FOUNTAIN . The word fountain derives from the Latin fons, meaning "source." As physical phenomena serving as the material basis of hierophanies (appearances of the divine), fountains may be described as the flowing of pressurized water up and out through an aperture from some hidden depth below the earth's surface. As hierophanies, they manifest locally the flowing of diverse creative, recreative, or transformative potentialities from depths beyond the ordinary or profane plane of existence. There is no single sort of potentiality attributed in common to all sacred fountains in the world's religions, but a number of potentialities are severally attributed to them, for example, healing powers, oracular powers, rejuvenating powers, and so forth. Likewise, no single divinity is regarded as a manifestation common to all fountains; the various named and nameless gods, spirits, and nymphs of fountains are particular to individual instances. Furthermore, sacred significance is attributed seemingly no less to artificial than to naturally occurring fountains.
The typical attributes of fountains reflect diverse metaphoric images expressive of the principal water potentiality, the cosmogonic; cosmogonic water is viewed as pristine, as formless, as eternal, as receptive, as living, as chaotic. For example, the creative power of fountains can be understood as one manifestation of the world-creating power itself, and the water of fountains as homologous to the cosmogonic water from which creation arises and into which it dissolves, like the Babylonian waters of Apsu or the Vedic watery source of all things and all existence.
Some fountains are sacred as sources of divine power. In times of drought, for example, the priest of the god Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia cast an oak branch into the mountainside spring, activating the spring's power to make rain.
Again, some fountains restore to an original or pristine condition those who bathe in them or drink from their waters. It was thought, for instance, that when the goddess Hera or the members of her cult bathed in the Nauplian spring, they became virginal again. The pristine state is homologous to the virginal aspect of the cosmogonic waters before the creative act. Thus, fountains of youth manifest a forever self-renewing potentiality for creation. In Brahmanic legend the fountain of youth typically renews power or vigor, but it does not bestow immortality. However, in other legends immortality is granted. In the Greek romance of Alexander by Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander's cook accidentally discovers a fountain that bestows immortal life. In Islamic folklore, the figure Khidr is mentioned as the only being who gained immortality by drinking from the fountain of life, which represents the principle of eternal existence.
Some fountains function as principles or causes of life itself. For example, in the prophet Ezekiel's vision of Yahveh's regenerated Temple, a spring flows out from under the Temple. Its waters cause perpetually bearing fruit trees to spring up at once along its banks. This water demonstrates two additional potentialities attributed to certain sacred fountains, namely, healing and fructifying powers. "Fish will be very plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flows" (Ez. 47:1–12).
In Babylonian religious thought, Apsu, the water of creation, is called "house of wisdom," or the house of Ea, god of wisdom. Wisdom, supernatural insight, oracular vision, and poetic inspiration are other typical attributes of various sacred fountains. For example, the gods in Germanic mythology determine the world's fate beside the Spring of Mímir, and the Germanic tribes had "springs of justice" where justice was meted out. Among the Romans, the priestess of Carmentis sang of the newborn child's destiny after drinking from a spring, and likewise the Greek priestess of Apollo at Delphi delivered oracles after drinking from the Castalian Spring. The Greek muses, goddesses of inspiration, were originally nymphs connected with springs.
Finally, the dissolving power of a fountain's water, its chaotic quality, is the typical attribute manifested by both those fountains having the positive potential for sacred cleansing and also those bringing insanity or terrible loss. The Greek term numpholēptos, meaning "insane, senseless, beside oneself with fright," is related to the poetic word for water, numphē. Similarly, in Germanic folklore the female spirits of certain springs stole children or seduced their human lovers to destruction.
Jones, Francis T. D. The Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff, 1954.
Kristensen, W. Brede. The Meaning of Religion. The Hague, 1960.
Angelini, Pietro. "La fontana della giovinezza." Parolechiave 27 (2002): 175–182.
Bouke van der Meer, L. "Flere sur un miroir et sur une pierre de Fonte alla Ripa (Arezzo). Réflexions sur le culte des eaux en Etrurie." In L'eau et le feu dans les religions antiques, edited bt Gérard Capdeville, pp. 133–147. Paris, 2004. Useful bibliography on the cult of water in ancient Tuscany.
Caulier, Br. L'eau et le sacré. Les cultes thérapeutiques autour des fontaines de France du Moyen Age à nos jours. Paris, 1990.
Cocchiara, Giuseppe. "La Fontana della vita. Echi del simbolismo acquatico nella novellistica popolare." In Il paese di cuccagna e altri studi di folklore, pp. 126–158. Turin, 1956.
Hopkins, E. W. "The Fountain of Youth." Journal of the American Oriental Society 26 (1905): 1–67.
Lurker, Manfred. "Brunnen und Quelle." In Wörterbuch der Symbolik. Stuttgart, 1983, pp. 106–107.
Vaillat, C. Le culte des sources dans la Gaule antique. Paris, 1932.
Wadell, M. B. Fons pietatis. Göteborg, Sweden, 1969.
Richard W. Thurn (1987)
foun·tain / ˈfountn/ • n. 1. an ornamental structure in a pool or lake from which one or more jets of water are pumped into the air. ∎ short for drinking fountain. ∎ fig. a thing that spurts or cascades into the air: little fountains of dust. 2. chiefly poetic/lit. a natural spring of water. ∎ a source of a desirable quality: the government always quotes this report as the fountain of truth. • v. [intr.] spurt or cascade like a fountain: an enormous curtain of lava fountained into the sky. DERIVATIVES: foun·tained / ˈfountnd/ adj. ( poetic/lit. ).