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The Initiation Well at Sintra: Ascend or Descend?

One can ascend to a higher development only by bringing rhythm and repetition into one’s life. Rhythm holds sway in all nature.

Rudolf Steiner

Images by Maura Barrett

The Initiation Well at Sintra, in the Mountains of the Moon, to the West of Lisbon is a most perplexing place, and as such I was compelled to visit. Located in the grounds, or rather beneath the ground, some 88 feet deep into the bowels of the earth, of Quinta da Regaleira. Called the Initiation Well, it isn’t even a well at all, for at the base, where is normal to a well, one expects to find water, there isn’t such a source here. Legend has it, that this was actually built, not as a well, but for secret ceremonies. Now, please know that there are no written sources to verify this, just rumour that has become legend if you know what I mean. As ever though, you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

A Quinta is defined as a country villa or estate especially in Portugal. This whole site began construction in 1904 and while there is an air of aged mysticism about the place, it really isn’t all that old. This well features a spiral staircase supported by carved columns, that leads down to the bottom through nine landings. It is believed that the spacing of these landings, as well as the number of steps in between, are linked to Tarot mysticism and Masonic principles. At the bottom of the Initiation Well is a compass over a Knights Templar Cross.

Sintra castle – public domain

The gardens are leafy and green and teem with birdsong and wildlife and the shade and the shadows offer a real respite from the searing temperatures and water trickles from fountains in a pleasing distraction. It is a special place for sure, and took a lot of money and effort to construct. I couldn’t decide from which end to enter the well, to ascend or to descend. You see, ascend is the antonym of descend, they are opposites. You cannot do both at the same time. I was caught between the conundrum of whether I should ascended to heaven or descended to hell, and I wasn’t going to symbolically do either in some mysterious initiation well, was I? In the end I just took myself to either end and looked both ways with fascination.

Sintra beach – public domain

The nine small landings which have fifteen steps between each one, evoke references to Dante’s Divine Comedy and some say they represent the ‘Nine Circles of Hell, the ‘Nine Sections of Purgatory’ and the ‘Nine Skies of Paradise.’ And sure maybe they do, who knows? In a way it represents a journey into the depths of Mother Earth or a rise up into the light, the death/rebirth allegory like a rebirth through Mother Earth’s womb.

Sintra cliffs – public domain

Masonic symbols have no real place in my heart, but my druid heart loved the nature of this place, the mystery, and the aura. For me there is a fine line between splendour and ostentatiousness and this place skirts that boundary. Bless the people who plan gardens for future generations to enjoy though, for they had special insight.


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