Column: Red and White

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The water in the Chalice Garden stains the rocks red. It falls from a tap in the shape of a lion’s head down onto a stone dais, and flows from there down a series of channels down the hill – and it runs red for the whole length of its course. Someone has left a glass beneath the tap, and so I take a drink, and then another. The flavor, a strange iron musk, overtakes me. I restrain myself from a third glass – in part because I imagine the iron I’ve already drunk will cause me problems on an empty stomach, and in part because, as I realize only after the second glass, I have no idea how many other lips have touched that glass since it last saw soap. At least the Red Spring is known for healing.

The Lion-Head tap at the Chalice Gardens, Glastonbury, UK. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

The Lion-Head tap at the Chalice Gardens, Glastonbury, UK. [Photo Credit: E. Scott.]

The Chalice Well has deep roots in legend, like so much else in Glastonbury – and like most of the rest, the legends are distinctly Christian. The red waters come, they say, because Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to England and hid it in the well, or because of exposure to the nails of the true cross. For me, and the other Pagans who make their pilgrimages to the Red Spring, of course the scarlet water recalls the Goddess and the blood of the moon, but that’s a 20th-century interpretation.

The sites that bring travelers to Glastonbury — the abbey, the spring, the tower atop Glastonbury Tor — are all steeped in medieval Christianity. Yet we seem to have adopted them as our own, and now Glastonbury Abbey is flanked on both sides by rows of shops selling occult books and witch supplies. It reminds me of what I’ve heard of Salem, back in the United States — I’ll admit I’ve never been, but my parents have — but whereas Salem adopted the trials of the 17th century as the basis for becoming a city of witches, Glastonbury seems to have simply been absorbed by the Pagans. Is it that the King Arthur legend has somehow become part of Paganism? Can we blame this on Marion Zimmer Bradley? I remain unsure, but the contradictions intrigue me.

Claudia, my friend and guide for the day, takes me across the street from the Chalice Garden, promising a surprise. The building she takes me to looks unassuming: a square of white bricks with four buttresses rising from the sidewalk. But that’s just the outside.

Claudia leads me to the threshold, and when she sees the look on my face she smiles with satisfaction. “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

The building houses the White Spring, smaller and less famous than its red counterpart across the way. Where iron fills the Red Spring, calcium fills the white. Neither of the springs provides water to Glastonbury anymore; the iron makes the Red Spring unsuitable for everyday drinking, and the buildup from the calcium would swiftly ruin the town’s plumbing. This Victorian well-house no longer has a practical function in regards to delivering water to the city, and as I understand, it was abandoned until the 1980s. The well-house became a temple in 2004, a temple to the spring water and its healing properties, a place cool, and dark, and damp.

The inside, brick vaults and stone floors, has only candles for light. A circular pool dominates the center of the room; several smaller pools rise from it, the water falling from one into the next, eventually running onto the floor where, as Claudia tells me, some water from the Red Spring also ends up – red and white, Goddess and God, merging into one. A bower of sticks hinged together fills one alcove of the space; shrines line the walls. Sounds reverberate off the bricks, so that a single note of music fills the entire room with a dense echo.

In its intimacy, its humanity, its humble grandeur, the White Spring temple reminds me of nowhere more than the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple before the fire. As much as I admire the sweeping architecture of cathedrals, buildings like this seem to me the closest to the divine. Every offering on every shrine suggests a story of a human reaching towards the heavens.

Claudia and I sit beneath the bower and start chanting – “we all come from the Goddess,” at first. In this place, my voice becomes far deeper and richer than I have heard it before. Claudia and I lose track of time while we sing together; the words spill into one another, merging with the water to form an endless loop of sound. After a time, the words leave us, and we simply hum the tune, feel the echo envelop us.

A young woman sits down next to me in the bower. She carries a flute and wears a big knit scarf. We smile at each other, and I continue my humming. Then I start another chant, “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes,” and the woman says, “Oh, I know that one,” and joins in, and in that moment the three of us seem to slip into one another, our voices melding into the walls of the well-house.

When we finish our chant, the woman says, “Do you want to get into the water?” I look at her incredulously. It is, after all, January, and the well-house’s doors are open to the air outside. While the spring remains a constant temperature year-round, I have dipped my hands in it already, and it is extremely cold. Further, I am a three-hour train ride away from my nearest change of clothes.

Of course I say yes, and a few moments later we, along with her companion, a man with salt and pepper hair and an easy smile, have stripped off our clothes and climbed to the brick lip of the uppermost pool. He gets in first, and I see him standing in water up to his navel. Well, that’s not so bad, I think, and I climb in after him. What I do not realize is that my new friend is standing on a ledge within the black water; a ledge that I miss by half a pace. I stumble forward and fall up to my neck into the icy water, sputtering.

I get back up to my feet and shoot him a mournful look. He smiles back. “Try singing – it helps!”

It does. We stand in the White Spring, I and these two lovely strangers, singing against the cold – not singing in words, but in tones and notes, in a harmony of discord. Glastonbury, it occurs to me, is a strange place, where it seems perfectly natural to have an experience like this, this communion with unknown friends. We stay there, freezing and happy, until the well-keeper comes to tell us it’s time to close.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.