Cenotés and Other Sacred Waters of the Americas


Homeward bound


WELLS IN DEPTH –  Gary Varner

Flow will resume with Issue 3

The Worldmaker’s Trail

Cenotés and Other Sacred Waters
of the Americas

by Gary Varner


While most of the well known sacred wells and waters of the world are found in Europe, the Native Americans also had water sites that they believed to be holy. While not as well known, a few examples of sacred cenotés and other water features in North and South America are discussed here.



One of the most famous of the sacred cenotes is the Chichen-Itza Sacred Cenoté in remote Yucatan. An oval shaped opening in the earth 180 feet across and sixty feet below the lip of the rocky rims, this natural well has been used to connect with the Otherworld for centuries. Located in an open area surrounded by the steaming jungle, the cenoté is of a dark green color with sheer white rock walls. Today the well is still open with no protection for the unfortunate pilgrim who happens to walk too close to the edge. In 1579, Charles V of Spain received a report from the mayor of Valladolid, located near the cenoté:

‘The Lords and principal personages of the land has the custom, after sixty days of abstinence and fasting, of arriving by daybreak at the mouth of the Cenoté and throwing into it Indian women belonging to each of these lords and personages, at the same time telling these women to ask for their masters a year favorable to his particular needs and desires. The women being thrown in, unbound, fell into the water with great force and noise. At high noon, those that could, cried out loudly and ropes were let down to them. After the women came up, half dead, fires were built around them and copal was burned before them. When they recovered their senses, they said that below, there were many people of their nation, men and women, and that they had received them…the people responded to their queries concerning the good and bad year that was in store for their masters.’

(Tompkins, 1976, p.179)

According to Frederick Peterson (1962, p.83), the survival of these sacrificial victims was rare as evidenced by the rewards and honors bestowed upon those lucky few, including being made temporary ruler of certain geographic areas. Most of those chosen for sacrifice, however, were given up to the rain God during periods of drought (Krickenberg 1968, p.35).

The skeletons of several men, women and children have been recovered from the sacred cenoté at Chichen-Itza. They were all sacrificed during periods of drought to appease the rain God Chac (who is still worshipped by the Maya to this day). It was believed that Chac resided at the bottom of the cenoté, referred to as ‘The Well of God’ (Chen-ku). Early Meso-Americanist Thomas Joyce wrote, in a somewhat contradictory manner from the report made to Charles V, that ‘at Chichen Itza human sacrifice was made to the sacred cenote (natural well), which was supposed to be a place of great sanctity. The victim was cast into the water with other offerings and was believed to emerge alive after three days had elapsed’ (Joyce 1920, p.262).

The Sacred Cenoté at Chichen-Itza was a destination for pilgrims who came to give offerings. Votive offerings of gold, jade, a turquoise ‘serpent mask’, and other items were recovered from the Sacred Cenoté during the early twentieth century by Edward H. Thompson. Thompson attempted to establish a link between the Mayans and the Lost Continent of Atlantis during his excavations. In addition gold discs have been found which date to the tenth century with etchings depicting warfare and human sacrifice on their surfaces. Over the last hundred years more than 30,000 items of gold, copper, jade, pottery, fabric, human bones and wooden and stone artifacts have been recovered from the Well of God (Baldwin 1998, p.68). Other artifacts found in the Sacred Cenoté originated in central Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama (Krickenberg 1968, p.72).

This particular cenoté may have been the most important pilgrimage site that existed in pre-conquest Yucatan. It has been suggested, ‘the great round surface of water may have been perceived as a giant mirror for divination and auguring’ (Miller & Taube 1993, p.58).

Certain hot springs were also regarded as being sacred to the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. According to Joyce (1920, p.37), ‘the valley-dwellers of Michoacan around Pazcuaro revered a goddess of fertility and rain, named Cueravahperi, casting the hearts of her victims into certain hot springs which were supposed to give birth to the rain-clouds’.

John L. Stephens in his classic work of archaeological discovery, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, described a mysterious cenoté he happened upon in a thick grove at Balankanché (‘Hidden Throne’), on his 1841 expedition:

‘…it was a great circular cavity or opening in the earth, twenty or thirty feet deep… It was a wild-looking place, and had a fanciful, mysterious, and almost fearful appearance; for while in the grove all was close and sultry, and without a breath of air, and every leaf was still, within this cavity the branches and leaves were violently agitated, as if shaken by an invisible hand. …on our first attempting to enter it the rush of the wind was so strong that it made us fall back gasping for breath. … It was one of the marvels told us of this place, that it was impossible to enter after twelve o’clock.’

(Stephens 1963, p.213)

Stephens discovered a well-worn pathway around the cenoté leading to a stone block, which according to Stephens (1963, p.213), ‘had been a great item in all the accounts, and was described as made by hand and highly polished’. After descending through the passageways for sometime, Stephens and his party finally came upon the well itself. The water, he wrote, ‘was in a deep, stony basin, running under a shelf of overhanging rock.’ Stephens believed that the well was the main source of water for a nearby ruined city located between Nohcacab and Uxmal. Due to the hand crafted stone altar and the various legends associated with the well, it would appear that the indigenous people had considered it sacred for hundreds of years. The admonishment to not enter the well after twelve o’clock is also one of many legends that are attached to sacred wells. Caves and still, standing water were all viewed as entryways to the Underworld by the Meso-Americans as they were among most other cultures. They were held sacred and were places of veneration, but they were also viewed with fear as they led to the world of the dead.

The cave shrine at Balankanché has still not been fully explored but many of the stone and wooden offerings, stoneware pots, incense burners and other offerings remain as they have since 860 CE. The most amazing aspect of this shrine is a huge, fused stalagmite-stalactite column, which rises from the caves’ floor reaching the roof in an amazing likeness of a great tree—the representation of the Mayan World Tree (Devereux 2000, pp.95-6).


Another cenote known for its religious importance is that of Montezuma’s Well located southwest of Flagstaff, Arizona. This water filled limestone sinkhole is 368 feet across and fifty-five to 470 feet deep (depending on which authority is cited) that feeds 1,500,000 gallons of subterranean spring water daily into Beaver Creek. It is also the site of the emergence of Kamalopukwia, the grandmother spirit, and her grandson Sakaraka, the first of The People of the Yavapai. Like other sacred wells, these cenote s were also conduits between our physical world and the otherworlds that are normally kept hidden from our eyes.

Several cliff dwellings from 700 CE are situated around the well and were once occupied by Hohokam clans. These people were farmers and used the well water for crop irrigation until 1400 CE when environmental conditions forced the abandonment of the area. The first European visit of Montezuma’s Well occurred in 1583 by Spanish explorers (Mays 1982, p.30). The well is still considered sacred by many of the neighboring tribes.

Attempts to identify the source of the well have been fruitless. No connection to any other source of water in the area has been made.



Besides the cenotes, other sacred water sources were also common among the indigenous peoples of America. In California, the Chumash Indians, living in the Santa Barbara and Channel Islands area, had several areas they considered holy. Las Animas Spring (Animo means ‘spirit’), three miles north of Point Conception, was believed to be the site where the souls of the deceased Chumash bathed.

Maidu fertility rock, Roseville, California

Maidu fertility carving at Roseville, California

Another site sacred to the Chumash was Point Humqaq; so holy was this area that all living Chumash avoided it except for periodic pilgrimages to leave offerings at the shrine. Point Humqaq was viewed as a ‘portal’ used by the souls of the Chumash to reach heaven where they awaited their turn at reincarnation. Humqaq Pool, located nearby, is a basin in which fresh water continuously drips and where the Chumash spirit ‘bathes and paints itself’ while waiting to ascend to heaven (Anderson 1998, p.49).

Zaca Lake in the Santa Ynez Valley, also Chumash territory, is still regarded as a sacred location by contemporary Chumash people. A ‘doorway’ to the celestial realm of the Chumash souls is believed to be located at the bottom of this lake.

Maidu rock carving, Roseville, California

Maidu rock carving symbolising flowing water Gary R. Varner, 2001

Sacred springs and rivers were universal features among Native Americans. It is unfortunate that scant information has been recorded about these sites and beliefs over the years. The Nomlaki Indians in Northern California often consulted spirits at sacred pools. According to anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt:

‘Springs and hallowed places (sawal), usually inhabited by a spirit, had powers for good and evil and were of great importance to shamans, warriors, hunters, gamblers, and specific craftsmen. Some springs were said to be good; other were considered bad… Each spring was visited by the person interested in its particular power, and such visits increased his luck, purified him, and strengthened him for his endeavor; a person might not visit a sawal to which he did not have a specific right.’

(Goldschmidt 1978, p.345)

Likewise, the Wintu who resided just north of the Nomlaki would seek out spirits in sacred pools where they would bathe and then sleep. After awakening, the individual would dive into the pool and seek a charmstone. Over the next few days, the individual would alternate between sleeping and seeking spirit guides through dream, praying and swimming in the same spot in the sacred pool. Through this process, he would accomplish the ‘seeking of power’ (Lapena 1978, p.331).

One of the most impressive Native American sites for its water symbolism is located in Roseville, California. In the centre of the growing urban sprawl of this Northern California city in the Sacramento Valley is the Maidu Interpretive Center. Situated on the site of an ancient Maidu village (perhaps the village of Pichiku) with history dating back to 5,000 BCE, this village/ceremony site has an astounding mixture of megaliths and petroglyphs with important water associations. Maidu healer Rick Adams guided me among the sacred sites of this village in June 2001.

Many of the features at this site are similar to those in Europe that were constructed and utilized around the same time on history’s timeline. One megalith known as the ‘Northstar stone’ is a large rectangular stone with several mortars on one side, two on the top, and with several incised lines that run from the top down one side. It is believed that this stone was a central piece used during bear ceremonies thanking the Grizzly Bear and to welcome the change of season from winter to spring. The mortars were used to grind berries and other food items with the juices running down the incised lines into a catchment at the bottom. It is assumed that the Grizzly lured into the area, as part of the ceremony would eat from the catchment. A bear ‘footprint’ was carved into one portion of the Northstar stone representative of a bear walking in a docile manner, the back print overlapping with the print of the forepaw. The footprint and incised grooves on Northstar are similar to other ‘rain rocks’ found in Northern California (see note 1). A similar bear footprint carving is located in Northwestern California and a large carving representing the claw marks of a bear can be seen at Chaw’se, Indian Grinding Rock State Park near Fiddletown, California.

The importance of the bear in Native American culture and religion cannot be minimized. During an archaeological excavation in 1966 in the Sacramento delta area east of Oakley, California, a Plains Miwok burial of a small, five-year old Indian girl child was uncovered. The unusual aspect of this burial was that the child was buried with a Grizzly Bear infant of approximately the same size. It appeared to the excavators that the bear cub was killed deliberately to accompany the child to the afterlife. According to the excavation report, the bear was positioned directly behind and to the side of the child with one paw draped over the child (Cowan 1975, pp.25-30). It is interesting to note that the bear has, throughout time, been symbolic of regeneration, rebirth, fertility and the Mother Goddess.

The second mortar at the top is called a ‘shaman’s well’. During the ceremony, the shaman or healer would go into a trance. By flowing through the sacred spring his spirit would journey through the shaman’s well to the spirit world. This concept is a universal one around the world with wells considered entranceways into the spirit or underworld.

Approximately one hundred feet south of the Northstar stone is a flat oval stone approximately three feet across with three holes approximately one and a half inches in diameter and one inch deep. These holes are in a triangular arrangement and line up perfectly with the winter and summer solstices as well as the Northstar rock. Looking along the face of the rock to the east it lines up perfectly with the sacred stream. At one time, this stream was always full and wild with salmon. The recent addition of concrete drainage systems and residential construction has permanently altered the stream to its present size and it is now devoid of its traditional fish-life.

Another rock grouping nearby has some very interesting carvings that are reminiscent of those found at New Grange in Ireland. Some thirty to forty feet from this complex is a standing stone thought to have been used as a fertility shrine. An incised carving of two breasts with pecked holes representative of nipples can be seen at the top of the stone. Below this an incised carving of the vulva appears in the middle of the stone. Young women would rub both during seasonal ceremonies to ensure their fertility. This carving is very similar to that at St Anne’s Well in Llanmihamgel, South Wales, however at St Anne’s water pours from the nipples and vagina that have been carved into the fountain (Straffon 1997, p.71).

Another large standing stone nearby has a carving of several ‘ripples’ symbolic of flowing water. While the exact use and meaning of these pre-historic monuments is unknown, the sacred spring and associated water symbolism, the related fertility stone and the nearby directional stone used during the solstice indicates a complex and well thought out series of related sacred areas. The use of symbolic ‘wells’ for the entryway to the underworld by the shaman is a universal association with water and wells. The ceremonial use of these large standing stones associated with these beliefs, dating to approximately the same age as those in Britain, indicates a collective ritual process among peoples of that age.


During July 2001, I travelled over 1200 miles in Northern California seeking out sacred springs and waterways. What I found was just as magickal and meaningful as those that we found in England. The holiness of these sites, no matter where they are located, is the same – they are just as powerful, just as meaningful and with just as much history. Many of the very special sites we found were near Mount Shasta – one of the seven sacred mountains of the world. Although the sacredness of the mountain is somewhat tarnished by many of the ‘New Age’ groups located near the mountain’s base advocating the teachings of the Ascended Masters, the Lemurians, the Pleiadians and others (at a cost of course) the mountain and its special ancient holy sites remain as powerful today as they were in the past. A select few of these sites are discussed in the following sections.

The Headwaters of the Sacramento River

Located in the city park of Mount Shasta is the headwater of the Sacramento River. While it would seem strange that the source of this large river can be found in a city park, the water gushing out of the ground creates a magickal place. Coming out of a small grotto in a fern and vine-covered area, the water spills over into a shallow and calm pool approximately ten feet in diameter. Immediately it cascades down a small waterfall on its way through the Sacramento Valley.

Headwaters of the Scaramento River

The headwaters of the Sacramento River, Mount Shasta, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Not much is known about the original inhabitants’ observations at this spot but the tranquil atmosphere here is a welcome relief and, undoubtedly, the earlier residents of the area valued it as much or more than we did. Local legend is that this source pool is restorative to one’s health and, in fact, while I was there I saw several people stop to fill up plastic bottles and to sit and meditate. One middle-aged woman, obviously suffering from a serious disease, had also stopped to drink the water and to enjoy the quietness. Reports of healings have been made over the years as well as sightings of ‘angelic beings.’

Even during times of drought, the headwater source produces an energetic flow that gushes from its mossy covered rocks.

Panther Meadows, Mount Shasta, California

Panther Meadows on the slopes of Mount Shasta, California

� Gary R. Varner, 2001

Panther Meadows

Approximately fourteen miles east of the city of Mt. Shasta and half way up Mt. Shasta’s 14,200 foot height is Panther Meadows. This site is still regarded as sacred among the Wintu, Shasta, Karuk and Pit River Tribes and is known as luligawa, or ‘sacred flower’ among the Wintu. This was one of the holiest-feeling sites we encountered in our travels. Panther Meadow is a sub-Alpine pristine area approximately two miles in length, with a wide variety of delicate and beautiful wild flowers, such as Alpine laurel, Mountain heather, Arnica and Paintbrush growing among the volcanic rock. The Meadow is nestled in a valley on the mountain’s southern slope at the 7,500 foot elevation, almost at the tree line. A few eagles, chipmunks and smaller birds are the only wildlife in evidence although the name implies that larger and more fearsome animals also frequent the area. Some pilgrims have also reported seeing faeries and the God Pan as well.

Indian rock cairn at Panther Meadows, California

Indian rock cairn at Panther Meadows, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Evidence of ancient and contemporary offerings can be seen along the one-mile trail that stretches from the road to the sacred spring. Situated among three large trees, a large boulder is situated with several rocks placed on top attesting to the continuing use of rock cairns to give offerings of thanks and appeasement to the spirits that inhabit the sacred area. Several smaller cairns were also seen located along the many small streams that form from the source spring. ‘Heaps’ of small stones like these are commonly found at many sacred wells around the world. Patrick Logan made the following observation in his book, The Holy Wells of Ireland:

‘Many writers mention the heaps of small stones seen near holy wells. Such a cairn was described at St Patrick’s Well in Kilcorkey parish…and another at Tullaghan Well, County Sligo….O’Donnovan wrote that each pilgrim added a further stone to the heap as part of the ritual of the pilgrimage.’

(Logan 1980, p.99)

Logan believes that those who leave the stones are leaving a substitute offering to a saint due to their inability to leave something of economic value. This would not appear to be the case, however since the practice appears to be universal among many different cultures with many different perspectives on wealth. An eighteenth century account by a parish minister at St Fillan’s Well stated ‘all the invalids throw a white stone on the saint’s cairn, and leave behind, as tokens of their confidence and gratitude, some rags or linen or woolen cloth’ (Anon 1857, p.454). It would seem that the actual origin of such practices has been lost in the distant past but the contribution of individual stones and rags must have a more complex meaning than simply as tokens of confidence.

Sacred spring at Panther Meadows, California

The sacred spring at Panther Meadows, California – the source of the McCloud River Gary R. Varner, 2001

At the northern end of the meadow is the sacred spring, the source water of the many streams that eventually become the McCloud River. The headwater is another small rock grotto from which the water flows out of the earth into a shallow and placid pool before becoming a series of small waterfalls. The water is considered holy and healing however visitors are advised not to collect water from the source pool itself but from waters flowing further down. The energy at this place is almost palpable and many regard Panther Meadows as being an energy vortex in itself. It is no wonder that the Winnemem Wintu still regard Panther Meadows as their church.

McCloud Falls

McCloud Falls is in reality three falls along the McCloud River. I was able to observe the Lower and Upper Falls although the Middle Falls are regarded as the most beautiful. Located approximately six miles east of the former little lumber town of McCloud, these falls were sacred to the Shastan Peoples who lived along the banks at one time. Today the falls are known for their ability to clear any emotional disturbance and to renew one’s spirit.

The Lower McCloud Falls, California

The Lower McCloud Falls, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

The Upper Falls is a powerful cascade of water, which flows into a dark blue pool at the bottom. Situated in a dense forest of redwoods, pine, cedar and lush water plants and ferns, these falls are very special places and well worth visiting. The Lower Falls are much more serene but just as mystical as they tumble over the volcanic rocks into a series of small falls through a beautiful gorge. Other than a few small lizards and chipmunks, and the calls of birds, these areas were devoid of visitors except for a few boys swimming in the Lower Falls.

Burney Falls, California

The majestic Burney Falls, California Gary R. Varner, 2001


Burney Falls

Another forty miles past the McCloud Falls is Burney Falls. This waterfall is majestic in its size: 129 feet. Roaring water flows over the lip of the cliffs above and falls into a large green pool that is approximately twenty-four feet in depth. The cool spray blows over the rock-strewn beaches around the pool but the day I was there some unusual wind also played. At Burney Falls, there was no lack of visitors with a couple dozen children playing on the volcanic rocks and shouting to be heard over the water. Suddenly, a hot wind blew through the area pushing the water spray away – almost as if the Spirits of the falls were angry at the intrusion and trying to wipe it away with a blast of hot wind. Among the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador it is thought that waterfalls are gathering places for the souls of ancestors. The Jivaro believe that the souls wander around as breezes, blowing the water spray as they travel through the falls.

The local tribes considered Burney Falls sacred for hundreds of years and journeyed to the falls in vision quests and meditation. Local stories tell of water spirits and elves frequenting this spot.

The last healing water site within the Mt. Shasta influence is found at Castle Crags State Park (see note 2).

Castle Rock mineral well, California

Castle Rock mineral well along the Sacramento River, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Castle Crags Mineral Spring

Castle Crags is a series of granite towers reaching 6,500 feet in elevation within view of Mt. Shasta. At 225 million years in age, they emit a feeling of antiquity and mystery. Over the years, occultists have advanced theories that Castle Crags are the remains of the lost continent of Lemuria and a landing port for UFOs. What is known is that the Indians left rock art here and utilized a small mineral spring.

The spring is located on the edge of the Sacramento River on the outskirts of a State Park picnic area, one not frequented when we were there. The spring is nestled in a rock enclosure built around 1880 when white men first attempted to commercialize it. Today it still offers a sulfuric smell as it bubbles up out of the ground. Known for its restorative powers the well nevertheless has failed the California water quality test and people are advised not to drink from it. However, these mineral springs were not intended for ingestion but for bathing in it for its therapeutic properties. Sulfurated water has been found to be an excellent treatment for skin diseases, wounds and the creation of blood lymphocytes. In addition, sulfuric waters have been found to be useful in the treatment of liver and gastrointestinal conditions, gynecological problems and arthritis (Altman 2000, p.60). It is more than likely that the Native Americans used this spring for these healing qualities also.

Castle Rock mineral well, California

The bubling mineral well at Castle Rock, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

The Castle Rock area was Wintu land when, in 1855, miners swarmed into the area and intentionally polluted the streams that were holy to the Wintu people, attacking any of the Wintu who attempted to protect their holy land. This was not only an assault upon the Wintu fishing and drinking sources but also an assault upon the basic spirituality of the Wintu (Lapena 1978, p.325).

During the 1890’s, the Castle Rock Mineral Water Company was formed and cases of the water were sold and shipped all over the world. The Peruvian consul had a standing order of fifty cases a month. This lasted until shortly after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when the company could no longer operate. It finally closed down for good after the 1929 stock market crash ruined the company’s plans to divide and ‘develop’ the land. It was at that time that the California State Parks purchased the land, preserving it as it is today. The rock enclosed-well situated next to the flowing Sacramento River nestled amongst the ferns, water plants, and large trees all add to the feelings of being in a holy place and at one with nature.

Harbin Hot Springs

Continuing our journey, we found dozens of hot springs and sacred sites in Sonoma and Lake Counties two hundred miles to the southwest of Mt. Shasta. One of the most famous is Harbin Hot Springs, located four miles outside the town of Middletown. Due to the facility’s clothing optional policies I was not allowed inside to take photographs or to see the source spring, which has been capped over with cement anyway. Unfortunately, many of the most sacred and healing of springs have come under private ownership, invariably resulting in commercialism and the alteration of the spring’s natural appearance. However, the natural healing properties of the water are still very potent. Situated above a large magma chamber four miles underground and thirteen miles in diameter, the water is heated and rises toward the surface as steam where it cools and returns to its liquid state.

According to Nathaniel Altman, the Coast and Lake Miwok used the present Harbin site ‘as a seasonal camp and sacred ground, with the hot springs both a place of healing and a path to the spiritual realms’ (Altman 2000, p.41). During the Miwok settlement of the area, Harbin was called eetawyomi, or ‘the hot place.’ The hot springs have been active at Harbin for over a million years (Klages 1991, p.7) and its waters are composed primarily of sulfur, iron and arsenic with sodium, potassium, magnesium, carbonates and other elements evident.

By the time Spanish explorers reached the land of the Lake Miwok, pools had been dug into the ground at Harbin where the Miwok would bathe in the hot spring water. Ellen Klages, in her history of Harbin, wrote that the springs were ‘owned’ by the Lake Miwok but were accessible to all tribes:

‘Men and women who were sick were brought to the springs for its curative powers; Pomos, Wappos and Wintuns camped there routinely; and any tribes traveling through from the coast to the inland valleys were also welcome.’

(Klages 1991, p.55)

The hot springs were also regarded as an entryway into the underworld, as are many other sacred wells and springs around the world. Shamans would enter a trance state and then their spirits would travel from the physical realm to the spiritual where they would talk with the spirits to learn. The shaman would then return to the physical world to heal with the newly learned knowledge.

After the Mexican and then American settlement of California, the hot springs became a popular resort and remains so today.


Vichy Springs

Grotto at Vichy Springs, California

The grotto at Vichy Springs, Ukiah, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Located in Ukiah, north of Middletown, Vichy Springs is also a contemporary resort on an ancient spring. A beautiful natural grotto encloses the bubbling mineral spring source. This water is not hot but is warm bicarbonate water. Bicarbonate water is very effective in the treatment of gastric disorders, ulcers, colitis, irritable colon, pancreatitis and diabetes, rheumatism, arthritis and skin ailments including sunburn and poison oak. Bathing in this water is also beneficial to the vascular system. This is another spring was used by the Native Americans long before its ‘discovery’ by the ‘white man’ in 1848 and its development into a resort in 1854. Due to its sulfurous smell, the Pomo Indians knew the spring as katuct (‘rotten eggs water’). The spring water comes from 30,000 feet below the earth and its water is over 6,000 years old. The office of Vichy Springs has an old photograph of Mark Twain ‘taking the waters’ at the grotto. Vichy Springs is the oldest continuously operated mineral spring resorts in California. Its waters are the closest in nature to those of the famous Vichy springs in France at Grand Grille Springs.

Old Faithful geyser, Castiloga, California

Old Faithful geyser at Calistoga, California Gary R. Varner, 2001



My explorations around Northern California brought me to the town of Calistoga, long famous for its hot springs and spas. The whole area is ripe with bubbling and steaming water sources as well as geysers. Old Faithful, one of only three ‘old faithful’ geysers in the world, still shoots a stream of water sixty feet into the air at 350 degrees in temperature every thirteen minutes, day and night (see note 3).

Approximately thirty feet away from the geyser an old ‘wishing well’ stands. Constructed near the beginning of the wentieth century, this well used to be filled with the hot mineral water and people would toss coins into it and, it is reported, even be baptized in it. The present owners of the site have drained the water ‘for safety concerns’ but the steam still curls up from the coin-covered bottom. The Miwok used these mineral and hot springs for hundreds of years prior to Samuel Brannan’s ‘discovery’ and development in the 1870’s. These waters, also rich in sulfur, are known for their effective treatments of arthritis, rheumatism and stress related problems (Altman 2000, p.177). Calistoga water is sold throughout the world in plastic bottles and is still obtained from a protected geyser nearby.

Hot Springs Well, Calistoga, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Hot Springs Well, Calistoga, California

Hot Springs Well, Calistoga, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

The Worldmaker’s Trail

A couple hundred miles to the east of Calistoga is a series of sacred mythological sites of the Mountain Maidu. Situated along the Feather River in Plumas County is a string of fifteen sites associated with the Worldmaker, a mythic being who created meadows and fought monsters to provide a better life for the Maidu people. I was able to explore two of these unmarked and somewhat treacherous sacred sites that are steeped in legend.

Thundering Falls, Plumas County, California

Thundering Falls, Plumas County, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Approximately thirteen miles from the county seat of Quincy is Thundering Falls. Grappling down a nylon rope kindly hung from an oak by a previous pilgrim, I was able to travail the steep incline down to the rocky river bed. While not nearly as impressive as Burney or McCloud Falls, Thunder Falls is still a beautiful sight. According to Maidu legend the falls at one time were also tall and majestic. In the ancient past a beautiful giantess used to sit on the edge of the falls with her long hair trailing into the water. She would sit and sing an ‘enchanting’ song to lure anyone in the area to the falls where she would snare him or her in her long hair and drown them. This theme is similar to other legends around the world of River Mermaids and water spirits who would ensnare unsuspecting people with the intent to drown them. Finally, the giantess was vanquished by the Worldmaker who stomped her into the ground. His actions also smashed the falls into their shortened stature seen today.

Monster Snake Pool, Plumas County, California

Monster Snake Pool, Plumas County, California Gary R. Varner, 2001

Two miles further along the Feather River is Monster Snake Pool. While it appeared calm to me, legend has it that in ancient times the Monster Snake would slither out at night and crash through the canyons, creating many of the meanders in Indian Creek. It is said that even today many of the Maidu will not swim in this area because they may waken the Monster Snake once again.

Monster Snake, or Water Monster, was a creature universally feared by Native Americans. Among the Apache a mysterious being called Water Monster was known. It was said that Water Monster would sometimes appear in human form or in the form of a large serpent. Water Monster was responsible for the drowning of people and the disappearance of any other item lost in bodies of water. Between 1931 and 1937 ethnographer Morris Edward Opler studied among the Chiricahua Apache whose territory stretched over parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Opler quoted one Apache who described the Water Monster:

‘He is a swallowing monster. He would just swallow people up, and they’d disappear. There’s a spring near here where they say there is a Water Monster. At Whitetail there is a spring like this. Even horses go there and never come out.’

(Opler 1941, p.200)


Concluding Thoughts

These few examples of sacred and healing waters in North America, California in particular, demonstrate that the New World also has a rich and expansive tradition of magickal sites. There are an estimated 1,800 hot springs in the United States with the majority situated in the West. Only one hundred or so have been commercially developed over the years, the rest remaining as they have for untold centuries.

It is unfortunate that unrestricted development of much of California has resulted in the destruction of numerous important archaeological sites over the years. One such site is Indian Wells in Riverside County wherein only the name survives from its ancient past. Archaeologist Michael J. Moratto wrote that Indian Wells ‘is derived from large walk-in wells constructed by the Indians. The site covered nearly four square miles of dunes at the head of the (now) dry Blake Sea… The vast remains at Indian Wells have been thoroughly destroyed…’ (Moratto 1973, p.20).

The Imperial Valley Kamia Indians and the Cahuilla of Coachella Valley in Southern California were quite adept at digging deep water wells. Anthropologists R. F. Heizer and A.E. Treganza wrote that these wells ‘consisted of a sloping trench with steps measuring fifty to seventy-five feet long and up to twenty-five feet in depth. At the end of the trench was the well, a circular pit some fifteen feet in diameter and twenty-five to thirty feet deep…’ (Heizer & Treganza 1971, p.359).

The numerous hot springs in California have yielded archaeological evidence that indicates that these sites were regarded by most tribes as sacred. Fired clay figurines have been found in various Northern California locations which have been estimated to be several thousands of years old. The oldest are always female and usually headless or with just the hint of heads. Some of these figurines have been found on the Columbia River, Campbell Hot Springs. Archaeologist A.B. Elsasser wrote, ‘these objects may have had some supplemental curative function, and in this may lie at least partial explanation for their presence near mineral springs’ (Elsasser 1978, p.77).

Elsasser cautions that the association of these figurines and hot springs may be because the figurines ‘were contained in shaman’s kits, and the hot spring sites were simply the abodes or “headquarters” of certain shamans’ (Elsasser 1978, p.77). This statement in itself underlines the importance that hot springs had to Native Californians. These figurines are very similar to clay figurines found in holy wells throughout Europe, which served as votive offerings in the hope to obtain healing. However one important characteristic of these figurines is that they were all female.

There are many more such sacred places in North America and many of these remain in isolated and pristine condition. The Old Ways may still be experienced at these locations.



Editor’s Note

This article is an extract of a chapter in Gary Varner’s new book ‘Sacred Wells: A study in the history, meaning and mythology of holy wells and waters‘ published in 2002 by Publish America (ISBN 1 5912929 6 4). Look out for Issue 3 for a full review.


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