The Well

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE WELL


Therefore with joy shall we draw water out of the wells of salvation.

Isaiah 12:3

 By the pen of Snorri the ancient Icelandic Edda took written form and revealed, like a mist-encircled painting, the great exploits of a time when spirit ranged freely and men fought openly the heroic battle of the soul. They were guarded by Odin who granted them victory in meeting their fate and oversaw their spiritual life in accordance with the Law. Neither time nor arctic tempest has extinguished the flame of Odin's sword nor have they diluted the significance of the pledge he made at the Well of Urd. Beneath that root of the World Tree Yggdrasil, which grows toward the realm of the Frost Giants, lies the Well of Urd. It is presided over by its Supreme Spirit Mimir and its waters bear the accumulated fruits of wisdom and understanding in this world. It was to Mimir that the fearless Odin went in his search for greater knowledge, only to find the waters withheld until he had made a pledge of one of his own eyes. Eddie verses record the tale and suggest that, even now, the eye is hidden in the well and used daily by Mimir to water the Yggdrasil Tree. The hidden eye resembles the sun sinking in the sea. Its function is similar to that of the solar disc which gives life to the earth. It was by giving his pledge and drinking from Mimir's waters that Odin obtained the secret wisdom which guided him each day when he and the other gods rode over the Bifrost Bridge to the Well where they met for counsel and judgement. According to later Christian symbolism, the well is associated with the image of life as a pilgrimage and signifies salvation. Even to look into a well was a mystic attitude of contemplation, while the well itself has been regarded in many traditions as a symbol of the soul.

 The ancient Egyptians held that only Osiris and the sacred Apis could drink from a well, for such incarnations of the Sun could not be nourished by the earthly waters of the Nile. Only the pure draught of the soul's sweet moisture could prolong their sojourn in the world. At Heliopolis the Sun itself was associated with a well in which it was said to have been born and out of which it rose from the abyss. The well is like a 'silver cord' which attaches man, through his soul, to the 'functions of the centre'. It is a link with the deep. In drawing its water, man is leading out and upwards the noumenal contents of the hidden. How poignant the words of the poet who spoke of "the toil of dropping buckets into empty wells, and growing old in drawing nothing up". Better to have the wisdom of those who constructed 'the Pools of Solomon' which supplied Jerusalem, for they knew that stored water must be deep to counteract evaporation.

Deep, dark and cold the current flows
Unto the sea where no wind blows
Seeking the land which no one knows.

T. S. ELIOT

The waters of the well represent the female principle vivified by the spirit of God, and thus the participants of the Bacchian Mysteries held that they imparted the Holy Pneuma to initiates.

 In the Old Testament Moses is shown sitting by a well when approached by the seven daughters of the priest of Median. These maidens enshrine the seven occult powers which come to give water to their flock. When a group of shepherds attempted to stop them, Moses turned them away and made the water available to the daughters. For this act he was given one of them by their priestly father and thus initiated into a certain degree of occult knowledge. This same knowledge was thought to reside in Connla's Well from which, according to the Celtic tradition, the seven streams of wisdom sprang. There the hero Diarmaid drank and wrestled with a wizard; at last he followed his foe into the well which led to 'the Land under the Waves' where the wizard reigned as king. Such wells were not to be approached casually, for they were apt to burst and drown the unwary trespasser. The judgement of Odin by the well may indeed seem to be stern, for the waters of Truth are apt to rush forth long before the foolishly curious are prepared to meet them. Exacting are the taboos observed by those who declined to take water drawn from a well by defiled hands. Even wells which served the polluted ones were regarded as impure, and so in traditional cultures regulated by rigid codes, village wells may be used quite exclusively, necessitating their separate construction in several neighbourhoods. Beyond all other food, it is water that conveys personal contamination, perhaps because it so closely represents the soul. The complexities of Karma responsible for the conditions of one's life are elusive, but many are the references – from varying traditions – to the relationship between sinful action and the contamination of well water. Extremely old legends from the coast of Equador depict an aboriginal civilization of giants who built great stone-faced wells of fabulous depth. The water in them was said to be very sweet and cold, and yet through the sins of many, it was finally soured and left to dry up. Perhaps 'the Water Ruler' was offended and departed.

 The Finno-Ugric people saw a Veden Haltia in every well. Contaminated water was a sure sign of its absence. To purify a well gone dry or bad they instilled sweet water containing the soul-power of another source in an attempt to attract back the original 'Ruler'. "Water pure that bids the thirsty live" must surely have a soul. To keep them pure, wells have been approached and used by people of many cultures as sacred living things. Powerful and life-giving, they have also been feared, and when associated with death, are not only abandoned but sometimes 'killed'. An early party of archaeologists exploring some canyons in Navajo country made themselves useful to a group of worried Indians by caving in and thus 'killing' a well in which a young girl had drowned. The Navajos, convinced that the white man did not have a soul to endanger, had no compunction in delegating this fearful task to the strangers in exchange for their services as guides. They believed that the beneficent soul of the well had been superseded by an evil spirit which would demand yet another life and would claim the soul of its hapless victim. Like other powerful symbolical links with the deep undercurrent of the source of life, the well is vital – an umbilicus giving life – but it must be tended carefully and built skilfully so that only purity wells forth from its depths.

 Armies advancing across the deserts of the East in ancient times sent scouts ahead to dig wells, so as to control them for military purposes. These engineers could drill wells quickly through solid rock by heating it and then pouring on cold water to split it. The invading army would move rapidly ahead in this fashion and the object of their conquest would become encircled by secured water sources where men could gather their strength and renew their attack. Of course, once the objective was won, the conquerors, like those whom they had subjected in order to realize their worldly goal, would have to set about the basic business of ensuring their water supply. In some cases, citadels were built upon great bluffs for purposes of defense and had tunnels leading down to water. Hezekiah, King of Judah, held off the Assyrians for long years during the eighth century B.C. His well tunnels extended 1,760 feet into the living rock and his armies perched upon the cliffs above were assured a constant and hidden appeasement of their thirst. An enthusiast once described Mesopotamia as "The desert blooming as the rose, and the hillsides, become hanging gardens." Perhaps the famous beauty of Nebuchadnezzar's garden which was built over a wall inspired this poet of old. Indeed, a delicate balance of water control had been achieved, and this was all the more striking as Mesopotamia in 1000 B.C. had the population of modern France. The intricate system of wells, which was largely destroyed in the end by Mongols, declined initially through silting up as a result of the imprudent practice of overgrazing and overcutting the vegetation on the highlands. Like a dying flower whose pollen is cast on the wind, the souls of growing things scattered and the branches and petals of civilization withered and disappeared. Lonely and parched walls recount the crumbled story of thoughtlessness and greed.

 A walled city cannot hoard water for its own use and expect to thrive, for water was meant to flow freely and wells to conduct it to the mouths of all who thirst.

 Whosoever, with a purely believing heart, offers nothing but a handful of water, or presents so much to the spiritual assembly, or gives drink therewith to the poor and needy, or to a beast in the field; this meritorious action will not be exhausted in many ages.

Buddhist Canon

It was taught in the East that if a man refuses a drink of water to another who thirsts, he is "born too soon in human shape". Like the hoarding of grain or the failure to wipe away the tear from a sufferer's eye, a refusal to share the local source of water violates the basic theme of reciprocity which operates at every level throughout the whole of nature. When people ask what they will do when the well runs dry, they might consider what they have done to increase the reciprocal flow of spiritual and physical nourishment in the world. Nature works through currents of sympathy, and an oasis is the progeny of the moisture of compassion that moves within a human heart. The darkness of the ignorance that prompts some to fight and to practise exclusiveness is typified in the ruthless control of wells exercised by the Mafiosi in Sicily. Temporal divisions of power between bosses controlling the poor peasantry was spoken of in terms of being able to 'drink from the well', and the peasants themselves took water at the pleasure of these parasitic purveyors of fear and death. The clutched power of such people ever sifts through their desperate fingers, and their unnatural lives are sad scars upon the land. Their life is temporary, dependent only upon the meanness of others. To deny anyone access to a well is to prevent the partaking of that which the shaft taps, for water does not come from a well, but through it – from the earth.

 Water must percolate deep within the earth after having passed through a great circular series of transformations known as the hydraulic cycle. From the water bodies of the earth evaporation takes place, resulting in clouds which may release their precipitation over the ocean, unseen and unfelt by dwellers of the land, or may be blown by a celestial breath towards continental slopes where they can release their rain. The ground surface runoff scores the earth in streams and rivers rushing to the sea, some captured by vegetation and some evaporating up into the biosphere. But some of the water will infiltrate through the soil water belt downwards to the capillary fringe. At this point it has passed from the zone of aeration into that of saturation, crossing a threshold of demarcation called the water-table. Beneath this lies the ground water with a tube, with openings in its bottom section, which is that part tapped by drillers of wells. Such ground water formations are called aquifers, ninety-five per cent of which are contained within sedimentary rock produced by the weathering and erosion of other rocks. While this is symbolically suggestive in itself, it is equally arresting to note that only five per cent of the earth's crust is made up of such material. The water within the aquifer is generally clear, colourless and of a constant temperature. It contains little if any suspended matter due to its slow percolation through the ground, and for this reason it is usually free of microbes but rich in minerals impacted deep within the soil.

 In an artesian aquifer the water is confined beneath an impermeable layer of impacted material. Because of the pressure created by this confinement, when a well is sunk the water will rise above this level to what is called the piezometric surface. In an ordinary aquifer, however, the water is unconfined and the water-table marks the highest level to which water will rise within the well when it is at rest and the pressure within is the same as that in the formation outside. It is the pump that will lower the pressure inside the shaft and cause water to move into the well through convergent flow. The velocity of flow increases as it nears the well, but if the pumping rate is constant, the aquifer comes to supply a constant quantity of water and an equilibrium is reached. Several critical variables affect the flow of ground water. The soil in which it moves is like a network of connecting pipes through which water flows very slowly and in which it is stored. Because of the capillary effect, the yield of water is always less than the porosity of the soil, and the permeability of an aquifer is related to pressure differences, particle size, arrangement, distribution, continuity of pores which yield interconnecting passages and stratification. If particles are of relatively uniform size and arranged in a cubical fashion, the porosity will be greater, yielding a larger volume of water. If the particles are of unequal size and smaller ones clog the irregular interstices between the larger, the volume of flow will decrease and instead of acting as a cleansing filter, they will become impacted and minimize the converging flow into the well. The purity of ground water derives from the fact that it moves through this vast filter system, and even heavily polluted surface water can be cleansed in a surprisingly short distance if the flow is unimpeded by impaction.

 The hydrologist, exploring for a well site, looks for ground water capable of sustained flow over long periods, at a reasonable rate and of good quality. He checks the rock formations, location of faults and depth of bedrock to help determine the location and extent of an aquifer. Bedrock contours indicate the maximum depth to which a well should be drilled, and the strike and dip will tell him in which direction a well should be located to obtain maximum thickness of aquifer. He will study an exposed geological cross-section to learn the character and thickness of underlying formations, and he will assess the surface evidence as well as the nature of any existing wells in the area. When he has determined the best site, he must decide upon the method of digging to be used. Hand-dug wells have been constructed for thousands of years and inspired a high degree of ingenuity as well as respect for the water thus made available for crops and animals and human uses. The Chinese, using a primitive method of percussion-drilling, achieved depths of five thousand feet with bamboo tools and casing. Such wells were sunk on the edges of the Gobi Desert and probably required several decades of patient labour. Oversized wells lined with masonry and with steps leading down to water level were built in many ancient cultures and are still in use today, but the narrower tube well requires more sophisticated methods of digging. Early tube wells in Bengal were dug by sludging up the fluids and cuttings with hollow bamboo pipes. As the pipe was raised up and down by a lever, the opening and closing of its top promoted the suction, and with lengths of pipe added, a depth of two hundred and fifty feet could be achieved in relatively easy soil.

 Modern wells are bored or driven with hammers. Hydraulic percussion is used to drill and to lift out the fluid and cuttings, or a cable tool permits a heavy bit to fall repeatedly into the shaft. Jet streams of water or air break up subsurface material and combination rotary/air hammer methods are used in materials dense enough to prevent an excessive loss of air. If a well has run dry, there is even a method of 'shooting' it with nitro-glycerine torpedoes in an effort to reach a deeper source, a rather forceful way, indeed, of calling back 'the Water Ruler'. The life of the weir is also dependent upon a careful selection of material which will withstand both corrosion and incrustation and ensure the strength required. The acidity or alkalinity of the water as well as the velocity of its flow and the nature of the soil all have a bearing upon this. The size of casing, pump and yield desired are all dependent variables, and one of the most important elements is the screen through which the water enters the well. The size of the well-screen slots is determined from the size of particles of the material composing the aquifer, and this is balanced against the strength factor which is linked with the fact that when the openings are larger, shorter lengths of the well pipe need be slotted. This, together with the need to place the slotted sections in line with strata of maximum porosity, describe some of the extremely complex interdependent variables that must be understood and mutually adapted. The length, size of openings and diameter of the screen all influence the velocity of water entering the well, which in turn affects the pressure losses required for maintaining the flow.

 If seekers of truth see themselves as hydrologists looking for waters of spiritual life, they can begin their exploration by emulating the great pledge of Odin in renouncing the Eye of Time and its fixation upon the effects of physical nature. Noticing that surface water is subject to contamination, the hydrologist can ponder the relationship between life on the visible plane and that which surely sustains it but is hidden from view. The water deep within the earth is clear and colourless, resting and moving according to great globular changes which combine despite all the mental pollution that degrades spirit and corrupts matter in the world. The pure and untainted matter of the earth acts as a permeable membrane, sifting and filtering with its capillary action, separating the psychic effluvia from the free-flowing noetic current. He can remind himself that almost all such bodies of pure fluid are stored in only five per cent of the earth's crust. This small amount of crust is composed of sedimentary rock which is produced by the weathering and erosion of other types of rock. A refinement of extremely hard material has taken place which our hydrologist may easily see as analogous to the refinement of vestures that takes place when consciousness progressively turns away from the sharply defined separativeness of the physical world to the ethereal porosity of the soul; for it is only in such porous strata that the aquifers of the world are found.

 Pondering the difference between the confined and unconfined aquifer, the spiritual seeker might recall times when the souls of men were grievously oppressed by the heavy weight of greed and exploitation and when, suddenly, someone of courage appeared in their midst, and penetrated the impermeable layer to release the artesian flood. One may consider the water-table of the unconfined aquifer and realize the necessity of developing a sort of internal pump which can lower the pressure constantly and bring on the convergent flow. People who suffer greatly are sometimes worn down to the condition where, when an opening is suddenly available, the soul will blaze forth. But persons who suffer in small ways during their lives must prime themselves to move through an opening when it appears if they wish to move freely and in a steady flow with the eternal hydraulic cycle. The hydrologist perceives that the pumping should take place at an even rate, as the heart which beats in harmony with the rising and setting sun, as the breathing in and the breathing out of the earth itself. Wrapped in deep meditation and breathing steadily, our hydrologist passes into a state of inner vision and the earth around him reveals the nature of its hidden formations.

 The hydrologist sees the perfectly aligned particles making up the soil membranes where the flow of soul-wisdom is at its maximum. He notices that the interstices between these similarly-sized particles are diamond-shaped and that the force of the current through them is electrified. His glance is attracted to an area of irregularity where sedimentary impaction is taking place, causing a diversion of the water's flow. Before his penetrating gaze, the stratigraphic levels disclose themselves and he locates the areas of greatest porosity and calculates the angles from which they may be best approached. All his past experience has prepared him to recognize the present situation and, as he sits on the hillside unnoticed by other men, he remembers how other wells were dug, of what they were made and how they had functioned through the years. His mind has grown porous to the memory of his higher Self, and he sees clearly the patterned variables, recognizing those that must be balanced within his own nature so that the flow may continue long after he has left this sacred and illuminating hill. He is now ready to construct his well. He has plumbed the depths of his inner being, recognized the best method of drilling, and calculated the optimal rate. Whether he should use air or water or rotary action, whether he should build a broad access with steps to the water level – all these things he now knows. He knows what sort of pump to use and how powerful it should be, or whether he should use a rope and bucket instead. When he inserts his well-screen he will understand exactly how to balance the variables of bodily strength, mental porosity and the ability to avoid psychic clogging, and he will build his well of material which will maximize the flow of soul-wisdom. So completely has he meditated upon his well that he has in some ways become the well itself.

 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, 'If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.'

Gospel According to John

 The well is like an antaskarana which releases the waters of soul-wisdom so that they can flood the mind and water the earth. If the hydrologist were motivated by his desire to serve others, then, having drunk at the spring of the higher Self, he would release rivers of living water and embark upon that voyage which ultimately produces 'the Wells of Salvation' – the Mahatmas, the Siddha-Purushas and the Avatars of mankind. The Siddha-Purusha is depicted as one who gets water out of an old well. He is like an archaeologist who removes the dust and lays open an old well which has been covered up by ages of disuse. They are those possessed from birth with superhuman powers. They are the Nirmanakayas of Great Sages from spheres on a higher plane than our own – who voluntarily incarnate in mortal bodies in order to help the human race in its upward progress. Such a being is a 'shooter' of old wells who blasts through the thickened layers of earthly consciousness and releases the life-giving water which can cause the desert to bloom and can engender a higher level of human awareness. They turn away from the pure waters of their own ethereal world in order to dig deep into the mud and hardened soil of human existence, to reveal once again that which has been covered over and forgotten. The Avatar, however, is like an engineer who sinks a new well in a place where there was no water before.

 Great Men give salvation to those only who have the waters of piety hidden in themselves, but the Avatara saves him too whose heart is devoid of love and dry as a desert.

 Such are those whose single eye of wisdom irradiates the world and draws even the most shadowed soul up along the ray of his inner being towards his 'prototype in Heaven'. Such are the great World-Reformers, the direct emanations of the Logos, sometimes born of women and sometimes Anupadaka. They are the "special incarnations of the World-Spirit in man", deep wells opening out to the spiritual source of all life. To drink from their teachings is to drink of immortality, and to worship at their feet is to bathe in the waters of the soul. Every man may approach their well by penetrating the layers of his own inner self and by releasing the great memory that rests as a reservoir at the centre of his heart. All seekers must become hydrologists of the soul and make of their lives clean and pure wells capable of pouring forth the compassionate waters of the Avatars and Mahatmas, the great reservoirs of soul-wisdom in a world of woe.

They come from the Eternal Land,
The White Island which never dies,
And the waters of Their presence wash the Earth.
Like great wells from which the thirsty drink,
They give forth life and Truth everlasting
And open the floodgates of the human soul.