Contemplation & Meditation, Featured, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Healing, Curiosity and Connection In Dark Times: Lessons from a River Goddess

Where do we seek healing and renewal when the comforts we usually turn to are the very things that are harming us — when gathering together for the holidays and singing songs and sharing food might actually make us sick? It is not only the elements of fire and air that can cleanse and heal. When these are out of balance, we can turn to the heavier, cooler, “darker” elements of water and earth to seek out healing.

Photo by Seán Doran (CC) [source]

Every year, my family gathers to celebrate the winter solstice, acknowledging the darkest, longest night of the year and celebrating the return of the sun and the lengthening days ahead. During hard times — times of scarcity and anxiety and fear — our instincts as humans are to come together, to hunker down around a fire and tell each other stories and sing songs and share food — all the things we couldn’t do last year and have chosen (out of an abundance of caution) to postpone again this year. Instead, my husband and I will sit awkwardly in front of a computer screen, trying our best to lead a meaningful ritual over Zoom.

Usually in our society, we tend to equate “hard times” with “dark times,” and we seek out light and warmth to help us find comfort and healing — that’s why we put up Christmas lights and shiny decorations, and light candles and yule logs, and sing carols during the darkest, coldest time of the year.

But these past two years, so many of our usual coping mechanisms haven’t been available to us or no longer work. One thing these times have taught us is that when light and warmth are out of balance, taken to an extreme, they themselves can become the source of our struggles and suffering. We’ve lived through wildfires and droughts and extreme heat because of global warming. We’ve coped with a virus sweeping the entire planet that causes a burning fever as one of its main symptoms, and its very name — corona — was chosen because the spikes that protrude from its center resemble the rays of the sun.

So where do we seek healing and renewal when the light and warmth we usually turn to are the very things that are harming us — when gathering together for the holidays and singing songs and sharing food might actually make us sick? Luckily, the Druidic tradition reminds us that health and healing — like justice — is really about seeking out right relationship, finding a shifting balance among the elements that allows us to adapt and respond in diverse ways to restore relationships when they’ve been disrupted.

In the Druidic tradition, darkness is not automatically equated with “bad” or “evil,” and light is not inherently “good.” Both light and dark are needed and bring with them their own unique blessings, as well as dangers, and so we’re always seeking a dynamic balance that ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes with the seasons. It is not only the elements of fire and air that can cleanse and heal. When these are out of balance, we can turn to the heavier, cooler, “darker” elements of water and earth.

Contemplating these themes, I find myself turning again to the Irish goddess Boann, the guardian and embodiment of the River Boyne, one of the three sacred rivers in Ireland.

Boann has a really interesting story about how she became a river goddess. It’s the kind of story that’s easy to interpret in a negative way, but actually provides a great deal of guidance if we’re willing to think more deeply about the symbolism of water and earth.

Here’s how the story goes:

Once there was a secret well known as the Well of Wisdom, and out of this well arose obscure knowledge and occult mysteries of such great power, it was said that no one could peer into its depths without both his eyes bursting in his skull. No one dared to approach this hidden place, except the king and his cup-bearers. But the King’s young wife, the bright maiden Boann, was intensely curious, and so one day she came to the well — not to drink, but to look upon its shimmering waters to see what she could see.

Boann circled the well three times, as only a fool would do. For it was said that one could move neither left nor right around the sacred spot without coming away changed. Still, her eyes followed the dappled light as it fell through the surrounding hazel trees and sparkled on the surface of the water, and with every step that she took, she seemed to arrive some place new. Every angle brought a different half-glimpsed mystery into view. She turned these visions over in her mind, heedless of the rising waters.

Until all at once, three waves rose up against the careless and curious Boann: the first crashed down mangling her foot; the second burst open her full, bright eye; and the third wave left her with one hand maimed. Half-blind, half-lamed, half stripped of strength, the maiden fled in fear and shame. She wandered wild across the land, and yet wherever she went the bright rapid waters of the sacred Well of Wisdom pursued her. Until, finally, she had run as far as she could and the waters chased her all the way to the sea, where at last they overcame her. There, the waters rose and filled her and drowned her.

This is the story of how the River Boyne was formed, and how Boann became a goddess. In most of her other stories, she appears as a mother figure — she gives birth to the god of youth, beauty and love, Aengus Og, and she’s honored as a spiritual mother and leader by the other gods of her tribe. Her name, which means “white cow,” associates her with the abundance and sustenance of the earth, and some suggest that the starry river of the Milky Way is a celestial reflection of her earthly river, the River Boyne, that brings nourishing waters to the land.

So it’s interesting that in this one story she appears as a naive young woman, mortal and susceptible to very human flaws. You could certainly interpret the story as being about how she was punished for her curiosity and arrogance, with the sacred waters first mangling her body and ultimately killing her. But why does a story about one of the most sacred rivers in Ireland, and the transformation of a young woman into a goddess, have such a brutal ending? Our own curiosity and confusion provokes us to look more closely… and we find our first clue in one of the earliest lines of the poem where this tale is told:

One day came fair Boann
to the well, though she was not thirsty,
that she might perceive its power.

Though she was not thirsty. Boann goes to the well, not to drink, but to gaze into its depths. She wants to look into the well to see what she can see.

To the ancient Celts, wells often served as portals of connection to the Otherworld, the world of the gods and the ancestors. Drinking from a sacred well could bring healing and wisdom. But Boann did not want to drink — she wanted to look. This doesn’t just show us how curious she was, but it tells us something very important about her attitude towards the knowledge that she sought, and what kind of knowledge she expected to gain.

All over the world, in mythology and folklore and even in our ordinary ways of speaking in our everyday lives, we use a number of different metaphors for knowledge. One common metaphor is “Knowing Is Seeing”. When I say, “We need to take a closer look at this story,” or I ask you, “Now do you see what I mean?” I’m using sight (and light) as a metaphor for understanding. When we get a new idea, we might say it dawned on us, giving us new insights that have opened our eyes.

Do you follow me? That brings us to the second very common metaphor for knowledge: “Learning Is Going On A Journey.” If I’m teaching you something that’s difficult to understand, I might walk you through it step by step so that you don’t get lost as we explore the topic together. As we learn, we might find ourselves expanding our horizons — in fact, we might even stumble onto a whole new way of seeing things — and so we see how these metaphors are related: going on a journey brings new parts of the landscape into view, and with that new view comes further knowledge.

It can be difficult to see how these metaphors help us interpret Boann’s story. But before we move on, there’s one more metaphor we need to consider: “Understanding Is Grasping.” Get it? When we talk about trying to get a handle on a difficult concept, we’re using this metaphor to describe knowledge as a physical object that we can hold in our hands, control and manipulate. The word comprehend itself originally came from Latin, meaning “to grab hold of something, to seize it.” When we analyze something, we say we pick it apart or dissect it — we can then use the new pieces of information we’ve gained to build an argument to support a new theory. Of course, if something is too difficult for us to grasp, we might say it’s gone right over our heads — or maybe it’s just that the information is so new and controversial that it’s still up in the air and hasn’t been settled by the experts yet. Again, notice how this metaphor of grasping relates back to the metaphor of sight — we can turn an idea over in our minds in order to look at it from different angles and maybe get a better perspective.

It is no coincidence that when Boann approaches the sacred Well of Knowledge not to drink but in order to “see its power” — the waters rise up in response and leave her wounded in three very specific ways: they burst open one of her eyes, mangle one of her feet, and maim one of her hands. In other words, the waters from the sacred well challenge and disrupt her usual ways of knowing: she’s unable to see the knowledge that the well offers, she cannot follow where it leads, she cannot grasp the wisdom that flows from it. At least, not completely. There is also a tradition among the ancient Celts that a person seeking knowledge of the Otherworld assumes a special ritual stance: standing on one leg, one hand bound behind their back, and one eye closed — in this way, blind and immobilized in this world, they are able to see, move and reach deeper into the Otherworld beyond.

But the sacred Well of Wisdom is not finished with young Boann yet: she flees from it and the waters pursue her, eventually overwhelming her completely. And that brings us to the final metaphor for knowledge, one that is unlike all the others: “Learning Is Consuming.” In this metaphor, knowledge is something taken into our bodies like food or drink. We might say someone has given us food for thought and that we need to chew on it for a while to fully digest its meaning. (While other ideas we might find difficult to swallow, even if someone tries to sugar-coat them or shove them down our throat.)

In this metaphor, we take wisdom into our own bodies and it transforms us from within, becoming a very part of ourselves. We have a thirst for knowledge that can’t be quenched until we’ve completely immersed ourselves in the topic. In this metaphor, knowledge surrounds us completely and fills us to the brim, but it’s not knowledge we can see — unlike the other metaphors for knowledge, this one rarely combines with “Knowing Is Seeing,” but instead provides an alternative, another kind of bone-deep wisdom.

Boann starts out at the beginning of this story as a young woman in search of a very particular kind of knowledge — but the Well of Wisdom makes an unexpected demand of her. In order to fully embrace her divinity, she must relinquish some control over her old ways of knowing and seeing the world, and she must be willing to accept this other, deeper and more mysterious kind of wisdom. When she does, she herself is transformed into a deity, but she also transforms the landscape around her and her relationship with it.

I find myself thinking a lot about this story of Boann, and how it relates to the difficulties we’ve faced as a society recently. On the one hand, the hard work and dedication of experts and scientists have brought us a great deal of knowledge that has helped us get a handle on the virus and hopefully find a way out of this pandemic — a light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, there are many people who are distrustful of these experts, suspicious of what they can’t understand — the virus is invisible and air-borne, it’s up in the air, we cannot hold it in our hands, control it or outrun it. How are we to deal with this strange and dangerous thing? Our best hope is a vaccine that contains a small part of the very thing we’re afraid of — a liquid that we must take into our very bodies, that must do its work in the darkness within us in order to transform us, to teach us and to heal us.

So I think of Boann not just as a protective mother figure, but also as that young woman who was driven by her curiosity and courage to seek out this wisdom and — most importantly — allowed it to transform her. I think of her as a role model and a guide who can offer us hope for the coming year. Her story reminds us that there are many ways to seek knowledge, and we need to remain open to them all if we are to become the best, most holy versions of ourselves. And it is through this relationship with the Waters of Wisdom that we find ourselves not only transformed from within but also connected to others, to the communities and landscapes in which we live.

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