Water Bodies and Water Deities in Ancient Mythology

Myths talk about a universal truth, presented in the form of stories which are not necessarily true, but convey with unprecedented clarity the erudition acquired by humans via their interaction with nature. Across myths originating from various cultures, water in its basic qualities is used to symbolise various aspects of our life and of the world.

In many myths, water plays an important role as a passageway, reviver and so on. For example, in Hindu mythology, Kunti sets baby Karna sailing on the river which will carry him to his foster parents, with whom he will begin his life leading to him meeting Duryodhana. At the point when she sees Karna being carried away by the river, Kunti prays to the god of water to protect Karna instead of praying to Karna’s divine father, the god of the Sun (Surya).

The image of a new born child being transported to safety via water is also seen in the Greek myth of Perseus. Acrisius, the King of Argos, was fated to die at the hands of his grandson. To prevent his daughter Danaë (who was his only child and hence would be the mother of his slayer) from becoming pregnant, he locked her away in a tower. However, Zeus fell in love with her and impregnated her with Perseus. While Acrisius would not risk the wrath of Zeus by killing his son, he locked Danaë and Perseus in a chest and threw them into the sea. After a few days, they were washed ashore on an island called Serifos, where Perseus would grow up.

Similar to these stories is the Roman myth of Remus and Romulus. Born to Rhea Silvia (daughter of Numitor, former king of Alba Longa), the twins were the sons of Mars (the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Ares). The king of Alba Longa – King Amulius (who had overthrown his brother Numitor) saw the twin boys as a threat to his rule and ordered them to be killed. The twins were abandoned in a basket on the banks of the Tiber river, and were carried to safety by the river god Tiberius. The were raised for a while by a she-wolf, and eventually discovered and taken care of by the shepherd Faustulus.

In many more such myths, water plays a decisive role in the way a story unfolds. This is probably the result of most civilisations being created, in fact, around the presence of an important water body. Mesopotamia literally means ‘the land between two rivers’ (the two rivers being Tigris and Euphrates). However, a very interesting observation to be made is that many civilisations could only exist because of a water body, and yet it is often due to a water body that the civilisation is lost. For example, the Indus Valley Civilisation was built on the banks of the river Indus, which was a big reason why it was able to thrive, by engineering irrigation systems, sewage systems, and wells; ironically, it is often speculated that the civilisation was washed away by a massive flooding of the Indus, which destroyed the marvellous riverbank civilisation. While a substantial number of artefacts survived the flood and were later excavated from underground, the indigenous script of the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (two settlements that we know to have been part of that civilisation) is yet to be deciphered.

Water deities can often be seen playing the role of protectors. For example, Thetis (one of the Greek water deities) is seen helping the Jason and the Argonauts escape the monsters Scylla and Charybdis who would have otherwise broken their ship and killed the crew, ending one of the most legendary voyages accounted for in mythology.

While the qualities ascribed to water may vary across cultures and religions, water does always play a central role, and hold a sacred place in any religious belief system. The critical role that water plays in the survival of the human race caused its deities to be portrayed as some of the most powerful gods who were part of the divine assemblies such as the olympians in Greek mythology, and the Great Ennead in Egyptian mythology.

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The Five Elements in Ancient Mythology

Earth, water, air, fire, and aether – these five elements, have for aeons been acknowledged as the most powerful forces of nature. People of ancient civilisations – the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Ancient Indians, Greeks, Roman and other such civilisations were keenly aware of the influence these elements had on the world we live in, and this sentiment of theirs is reflected in many myths belonging to those cultures.

There are recurring descriptions of one or more of these five primordial forces of nature being the basis of the creation of the world, present in most, if not all the myths explaining the formation of the universe. For instance, in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, the world could only be formed when the five elements were detangled from the ‘crude, unstructured mass’ – Chaos –that existed before the elements were assigned their rightful places.

Many cataclysms have occurred throughout the ages, leading to the demise of civilizations and extinction of life forms, yet the elements have survived and retained their original form but for a few changes in the way humans apply them to daily life. The same land we walk on today had been ploughed by someone else hundreds of years ago; the same oceans encircling the earth today existed in their vastness even then; fire – one of the most important aspects of nature that had given the ancient civilizations power continues to be part of our lives with the same pertinence; the same stars that we look up at were studied by our ancestors ages ago; the same atmosphere encircles Earth, that we continue to live on even after thousands of years, and these elements, ancient yet ageless, are what every child still continues to be drawn to. At an instinctive level, humans always recognised their insignificance in comparison with nature, and that became a source of great fascination. That is perhaps why the first gods to be born in Greek mythology were Zeus – god of the skies and judgement, Poseidon – god of water bodies and earthquakes, and Hades – god of the underworld and everything beneath the earth, and also the judge of what would happen to the souls of the dead in the afterlife – of whether or not they lived their lives well enough to be rewarded or even to escape punishment. These gods were considered to be some of the most powerful Olympians.

In many myths, one can see people trying to understand and categorise the powers of these elements. More importantly, however, one can see them trying to understand how to harness the force of these elements, as we continue to make attempts at even today. They assigned a humanoid form to the elements in the form of the deity/deities associated with an element, which can be interpreted as an attempt to reduce the magnitude of these substances to something comprehensible, something that can be controlled. For example, the Egyptian gods were often depicted as beings with the head of an animal and the body of a human. This assignation of characteristics of both humans and animals seems to acknowledge the fact that humans alone cannot contain the power present in nature, but by working together with other life forms in nature, they still stand a chance to do so.

In mythology, the inter-weaving of the elements appears with stark clarity. Like a massive, delicate web, the deities representing the elements, or even the elements in their natural form cross paths to cause epoch-making events. And since myths are but a reflection of the truth, the reverence with which humans considered nature resonates in them. While trying to explain how the world came to be as it is, the stories also stitch a tapestry across various civilizations, one that shows a trend in the thought process regarding the elements that is present throughout cultures. These myths and legends give you an insider’s view into how humans interacted with the world – the star strewn sky and the elusive water; the raging fire and the solid earth and the wind that they could feel but not see, and the undercurrents of fear and awe present when they mused about the vastness of the universe.

Did Ancient Civilizations die or did they survive in other Forms?

Since over 900  years, people have been formally studying Ancient Civilizations and various aspects of each civilization. There have been archaeology, papyrology, and other such fields  that have helped us understand these Ancient Civilizations a little better.

While studying an Ancient Civilization, one of the most important  things to be understood is how the civilization declined, how it lost its  power and sway over prevailing ideological discourses . The ‘death’ of an Ancient Civilization does not describe the abrupt end or disappearance of the civilization; it is a phase during which the civilization fades away – its language is not spoken as frequently , its deities are not worshipped as much, and overall that particular  civilization does not remain as visible and influential as it was during the peak of its existence. More often than not, the decline of a civilization takes place due to the invasion of another empire, or a natural disaster.

However, this phase of fading of a civilization can tell us a lot about the civilization itself and about the next emerging power in the world. There is a law in physics – ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed’. The result of this law being followed in every aspect of the world will be that as a civilization fades away, the energy that fuelled it manifests itself in other forms. So, while on one hand the civilization is slowly declining, the energy leaving it usually gives rise to other powers or leaves its marks in ways we can still see today.

The best way to analyse whether the ancient civilizations continued to survive is actually very simple. Let’s say we superimposed our civilization, in today’s day and age, on theirs, when they were the most developed. You will see an endless number of similarities, most clearly through the way our society’s functioning matches theirs. We still operate according to the same moral-ethical codes, which have been termed in different ways, and adapted to suit the most recent discoveries over the course of time. There is always a leader, a hierarchy system and the law. Every civilization shares aspects of society such as music, dance, arts, politics, philosophy and so on, and there is often an uncanny similarity between civilizations which indicates the possibility that ancient civilizations continue to survive, the philosophy shifting and adapting based on the society it has manifested itself in. For  example, for a long  time Ancient Egypt was a civilization that was considered dead; we could not decipher the meaning of hieroglyphs and hence did not know much about the civilization. After the discovery of the Rosetta stone in July 1799 by Pierre-Francois Bouchard, people were able to decrypt the writing on stone carvings, sarcophagi, and other artefacts from Ancient Egypt to understand the traditions and beliefs of that civilization. This brought about the revival of an understanding of the civilization, as the impact it had had on the modern world was traceable, and hence we were effectively acknowledging its presence in our time.

Another clear example of this is the United States of America. In 1791 when the founders of the newly formed country sat down to create plans for the American cities, they told the French-American architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the cities like one from the classical era. The Americans had adopted the idea of democracy, which was first used by the Greeks, and were to have senators, which was a Roman concept. The cities were to be divided into grids, like classical Greek and Roman towns, and the Capitol building would be modelled after the Acropolis in Athens and the Parthenon in Rome, with the tall white columns, capitals, pedestals and marble statues.

As you can see, the Americans took up the philosophies of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and adapted them to the modern world.

At an ideational  level also, there are any similarities between today’s world and the ancient civilizations. Humans continue to live in communities; we build cities and towns and elect leaders just like they did; we study the world, basing our knowledge on the foundations they had built; we value the same qualities in our fellow humans – morality, strength, beauty and so on. Countries go to war, and sculptors create statues, and architects  plan cities, the same way as they did centuries ago.

The Indus Valley civilization continues to be one of the most obscure of them all. While we have been able to dig up seals, shards of pottery and excavate ruins of cities belonging to that civilization, the script of the Indus Valley civilization has not been deciphered yet. In spite of there being such a huge gap in our knowledge about them, we still find their city plans so marvellous. From the citadel in the west to the city in the east, to the high walls surrounding the entire place, the people of the Indus Valley had it all planned out. There were street lamps and streets as wide as 30-40 ft. running through the city and dividing it into blocks; there were wells in every neighbourhood, and even the drainage systems were planned very efficiently. We aspire to reach their level of engineering excellence, and just that aspiration proves that those rules still apply, that we can relate to their plans, means that the essence of the civilization is still alive. The fact that we find this civilization to be so evocative, so intriguing and relatable means that it did not cease to exist.

The roots of today’s world lie deep in the past, in the ancient era. Whether it is the concept of democracy from Greece or the senators from Rome, these civilizations are our foundation. When their power declined, it manifested in some other place, in another form. All  civilizations talk about the same phenomenon, they all have a common aim – survival and growth.

Another interesting fact that points towards the manifestation of the same ‘energy’ in different civilization is the similarity between the Greek and Indian deities. Zeus, also spelt as ‘dios’ or ‘dios’ is known as the ‘All Father’. There is a striking similarity between the character of Zeus and a Sanskrit deity ‘Dyaus pitr’ ‘द्यौष्पितृ’ whose name means ‘Father of the Heavens’. As well as the names being similar, both were said to be the rulers of the heaven. So isn’t it possible that they were the same person/character who were known to two different sets of people?

Just the fact that we know about the ancient civilizations and continue to learn and discover more about them shows that they continued to survive in their essence. Only when they are completely forgotten and their ways are untraceable through ours, will those civilizations be truly dead.

So, no, the ancient civilizations did not die, but they continued to survive, as seen in various aspects of the society that we live in today.