The Mythology of Water
by Tala Bar
All natural forces have the contradicting qualities of being beneficial and destructive, and none more so than water. Water is one of the most powerful and destructive of forces, and at the same time it is the most necessary to Life. It is the only material on Earth without which there would be no life at all. Water brings life not only in its sweet (fresh), reviving form, but also when it is salty, in both states forming an environment for the living and growth of many animals and plants. Water forms over 70% of every living body, and covers about two thirds of the face of the Earth.
Scientific researchers have determined that life was formed in a watery environment; and though it is clear that at the beginning, Earth was a ball of fire with no room for water, many ancient myths indicate the existence of water before any sort of creation, even before the Earth itself had been formed. In myths that declare the world was born out of Chaos, water was part of that chaos, as it is expressed in Genesis: "...the earth was without form, and void; and ... the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Void is the old word for the modern concept of Chaos. The story does not explain how the water got there before Creation.
According to the Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, "The waters are the source of all potentialities in existence; the source and grave of all things in the universe; the first form of matter." This idea is revealed in the attitude of various peoples and cultures around the world toward Water:
For the Celtic nations, Water carries magic and witchcraft, and is used to connect this world to the Otherworld through the wishing well which is the source of all Wisdom.
Some Amerindian tribes find evil spirits in Water, which is the source of all wickedness.
According to the people of Timor in Indonesia, Water influences preparation for war – hot water causes high spirit and readiness for battle, while cold water chills the warriors' mood and makes them unfit for it.
A. Waters below
The Talmud calls all the waters that exist on earth Lower Waters collectively, and the waters that fall from the sky in all kinds of precipitations Upper Waters. It also expresses the idea that "Upper Waters are male, Lower Waters are female" – which agrees with most myths in the world, though not all of them.
The Lower Waters can be further divided by their nature into gathered waters, including seas, lakes, pools, wells and marshes; and running waters which include rivers, brooks, and springs. There are different kinds of myths connected to each of those types of waters according to their nature and deities.
1. Gathered Waters – According to the Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, the sea represents the primal feminine element, the womb, birth and motherhood; emotionally, it is the source of intuition, and mentally it symbolizes the infinite basic natural wisdom.
The best known entity in the ancient Middle East representing the Sea is the figure of the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, who was Mother of all the gods. She is depicted as a Chaos monster (sometimes appearing as an enormous serpent), whose name is that of the sea itself as the source of all life on Earth, and the greatest source of bounty in the world. Tiamat was considered the Creator of all Things, the incarnation of the stormy sea, the chaotic waters of the first creation appearing in Genesis. Her name is thought to be comparable to the plural female Hebrew word Tehomot, expressing the depth of the sea in Hebrew which appears in Genesis in its single form Tehom. (There are other single words in Hebrew which have only a plural form, either female or male, like Behemot for the hippopotamus, or Mayim and Shamayim for water and sky respectively). Tehomot may have existed even before God, an idea consistent with the Babylonian myth, expressing a connection to the Hebrew word for chaos – Tohu. The Biblical myth makes it clear that God's creation of the new world is nothing but creating order according to the male notion of it, out of the female notion which is nothing but chaos.
Tiamat figures in a later Babylonian myth of creation, in which the young god Mardukh, one of her own descendants, fights against and kills her, and creates the Earth from her dead body – thus denying her being an ancient Earth goddess herself. A similar idea appears in the later Canaanite myth of Baal, the young god who fought and killed an ancient Sea deity, or monster, called Lothan (the name of a sea beast) and Nahar ("river") and for that he was crowned as King. This very idea was also taken up by the ancient Israelites, in whose Hebrew Bible their god YHWH also fought and killed a Sea monster, in the shape of a monstrous serpent sometimes called (by a name parallel to the Canaanite one) Levyathan.
The polar tribes of the Inuit had a Sea and Mother goddess by the name of Sedna, who was responsible both for the bounty of the sea and for its devastating storms. Thus, she was both good and bad as the Great Goddess has always been.
In Assyrian mythology, the goddess Atargatis turned into a mermaid after killing her human lover. That story must be read back to front: her human lover was sacrificed to the mermaid as the Sea goddess, probably to alleviate her stormy rage or perhaps for the purpose of getting a good spoil in a fishing trip.
In many cultures, there was a connection between mermaids and the dangers lurking in water in the forms of floods, storms, and drowning; in Greek mythology these appear in the form of the 50 Nereids, daughters of the Sea god Nereus, who murdered their lovers in a fit of rage.
The Sea goddess appears in modern literature in Jorje Amado's book Sea of Death. She is called Yamanja (which may be a name the African people in Brazil brought from the native land of their ancestors), and is seen as the goddess of the Sea, Love and Death: "It is sweet dying in the sea, because then you meet the Water mother who is the most beautiful woman in the whole world... He is thinking only of Yamanja, the Lady of the Seas... The Lady of the Harbor, Lady of the Ships, Lady of whoever is living there, has five names, five sweet names that everyone knows ... She is the mermaid, Mother of the Water, Lady of the Seas, Yamanja, also Donna Jenaida, Donna Maria, Inea, and Princess Mayoka. She is the all-powerful ruler of these seas, worshipping the Moon which she comes out to see every night..."
Another form of gathered water is the lake, which is limited in area in contrast to the seemingly unlimited sea or ocean. The lake has some of the sea's features, among which are the constant change in its appearance and the contrast between the beauty of its surface to the deathlike terror of its depths. The lake also symbolizes the female essences, and one such figure is the Lady of the Lake from the British Arthurian legends, who might be the mother, or governess, of Sir Lancelot, the most prominent of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. Some think that the hand popping out of the lake and handing King Arthur the sword was that of the Lady of the Lake's.
Another Welsh story tells of a boy who fell in love with a beautiful girl rising from a lake; they got together and she made him rich, and she gave their children the powers of healing, but they had to separate in the end, because humans and deities are unable to live together.
A Chinese myth tells that what is called the Western Lake was created from a wonderful gem following a row about its belonging, either to the great Mother goddess, or to the Jade Water dragon or to the most beautiful immortal goddess Pheng (the Phoenix). Here again there may have been a mix up in an ancient story, as the Mother and the Pheng would basically be the same feminine deity.
Of all gathered waters, the well is the most stable, because it is never stormy or overflowing its boundaries. It is also the most typical symbol of the feminine, because it is like a womb inside Mother Earth's belly. The well is featured a few times in the Bible in connection to love meetings, and particularly with Moses' sister, Miriam, in the story of Exodus. In his book The White Goddess, Robert Graves identifies the figure of Miriam with the Love goddess Aphrodite in her connection with water, as she rose from the sea at Cyprus. When Miriam in Exodus died, the well that had accompanied the Israelites in the desert vanished, and they had to look for another source of water.
Because of its unseen depth, the Well according to Celtic mythology is connected underground to the Otherworld, the land of the Dead, of Wisdom, Inspiration, Healing, and Prophecy.
In contrast to the sea, lake and well, which contain living Waters – either sweet or salty – the marsh, according to the myths, contains "dead waters" that are murky, stinking, and carrying lethal diseases. (We find here a possible discrepancy between myth and reality, because there may be a different kind of life in the marsh which non-scientific humans are unable to see). Some American Indian tribes tell of the Woman of the Bog who is a wicked old woman, or a ghost whom no one knows what she looks like; some say she looks really wild, dressed in moss or tree bark, but in spite of that she has a kind of weird, supernatural beauty. According to the legend, she would cry and call for help from the depth of the bog, and anyone going to try and save her vanishes for good. She has the power to enchant any man who feels pity for her, and she destroys him.
2.Running Waters – Perhaps the most important water-source which may be considered a Life-source is the spring breaking out of the earth or mountain-side; it is the sweetest, most pristine of all sources of water, as it has no chance yet of collecting debris on its way. More than any other kind of water, spring waters symbolize purity, love, youth and renewal. Spring deities are always young nymphs connected with young people's love-making, both gay and tragic, as young love sometimes is. The young wood goddesses of Greek and Rome, Artemis and Diana, were mostly in charge of springs, as well as the similar young and capricious ancient American deity, chtlchihoyalique, goddess of springs and brooks.
This is what Wikipedia says about the Greek Water nymphs – the Naiads: They were a type of water spirits who presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water. They are distinct from River gods, who embodied rivers, and the very ancient spirits that inhabited the still waters of marshes, ponds and lagoon-lakes. Naiads were associated with fresh water, as the Oceanids were with saltwater and the Nereids specifically with the Mediterranean, but because the Greeks thought of the world's waters as all one system, which percolated in from the sea in deep cavernous spaces within the earth, there was some overlap.
One Naiad called Arethussa was considered very dangerous to young and charismatic men; any one of those who cheated on her love would be drowned in her spring. Another Water nymph, Egeria, features in a myth and ritual of the Wood king Numa at a place called Nemi not far from ancient Rome. This action story includes a sacred yearly marriage between the nymph and the king, the king's killing by a priest of the Wood goddess Diana and his subsequent crowning to be king, only to be killed in the same way a year later.
The Russian Water nymph called Russalka was probably the most dangerous of all Water goddesses. She could live in a river, lake or pool. In the European Slav areas, she was considered a demon, a wicked devil who drowned and killed men on purpose. Some traditions say the Russalki were fish-women (that is to say, mermaids) living on the river's bottom, who rose at midnight and danced on the meadow by the shore. If they met a handsome man, they would enchant him with their songs and dances, hypnotize him and lead him to his death in the river.
The story that they were young women who drowned themselves because of disappointed love is told, like the Greek story of Arethussa, back to front. It is much more probable that they were ancient entities featured in all myths of nymphs or Water goddesses who caused men's death for cheating, rather than young women who killed themselves. Russalka is described as a feminine figure whose pupil-less eyes shone with a green fire; her skin was transparent and very pale, and her hair wet green or golden – as if she were reflecting the water in her appearance. She was able to live on trees or dry land with the help of her hair comb – which must have reflected the waves – without which she could die. People believed that the Russalka was most dangerous in June, the month that includes Midsummer, the traditional date for sacrificing the King of the Year.
In Greece, rivers were considered highly important, both in myth and in reality. The great mythical hero Heracles fought against the River god Archelo'us for Daianera's love. The Archelo'us (or Achelous) is Greece's main river that was used as a means of transport. The god won the battle against Heracles, then turned himself into a snake, the oldest phallic symbol, then became a bull, symbol of power; Heracles subdued the bull and tore one of his horns, and the nymphs used it as the Horn of Plenty, showing how important the river was for the fertility of the land. Actually, there are six rivers in Greece called Archelo'us, by whose name people swear. The river, as a double entity of fertility and destruction, has been portrayed in ancient Greece as a powerful man, and many young men sanctified their hair to him and sacrificed to him horses and bulls. In ancient Rome, river cruises formed part of Midsummer rituals and festivals including sacrifices.
Another mythological river is the Styx, which flows between Earth and the land of the Dead, and was considered a female goddess; the soul of the dead had to cross the Styx to reach the Underworld. She was one of the Titans, children of the Earth goddess, who preceded the Olympian gods, and personified the Death aspect of the Triple goddess. The river flows in a series of falls from a cliff called Nonacris, and its ice-cold water was considered poisonous.
The most sacred river in India is the Ganges, or Mother Ganga as the Hindi call it; it is believed to purify anyone washing in it, as it originates in the Himalaya Mountains, called in India "Mother of the World." The goddess Ganga is depicted riding a crocodile and carrying a jar of water in her hand. The Hindi aspire to die by the river, and hope that after their body is burned, as is custom, their ashes will be dispersed on the river's water.
In ancient Egypt, Hapi was the god of the river Nile and its yearly flooding, without which there is no life there. The river rises every year and floods the banks around it, fertilizes the earth with its water and sediment, swept into it from the snows falling in winter on the southern mountains of Ethiopia and Tanzania. This is the basis of agriculture in Egypt, as there is no rain at all in this country. Hapi was also the god of the fish and birds dwelling in its marshes, and in spite of his male form, he has woman's breasts symbolizing fertility – which clearly shows him as an earlier female goddess of the Nile; lotus flowers grow from his hair, symbolizing peace, calm and harmony of life. The Egyptian year was made up of the three seasons forming the Nile: spring – flooding; summer – waters receding and planting the flooded earth; autumn – harvest and gathering.
The largest river in North America is the Mississippi, and in some native languages it means Father of Rivers; whether or not that points to its once having been a kind of deity, or "spirit", as the Amerindians call their higher forces, is not really clear, but they certainly recognized its power as "mici zibi" meaning "great river" or "gathering in of all the waters".
B. Waters above
According to the Talmud, we may expect all or most deities of precipitations to be male, and that seems to hold true, at least around Europe and the Middle East. It is usually different in the Far East, the Americas and many other places around the world. The differentiation between Upper and Lower waters may be ascribed to the possible calm appearance of seas and lakes, in contrast with the possible violence of rainfall which may be associated with thunder storms. Many rain gods have also the attributes of thunder gods, among them the Greek god Zeus, the Middle Eastern gods Baal, Enlil and Teshub, the Norse gods Thor, Donal and Odin, the Hindu god Indra, and the American god Tlaloc.
Rain waters are essential for life and fertility in some places in the world where they fall only part of the year; the myth of the Sumerian Tamuz, who was taken from Inanna Queen of Heaven (where the rain comes from), and brought to the Underworld by the Death goddess Ereshkigal, describes what happens to the land in his absence:
The tamarisk in the garden has not drunk
The crocus in the field has not blossomed
The willow tree on the river has not been happy
The weeds in the garden have not drunk water.
The Hindu myth of the ancient Vedan god Indra who preceded Brahama tells a similar story of a dry spell: "Indra king of the gods dwelled in heaven surrounded by immortals; he was a mighty warrior practiced in throwing the lethal thunder weapon whose function is to make rains in their seasons on earth ... Indra's awful thunder weapon was sent like fire bursting out of a volcano." Indra fought against an enemy who overcame him, and when he vanished from the face of the Earth, in his absence the earth was completely ruined, its trees withered and its forests dried out. Water turned to vapor from rivers and lakes, drought punished all living beings. Other gods united to bring Indra back to his place, then "mountain lakes and oceans ... filled the sky with cries of joy and songs of victory." Indra is sometimes called "rider of clouds," just like the Canaanite Baal and Biblical YHWH. Some think that his name is derived from the word ind – "to drip".
Another ancient god was the Horian-Hittite Teshub from Anatholia, whose name means "conquer" or "overcome." He was a sky and storm god depicted holding a triple lightning bolt as a weapon. The powerful bull was sacred to him, as to other rain gods, like Baal, for instance, and he is shown either with horns on his crown, or else as a war horse drawing a chariot. In the Hittite myth, Teshub is known for his battle against the Sea Dragon goddess (perhaps a parallel to the Babylonian Tiamat), and other creatures of the ancient chaos sea.
The Scandinavian Thor, or Germanic Donar, was another Storm and rain god. Thor carried an enormous hammer which he used to hit oak trees, thus creating thunder. His violent characteristics were more prominent than his beneficial one as a rain god, as rain is less essential for fertility in northern countries than in Middle Eastern ones.
The Slavonic thunder god Peron, on the other hand, was so important that he was considered head of all the gods; beside bringer of thunder and lightning he was also a god of the sky, war, fire, mountains, the oak, the iris flower, the eagle, horses and carts, and weapons like the hammer, ax and arrows. Similar to him were also the Finnish god Ukko and the Japanese Raijin, who were known for their power and violence.
A well-known storm god in America was Tlaloc of the Aztecs. He was very important as a bringer of rain, water and fertility, mostly benevolent but also powerful as a sender of hail, thunder and lightning. He was in charge of the strength of water, and was connected with caves and springs where he dwelled; but he also demanded human sacrifices, mainly children. Tlaloc's ritual was the most ancient and all-inclusive in Mexico, connected with mountain temples and life-giving rain; he was identified with the Earth itself, and with the Water under the earth, where he had an underground temple. In this case, there was no separation between upper and lower waters, all were under one rule.
The Mayan had a rain god similar to Tlaloc named Chak, who held an x-shaped lightning with which he hit the clouds to make thunder and rain. Some American tribes worshipped gods who were one and many at the same time, in charge of farming, who might appear as dancing clowns.
Similar clownish gods of the atmosphere appeared also in Australia and New Zealand, while in Asia most rains-deities were more beneficial than destructive. In China they took the shape and colors of various dragons, dividing between them the upper and lower realms and characteristics.
In China there was also a very capricious goddess called Feng-Po-Po, who was in charge of storm and moisture, referred to as "Madame Wind," who was usually depicted as a crone riding through clouds on the back of a tiger.
A most important Storm goddess and perhaps the most ancient one is Oya, of the African tribe of the Yoruba, who was in charge of the violent and fertile storms and rains – from whom, perhaps, the European gods took over both qualities. Oya means "tearing," and she is a warlike wind, lightning and fire goddess, but also goddess of magic and fertility. She creates hurricanes and tornadoes which make up her skirt as she dances in the wind, for she is the wind itself with all its destructive power. She also represents the spirit (="wind") of change and passage, and the chaos they bring with them. She gives life; she lives at the entrance to cemeteries, guarding the underworld and makes passage to it easier. When she dances she sports a horse's tail and wears colorful clothes, her eyes are open and very large, she breathes heavily and sometimes screams. Basically, she is in charge of the transfer between life and death, and is worshipped together with the ancients. The Africans picture her as a water buffalo when they bring her gifts of eggplant, a vegetable chosen for her perhaps because of its dark purple color, the color of death.
The storm goddess is even known in modern fantasy literature, as she appears in Selma Lagerlef's book The Wonderful Voyage of Little Nils Nolgersen with the Wild Geese, in the form of a witch called Iseter Kaisa. Witches in legends are a known development of ancient goddesses. In the book, she and her exploits are described in this way: "She was not a dark and fearful witch but gay and happy, and especially of good spirits when a storm was brewing. When the wind was blowing properly, she would rise and go to Nerke Valley, where she would dance her dances... At Nerke Valley the wind would blow from the Baltic sea across the plain, but then it would stumble on a wall of cliffs on its other side; it would then meander like a snake attacking the south, hit the mountains and come back east, were the forest would push it again toward the north." Iseter Kaisa would dance with the wind, as the wind itself, all over the Valley, making mischief, overturning heavy carts, tearing up people's clothes, whistling and then bringing heavy rains that poured right over their garden parties, to her heart's content. But she can also be very kind to the needy, help little children get shelter from the rain and wind by opening closed doors with her windy power, and forcing stingy landlords to be more hospitable toward them.
It should be expected that in northern countries, where snow is much more a factor than rain, there would be snow deities. In Scandinavia there is one such goddess by the name of Skadi who appears to be a force of Nature unto herself, and some say that Scandinavia is named after her. She is nicknamed "Snow Shoes goddess," and was considered the reincarnation of Winter itself.
On the other hand, the Inuit goddess Asiaq is not confined to winter, but is in charge of the weather in general, decides whether there should be snow, or the ice should melt and rain should fall. She is considered the Mother of the Weather, who decides the quantity and the time for snow to fall.
In a similar way, in Japan, Kuraokami is a Shintu Weather dragon of both rain and snow, a descendent of the creator couple Isanami and Isanagi. It is thought that the Shintu weather dragons were taken from the Chinese mythological system.
One form of water may be the result of either Lower waters or Upper waters, whatever the case is; that is the flood, which can be caused either by too heavy rains that cannot be contained by the earth, or by a river flowing over its banks – the latter, of course is probably caused by heavy rain as well, but at a distance too great to be noticed on the spot, or to be connected by people too primitive to understand the geographical situation. Like all kinds of waters, floods can be beneficial, or even essential as they are in Egypt. Without them there would be no Egypt, as they sustain farming where there is never any rain. They can also be highly destructive and even lethal, as the Biblical story of the flood tells us. The Biblical story of the flood was influenced by the Babylonian myth, according to which the flood was brought about by the creation god Ea, who was dissatisfied with the behavior of humanity and decided to destroy it. The flooding of the Nile was caused by the River god Hapi, who thus invented farming.
It is not known when human awareness reached the degree when it was possible for humans to distinguish between magic and nature; that must have been about the time when they began thinking of trying to influence natural phenomena, to enhance the beneficial or defend against the harmful. In the absence of science as we understand it today, one of the means used to enhance humanity's power over Nature was homeopathic magic. (Although the term "homeopathy" was coined by Samuel Hahnemann, 1755-1843, the concept is ancient.) Homeopathic-like magic used actions that imitated Nature as closely as possible. For instance, to influence the falling of rain they would sprinkle water on earth, plants or humans; and where people followed the connection between thunderstorms and rain, they would make thunder by beating on a drum-like object – an old, hollow tree, for instance. That's one reason why oaks came to be sacred to thunder gods.
Lightning was associated with both thunder and rain, and with fire. Sometimes ancient peoples would use fire either to bring rain or to stop it from falling too much. In some places, people believed that women were able to make the rain come by pretending they were "plowing the clouds" or the river, in order to lift its water and make it fall. In other places it was thought that the dead brought water, so people painted their faces white to look dead and thus "cheat" the water source. The King of Cambodia was once thought to have the power of making rain and flooding the earth, being a Water King; he was also supposedly able to stop hurricanes.
Homeopathic magic was used in other ways to influence the forces of Nature. Cave drawings may have been done for the purpose of enhancing the fertility of animals that could be hunted for meat. This kind of magic also forms the basis for voodoo dolls used to make people ill or die.
Sir James Frazer – The Golden Bough
Robert Graves – The White Goddess
Encyclopedia for Traditional Symbols
The Old Testament
Witches Lore, nonfiction, Issue 3, June 1, 2008
Mythological Giants and Their Wars, nonfiction, Issue 12, September 1, 2010
Myth and Fantasy, Mythological Elements in Modern Fantasy Literature, Issue 15, June 1, 2011
King David in the Cave, nonfiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012
Human Sacrifice, nonfiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014
The Loss and Search for a Loved One, Issue 28, September 1, 2014
The Mythology of Water, Issue 32, September 1, 2015
Mazes and Spirals, Issue 33, December 1, 2015
Tala Bar, I am a writer and an artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found in this address:
Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address:
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