Water in the Civilisations of the World
an integral part of every civilisation. It has always determined the viability of entire nations and, as it seems, will determine even more decisively human activity in the future. The life-giving significance of water for every society has allowed for its rich symbolism and incorporation in religious, spiritual and artistic life. Its constantly changing character and its significant presence for man and nature, stirred man’s imagination so as to include it in legends, cults and artistic representa-tions.
Covering 70% of our planet, water created worlds, bore deities (pict. 1), taken people from life to death, “washed out” consciences, introduced the metaphysic, eliminated pain, purified souls.
Picture 1 Sandro Botticelli, The birth of Venus, 1443
Humanity became aware of the significance of water from the very early stages of cultural evolution. For the nations of Mesopotamia, Enki was the god of springs and rivers. He is depicted on seals (pict. 2) with the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, where there are fish swimming, flowing from his soldiers. It is not strange that in the cults of Mesopotamia the deity more closely related to man was the one who reassured the affluence of rivers.
Picture 2 God Enki, Seal of Adda, 2350 BC
The significance of the life-giving role of water is proven mainly by its central role in cosmogenic myths. In Assyro-babylonian mythology, firstly the gods and then all the creations of nature derived from the mixing of the river waters with those of the seas, while the abyss was considered a symbol of wisdom. In Ancient Greece, Heraclitus considered water to be “first beginning, the creator (element) of all’’, while for the ancient Egyptians the world was created from chaos, which had the form of an ocean.
An island emerged from its waters and the first habitant was ATOYM. All living creatures were born from ATOYM’s tears. In the holy books of the Induists, it is written that humanity was born from the water of a primitive sea. Last of all, for the Chinese the waters from the Pon Laispring gave a thousand lives to those who drunk it, while the dragon lives in the water, since this is where life derives from.
These are some of the references to water in cosmogenic theories worldwide, as there are hundreds more.
The various appearances of the element of water in the spiritual and religious life of the nations of the world. Since ancient times, water has been connected with the meaning of purification, natural and spiritual. In the oldest religious documents from Ancient Egypt, which date back to 2500 BC, the bodies of the dead, during the mummification procedure, were often washed with water so as to be kept pure from death and to be revived (pict. 3). In faraway India, the loyal Induists washed in the holy waters of the Ganges to clean their body and spirit. But even in the Islam, the believers washed hands, feet, ears and mouth with plenty of water before they prayed.
Picture 3 Priest sprinkles water on a dead person, 1184 – 1147 BC
Water was, other than a means of cleansing, a means of purification–sanctification. In Christian tradition, there are many references to the purifying role of water.
In the Old Testament, priests would wash their hands with water before approaching the holy altar, while Pontius Pilate “washed his hands”, in a symbolic attempt to rid of his guilt. (pict. 4). Also, Holy Water (blessed water by the priest) is drunk and sprinkled on believers for the purification of the soul, but also a blessing and protection from evil power.
Picture 4 Jan Lievens, Pontius Pilate, Washes his Hands, 1625 – 6
In the world’s nations, the ritual means, from which themeanings of purification and sanctification are realised, have one main purpose: the metamorphosis of the initiated, his spiritual evolution and his familiarization with the metaphysic. Water played an organic role in such ceremonies, since with its use the priestsperformed their religious duties (pict. 5 & 6).
Picture 5 : Assyrian Winged Deity performs a ritual holding a vessel with water 883 859 BC.
Picture 6: The Goddess of the Gange River (Ganges) holding Lotus Blossoms and a Vessel with Water, 1815.
The choice of water in the initiating rituals is quite understandable as one of its main characteristics is that of constant change. Let’s not forget that the changeable nature of water is connected to the phases of the moon (tide). And the woman’s identification with the element of water is not random, and neither is that of water with woman’s nature (The Indians characterized their sacred river, Ganges, as “mother–Ganges”: a compassionate, aqueous hug which stifles and exercises every pain and sin).
Beyond the power of metamorphosis, water also has the power of regeneration, of the transition to another level of existence. In Ancient Greece those who died most recently had to be reborn to drink water from Lethe (Oblivion), a river of the underworld, which would erase every memory from their previous life (pict. 7). This is also confirmed inPlato’s“Politeia” (The State), where he wrote that everybody had to drink some of the water from Lethe, while those who did not drink sensibly would end up forgetting everything!
Picture 7: John Martin, Sadak seeks the Waters of Lethe, 1812.
In the cult of Orphism (6thcentury BC), the initiated was called to seek Mnemosyne, a river with therapeutic waters which allegedly freed the soul (psyche) from a cycle of constant reincarnations. But also for the Indies who washed or were incinerated in the Ganges, the river’s waters served as a bridge joining
them with the sky end freeing the soul from the pains of constant reincarnation. In Buddhism, the lotus (the symbol of water), which has its roots in mud and its blossom lightens up on the surface of the water, symbolizes the rebirth of the spirit and the attainment of enlightenment.
Water has also been used by many nations symbolically as a passage to the other life: in Ancient Egypt the river was the borderline between life and death, but also the passage, since the souls of the dead were transferred with a boat on the Nile to the kingdom of the dead (PIC.8).
In Ancient Greece, there was a similar belief, as the souls of the dead were thought to travel down the River Styga with Haron as their guide (pic 9). Picture 7: John Martin, Sadak seeks the Waters of Lethe, 1812.
Picture 8 : Burial ship , Grave of Menna 1422 -1411 BC
Picture 9 : Joarhim Patinir, Charon crossing the Waters of Styga, 1515 – 1524
On a fresco painting discovered on a grave in South Italy (480–470 BC), there is arepresentation of a malefigure diving into the water from a high construction.It quite possibly symbolizes a dive into the waters of the underworld, the waters of Ocean. The pillars may represent the Herculean Pillars, symbols of the end of the world and even the end of life. (pic. 10)
Picture 10 : The Grave of the Diver, Paestum, 470 Bc
The Christian ceremony of Baptism also symbolizes a passage, since by being submerged into the water, one is cleansed of the Original Sin and is spiritually reborn. Jesus was baptized in a river, River Jordan (pic.11), with a ritual where he was Submerged into the waters, a practice dating back to Ancient Greece (Mysteries of Eleusis ).
All these practices, myths and symbols are imprinted on the artistic creations of the Nations throughout the centuries: engraved on slates, painted on walls, carved in stones. Water is otherwise represented with shapes (criss-cross or wavy lines), at other times with symbols (water- lilies, lotus flowers, gods of the sea, etc) in motion or tranquility. Presenting the unpredictable and quite often threatening nature of water. The artists use it either as a symbol of the forces of nature (pic. 12) eitherasa visualization of human passions (pic. 13).
Picture 11 : Paolo Veronese, The Baptism of Jesus, 1580 – 88
Picture 12 : Horace Vemet, Joseph Vemet tied on a Mast in a Storm, 1822
Picture 13 : Caspar David Friedrich, A man Wandering over the Sea of Fog, 1818
Presenting its calm nature, it symbolized peacefulness, so human
activity wasencouraged (fishing, trade) (pic. 14) or it just served as a place of speculation andrelaxation (pic. 15).
Picture 14 : Katsushika Hokusai. View of the River Sumida from the Azuma Bridge. Picture 15 : Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte, 1884
Picture 15 : Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte, 1884
In any way which water is presented in art, it always determines the intention of the work and it presents the relationship of man with nature. But the water is also a reflective surface. It becomes a mirror of the moods and works of people, a witness of their intervention in the natural world. Let’s observe the reflections on the surface of the water today. What do we see? Let’s not hope a future where the universal lack of water will concern humanity to such a degree that this artistic inspiration will not become a museum item.