words + photos by Elyn Aviva
It was a place you couldn’t find unless you’d already been there—or unless you found someone to take you there, someone with permission to cross from here to there….
While my husband, Gary, and I spent the day in Paimpont, our traveling companions visited a holy well in the nearby village of Tréhorenteuc. By chance, they had met someone in a bookstore who told them about it and led them to it. They had dangled their feet in the water and meditated, one by one. It was a lovely place.
Eager to visit it, I asked them where it was. Just up the road from the bookstore—easy to find, they assured us.
The next day Gary and I drove to Tréhorenteuc and followed the road out of town. Soon the pavement ended and the road narrowed. We nearly high-centered the car as we crept over humps on the farm lane that led to the top of a hill. We were sure that at any moment we’d see a sign announcing “Ste Onenn’s Well.” After all, our friends had walked there from town. How far could it be? Maybe it was over to the right, in that clump of trees. Or just over the horizon.
Half an hour later, defeated, we carefully turned the car around and drove back into town. We parked and walked back up the hill. And down, and up again. I followed a trail into the woods. No luck.
We walked over to the tourist office and asked for help.
Claudine looked at us uncertainly. “It’s on private land, not open to the public.”
I proclaimed, “Our friends went there yesterday with a guide. They said it was okay.”
Hesitantly, she pointed out the location on a map. “Just remember, it’s on private land.” We promised her we would.
We started out again, map in hand. We soon reached the edge of the village, where the dot on the map indicated the healing well should be. I took a foray into the neighboring fields, following a babbling flow of water. “Where there’s water there must be a spring,” I thought. The flow disappeared, along with the trail.
We gave up and headed back into town to the Maison des Sources, the bookstore where our friends had met their guide. The proprietors, Michel and Roger, greeted us warmly. We explained our quest. Roger offered to take us to Ste Onenn’s well.
Michel looked straight at me. “Roger will be the ‘opener of the road”—that’s an Egyptian expression—for you.”
The phrase sounded strangely ominous. “Sounds like a psychopomp,” I said. “The spirit-being that leads the souls into the afterlife. But that means death!”
“Followed by rebirth,” Michel replied with a smile.
Thus warned—or tantalized—we walked back up the road with Roger. He told us he had been given permission to take people onto the property. “The field is often planted and the holy well is not accessible. If you tell people about it, tell them to go to the Maison des Sources and ask Michel or me to guide them. Oh—and don’t forget to tell them our tearoom serves a fantastic lunch!” I promised. I’d heard from our friends that the quiche was outstanding.
Roger regaled us with stories of the sixth-century Saint Onenn (also spelled Onen, Onenna, and Onenne), daughter (or sister, depending on who’s telling the story) of the Breton king Judicaël. When she was ten years old, she had tired of her lifestyle, so she ran away to Tréhorenteuc to live with a less-noble family. The woman of the house kept watch when flowers started disappearing from the garden. She saw Onenn place them on the altar of the church. She couldn’t tell Onenn to stop taking the flowers since she was giving them as offerings.
Roger said that Onenn looked after the geese in town—and the poor and the sick. One day, ruffians came to attack the town but the geese woke up and roused the sleeping villagers. Either the men or the geese killed the invaders. Onenn died young, only 28 years old. Somehow her holy well gathered to itself her healing powers.
Roger explained that her true name was not Onenn but “Gwenena” or Hwenena”—a diminutive of “White,” meaning Little White Lady in Late Gaullish, ancestor to Galo, the language of that region of Brittany. More of Ste Onenn’s legend is told in the stained glass windows in the Church of the Grail, the parish church in Tréhorenteuc, where her earthly remains are buried.
Soon we turned off the road into the fields, following a path that only Roger could see. I lagged behind, lost in thought. Gary and Roger stopped beside a tree. I wondered why—until I walked up beside them. The entrance to the holy well was in front of them, hidden from casual view. Trapezoidal in shape, it was a dark and mysterious slit in the earth. Stone steps led down to a pool of spring water some 10 feet below.
Without a moment’s thought I stepped over the low upright threshold stone and walked partway down the steps. And there I sat, sheltered on three sides by the vine-draped stone supporting walls. There was an empty niche in the wall in front of me, below ground level. I wondered whether once it had held a statue of the guardian of the well.
I heard Roger tell Gary that only women go into the well, and that they, the men, had work to do. Their footsteps rustled on the leaf-strewn path as they began to circle the tree and spring.
I took a few deep breaths and settled in, looking at the trees reflected in the still water below. Suddenly something completely unexpected happened. I felt enormous energy surging through me, pulsing through my body—shaking me like a rag doll. Eventually (it could have been a few minutes or an hour) the process was done. I had the extraordinary feeling that I had just been cleared of whatever energetic residue remained of the uterine cancer I had had eight years earlier.
Why me? Why here? What combination of earth, stone, and water, of living landscape and the spirit of the place, of ancient sanctity and modern need, came together at that moment, at that holy well? I’ll never know.
I stood up, shook myself, and walked back up the steps. The men had stopped their circling and were waiting. I told them what had happened.
Roger nodded. “Saint Onenn’s is a healing well for ‘female’ conditions and lung problems.” (I later learned, it’s also supposed to heal eye maladies.) He added excitedly, “While we were circling the well, I saw the White Lady—a young, flaxen-haired girl in white. I’d heard that sometimes she shows up, but this is the first time I’ve seen her!”
I looked back at the stone walls and at the water below. I hadn’t seen the spirit guardian of the well, but I had no complaint. Instead of a vision I’d had a healing. The psychopomp had done his job: I’d been reborn.
Elyn Aviva is a writer, fiber artist, and transformational traveler. Currently living in Girona (Catalonia), Spain, she is fascinated by pilgrimage and sacred sites. Her PhD in anthropology was on the modern Camino de Santiago in Spain. Aviva has written various books on spiritual journey and pilgrimage. She is co-author of Powerful Places on the Caminos de Santiago, Powerful Places in Scotland, and is working on Powerful Places in Brittany. To learn more about Elyn, go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com and www.fiberalchemy.com
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