Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Celebrating Sacred Ground

Although Dr. Franklin Branch sought to build a health spa near the healing waters of Manatee Mineral Springs, conflict during the Third Seminole War kept that dream from coming to fruition. But the cultural and historical value of the spring was so great, I included it in my book "Florida's Healing Waters." This account of my visit to the Angola Festival at the spring did not make it into the final manuscript. 

On a steamy weekend in July 2018,  a three-day festival commemorated Manatee Mineral Spring’s connection to the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas. Residents of Red Bays, which is located on Androse Island, the largest island in the Bahamas, were on hand to give the gathering a distinctive Bahamian flair with island food, music, crafts, and performances by a colorful junkanoo band. it is very possible that these Bahamans were the descendants of Blacks who fled the area in 1821 when forces led by Andrew Jackson destroyed the settlement. 

Speakers from the different organizations who helped create the Angola Festival took turns at the microphone, expressing gratitude and taking a noticeably spiritual tone. A local politician marked the occasion as a new beginning built from the adversity of those who came before.

For me, the highlight of the event, however, was a panel discussion by the archeologists and historians who had worked so hard to uncover Angola’s past.  Historian Cantor Brown, Jr. set the tone for the discussion by proclaiming that the location of the festival should be considered sacred ground and that the Angola settlement was once a bright “beacon of freedom” for people fleeing persecution. Cultural anthropologist Dr. Rosalyn Howard offered observations from the year she spent in Red Bays while working on her book “Looking for Angola” – a study of the residents of a tiny town in the Bahamas that was created by fleeing residents of Angola. Anthropologist Sherry Robinson Svekis talked about the process of applying to the National Park Service for official recognition as an Underground Railroad site and New College Archeologist Uzi Baram revealed the discoveries made in the park that led them to the conclusion that the area surrounding Manatee Mineral Springs was the location of the Back Seminole settlement of Angola. The panel was skillfully moderated by “Looking for Angola” project director Vickie Oldham, who helped reveal that the discovery of Angola was a combination of high-tech science and providence. An underground mapping method called radar tomography was used to determine the “ground truth,” so that the archeologists knew where to dig. They found postholes that indicated they were in the right spot, and previous digs had discovered items from the early nineteenth century such as shards of British pottery and clay pipes. This was physical evidence of a settlement before settler Josiah Gates arrived. But the identification of Angola might not have occurred had Tampa-based Witten Technologies, the company that donated the radar tomography service, not been looking for a place to show-off its high-tech equipment. Their offer to demonstrate their services was “total serendipity” according to Svekis.

Dr. Brown asserted that early Seminole communities in Florida acted as trading posts for other Native American tribes who came south in the winter, much like modern-day Snowbirds. The colorful plumes worn in headdresses seen in portraits and photographs of other tribes were often collected from birds in Florida. It was fertile hunting grounds, rather than the healing waters that attracted these early visitors to the region.

I learned a great deal from this panel, but perhaps my greatest take away was that we have just scratched the surface in our understanding of this community located near present-day Bradenton. It will be exciting to watch for new developments at this small, out-of-the-way spring in Manatee County. Perhaps one day the spring itself will be restored, revealing the role this sacred water has played in our state’s history. 

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Archival photograph from the State Archives of Florida

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Chalice Well, Glastonbury’s Sacred Red Spring

Note: This account of my visit to the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, England, on my 2018 visit to the UK, was originally written for my book, "Florida's Healing Waters."

One of the first things my wife and I did when arriving in Bath, England was book a day trip to Glastonbury, a nearby village that is setting for legends about such monumental figures as Jesus Christ and King Arthur. Healing waters are prominent in this ancient mythology and I was excited to visit the Chalice Well, described as a sanctuary of “pilgrimage, healing, and peace.”

The sacred well and gardens was an option on the tour, and three of us hopped off the motorcoach while the rest of the group explored the village of Glastonbury. After paying a small admission to the non-profit that maintains the grounds, we entered a lovely landscaped space of extreme tranquility. The water from the spring descends the length of the garden over a series of terraces and is collected in small pools at various points before exiting the site via a serpentine conduit stained red by the chalybeate waters. Benches surrounded the small basin at the lowest level, called the Vesica Pool, and I noticed the other visitors engaged in quiet meditation around the water. As I headed up the hill following the water’s course, I passed under “Guardian” Yew trees, and entered an area called King Arthur’s Court and its “Healing Pool.” Steps led down to a level wading pool, and if I had more time I would have loved to remove my shoes and experience the waters. Around the path were niches and nooks full of silent meditators, and the smell of incense wafted over the grounds. 

At the next level water poured out of a lion’s head and filled two small drinking glasses, and the brochure provided stated that this is the only place in the garden where the water is safe to drink, although moderation was urged. I found the water to have a subtle taste of minerals, and after a quick sip I headed up to the well, the source of the sacred water. The well’s cover was a circular wooden block framed in decorative wrought iron with a symbol of two interlocking circles called a Vesica Pisces – said to represent the “union of heaven and earth” – intersected by a sword (perhaps representing King Arthur). Visitors sat in silence on stone benches around the spring, and the shady glen surrounding it retained a peaceful energy despite the presence of a couple kids who appeared unmoved to be in the presence of this sacred water source. It is at this spot where legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea “buried or washed” the Holy Grail from Last Supper, and the iron-stained waters “miraculously” sprang forth representing the blood of Christ.

In the well-appointed gift shop near the entrance to the gardens, I noticed a painting on note cards and posters of a semi-transparent, mystical-looking goddess figure hovering over the wellhead, her arms lifted forming the shape of a chalice. This rendering of the “Deva of Chalice Well”, a spirit being said to “guide and protect the forces of nature” reminded me of how the hot springs of Bath were first associated with goddess Sulis, and then the Roman Goddess Minerva. For thousands of years, cultures have associated sacred water with feminine energy. That tradition continues in the present day at the Chalice Well.