The way back through time starts right at the roadside. It is nothing but a narrow trail; in order to follow it, one has to squeeze oneself through a thicket of stinging nettles, bramble, hazels and hawthornes. The trail leads to a small pond located in a scruffy wood. Dense stands of poplars and willows grow at the waterfront. Their gnarled trunks, covered by moss and ferns, are rooted in the blurry border region between land and water. Above us is a tangle of branches, some of which almost touch the water surface. The sky appears like viewed through a kaleidoscope. It is not easy to walk round the pond – the way is obstructed by dense vegetation, boots get stuck in the mud, the water is murky and covered by duckweed, its edge treacherous. We seem to have entered another, secluded world. The traffic noise is still audible, though – the road is merely about a hundred metres away – and there are remains of our civilization, an abandoned shopping cart, bottles, car tyres. Nevertheless, the place puts a spell on us which we can hardly escape. “Enchanted“ is an attribute commonly used to describe ponds hidden within copses. Of course, the terms “spell“ and “enchanted pond“ are largely bereft of meaning in our rational world; but the fact that they are still in use, is evidence of the numinous properties that we ascribe to these places since time immemorial.
Indeed, there is archeological support for the millenia-old cultual significance of lakes, ponds and swamps. Valuable goods – for instance bronze weapons, tools, fibulae and vessels with food – had been deliberately deposited in stagnant bodies of water, very likely for ritual reasons as these things weren't suitable for actual use. In addition, roman coins from later centuries have been found in lakes (the custom of throwing coins into „wishing wells“ is still practiced nowadays!). Finds of animal and human remains give further evidence of immolations. But to which numen did our forefathers offer up these sacrifices? Since these rituals date from prehistoric times, and have been quelled during the christianisation of Europe, there is no written tradition of them. However, remnants of this archaic imagination can still be found in the myths, legends and fables of the various peoples.
A search for traces among the finno-ugrian peoples, where christianisation had set in rather late, reveals a rich tradition of myths and legends related to bodies of water. It is a common belief that a goddess of fertility has an abode in a particular lake or pond. For instance, the Khanty and Mansi consider the lake Numto to be sacred. Its name means “sky-lake“, and it is believed to be the abode of the goddess Kasum-imi. This belief is still relevant in recent times – in 1934, anglers have been ritually murdered for fishing in the lake, thereby violating the sanctuary.
Another popular belief among the Finno-Ugrians is that bodies of water represent a boundary to an “otherworld“, a realm of the dead, inhabitated by the souls of the drowned, who turn into spirits of the water. This numinous property is in particular ascribed to lakes with quiet, very dark water, considered to be unfathomably deep. In the imagination of the Khanty and Mansi, those are the abode of the Kul, an evil spirit-being. Members of these peoples avoid them; it is said that when one crosses the ice covering such a lake, one can feel the horns of a huge creature scratching from underneath.
The motif of a body of stagnant water as a portal to the netherworld recurs in the well known German fairy tale “Frau Holle“ (“Mother Hulda“). In this fairy tale, the female protagonist falls into a well and, instead of drowning, reappears at an otherworldly place. After fulfilling three tasks – which reflect the fertility symbolism of an agrarian society – she takes service with a powerful old woman, Mother Hulda. A numen with an abode in a body of water – this is an obvious analogy with the fertility goddesses of the Finno-Ugrians. Indeed, current research yields evidence that Mother Hulda can be traced back to the Germanic fertility goddess Frigg (Frija). It follows that the fairy tale might be based on an ancient myth. But Mother Hulda is not only a character from a fairy tale; her fertility symbolism is also reflected in German popular belief that she brings the newborn babies, but also accommodates the souls of deceased children. Our current way of thinking might conceive death as the opposite of fertility – in terms of chthonic mythology, however, death is just another aspect of the Great Mother.
There are several bodies of water which popular mythology relates to Mother Hulda in the German-speaking area. Among them, the “Frau-Holle-Teich“ on the Hoher Meißner has a special status. Even though rather small, it is the highest situated pond (620 m) within a perimeter of 50 km, and thus particularly close to the sky. Owing to the murky water, it is deemed to be unfathomably deep. In addition, due to popular belief, taking a bath in it makes infertile women fertile. The pond is considered to be the abode of a powerful numen since ancient times. A stone setting on its bank is presumably of Germanic origin, and there is a report from the 19th century about the find of a Roman coin.
We have seen so far two very similar examples of worship of a chthonic fertility goddess at a stagnant body of water, even though from different European culture regions. It is not difficult at all to find more examples in the myths of peoples from around the world. A possible explanation can be given in terms of depth psychology. This relates myths to mental imagery, which in turn is produced by the collective unconscious of mankind. According to Erich Neumann, the various appearances of fertility goddesses are images of the Great Mother archetype in the shape of the Earth Mother. She is an ambivalent symbol; her elementary character is the keeper, the dark womb of the world. Related to her is the dark earth, and therefore the stagnant water of the depth. Since ponds and lakes keep the water within themselves like a vessel, bring it to a standstill, they are considered from time immemorial as an archetypical female landscape. The fertile principle is the amalgamation of the deep, stagnant water with the earth to yield the fertile muck, the substrate of life. Note that in Germanic languages, Moor (fen), Moder (muck) and Mutter (mother) share the same stem.
The other aspect of the Earth Mother is the destroyer. This duality is related to the eternal circle of growth and decay, of life and death. These are by no means conceived as opposites, but as two phenomena which are rooted in the archetypical female fertility. “Earth gives birth to all things, and takes them back again“, says Euripides. Based on this, the role of stagnant bodies of water as a border region between our everyday world and the other, the unfathomable, the archaic, that we block out, becomes obvious.
According to Ernst Cassirer, nature deities had not been conceived as personifications of natural forces, but as objectivications of distinct sensory impressions. In particular those immediate impressions, which in an elusive way stand out from the familiar experience of Nature, stimulate the mythical consciousness. The pond in the fallow light of winter dusk, the scent of moist earth, the faint murmur of rain mixes with the song of the wind in the leafless branches – all of a sudden, the call of a water fowl sounds. Due to Cassirer, this kind of sensory perception makes nature deities and elemental spirits come alive via our mythical imagination. Even though the deities worshipped at ponds and lakes, their cults and rites are all but forgotten – the sensual experience of Nature should reveal the spiritual energy of these places to us. This very property made them ritual landscapes to our forefathers, to border regions between our world and the netherworld.
This project is an attempt to approach the spiritual meaning of this kind of landscape in terms of pictures. The most suitable season for this endeavour is certainly winter, the dark season. Roughly between Midwinter and Epiphany the moon year is over, but the sun year isn't yet. Those days are considered as a period of transition, of cosmic disorder in the ancient myths. The boundary to the netherworld becomes fuzzy, a host of spirit-beings invades our world, lead by a terrifying goddess. Midwinter was a feast of sacrifice for these spirits, who brought fertility, but also death. These are the darkest days of the year; in darkness, the unconscious, the archaic dwells and finally enters our consciousness, gives rise to mental images.