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springs, sacred

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Not every sanctuary had access to running water, nor, in all likelihood, was every spring sacred. A thing, place, or person became ‘sacred’ by being placed under the tutelage and control of a deity. It was a matter of function or utility. Thus, Castalia at Delphi was a sacred spring because it was held to convey divinatory power from the god. Examples abound of springs performing similar functions, some oracular, others merely inspirational (such as Hippocrene and Aganippe on Mt. Helicon), artists being held to be human vessels transmitting divine messages.

At sanctuaries where cleanliness (e.g. Asclepius and other medical gods) and purity (mystery sanctuaries, as at Eleusis) were important, water—from springs and elsewhere—was an essential element, and in this sense the springs concerned would have been regarded as sacred.

The waters of springs served as means of purification at the critical points in life (see rites of passage): birth, initiation, marriage, and death, but this function was shared by rivers, i.e. by any source of fresh, running water. In the Mediterranean world, this resource is as precious as it is scarce. It does not follow that the source itself is sacred for its own sake in the sense given above. On the other hand, the strategic location of a spring, as at a settlement site or a caravanserai, might be sufficient to imbue it with divine power (the sacred spring at Corinth and the Boeotian spring Tilphossa en route to Delphi are examples of each). Sacred springs were usually presided over by female spirits—nymphs—but it is not certain that every such spring had its nymph.

Subjects: Classical studies

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