These days I am more likely to pick up and read a slim volume than a weighty tome. Small books are simply less daunting. Thames: Sacred River, by Peter Ackroyd, is one exception. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. It is a must for any Londoner and I would defy even the most ardent sceptic to read it and not be moved to believe in the spiritual significance of England’s most famous river – The Thames.
Thames: Sacred River is much more than an account of the history, geography and uses of the Thames – although it does comprehensively examine those things – it is a powerful and poetic argument for the river’s essential nature as spiritual. It is a metaphor for life and death; it is both timeless yet constantly changing; it is a symbol of eternity and renewal; its different aspects affect the outlook of those who live and work by it; it has been worshipped since humans first settled there – and still is today.
In the book, Peter Ackroyd takes us on a journey down the river. At its source, at Thames Head, grows an Ash tree. In Norse mythology the ash has roots that descend to the lower world and connects the three circles of existence. In mythology, a pool was beside it and a river ran from this Tree of Life.
Peter Ackroyd says: “The source is the place of enchantment, where the boundary between the visible and invisible worlds is to be found. It is commonly deemed to be a sanctuary, guarded or protected by the spirits of the young water… It represents the birth of every living thing. It is the Well of Life, or in the Norse phrase, the Well of Wyrd.”
The journey takes past places where tributaries join the Thames, often sites of ancient ritual use and possibly where the Celtic god Condatus – meaning Watersmeet - was worshipped as a healing god.
The Thames at London has been the lifeblood of the city since it was first founded, offering routes for commerce and communication. It has also been the site of battles. It has drawn people to it for pleasure as well as profit. It has inspired artists and poets. It has drawn lovers and dreamers, criminals and suicides to gaze onto its silvery surface or ponder its dark depths.
Thames: Sacred River offers an account of the people who have lived and worshipped at the Thames, from the Mesolithic settlers who arrived around 10,000BC up to the present day. The Neolithic people, around 3,500BC, built ritual enclosures by the river and barrows to bury their dead. It is conjectured that the ancient Druids worshipped the Thames and Roman shrines and statues of gods have been found there. Many Christian churches were built on the banks, and its waters have at times been used for baptisms.
Individuals have continued to worship the Thames itself, including Douglas Chellow, born in 1790, who published a broadsheet entitled Crimes against the Thames and believed that the river was an ancient deity. Today, modern pagans honour the gods of the river and even those who are not religious continue to be inspired by the landscape of the Thames.
It is very hard to sum up the scope of Thames: Sacred River in just a short review. If you live in London or intend to visit the city, read this book. I promise it will make you see the Thames in a way you have never seen the river before.
Thames: Sacred River, by Peter Ackroyd, was first published by Vintage Books in 2007 but has just come out in paperback. www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/
To see a guided visualisation following a river from its source to the sea, click on this link: www.badwitch.co.uk/2008/09/visualisation-on-element-of-water.html