Astrologically speaking, the cardinal signs are the primary signs, the leaders and initiators. This got me thinking about the vital role water plays in many rites of passage. At the start or initiation of one’s life out of the nurturing amniotic fluids towards the rites of baptism or christening, finally to our initiation into death. It is in death we find reference to the many mythological rivers which one must traverse in order to literally ‘cross over’, such as the River Styx in Greek myth or the Lethe, the river of oblivion. Water is there at the beginning and at the end, playing a key role in the transition between states; life, death and rebirth, acting as a boundary, a gateway, a threshold, a portal.
Many of Europe’s greatest rivers have been found to contain copious items of lost treasure, perhaps thrown in as sacred offerings to the Gods who inhabit them. Examples include the Goddess Tamara associated with the River Tamar in Cornwall, Danu or Dana associated with the great Danube River in Eastern Europe or Boann the Irish Goddess associated with the Boyne River in Dublin. Furthermore rivers were / are often the main source of water to many of the local inhabitants providing water for drinking, washing and irrigation of crops, all things necessary to live a healthy and productive life.
Yet there seems to be a more sinister side to the river spirits, and it wasn’t always just pretty, shiny objects which were offered. Human and animal sacrifices were quite normal and there are stories from the British Isles where rivers (even today!) claim a human life once a year or once every several years, reports of people falling in and drowning without apparent or obvious cause are quite common. Could it be the spirit of the river seeking recompense from a modern civilisation where the inhabiting spirit is now seldom considered? A fragment of existing folklore surrounding the River Dart is a good example of this:
“Dart, Dart, cruel Dart, every year thou claim’st a heart.”
With their necessity for life and their ability to bring death through drowning and destruction through flooding (which conversely also promotes the fertility of the land!) it is therefore no surprise that the world’s rivers became a prominent religious symbol for the gateway between life and death, a liminal threshold and spiritual location to the people who lived near them separating the land of the living from the land of the glorious dead.
But what about my local river, the river Medway? If rivers have played such an integral role in the mundane and spiritual lives of their local inhabitants for centuries, then surely the Medway should be no different? As usual, research has provided me with very little to go on so far.
The river Medway seems to have gotten its name from one or two sources. Firstly it seems entirely possible that Medway stems from ‘Mid-way’ as the river dissects the county of Kent into almost two equal parts, the east and west. If you are born west of the Medway you are said to be a ‘Kentish Man’, born to the east you are a ‘Man (or Maid!) of Kent’. In addition it is supposed that the river split the Jutes in west Kent from the Saxons in the east at one stage and many a battle over land and territory has been waged on its ancient banks. The Battle of Aylesford is one example, where King Vortigen of the Britons was defeated by the invading armies of the Jutish brothers Hengist and Horsa, thus founding the Kingdom of Kent or ‘Cantware’ (‘The Men of Kent’). Just over 400 years prior to that the Battle of The Medway took place against Britain’s defending inhabitants and the invading roman army…we Kentish folks are a bunch of mongrels really, being invaded time and again throughout history, primarily due to Kent’s proximity to the continent but also thanks to the River Medway which provides an artery for invading armies to attack right at the heart of the county, and I’m sure her waters run red with blood on many occasion as a result!!
Other sources suggest the River got its name ‘Medway’ from ‘Mead’. The first written record of the river calls it ‘medunuaeian’ or ‘meduwaen’. ‘Medu’ is the indo-european root for the word ‘mead’ and also means ‘honey’ or ‘sweet water’ and ‘waen’ meaning of course ‘way’. It’s worth noting that to drink river water alone could be fatal at worse, harmful or just unpleasant at best, so it was often fermented into wines, beers and so on to make it palatable and safe. Again the river is shown as being a vital source of life, but also potential death and disease. So perhaps ‘medu’ refers to the waters being used to make Mead, perhaps because of the waters’ golden honey like colour or perhaps ‘Medu’ is the name of the inhabiting spirit?
Having lived on (or at least close to ) the Medway’s banks for longer than I haven’t, it’s probably fair to say that I occasionally take for granted what an important role the river still plays today and in more recent history. From its source at Turner’s Hill in West Sussex, down through Kent and all its tributaries and canals to the estuary where it meets the famous River Thames and eventually into the English Channel, the River Medway is a river of many facets, each one revealing clues into its importance for transport but also industries such as milling, metal smithing and, of course, agriculture
Today, Maidstone still holds an annual river festival which I remember as a child being crammed with boats from all over the county lining the river banks decked with ribbons and bunting, bands playing and fun fares followed by fire works in the evening. Nowadays the festival seems to be in sharp decline probably due to trouble and less than desirable behaviour from the yocals! As I recall, many of the festivals always seem to end in someone jumping or falling into the river…perhaps through drunkenness or perhaps the spirit of the Medway reminding us that once upon a time such a festival would have, traditionally closed with such things gladly given in sacrifice to the river which watered Kent’s once extensive orchards and pasture land.
It has, because of all the reasons stated above, became clear that it was high time I acknowledged the Medway in my craft practise. Water is the source of life and the gateway to death. The River Medway is an artery carrying life giving blood to the land I love and call home. Kent, ‘The Garden of England’, wouldn’t be much of a garden without the life giving, nutrient rich waters of the Medway and because of that, if nothing else, it deserves recognition in my practise. I know so little about the folklore and history surrounding the Medway and the spirit/s that inhabit the sweet golden waters, so little in fact I’m almost ashamed to admit it, having lived here for so long, and I figure what can’t be found from books, can only be discovered directly from the river itself!
On a clear evening this week I travelled to one of my favourite spots on the banks of the Wateringbury tributary. This area is so beautiful, its banks punctuated by groups of Oak, Ash, Hawthorn, Alder and Willow, their roots happily burrowing into the damp, silt rich soil.
I sat on the banks for quite a while, observing the water, absorbing the atmosphere noting what plants grow nearby and what animals inhabit the banks and the water itself. Here, not asking for anything, not trying to do anything I simply sat and watched and introduced myself. Into the waters, slowly and gentle as the river flowed by I scattered flowers from my garden, crumbled bread and poured milk, silently, reverently asking for nothing in return but a bottle of water for keeping on the home altar, a permanent reminder of the Medway’s presence and importance to the land around me.
What comes next…?? Well if the river has taught me anything so far, it’s that one must simply just go with the flow!