Water is a central element to the livelihoods and spiritual practices of any culture. The Phoenicians who settled Ibiza in 654 BC set up their first camps near natural springs and subsequently these locations became important – not just for the irrigation of crops, but also as social centres where people from the surrounding areas would come to collect water, gossip, flirt and exchange news. Over time, more complex rituals developed around these water holes, many of which are still celebrated today. Ibiza’s first church was not completed until the 13th Century so in a land full of mysticism and spiritual fervour, it was the vestiges of the Phoenician goddesses whose natural element is water that captured the religious intensity of the population.
Over the centuries, two kinds of architectural styles developed to mark the site of a spring or well. The Font de Can Pere Musson, in the ancient hamlet of Balafia near San Lorenzo, is marked by an ogival arch, pointed at the top in the Gothic style. It’s a shape first noted in archaeological evidence dating back to the first millennium BC in Canaan, and brought to the island by the Phoenicians. A tunnel was cut down into the rock face where a set of stairs leads to the water source. A stone basin sits outside the entrance and benches are cut into the sides of the rock. Women would lead their mules with clay amphorae hanging from esparto grass sheaths either side of its flanks, while others would have walked, steadily and slowly, their amphorae sitting on their hips. It was here, during the quotidian task of collecting water that secrets were shared or kept, tears were shed and laughter rang through the valleys.
The other common architectural style for natural springs in Ibiza was an opening cut into flat ground over which a peaked capella covered a sloping stairway that led to to the subterranean reservoir. The Font de Can Prats near Agroturismo Atzaró is a beautiful example of this style and probably one of the most authentic still in existence. In both styles, the chamber was often lined with stone or whitewashed, and in the case of many, painted with symbolic frescoes. At the Font des Can Prats, the frescoes formed part of a dramatic geometrical pattern that symbolised the sun, or male energy, entering the water, or female energy. The chamber is representative of a womb, the water being the element most connected to Tanit, the Phoenician goddess of fertility.
The Font de’n Miquelet near San Mateu once had an even more intriguing fresco painted in ochre and charcoal. Now faded to near obscurity, the painting consisted of a tree of life motif topped with a symbol of Tanit and a six-petal flower – a variation of the Star of David used right throughout ancient Phoenicia. The surrounding pattern is made up of squares, triangles and diamonds in a mesmerising geometric design. Layers of plaster and paint indicate centuries of touch-ups, but little is known when these delicate paintings were first made. The care put into the architecture and decoration of Ibiza’s springs gives a good indication of their importance to daily and spiritual life.
Wells are dotted right across the countryside and vary slightly in shape, often whitewashed with a small shelter built over the top and a wooden door. Several times a year, many of these springs and wells are host to balls pages, loosely translated as peasant festivals. To a soundtrack of castanets and handmade drums, the local men dressed in traditional costume perform an incredibly acrobatic dance around women bedecked in masses of gold jewellery. It’s a courtship dance, a chance for the men of the surrounding lands to show off their skills, and the women their beauty. The spring acts as a stand-in for the female goddess now cloaked in Catholicism, but still retains its elemental power.
Noria water wheels were once ubiquitous across the island and remnants can still be spotted. These ingenious devices for the collection of water have their roots in Arabia and were no doubt introduced to Ibiza and wider Spain via the Moors. Vertical wooden wheels were hung with terracotta pots and connected to a horizontal wheel to which a donkey or small horse was harnessed and made to walk circles. The pots would fill with water from the well below and deposit it into a trough from which the farmer could then irrigate the fields. The outskirts of Santa Eulalia centre host a restored noria in homage to the farmlands that once surrounded the town.
For a culture of farmers, water is an essential resource so it’s no wonder the wells and springs of Ibiza were revered with spiritual significance. But alongside the sober respect for life-giving water is the Ibicenco penchant for humour. Water also attracts one of the island’s mischievous gremlins. The fameliar or barruguet is a creature possessed of a rascally character and gangly body, enormous ears, nose and feet. Local folklore has it they congregate under the Roman bridge across the Santa Eulalia river and in various wells across the island.
They demand work or food (feina o menjar in the local dialect) and if you don’t provide either, they cause all kinds of havoc including making the well bucket too heavy to lift or scaring the animals away from drinking. In order to tame them, they must be captured in a bottle on the night of San Juan (June 23) but only when there is a full moon. Statues of these naughty creatures can be seen around the fountains in the Paseo S’Alamera in Santa Eulalia. Should you happen to pass them by, be sure to remember the folktale of little Pepet and Mariet who left a hunk of bread with cheese on the side of the well and never had any trouble watering their sheep or collecting water.