The Secret of Long Life? It’s All in the Water: Sacred Springs & Holy Wells
The belief in sacred springs and holy waters goes far back into the earliest religious myths of humankind, and is ubiquitous across every continent. An ancient primordial connection between water and spirituality has always existed in some form.
It’s thought that one of the earliest shrines ever built by human hands was probably a rock-cairn to mark the site of a bubbling spring. And even in our modern era, you would be hard-pressed to find a church or temple which does not have a water-shrine occupying a place of special reverence, whether it’s a fountain, a pool, a holy well, or a natural spring.
Ney Springs (Mount Shasta), photograph copyright Dustin Naef. “Ruins of an old spring hidden in the wilderness around Mount Shasta, California”.
Something in the Water
The traditions of ancient religions and water cults gave birth to a vast expression of folklore, spirits, deities, and occult beliefs which are intimately connected to bodies of water; it is still widely believed that occult forces are concentrated in places where waters bubble up from the depths of the earth, which become mirror-like windows and portals where one might glimpse something of another reality, separated from us by only the thinnest of barriers.
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The Sorceress, Jan van de Velde II (1626). “The imagery of a witch’s cauldron may relate back to ancient pagan beliefs surrounding springs as being repositories of occult power and conduits to another world”. (CC BY 4.0)
In the old countries throughout Europe, some sources of water have been venerated for untold generations, sometimes to the wonderment of modern people, as noted in the following quote by a nineteenth-century traveler:
“The unnoticeable smallness of many of these consecrated wells makes their very reminiscence and still semi-sacred character all the more remarkable. The stranger in Ireland, or the Highlands of Scotland, hears rumors of a distinguished well, miles on miles off. He thinks he will find an ancient edifice over it, or some other conspicuous adjunct. Nothing of the kind. He has been lured all that distance, over rock and bog, to see a tiny spring bubbling out of the rock, such as he may see hundreds of in a tolerable walk any day. Yet, if he searches in in old topographical authorities, he will find that the little well has ever been an important feature of the district; that century after century it has been unforgotten; and, with diligence he may perhaps trace it to some incident in the life of a Saint, dead more than 1200 years ago, whose name it bears.”
Castle Rock Well, photograph copyright Dustin Naef. “A bubbling mineral spring located along the Upper Sacramento River, south of Mount Shasta.”
The belief in supernatural powers latent in bodies of sacred waters—their curatives, rites, charms, and the lore of water-worship picked up from elders living near them—has been a preoccupation of wise men and women of every religious faith throughout history. Over the centuries, countless secret quests and lonely pilgrimages have been made in search of a lands legendary healing waters, and its redolent fountains of youth. Some of these ancient springs and wells are still in existence today, bubbling vigorously; while others have been destroyed through neglect and lay stagnant and barren, their naiads and magic depleted.
Woodcut: Hans Sebald Beham - Fountain of Youth and Bathhouse (1536). (Public Domain)
The Fountain of Youth
The poet Y.B. Yeats famously said that an old man is but a paltry thing; a tattered coat hanging upon a stick. A recent article published in Business Insider revealed that many of the world’s leading tech-billionaires are generously funding life-extension technologies in a gambit to try to defeat death—or at least delay its onset for as long as possible. This should come as no surprise, because youth is the one thing that cannot be purchased with all the wealth in the world; and with each passing moment, a little bit more of it is taken away from us forever.
The yearning for immortality is nothing new in the annuls of history and exploration, the eternal quest for the fountain of youth has been an obsession of Kings, nobles, and Rulers for thousands of years, and many oceanic voyages have been launched in search of fabled lost Edens—most often ending with much bloodshed, and the further spreading of human misery.
In the age before medical science developed, eternal life and longevity was often sought through the medium of the occult sciences, and mythic legends which hinted of the existence of rejuvenatory natural springs. These legends, however far-fetched they may seem to people today, carried the full weight of thousands of years of occult belief and religious conviction in the reality of their existence behind them.
The Fountain of Youth: Lucas Cranach the Elder (1546). (Public Domain)
During the European Age of Exploration, the Fountain of Youth became a popular artistic motif, the imagery of which was influenced by even more ancient tales. The standard idealization of the fountain is fairly consistent: old people, often carried or hobbling along on crutches, strip off their clothing and enter a pool on the left. Some of the old people, after bathing in the pool, are shown stepping out of the water on the right, glowing and youthful again.
Christopher Columbus was keenly interested in discovering the Garden of Eden during his voyages; the language of some of his writings suggests he believed himself close to finding it. And the fountain of youth also became enmeshed in the explorations of the conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, who may have also accompanied Columbus in his 1493 voyage to the New World, and was himself rumored to have discovered the fountain in Florida in 1513, after hearing about mysterious local legends. It was said that the native people made regular visits to these fountains, and lived remarkably long and vigorous lives, and that a frail old man, if he bathed or drank from one of the fountains, could become so completely restored that he could resume all his manly exercises, take a new wife and beget children again.
Mount Shasta Reflected in the Lake, photograph copyright Dustin Naef.
Mount Shasta’s Legendary Waters
Northwestern Native Americans traditionally revere the regions great rivers, lakes, and springs as sacred and holy places. Along with the accounts of glittering rivers lined with gold which seduced miners, there were also tales about healing waters and springs which were consistent with other legends from other lands.
Some of the lore about Mount Shasta’s healing waters may have first reached Euro-Americans through early fur-trappers, who explored the territory in the decades leading up to the California Gold Rush. These early explorers kept detailed journals about the lands flora and fauna, and they collected intelligence during their interactions with different tribes who they established trading relationships with.
Much of this intelligence was later used by the U.S. military against Native Americans during the invasion of California and the Pacific Northwest. Tragically, indigenous people had no reason to fear or distrust the early explorers; and had no idea that the knowledge they shared with them about the land and their culture would later be used to betray them, and dispossess them of their way of life.
After gold, one of the most highly-prized resources to be seized from Native Americans around Mount Shasta in California were natural springs renown to possess medicinal waters, which have been used by indigenous people for thousands of years. Many of these natural springs are still in existence today, and they contain different spiritual and mineral characteristics.
Mossbrae Falls, photograph copyright Dustin Naef. “Mossbrae Falls located south of Mount Shasta is a Native American sacred site whose waters attributed health and long life to those who drank from them.”
Before tales of mystic Lemurians living beneath Mount Shasta came into existence, it was tales of Mount Shasta’s legendary healing waters which attracted droves of urban tourists to the area from the 1850s, who came to bathe in and partake of the waters, and spread the stories to others.
The completion of the railroad in 1887 lead to the founding of the town of Dunsmuir—south of Mount Shasta, and situated beneath a towering granitic mountain named Castle Rock—and the town quickly became famous for Castle Rock’s healing springs and waters, which from the late 1880s it bottled and sold to prestigious clientele around the world.
Shasta Springs, early historical photograph published in 1895. (Public Domain)
One of the most famous resorts of that era was called Shasta Springs, located directly above Mossbrae Falls. Its waters had been known and used for their magic and medicinal qualities since antiquity; legend credits the waterfall and springs as being created by the Great Spirit. They reside in the traditional territory of the Winnemem Wintu. The springs were venerated as an abode of good spirits and were also known as a source of powerful healing, where one would enjoy a long life and good health by drinking and bathing in the pool beneath the waterfall.
A semi-crippled Freemason, Prof. Charles H. Allen, identified Shasta Springs as a “fountain of youth” and wrote glowingly about its virtues.
Boilard Engraving - Crowds of old and infirm people arrive at the fountain of youth to pay an aristocrat for the privilege to drink from the rejuvenating waters; to the left are a group of youthful people dancing and singing, rejuvenated by the healing water.
Although most of Shasta Springs resort has fallen into ruins today, Mount Shasta’s “Fountain of Youth” is still in existence, but regrettably the public is forbidden access to it. The trail leading to Shasta Springs and Mossbrae Falls resides on private property owned by the Saint Germain Foundation, who have surrounded it with chain-link fencing, security cameras, and razor wire.
By Dustin Naef
Top image: Oceanides, Gustave Dore (1860-1869). (Public Domain)
Mount Shasta's Forgotten History & Legends. Dustin Naef (2016).
Picturesque Shasta Springs. Prof. Charles H. Allen (1899).
Water from the Sacred Well: Further Explorations in the Folklore and Mythology of Sacred Waters. Gary R. Varner (2010).
Folklore and Mythology of Sacred Waters. Gary R. Varner (2010).
Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells. Gary R. Varner (2009).
Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland. Janet and Colin Bord (1985).
Cures and Curses: Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells (Understanding the Mysteries of Sacred Springs). Janet Bord (2006).