take care of our own.
11. The town banded together to build new homes & businesses for those forced out. That left about a dozen spooky abandoned buildings.
12. Madame & Rupert laid down salt & warding spells ‘round those places. Kept the bad spirits from wandering.
13. Nowadays our biggest problem is out-of-towner ghost hunters pestering us to do investigations (cuz we got us a ghosty reputation).
14. Some of these are sincere folks just wanting to understand the nature of the universe & we towners got no problem with them.
15. Others seem to see ghost hunting as entertainment. I don’t hold with people who use the lost souls of the dead that way.
16. But ain’t no spells for exorcising dilettantes. More’s the pity.

This story can also be found on Twitter @downportalville.

  1. Let me thread you a story…(1-20)
  2. Sheriff Rosa Limonada came to us by way of Texarkana where she worked as a deputy in a little town named Spoot.
  3. The sheriff she worked for had nothing but high praise for her. Said she was the crucial factor in solving their La Llorona murder case.
  4. She’s fit in well in Portalville and been a fine sheriff to us. She has this special power to quell magic. Mostly, she doesn’t use it.
  5. But if somebody is behaving bad magically, the sheriff can hawk up a metaphorical anti-magic spitball and launch it into their face.
  6. Do no harm is taken seriously ‘round these parts, and the sheriff enforces it—in the nicest possible way.
  7. If some of the young ‘uns get a little too rowdy with their mischief spells on a Saturday night, Sheriff Limonada knows how to calm ‘em.
  8. She’s mostly live and let live when it comes to magical working. If you do no harm, you’ll never hear from her.
  9. Most folks do as they will and harm none, but once in awhile someone gets out of hand or really full of themselves and needs quelling.
  10. Mostly, though, the sheriff uses her powers for the more sinister characters that slip into town.
  11. The last one was a skinwalker straight out of Uintah County in Utah. Was bothering folks’ cattle something fierce.
  12. Borrowing folks’ faces, too, and walking around like it owned the town. When it took the form of Mayor Begay the sheriff took action.
  13. Like a scene from one of them Old West movies, with the skinwalker standing at one end of Main Street, the sheriff at the other.
  14. The skinwalker reached out its hand, fit to steal the sheriff’s face or soul, and Sheriff Limonada drew her gun.
  15. The skinwalker laughed, a sound like rocks grinding together, cuz skinwalkers can’t be harmed by bullets.
  16. But the sheriff marshalled her resources and yelled, “Kapow!” at the thing as she launched her anti-magic.
  17. The skinwalker’s laugh turned to a shriek like ice ripping through a steel hull and it disappeared in a fiery ball.
  18. Took a helluva lot out of the sheriff, all that energy, but the critter ain’t never been back, so Sheriff Limonada did a real good job.
  19. She said it made an interesting change from wrangling drunks and setting up speed traps.
  20. All things considered, though, she hopes she doesn’t have to face one again soon.

This story can also be found on Twitter @downportalville.

1. Let me Thread you a story… (1-14)
2. Peaches McCaffrey stopped into Bar-Bar’s Ice Cream Parlor. She told Bar-Bar she’d been having strange dreams.
3. Now, Peaches is a sensitive soul. She runs the Peace Now Meditation Center down on Greenbriar Road.
4. She likes to talk about chakras and higher consciousness & all kinds of stuff I don’t rightly understand, but it seems to make her happy.
5. And folks come out of her center with big smiles on their faces so I guess something must be going right down there.
6. But she said that every time she ate Bar-Bar’s orange ripple chocolate ice cream—her favorite—she dreamed the same dream.
7. In it there was a beautiful white horse with sapphire eyes that always tried to coax her to frolic with it in Laverty Pond.
8. Bar-Bar told her, “Not everyone can take the higher emanations of the chocolate-fruit infusion.”
9. (Or the mystical spells some say Bar-Bar mumbles as she’s mixing batches.)
10. She told Peaches to try a dollop of Calming Sprinkles next time she got the orange ripple chocolate.
11. Oh—and on no account was she to follow that horse into that pond, in dreams or in real life.
12. Some say Bar-Bar was a high priestess of some sort before she moved here from New Orleans, but nobody really knows if that’s so.
13. She’d be far from the only one in town fond of spells and potions. It’s that kind of place. It don’t make no difference to me.
14. Because who am I to judge? I’m just a Narrator and everyone knows narrators are unreliable sots, fruit infused chocolate or not.

This story can also be found on Twitter @downportalville.


Conseil Tenu par les Rats
by Gustave Doré


Rat magic and first world problems

My third, and mostly successful, extermination company came to the house last week. They had to reinforce some of the extensive anti-rat measures they did last June to seal the house from intruders. That previous round of prevention seemed to have worked pretty well. It didn’t appear that I had lost any more appliances, anyway. Through chewing hoses and what-like, the rats had taken out my washer six times, my refrigerator water hoses twice, completely ruined the fairly new dishwasher so it can’t be fixed, and stolen insulation from my antique stove. All that seemed to cease, as I said, after the rat men did their thing last June. Then the furnace man showed up after the rat men left. During the summer when I wasn’t using heat, the rats had chewed holes through all the ducts and built nests—which is why I kept smelling something burning and can’t now use the furnace because of fire danger. I have no heat until the furnace crew comes to replace ducts on Saturday. It’s the busy season for heating folk and they’re working overtime to fit me in. Which I’m paying for, of course.

We didn’t used to live in the state of rat siege I’ve experienced in the last couple of years. I didn’t think it had anything to do with magic, but now I’m thinking maybe it did. Rat magic? Spirit of place magic? The magic of persistent and smart vermin and the spells to counter them. Or maybe the magic of my missing mother who died almost two years ago. She said the first time she stepped into this house it welcomed her with open arms. She knew she was home. I believe that. I truly think the house loved her. We had rats when she was alive, but nothing like this deluge and we never lost any appliances to them. My mama had her some powerful mojo, I tells you.

I’ve tried the magic of plugging holes with wire mess and solid metal, the magic of rat traps, the magic of cayenne pepper dumped down their holes and liquefied to spray on appliance hoses and the surfaces they frequent, the magic of poison, and now I’ve experienced the magic of my third round of mesh and metal and traps. These vermin are also partial to building rat nests in my bookshelves, consisting of my books and notebooks, taking over my art and craft cabinets–there’s a metaphor I don’t wish to examine too closely. I make sure I lock up every scrap of food at night, which cheeses off the cat. She liked snacking at night. I told her since she decided to retire from mousing, those were the breaks.

Before that second round of anti-ratting seemed to save my appliances, I felt pretty desperate. I decided I had nothing left to lose and I’d try some more conventional magic—spells and charms and the like. If nothing else, it was something to make me feel less helpless. Interestingly, rat spells are sparse, at least on the on the internet and in the books on magic I have. Our ancestors probably recognized the futility of trying to get rid of these insistent, persistent, adaptable rodents. I found one candle spell; an ancient Christian amulet which I talked about here; a few references to putting mummified cats in crawl spaces and building foundations to ward off the beasties. One of the more passive aggressive techniques I found entailed writing letters to the rats stating that the eating was much better at the neighbors’ houses and they should go there and leave (my) house alone. The letters are then stuffed down the rat holes. As any fan of Outlander can tell you, this is reminiscent of the Scottish tradition of “rat satires,” improvised songs indicating that they should leave the house alone and go to the neighbors.

I am not passive aggressive by nature, nor did I wish to mummify my cat or any other cat, and I felt I needed something quicker than making an amulet. I decided to do the candle spell.

My experience with the spell

I mentioned that I was desperate and wanted something quick, right? The spell had to begin on the night of the full moon at moonrise—and the day I found it was the full moon. I didn’t want to wait another month so decided to use what I had around the house. It called for yellow candles and the only yellow candles I had were about three inches long. You were supposed to run the spell for two hours every night until the candles burnt up. The ones I had probably wouldn’t make it through the first night, but I thought it better than nothing. (First corner cut.) The spell called for a sprig of heather so I confidently went into the front yard and only then realized the gardener had pulled up the heather bush. I quickly looked up the magic properties of heather and realized rosemary had many of the same, so I cut a sprig off my rosemary bush. (Second corner cut.) Moonrise was late that night and I had to get up at 5:45 the next morning for work, so I started the ritual early. (Third corner cut.) About 45 minutes into the ritual, the rats started making an unusual amount of noise in their favorite room, the one where I keep my birds. In general, their behavior was much louder and more aggressive that night. One of them got up on the fridge and scooted down the face of it, knocking off one of the magnets. My magnet portraying the three faces of Hecate. Most of the candles from my ritual burned out after about 90 minutes, but one brave little flame burned on. Just shy of the two hour mark the candleholder for that brave little flame spontaneously shattered.

Between the raucous behavior of the rats, the cracked glass, and the Hecate magnet I had a strong suspicion the Universe was telling me something. Maybe to do the ritual the proper way next time. Or maybe Hecate and the rat gods were saying, “I hate dabblers.” I rather thought it the latter. I’ve long maintained that dabbling is a dangerous practice, but I had set aside my principles that night in frustration. Henceforth, I’ve decided it would be better to take my own—and Hecate’s and the rat gods advice—and leave the magic to those who know what they’re doing.

The rat siege continues, though it has abated somewhat. I accept that it will continue. Nature always finds a way in where humans wish to keep it out—no magic about that. After all, the rats consider this their home as well. Maybe instead of fighting them I should try propitiating the rat gods? Or maybe the spirit of place, to see if the house will help me as it did my mother.

 

xray

Back in 1988 when Merrifield wrote this book, the study of ritual and magic in academic circles was rare–frowned upon, even. Now it’s become something of a cottage industry, but this slim and approachable volume was an early precursor of current fields of study.

The author studied inventories of archaeological digs stretching back many years, looking for the odd bits that archaeologists either didn’t know how to interpret or interpreted in a prosaic way–things like bent pins or animal bones, bottles full of “rubbish,” or swords fished out of lakes, etc. In exhaustive detail, and stretching back two thousand years, Merrifield showed the ritual meaning of these things by their survival in folk traditions and superstitious. (Bent pins to ward off evil or witches; animal bones for sacrifice; bottles full of hair, urine residue and other things to ward against witches; swords thrown into lakes and rivers as sacrifices by warriors to assure victory, etc.)

It’s a fascinating peek into the Western magical tradition and the workings of the minds of our ancestors. Minds and traditions that we all too often share today.

(Here’s the article that goes with the picture above.)

giant veg

You’ve heard about the giant cabbages once grown in the poor, sandy soil of Findhorn, Scotland? Some people believe that was made possible by the intercession of nature spirits who, in conjunction with the mystic, Dorothy Maclean, wanted to demonstrate to the world what was possible when humankind cooperated with the spirits who ruled the natural world. In fact, the Findhorn Foundation website still tells the story:

Dorothy discovered she was able to intuitively contact the overlighting spirits of plants – which she called angels, and then devas – who gave her instructions on how to make the most of their fledgling garden. She and Peter translated this guidance into action, and with amazing results. From the barren sandy soil of the Findhorn Bay Caravan Park grew huge plants, herbs and flowers of dozens of kinds, most famously the now-legendary 40-pound cabbages.

But where does this notion of nature spirits as guardians and helpmeets of plants come from? It’s an important question because it underlies much of the philosophy of the New Age movement. However, it turns out to be a pastiche of things taken from here and there.

Once, long ago, in a post from 2012, Dr. Beachcombing of Dr. Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog wondered if this popular contemporary notion of nature spirits was a survival of old folklore beliefs or merely a modern interpretation. (It’s a interesting post. You should read it.) None of his correspondents (myself included) came up with what you would call conclusive proof that this was a belief of the common folk, or that it had anything like a long history in traditional magics. In fact, it was probably a belief amongst scholarly occultists rather than something a local cunning man or woman might adhere to.

Owen Davies in Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History explains this divide between folk magic and philosophical magic:

In the historiography of magic a distinction has usually been made between high or learned magic and low or folk magic. Learned magic is generally defined by its sophisticated theoretical, philosophical and ceremonial structure. It can be further broken down into two main categories, demonic and natural….Natural magic was considered by many intellectuals to be a branch of the sciences, as it dealt with the occult powers within nature. In our period [15th c. onward] it was primarily influenced by neoplatonism, which held that the universe was suffused and ruled by a hierarchy of spirits. All matter was interconnected by these spiritual influences, and sympathetic relationships governed all matter. Stars and planets possessed evil and good aspects, and radiated their benign or malign influence upon the earth like ripples across water….

Low, popular, or folk magic is usually characterised as a rich medley of indigenous beliefs, practices and rituals, some of them dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps even earlier, perpetuated largely through oral transmission. The use of “low” does not necessarily indicate that this type of magic was confined to the “low” elements of society, but those who employed it had no lofty pretensions about what they were doing….

Furthermore, there were specific individuals who straddled the worlds of both learned and low magic, and who were consequently thought to have more knowledge of the occult than those around them: these people were cunning-folk.

(This is a good book. You should read it, as well.)

Eileen and Peter Caddy, the founders of the Findhorn community along with Dorothy Maclean, were influenced by Rosicrucianism, which was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism. So it’s not a far stretch to say that their beliefs—and much of New Age philosophy—come from that root stock rather than folk beliefs.

W. Y. Evans Wentz (himself highly influenced by Theosophy, another Neoplatonist offshoot) says in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911):

In the positive doctrines of mediaeval alchemists and mystics, e.g. Paracelsus and the Rosicrucians, as well as their modern followers, the ancient metaphysical ideas of Egypt, Greece, and Rome find a new expression; and these doctrines raise the final problem—if there are any scientific grounds for believing in such pygmy nature-spirits as these remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages claim to have studied as being actually existing in nature….

All these Elementals, who procreate after the manner of men, are said to have bodies of an elastic half-material essence, which is sufficiently ethereal not to be visible to the physical sight, and probably comparable to matter in the form of invisible gases. Mr. W. B. Yeats has given this explanation:—’Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of earth, who have no inherent form, but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes. The visible world is merely their skin….’ [From Yeats’ Irish Fairy Tales and Folk-Tales]

Wentz again three paragraphs on:

And independently of the Celtic peoples there is available very much testimony of the most reliable character from modern disciples of the mediaeval occultists, e.g. the Rosicrucians, and the Theosophists, that there exist in nature invisible spiritual beings of pygmy stature and of various forms and characters, comparable in all respects to the little people of Celtic folk-lore.

I find myself imagining some practitioner of the old folkways listening to all this and saying to his or herself, “La di da, la di da,” if not laughing outright. There is nothing inherently wrong with these high blown sentiments, with Theosophy or Rosicrucianism or New Ageism, any more than there is something wrong with the “lower,” more practically-minded folk traditions. But they are clearly different streams fed from the big, muddy river of magics, and wading in one does not necessarily tell you anything about wading in the other.

IF

In the evenings, I pause in my chores to take the cat on a supervised trip into the back yard. She’s proven time and again she can’t be trusted not to jump over the wall and go walkabout—which, I suspect, is how she got lost from her previous owners. She does so love the back yard. She’s quite insistent on going out, fussing and whining until I relent.

I always relent, because my dirty little secret is that I go out there as much for myself as her. Min makes a great excuse. I love to feel the wind in my face, listen to the birds, watch the gloaming slowly overtake the leaves of trees and plants, golden and syrup-rich. I love the sense of presence out there. It’s serene, one of the few things in my life right now that fills me up rather than takes away.

So as I sat in my serene place last night, I thought—mostly in a peaceful way—about letting go of so many layers of things. Letting go of fears, letting go of needless guilt and worry, of giving it up to the inexorable ebb and flow of the universe. Not give up on life, you understand. Still in there, still fighting the good fight, just reconciling myself to the fact that the universe will always have its way in the end, no matter what I or anyone else does. What I needed, what I need, is to give up the illusion of control, to make peace with that.

We’re none of us helpless flotsam in the grand old river of the universe. I truly believe things travel along with us, keeping us in the free-flowing stream as long as possible, as much as possible. Little markers of hope and fellow-feeling, sometimes larger things that buffer and stand guard. At times, the smallest things can bring the largest upwelling of hope, allowing us to float free. I don’t know what these things are, where they come from, wouldn’t care to define them in narrow human terms, but they are there as long as we allow them to be. We can’t be protected forever. Nothing can be. Sometimes we’re going to smash into rocks, sometimes we’re going to dip below the surface. Sometimes, when the time has come, we’re going to drown. It’s the nature of the journey. It’s easy to be philosophical about all this when I’m in my serene place. Difficult when I’m having trouble treading water.

From the perspective of my usual chair last night I tried to think of some better way of treading water. I wondered if, along with the illusion of control, I also had an illusion of receiving help along the way. I looked at a patch of ground near the bird bath where a few days ago I’d moved a brick that had been overgrown with moss. I saw a little face, tilted to the side, peering back at me from the fringe of the moss, just before the precipice where the brick had nestled. One little arm was raised as if she swam hard against the pushing tide of moss. I was far enough away to wonder if she might be an optical illusion, a trompe l’oeil composed of bits of leaf matter, blossoms, and hope.

I got up and drew close. There was a face, and a tiny arm, a small ceramic figurine lodged into the ground. When I pulled her out I saw she was a little fairy maiden, sitting on a leaf, resting one hand on a thimble while the other, the one she’d been swimming with, rested under her chin. I could see from her back that she’d broken off some larger piece. She had quite an Alice in Wonderland quality to her face, but I don’t recall ever owning a piece of garden ceramic with such a whimsical girl. I’d swear she hadn’t been there when I moved the brick. My hand was right there two days ago, but I didn’t remember seeing her. Clearly, she’d nestled amongst the moss a while because she was partly embedded in the soil, leaving a hollow when I pulled her free. The moss had surrounded her as it had the brick. Perhaps I’d been too distracted at the time and hadn’t noticed her, or…

I looked up at the faces hanging on the garden wall. Flora and Ivy smiled serenely back at me. Green Man looked grumpy, as always, but I wouldn’t absolutely swear there wasn’t a twinkle in his eyes. Probably the gloaming. Magic always happen in the heavy, rich light of twilight.

This post was originally written in July of 2011 when I was struggling with being the sole caregiver for my 90-something mother. I am no longer a caregiver, but the idea that something will be there for us when we need it most remains a great comfort to me.

old shoe

Shoes are magic. Many a woman will tell you that they have the power to ensorcell. Imelda Marcos, for instance, seemed to be the victim of a particularly strong shoe enchantment. But aside from the compulsion to buy these items, shoes have a traditional protective magic which seems just as strong.

I first learned of this aspect of shoe folklore when I read The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic by Ralph Merrifield, a wonderful survey of European (mostly British) folk magic and ritual from prehistoric to modern times. Shoes, as it turns out, were the most common protective magic for buildings, from at least the 14th century into the 20th. Generally they are found walled up in structures, sometimes pairs or new but usually an odd shoe and very worn, sometimes in groupings, but often solitary. These hiding places are usually spots where it’s unlikely they would have arrived accidentally: bricked up in chimneys, under well nailed down floorboards, behind pristine plastered or bricked walls and the like. This practice is found all over Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, and the USA—anywhere, I suppose, where the European diaspora happened. There may well be non-European examples of this belief.

It was apparently quite a secretive rite, considered bad luck to talk about. The last known examples of concealed shoes are from the early 20th century, but who knows? Given its secretive nature, the practice could still be going on. We can only speculate and piece together other superstitions to figure out what it may mean. Mr. Merrifield does an excellent job of this:

There are a few known superstitions about old shoes that may be relevant. There was a belief that a shoe thrown after someone setting out on a journey would ensure good luck and a safe return. This is a custom still observed when the bridal pair departs after a wedding…There is a strong association with fertility; we all know the fate of the old woman who lived in a shoe, and there used to be a custom in Lancashire of trying on the shoes of a woman who had just had a baby in order to conceive.

He also makes extensive use of the work of a paper written by June Swann, a pioneer in the study of shoe magic. (Thanks to the Apotropaios website for hosting a copy of this article.)

Concealed shoes might also be a magic device for containing evil spirits, a tradition at least dating back to the story of John Schorn, a 14th century priest in Buckinghamshire, who supposedly conjured the devil into a boot to trap him. This may be why shoes are often found near entryways to houses, so that they could contain evil spirits which might try to get in.

I can’t help wondering, and Mr. Merrifield also speculates about this, if it has something to do with a person’s soul being imprinted on items closely associated with them. Shoes and clothing were enormous expenses for people in centuries past and folks tended to wear things and repair them until they were in shreds, then repurpose parts thereof before actually discarding them. And if something has been worn that long and that extensively, might not a person leave some essence of themselves imprinted on the object? Might that essence bear some protective quality, some ability to guard and protect a building in the owner’s stead, a soul outside the soul?

I’m not sure I’d want to remove one of these shoes if I somehow found one in my walls. If tradition isn’t a strong enough motivator, the possibility of hauntings might give me pause.

There was an episode of Syfy Channel’s Haunted Collector featuring one of these concealed shoes—in this case, an old boot. (Episode 2.6 if this episode list from Wikipedia is correct.) Now, I think all paranormal T.V. shows should be taken with a grain of salt, sometimes an enormous boulder of salt. (And yet, I still watch them, a guilty pleasure.) But I found this episode genuinely fascinating because of my familiarity with the subject. John Zaffis, the curator of a Museum of the Paranormal, investigated a home from the 1800s in Lorain County, Ohio. The current owners reported that when they decided to renovate an old fireplace, they found various objects concealed within it, including an old boot. As soon as these objects were removed, they began experiencing paranormal activity. Zaffis determined that the shoe was the focus of the haunting (I can’t remember how), had it blessed in some way (memory fails me), and removed from the premises to his museum. According to the show, the paranormal activity ceased thereafter.

What’s interesting from a folklore perspective is that Merrified reports a similar haunting via June Swann:

Miss Swann is of the opinion that this is essentially a male superstition connected with the building trade, and understands that it is considered to be unlucky to remove the shoes from the house. There is even a story of an apparent haunting that began when a shoe was sent of the Museum of London for identification, and ceased completely when it was returned.

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe. Please pass the salt.

1st. madron sign

Back in 2004, two friends and I visited the Cornish peninsula. Tintagel was definitely a high point—the actual rock and castle itself, if not the village. But there was another place that left just as big an imprint on my soul—maybe even bigger. Not as dramatic as Tintagel, much quieter, but no less magic: St. Madron’s Holy Well in Cornwall.

It’s inland from Penzance only a few miles, but a whole different world from the bustling tourist centers along the coast. It wasn’t featured prominently in my Green Guide, but I’d read about the well elsewhere and it figured high on my wish list. My companions indulged me in this, and I think they were glad they did. We were an Episcopalian, an agnostic, one leaning strongly towards pagan, and all of us were all moved by this place. It’s been holy since pagan times, taken over by the Christians, and still remains holy to both. There are a couple of small churches nearby, St. Madron’s which we didn’t get to visit, and St. Grada—small, lovely, peaceful. But the well itself (and the ruined chapel channeling it) exist a mile north and a whole ‘nother universe apart.

2burning blossoms

It’s a half-mile, so they say, from the church to the gate leading to the well, and a quarter mile in to the ruined chapel. Pastures surround the location, and the gate opens onto a tree-lined path. On this spring day, the trees burned with blossoms. We progressed through dappled shade along the rough path, delicate wildflowers in white and pink and yellow leading the way. Maybe it’s the screen of trees that shuts off all noise except the chirping of birds, the occasional movement of wild things in the overgrown brush on either side, but it’s like stepping into another world, so different from the one we know—centuries older, maybe a millennium or two. We hushed in response, the sound of our quiet passage seeming unnaturally loud. We could hear the wheels of our own thoughts spinning in our heads.

7madron stream

It hadn’t rained for several days, but the path was still damp, quite muddy in spots, sunken beneath water in places. Sometimes we had to scramble over rough stiles, crudely cut blocks of gray stone. One to step up, a flat one to scramble over, one to step down.

10holy well

The waters of the wellspring, I learned later, is somewhere out in the marshy land beyond the chapel, but they say its water brings healing and also gives mystical insight into the future. Puritan fanatics tried to smash the well housing in the chapel during the Civil War, but it still burbles on with fresh, pure, clean water. We were there on a Saturday, the end of April, but the waters are supposed to be their most potent on the first three Sundays in May. Maybe we got some residual from the build up to May, who knows?

5madron rag offerings

After the second stile and down a bit, there’s a stand of trees where people who’ve been cured by the well leave an offering—traditionally rags tied to the trees, but we saw all sorts of things. We left our offerings before the fact. All I had on me was a crimson velveteen scrunchie for my hair, one I was particularly partial to. I must say it looked lovely wrapped around the broken end of a branch.

6my red velvet offering_box

A real presence exists in that place, a sense that something potent moves through those trees. I didn’t feel at all silly looking back on that crimson scrunchie. It felt damned good, an elevation of the spirits. No guarantees of anything, no promises made, but for me a sense that I was making a wordless promise; I gave up something to the spirit of the place.

I’m not exactly sure why that particular bend in the stream became the location of the rag offerings because it’s around the path and down a ways from the actual well site. But I do know that the stream forked at this point, and in pagan beliefs, at any rate, forks in rivers are magical places. As are forked trees—ymp trees, they’re called, where the branches split in a Y low enough on the trunk for a human to walk or climb through easily. There were some of those in that grove, too. Forks represent transition points, places where the energy (or magic) changes directions and, some believe, gives a surge of power.

8path to chapel

The chapel itself is a ruin, a roofless box of ancient stone, steeped in age and covered in moss. An altar, on this day hosting a crude cross woven of branches, sits at one end of the enclosure.

11interior, altar

The interior housing for the well is another, smaller box on the opposite side, with a catch basin for the waters before they flow out and into the stream. A cold, absolutely clear, surprisingly gentle stream for such a volume of water—and again, the sense of presence was palpable. Even if you don’t go in for the mystical stuff, the thought that for thousands of years humans have come to this spot for prayer and offerings is awe-inspiring. Maybe that’s all the presence is at Madron, those innumerable human lives and energies intersecting with this place. Whatever it is, it’s potent. We sat on the rough stones for longest time, drinking it in, letting the peace invade our souls and smooth out the jangles. I was healed, although I hadn’t been aware of being sick.

I snapped a few pictures, but it seemed a futile (and maybe sacrilegious?) endeavor, and none of them came out all that well. I couldn’t escape the realization that no film, no picture could capture the enveloping green peace of this place, surrounded by trees, accompanied by the trill of songbirds, the plash of water on stones, the gurgle of it running in a channel, the fresh smell of greenness all around. At best, these photos may jog memories years hence, opening the door to the soul memory left behind by St. Madron’s Well.

13cross on altar

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