I'm standing by a wild sea, amid the low, storm-blown hills of Orkney. The fields are thickly carpeted with vivid green grass or purple heather, moulded over strange mounds and ridges, with occasional massive stones protruding like fossilised exclamation marks. The wind drives icy needles of rain into my face. In a sudden shaft of sun, reflections from the sea dance like flames on the rocks. It seems so familiar, but I can't think why.This group of islands north of Scotland is bristling with ancient remains. Five thousand years ago, Stone Age tribes fought the harsh weather to manhandle huge slabs of stone onto their ends in mysterious alignments or perfect circles.
The elusive tattooed race, the Picts, left the so called "symbol stones", carved with animals, birds and geometric designs, whose purpose can only be guessed at today.
Vikings raided from the north and battles for control raged for centuries between Norway and Scotland. What today seems a remote and isolated place was once a centre of power.
Before I go there, I set up a shamanic ceremony for guidance. What should be my intention as I approach this ancient place? A sprit wind sweeps in and I am told to bring back sacred water, which will teach me new things. Really? Water?
I do some research and my mind gets busy. Water is the source of all life. It covers 71% of the earth's surface and makes up around 60% of the adult human body. Symbolically, it represents purification, birth and rebirth. It is indispensable to initiations in most cultures. Among some shamanic groups, water represents the power of manifestation. It is the element most related to our emotional life. And then there's Dr Masaru Emoto's work showing that water can hold the imprint of human emotions and intentions.
The ancient Orcadians had a deep connection with water that came naturally from a homeland surrounded and intersected by vast and powerful seas, feared for their currents and whirlpools.
There are many fresh water springs and wells on Orkney. The early peoples saw them as magical: waters that could heal or curse. They believed that spirits, fairies or trows (mischievous goblin-like creatures) lived in their depths and that the old gods hid there when Christianity drove them away from their mounds. Some springs could foretell the future by making mysterious noises or changing colour.
Can I believe, like the Picts, that lakes are hallowed gateways to the otherworld? Or that the ever changing space between high and low tide is a place of transformation, crossed nightly by mermaids or seals that shed their skins to become human for a while?
In the urbanised world, our sense of the sacredness of water has largely been lost. We take for granted that we can turn on our taps or swim in a clean sea. But the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has forced us to face the dire consequences of our carelessness that may continue for decades.
For some reason, I'm being sensitised to water - perhaps even invited to help with this crisis from my own limited perspective and place in the world. I decide that I could dedicate myself to the re-enchantment of water.
I will collect water with an intention that is:
• aligned with Spirit
• free of any attachment to the outcome
That's settled, but why do I feel so anxious? It's not as simple as it sounds. There are many questions. What level of intention can influence Spirit and by how much? How can I know the scale of just one intention? Could a small intention of mine create a major upset down the line, like the metaphor of the butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest that sets off a tornado at the Equator?
Helpful people advise me to simply trust, but somehow I can't. All my ideas seem superficial. A philosophy website admits, "We are pretty much in the dark about the character of the concept (intention)." I find myself facing a vast empty space, only knowing that I must not fill it with too much thinking or I risk losing the deeper teaching.
Surely there's no harm in holding to the idea of finding a sacred well and taking some water - for the greater good I remind myself, hastily.
On Orkney, there's certainly no shortage of ancient wells and I begin to search.
The first, Login's Well, is on the main street of the pretty grey stone township of Stromness, historically the last port for ships about to sail the fierce Atlantic Ocean. Many ships took on water here, including Captain Cook's Discovery and John Franklin's ill fated expedition to seek the North West Passage in 1845, as well as generations of North Sea fishermen.
But... Login's Well was sealed in 1931. No water for me here.
Another Stromness well was Haleyhole (or Holy Hole). For centuries, pilgrims came in droves hoping its miraculous water would cure whatever ailed them. Its location is lost today and the only reminder is a sign marking Hellihole Road.
I keep searching.
Near the north coast village of Birsay, I find St Magnus Well, named after the Norse Earl Magnus Erlendsson who became a Christian saint after his murder in 1115. This water was believed to have especially powerful healing properties, because the remains of St Magnus were washed in it.
But...it is covered with a grid of strong iron bars. I tell myself to lighten up - hold the intention, let go of the outcome - but my desire to have the "right" water feels as rigid as the bars.
Just offshore is the Broch of Birsay, a tiny island, cut off twice each day when the tide comes in, that guards the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. It's a wild and lonely spot. Around 1500 years ago, the Picts found a spring of pure, sweet water bubbling from a seemingly impossible place on the island's sloping hillside. For a race that venerated water, this was a sure sign of its sacred qualities. They dug a cylindrical hole and carefully lined it with rounded beach stones in order to contain and tame the gushing water that they venerated.
I locate the well in the ruins of a Viking village that continued to use it long after the original well diggers had gone. It is covered with a fitted slab of stone. I carefully, and a bit guiltily, lift the stone and peer inside. The handiwork is beautiful in its simplicity and strong enough to last through the centuries.
But... it has been filled with earth to within a metre of the top so the clear and magical spring can no longer bubble up. I have to content myself with a quick photo before I gently replace the stone.
It seems no accident that all the sacred wells are sealed or blocked at this time when pollution and climate change are such tangible reminders of our failure of honour the planet and her life-giving water.
I lie on a soft grass-topped ledge built by a Viking and try to open a space in my heart where the intention of Spirit can be heard. A raw wind picks up, reminding me of the sprit wind. I feel exposed and vulnerable, at the mercy of the wind gods. That also feels strangely appropriate. I'm touching in to the way that the ancient inhabitants had to face this climate without warm hotel rooms and high-tech jackets. Finally, the cold forces me to take shelter. Spirit has decided that ancient wells are not for me.
I make my way across the island to the Ring of Brodgar, a huge Neolithic stone circle, standing on a narrow strip of land with a wide, shallow lake on either side and low hills all around. It's a magical crater, where earth, water and sky meet. The great stones, solid for centuries, mock the agitated racing of my mind. Freezing rain slants in. The déjà vu is still with me. Could it be a genetic reminder of my long-ago Scandinavian ancestors, or simply that we are all descendants of the Stone Ages and those times are close at hand here?
In a moment of clarity, I notice that the rainwater flows over the massive stones and trickles into the Loch below. Slowly it dawns on me - here's my sacred gateway. This is the place to fill my bottle with water.
I feel a rush of gratitude for this harsh, difficult place. It's already given me something special, a deep sense of connecting with my own distant past.
I look at the towering stones. One catches my eye and I walk towards it carrying the water vial. A plaque at its base says that it was struck by lightning in 1880. Half still stands and the other half is almost buried in mud and heather.
My shamanic practice teaches me to seek completeness in the balance of the elements. Lightning brings the element of fire to the giant stones of earth, the water of rain and loch and the relentless wind driving the clouds across the sky. Beyond these four is the space that has made me so uncomfortable; the void filled with questions.
Slowly my thoughts expand. Intention must be matched by receptiveness, so that there is openness as well as focus. Chaos theory tells us that even minute changes in the vast world of potential can bring balance and order. The re-enchantment of water will come from the creative energy of love. I feel a shift throughout my being as I release the need for any certain, special water that my mind has attached itself to, and allow the decision to come from beyond me.
Somehow I know what to do. I place the bottle of water on the lightning stone and solemnly walk a circuit of the Ring. I sit in a patch of damp heather and gaze at the stones. My ears ring with silence. Time flows by, centuries pass, future ones loom close, forming themselves from spirals of light. The Old Ones seem to stir in their sleep.
It is said that each intention contains the means of its own fulfilment. I leave Orkney with a bottle of water - not from the source I struggled for, but this water is what I've been given. It has emerged from the universe of light and energy, been energised by each of the elements, witnessed by the ancient inhabitants - perhaps even given their blessing.
That's enough for even my demanding mind.
Louise Gilmore is a shamanic and energetic healer and meditation coach living in NSW.