The Fountain

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Daughters of Zeus! who from the ethereal bowers
Descend to swell the springs, and feed the flowers!
Nymphs of this fountain! to whose sacred names
Our rural victims mount in blazing flames!
To whom Ulyssey's piety preferred
The yearly firstlings of his flock and herd.


 In any age one can look into the water of a natural spring and see that it is alive. Shaken by a mysterious quivering that originates from within the earth, the liquid pulsates forth in its emergence. Looking into the sand at the bottom of the clear water, one sees the 'eyes' of the spring rhythmically spewing the grains here and there in little whorls and eddies. The pebbles skip and wheel as if invisible fingers were playing with them. The water bubbles and dances aside in crystal sheets of mirrored trembling, to slip and pour across the moist rocks and succulent earth around it. Springing forth from invisible fissures, pushed upward into the light, the water rushes out of the mother's side, out of her eyes, her mouth, her breasts. Springing into a fountain, the water is born of the mother and, coursing through her, takes on the limpid shape of her half-opened eyes and the dazzle of her smile.

 At the propitious time, Zeus removed to the place of his own nativity in order to await the wondrous birth of his daughter Athena who, it was said, sprang fully-armed from his brow. Her soul, arching forth into the world, was made manifest in a gushing fountain that spilled abroad her beauty and wisdom and was marked by a temple raised in her name. This is the sacred fountain of Tritonis (trito is an archaic word for 'head') in Arcadia where these waters of spirit and matter merged and became one glorious fount. Symbolizing the Mother Source, these life-giving waters are like the milk of the Melodious Cow poured forth, once again, as the power of speech into the world. This is why from very ancient times the jets of water at many natural founts were directed through an aperture resembling a human mouth carved into the living stone. As the centuries unfolded, sculpted fountains were increasingly engineered in varied and ingenious ways so as to channel the flow through the opened lips of nymphs and gorgons, goddesses and gods. Pilgrims and travellers came to such places for instruction as well as refreshment.

 In ancient Greece each fountain was believed to have its own genius. Some were visited for medicinal purposes, others in order to purge the effects of sin or the polluting contamination of some criminal act. Certain fountains were believed to possess oracular powers and were linked with famous oracles like that of Delphi, while a few were approached as mirrors through which one could look into the future or as founts of euphoria and bliss. Whatever their powers, pilgrimages were made to them accordingly and many became widely famous throughout the Mediterranean world.

 Fundamental to their varied qualities was the idea that water gushing forth from the earth sprang ultimately from the cosmic centre of the universe, from the fountain which gives rise to the Four Rivers of Paradise. From this heavenly fountain comes the draught of immortality which is extolled in the Hindu tradition as Amrita's sweet waters. In Christian belief this is the flow of the Logos which brings redemption and purification, just as the earthly fountain splashes upon the surface of the water below and cleanses it. To the Muslim these are the heaven-sent waters of Reality, the drinking of which brings a sudden access of knowledge resulting in the opening of 'the eye of the heart'. To them it is the fountain of grace which bears forth the gnosis of God. The Persians designed gardens of paradise patterned after this heavenly archetype, dividing off four 'rivers' which were fed by a central fountain that itself represented both the tree and the waters of life. Radiating out to the four cardinal points, the garden canals divided up a square symbolic of the manifested cosmos, the architectural effects of which can still be seen in the Moorish gardens of southern Spain and the Mughal landscapes of Kashmir and northern India. These were called char-bagh, or Four Gardens, the cornerstones of the cosmos, and were often exquisitely designed like those at Lahore or Fatehpur Sikhri. In seventeenth century Rome, Giovanni Bernini designed the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, which is dominated by four colossal river gods reclining upon rocks from which water fans out in fine-blown sprays and falls into a huge circular pool. The Danube, representing Europe, holds a shield and is accompanied by a horse. The Ganges, or Asia, is tranquil and coils out alongside a great serpent, while the African Nile appears veiled and fans out over a powerful lion. The Americas are characterized by the river Platte and its deity somehow appears to look astonished as it gazes upwards towards its source, which pours down upon an armadillo. Whatever the intended meaning of the symbolic relations detailed in this magnificent fountain, it is clearly inspired by the same idea that placed the fountain of paradise so firmly in the centre of the cosmos in more ancient times.

 The power of timeless wisdom inherent within this archetypal fountain was believed to have been reflected in the oracular fount of Demeter at Patrae and of Castalia at Delphi. On the road leading from the ruins of a once noble gymnasium to the lofty temple of Apollo, visitors seeking the Delphic Oracle would stop and bathe their hair in the Castalian waters. Rising out of an angle where the spreading bases of two peaks of Mount Parnassus come together, the fountain was believed to come from the River Styx, which flows below. A draught of its coolness was held to give poetic inspiration and it furnished the water of the holy temple used by the pythoness herself as she prepared to sit upon the sacred tripod. Daphne (laurel) grows by the spring and its leaves, imbued with the fountain's abundance, were chewed by the pythoness and others for purposes of divination.

  Visualized as the centre which gives life and immortality, it was around such fountains that great cities were often built. Seven miles from Argos are the ruins of fabled Mycenae, which was founded by Perseus at the spot where he knelt down and pulled up a fungus from the rocky soil. As he did so, his scabbard fell from his sword, which prompted him to mark the place as auspicious and give to it the name which was used in those days to indicate both a fungus and a scabbard. The sacredness of the place was dramatically revealed to him when the waters of the fountain sprang forth from the very point where he pulled up the fungus. Perhaps it is in accord with these origins that the spot marked by the naked sword should, afterwards as a city, furnish the leaders of the Trojan War and more than a quarter of the martial heroes whose swords wrote in blood the brave and compelling story of Thermophylae. Sometimes this immortal centre was multiplied as a great city expanded and developed overlapping circles of activity, each with its central fountain. During one year of his aedileship (in 33 B.C.), Marcus Agrippa built five hundred fountains in Rome and he decorated the impressive founts at the aqueduct termini with three hundred statues of marble and bronze. At the time of Constantine there were one thousand, two hundred and twelve fountains in Rome, all endowed with a sacred meaning according to their dedication.

 The fountain in the centre of the city (or the neighbourhood) is its soul and it is this which renders the city itself sacred, a reflected garden of paradise. If the waters run fresh and pure, they may bring in their current some ingredient productive of immortality, of rejuvenation or perennial youth. In the Old World as well as the New, men sought the Fountain of Youth. So widespread was this idea amongst many American Indians that some of the conquistadores like Ponce de Leon spent years seeking its whereabouts, believing it was certainly to be found on earth. The Wintu Indians used to urge young initiates to "climb up Olelpanti to bathe and drink". Their concept of the Fountain of Youth was not quite as worldly as that of the Spaniards, and in their creation myth they describe activities concerning its nature. They say that when Olelbis (Earth-Shaper) was about to create man, he sent a pair of archetypal brothers into the world so that they might extend a ladder between heaven and earth. At the summit was set a fountain which could purify the inner and outer man, and it was said that he who could climb to its waters and drink could gain eternal youth.

 Although an architecturally contrived fountain is depicted in a Babylonian carving dated 3000 B.C. at Tello, the enclosed fount of Callirrhoe ('Beautiful Flowing', one of the Oceanids) is the first actually recorded in detail, in 560 B.C. It had nine outlets which coursed through the mouths of nine bronze lion masks designed by Pisistratus and his sons. Sacred founts soon became enclosed all over Greece. The fountain in the grove of Aesculapius at Epidaurus which, after drinking from it, induced the patients to fall into a deep trance wherein they were cured of disease, became artistically contained, as did that at Nauplia which restored the virginity of Hera once a year. Thus Kanathos of the consort of Zeus, the dragon-guarded fount of Ares at Thebes, the countless nymphaea dedicated to the spirits of water, all became part of an inspiring architectural heritage which spilled out and became a mainstream in many cultural traditions. In Islamic countries the sebeels, or public drinking fountains, are an old institution, while the ablution founts called sadirvans are to be found everywhere in the courtyards of mosques. In eighteenth century Istanbul alone there were ten thousand, three hundred and ninety fountains, always, according to Muslim belief, kept full to the brim of their six, eight, twelve or sixteen-sided pools. Man's passion for augmenting natural power and beauty by his own self-inspired idea of their hidden source has led him to create ever grander and more artificially imposing fountains. The Renaissance and Baroque periods witnessed a most remarkable proliferation of dazzling fountains in Italy and France. The plunging dolphins, tortoises and dragons swirl in tidal sheets of marble or bronze around titanic figures of often great classical beauty. Poseidon amidst the waves, flying Mercury, Artemis, Herakles, graces and muses and water-sprites, curve in attitudes of characteristic expression or rise gracefully aloof above the fountain's spill. The fountain was no longer the water itself but the beings from whom it seemed to take its source.

 This fusing of the figure and the fountain was mythically captured long ago in the beautiful story of Peirene, whose tears flow forth in the fountain of her name. It was said that the tears that she shed for Kenchrias, her son who was unintentionally killed by Artemis, were so copious that the goddess finally turned her into a spring. Of the many fountains of 'well-watered' Corinth, Peirene was the chief and it was first mentioned in the Ode of Pindar where he celebrated the Olympic victories of Zenophon the Corinthian. So famous was this fountain that when the noble Trojan women lamented their captivity and imminent removal to Mycenae, they cried out, "Or shall I be a drawer of water in the service of Peirene's hallowed waters?" Pausanias described the fountain as being a little outside the Agora of Corinth near the head of a road leading towards Lechaion. At that spot there was a gateway leading to a bronze Herakles, after which one could find the entrance to the waters of Peirene. They were adorned with white marble at that time and had six chambers like grottoes out of which the water flowed into an open-air fountain. Strabo recorded that the source was fed by pressure from underground veins, which has been borne out in modern excavations of the site. The grottoes were faced with six Ionic entablatures supported by columns, and behind the chambers were three deep-draw basins and four great reservoirs cut far back into the clay. Long tunnels reached out on either side to collect more water and these were connected by cross-tunnels, all beautifully carved out of the subterranean marble. The tears of Peirene seemed to have saturated the whole area and provided a source of sweet and pure water for many centuries.

 The strength and beauty of this natural fountain and its continued richness of flow after it was enclosed and artificially exploited were dependent upon the sustained pressure of water under the earth's surface. Though awesome in their dimensions and artistry, the fountains of Versailles have never had enough of a head of water to supply them all for any length of time. The spot where they are constructed is not blessed with a natural overflow of that which is hidden and sacred, but their construction represents an act of human will imposed upon the natural order of things and, though handsomely done, is seemingly oblivious to the spirits that move in their own secret ways through the veins of the manifest world. The exuberance of a well-fed fountain seems to defy gravity. It is filled with spirit and life and uplifts the heart of all who see it. It bursts like cleansed and liquid diamonds to be filled with the brightness of light, reminding one that fire and water proceed from the same source. For man, the fountain and the firework have the distinction of displaying elements with enormous emotional and psychological possibilities. In a mood of playful benevolence or arching power, their sight enthrals the viewers and stirs within them deep responses which they do not comprehend. Perhaps it is the ever-changing spatial relations within the burst and flow that fascinate. Or maybe it is simply the continual movement itself which carries one away out of one's smaller self. But it may be, after all, as the ancients said, merely the entrancement of the water-spirits who tease and lure and carry the mind back into another world.

Then, where a fountain's gurgling waters play,
They rush to land, and end in feasts the day,
Where in a beauteous grottoe's cool recess
Dance the green Nereids of the neighbouring seas.

The Odyssey

 In his extensive work on the symbolic interpretation of dreams, Carl Jung frequently relates the fountain to the Mother Source or what he identifies with the collective unconscious. Thus, for example, in Christian symbology the fountain is seen as one of the attributes of the Virgin Mary. A patient of the famous doctor had a dream wherein he was aware of a great treasure which lay within the sea. In order to reach it, he had to dive through a dangerous and narrow opening which he did do, whereupon he discovered a beautiful garden symmetrically laid out with a fountain in the centre. Jung interprets the ocean as the unconscious, the treasure as the Higher Self, and the fountain as the source of life. This would seem to suggest the recognition of a spectrum of qualities recognizable in the notion of the unconscious which he uses both as a term for the Mother Source as well as the matrix through which one must move towards the 'living water'. There is even the suggestion that the Fountain of Life itself is the collective unconscious. Again, Jung thought of the fountain as the image of the soul, as the source of inner life and spiritual energy. He links it with the "land of infancy, the recipient of the precepts of the unconscious". He asserted that the need for this fount arises when an individual's life has become inhibited and dried up, and he points to the therapeutic value of works like The Garden of Delight painted by Hieronymus Bosch.

 The mystery of the soul and its relationship to the collective unconscious are not easily fathomed, but the effects of fountains upon the inner nature of man are readily observable and people have availed themselves of their benefits for many centuries. In Mughal times silken tents were pitched on the grasses beside the fountains and cascades in the beautiful gardens of Shalimar. Jets of water rose up in rows out of the pools and human laughter mingled with their rippling mirth, whilst long afternoons flowed imperceptibly into peaceful evenings and humanity fused with nature in a larger sense of being. During the Italian Renaissance many became aware of the old Greek idea that man is the centre of the universe and need, therefore, have no fear of nature. With this potent idea, the garden came to be seen as a projection of the house and the grounds wherein could be realized a reconciliation of man's reason with the order in nature. This view of man transcends the fearful suspicion of sensual delight found in more puritanical epochs and allows the soul to respond to the vast power that rests at the heart of the endless transformations of the fountain. This simultaneous experience of stillness and perpetual motion soothes and rejuvenates and permits a renewed centering of consciousness which is in line with the greater soul of all.

 The fountain is said to be like the unfolding rose, but it is also connected symbolically with the role of the horse in many myths. Pegasos was called Peirenean Colt by Euripides, and it was said that he struck the fountain of Hippocrene from the earth with his hoof. Pausanias added to his exploits when he wrote of Bellerophon, prince of the royal house of Peirene, "who seeking to harness Pegasos, son of the snake-girt Gorgon, beside the fountain (of Peirene), truly suffered much until at length the maiden Pallas brought him a bridle with a golden band". The gods often act through horses, bringing the sun into dramatic transformation upon the earth. Certainly Helios, Surya, Balder the Beautiful, and many other solar deities possess fiery horses who, when striking the mother, bring forth a jet of water. At Corinth there was a statue of a dashing horse with water gushing from his hoof. It is because of this ancient belief that horse's hoof marks (and later, horseshoes) were once viewed as dispensers of blessings and fertility. Thus it could be said that the fountain unfolds like the rose to reveal the higher soul within, but the initial emergence of the spring is brought about by the fiery force associated with the projection of the solar gods. In almost every culture the symbol of masculine fertility is to be found in the antlers or hoofs of such animals.

 In this way fire produces water and additional meaning is conveyed by the old idea that one must go through fire to reach the waters of immortality. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, "He who is near to me is near to fire." On the other hand, the water itself can be dangerous, as suggested in the dream about the opening leading to the treasure in the ocean. In the old Nordic myth Odin seeks out the Fountain of Mimir where wisdom is hid and must sacrifice his eye for a drink of immortality. The fountain is the mother who exacts a price, but it is also the source of wisdom for which the Eye of Time must be relinquished. There is no avoiding, however, the sense of danger, for the aqua nostra that can dissolve all ignorance is also capable of drowning the unready seeker. In that sense, the patient's dream symbolized a diving back into the womb of the mother, which leads to death before rebirth and is fraught with the fear of darkness and oblivion.

 In the Sufi mystical tradition this fearful darkness is called the Black Light, which is said to surround the Fountain of Life. An exposition on this theme called Golshan-e Raz (The Rose Garden of Mystery) describes how some mystics wear black clothing because of the colour of the light contemplated in the mystic station they have attained. A chromatic harmony is sustained between the esoteric condition and the exoteric role by the wearing of various colours, black representing the highest stage of realization. It is believed that the Black Light is the light of pure Essence in its ipseity, in its abscondity. One who perceives it is in a state described as 'reabsorption in God' (fana fi'llah). In this state the danger of a supreme ordeal is perceived from which the mystic rises again on the threshold of a visio smaragdina, where light is raised to the rank of the highest light of the mystery. It is said that the Black Light erupts in the presence of things, in that it is a way of seeing things. Also it erupts in the absence of things when the mind is turned away from the manifest and contemplates who is revealed. The question is how to approach this Black Light. What is the superconsciousness, the unknowingness, that it postulates? Why does this 'luminous Night' bring with it a 'mystical poverty' wherein the Sufi is depicted as 'poor in Spirit'?

 This is a voluntary poverty in the face of the vast riches poured forth from the cosmic fountain. It is a poverty which finds a sad and diminished shadow in the deprivations experienced by many people in the world. Referring to Sufi writings, one author observed, "This is where the theme of mystical poverty brings a denouement to a dialectically inextricable situation: the coexistence of the absolute subject and the individual subjects, of the One and the many." To cross over the threshold and transcend the seeming dichotomy requires the death of all that exists in and perceives duality. The water of the mother which Jung related to the unconscious offers the dissolution of this duality but not the conscious experience of immortality. This is a critical point which distinguishes the darkness of oblivion from the darkness of the Black Light. A distinction must be made between necessary and contingent being in that the dimension of the potential remains latent because its necessary being, its capacity to be, comes to it from its connection with the Source from which it emanates, whereas the dimension of the possible is perceived as soon as it regards itself, fictitiously and in a hypothetical way, as separated from that whence its necessary being derives. When these twofold aspects of one reality erupt in a visionary experience, the Sufis identify it with the condition of the Black Light. They say that the Black Light shows itself from the first act of being and is "the secret of the creatural condition that has its origin in the darkness at the approaches to the pole", the very mystery fount of creation. This is not the darkness of materialized matter but that where is found the Water of Life. To find this fountain requires the penetration of the meaning of the twofold face of things.

 To put one's foot wrong at this juncture can result in delusion, madness and oblivion, much like that feared by Camus' Rebel when he stood at the edge of the once meaningful world and gazed into the wasteland of the void ahead. But one cannot discover the Fountain of Immortality by hearsay or by reading books. And so, inch by inch, step by step, one slowly discovers the voidness of the seeming full and the fullness of the seeming void for oneself. The waters of Peirene flow deep within the soil of one's own soul and may spring forth only after one has wandered and suffered a great thirst in the desert of conditioned existence. Perhaps when the sun is most relentless in its heat and threatens to consume the senses and the mind itself, perhaps then the fainting soul will be struck into action by the flashing steed of the higher will and the pure fountain of immortal Truth and Wisdom will flood the heart. O Sons and Daughters of Zeus! That shall be a flood which pours forth undiminished within the Dark Presence whose essence permeates the universe. It shall be the Amrita for all who follow in that uncharted land and it shall flow forth through them like an elixir, feeding the thoughts and dreams of humanity.

O pure and fiery stream,
Rushing upward from the heart,
Blinding mists before the eyes,
Weeping, laughing, fully armed!

Cast thou aloft my spirit,
Cleanse me with thy abandon,
Disperse me with thy scattered spray!
And merge my soul with thy Source.