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.