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The Message of the Wells
By Joanna Hruby
Since the first foreigners came to Ibiza’s shores over sixty years ago, this small, pine-clad island in the Mediterranean has had a certain something that attracts spiritual seekers. Beatniks, radicals, hippies, et al, have come seeking new ways of living and a deeper meaning to life. They have brought to the island a vast array of exotic spiritual practices and ideas… but what about Ibiza’s original spiritual traditions? Beneath the glitter of the new Ibiza, the island has its own set of ancient rituals that connect the ibicenco people to their land and to the cycles of nature.
So what are these old traditions, and do they hold important messages for us at a time when Ibiza faces the challenging consequences of mass tourism?
To answer these questions we must first travel back in time to get a feel for life on Ibiza before the first curious foreigners arrived. Up until the middle of the 20th century Ibiza was a poor island where most of the inhabitants relied on farming for survival. With summers that are long, hot and dry, the key to a successful harvest – and therefore to the well-being and survival of the people – was access to fresh water. This precious commodity was drawn up from underground aquifers via the island’s system of wells. These little white-washed stone structures were relied upon to provide the essential substance that fed, nourished and sustained the ibicenco people. In addition to this practical purpose they also fulfilled a deeper cultural and spiritual role.The wells were important social meeting places, as most of the population lived in isolated rural settings.
They were cherished symbols of life, fertility and renewal; where the people gave thanks to Tanit - the goddess who had been worshipped on Ibiza since the time of the Phoenicians over 2,500 years ago. Some of Ibiza’s oldest wells reveal spell-binding traces of this ancient goddess worship in the form of motifs and symbols painted in a deep red pigment similar to the distinctive ochre hue of Ibiza’s soil. One such well is the Font d’en Miquelet, found near the old road linking Sant Mateu to Santa Gertrudis. The central stone panel of this well’s inner chamber features the remains of an exquisite ‘tree of life’ design - the archetypal symbol connecting the natural world with the sacred cosmos in world mythology. At the well of Font de Can Prats, near Atzaró, steps lead to a narrow tunnel descending underground. At the point above the water source, faint geometric designs reveal a circle surrounded by outwardly spreading rays. It is said that on the day of the winter solstice the rays of the sun enter the tunnel and perfectly meet this inner formation, symbolizing the sacred union of the masculine and feminine.
These days, Ibiza’s old wells and ancient rituals are of little interest to the millions of tourists who visit the island each year. Since the rise of mass tourism began in the late 1960’s, Ibiza has been stretching its limited resources to accommodate a vast, seasonal population that generally comes for sun, sand, sea and to party - things which have very little to do with the ecology and rural traditions of the island’s interior.
Mass tourism has had damaging environmental and cultural consequences in many parts of the world. Here on Ibiza we are seeing symptoms of over-exploitative tourism in the very wells and springs which were once honoured and celebrated as the ‘soul’ of the island.
The underground water sources, which the Phoenicians turned to for divine messages, are delivering their omen loud and clear: ‘If we continue the way we are, Ibiza will run out of water’. The hotels, apartments and villas which dot Ibiza’s coastlines use quantities of fresh water that are totally unsustainable. Water levels in the subterranean aquifers have reached record low levels in recent years, and many of the old wells have run dry. Culturally and ecologically, mass tourism has brought Ibiza to a crossroads, and the dry wells are sending us a message: if we inhabit a place but neglect its ancient traditions and values, then its essential essence and life force will wither away. So what happens next?
Over the past 50 years the ibicenco people have created a thriving industry that has brought new opportunities and abundance for much of the population. But today’s Ibiza, with its huge tourist influx and foreign population, is a fragmented culture. The vast majority of these visitors, and the mass-tourism industry which brings them here, have little or no understanding of the island’s history, traditions, folklore and ancient spirituality. It is down to the government to not only control the businesses doing the most ecological damage, but also to change the international image of Ibiza, making its authentic culture more accessible and appealing to tourists. Through a shift in attitude there is the chance to develop a new, more balanced, respectful and sustainable form of tourism on the island.
In the meantime, each of us can start making a difference. Many of us were drawn to Ibiza by its eclectic and exotic spiritual freedom, but perhaps it’s time to explore a spirituality which is intrinsically connected with the soil we stand on - the myths, traditions and rituals which have bound people to this land for millennia. One of these traditions, which is still actively practiced can be found beside many of the island’s old wells on a summer’s evening. Here you might find a ‘ballade’ - an ancient folk practice of dancing at harvest time to give thanks to the wells for feeding the island’s crops. At these vibrant, joyful gatherings you will find ‘vino payes’ flowing in abundance as several generations celebrate what has been revered on this ‘party island’ for over two thousand years - the precious, life-giving properties of water. If we can foster a similar spirit of respect for Ibiza’s mysterious and ancient culture, then perhaps the island’s wells will once again flow with life-giving water.