From the beginning of humanity, people have seen the sacred in the world around them. In ancient times they explained the world by imbuing their surroundings with magic and spirits. Most cultures saw bodies of water, whether oceans, rivers, lakes, or springs, as being magical otherworldly places. So, here I have put together a few of the myths and legends surrounding water.
(Usual disclaimer – I’m not an expert, so let me know if I’ve got anything wrong or missed something you feel should be here.)
In Bronze Age Europe, it was the custom to make offerings to the gods by throwing the items into bodies of water or peat bogs. These could be anything of value, often weapons. The offerings were often broken before being placed into the water, to symbolize that they were no longer part of the world. The idea was that they would no longer be within reach of man – they could not be retrieved, and belonged to the gods. An example of this would be Flag Fen in England, a Bronze age causeway built over water. Some of the archaeological finds include broken weapons and other items of value that have been broken and then deposited in the water. These rituals were meant to be prayer and gift, to represent the transaction between people and gods.
Offerings were often made to rivers and other bodies of water, so the same types of offerings have been found in the river Thames. The points where waters joined ie confluences or estuaries were seen as especially sacred. They were sometimes thought to be gateways to the otherworld. You could get there by going under the water, across running water to enter the realm of fairies, or in some stories across the western sea. The way water reflects is probably the root cause for some of these beliefs. When you look into a body of water and see the world as you know it reflected, but distorted and not quite the same, it might seem reasonable in the ancient world to think of this as another world, similar but not the same as your own.
Sometimes the offerings made were of people. In Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK, well-preserved human remains have been recovered from peat bogs. The condition of these bodies indicated that they had been killed before being placed in the bog, often in a ritualized manner consistent with human sacrifice.
Ireland has many legends concerning the magic of water. The otherworld could be accessed via water. It was said that bathing in a lake or pool could bestow magic including poetic inspiration, wisdom of healing. One legend tells that that Tuatha de Danaan (a race in Ireland before mortal men, later known as the Sidhe or elves) had a healer who blessed the Well of Slaine (or healing) with herbs and incantations. Warriors could bathe there and be instantly healed of their wounds, and so continue in battle. So, when their enemies discovered this, they (naturally) filled up the well.
The Arthurian legend of the Lady in the Lake is an interesting example of this tradition. In a way the sword given by the Lady to Arthur is a reverse offering, coming from the lake. But, when Arthur dies, the sword must be returned to its original owner, which Sir Bedivere does at Arthur’s command.
Springs seemed magical in many cultures. The water was appearing (as if by magic) out of the ground, and it would come up pure. Consequently, springs were often regarded as sacred to the gods. We throw coins into fountains, springs or wells these days to make a wish, but in the past women threw in pins (as they were associated with labour and woman’s magic). The offering to the gods, a sacred tradition, degenerates into a good luck superstition.
An English tradition was that if you spill water from a bucket on the way back from a well or spring, this will give you bad luck. This can be averted if you return to the source and make an offering to appease the spirits. An example of how springs were revered is the hot spring at Bath, which was revered by the Celts, then the Romans. The Chalice Well in Glastonbury is another example, and is considered to be one of the oldest continually used sacred wells. The archeological evidence there suggests it has been in use going back for 2000 years.
The Norse god Odin finds knowledge in the fountain of the nature spirit Mimir. The Celtic ‘salmon of knowledge’ swims in a sacred spring, and eats falling hazelnuts. These contain the wisdom of the world.
Fairy tales, usually later renditions of older myths, would contain magic wells, which might grant wishes, confer wisdom or beauty, and be inhabited by spirits. The spirits are not always benevolent, and these tales will sometimes tell of someone being tricked by the spirits, and coming to harm instead of getting what they want.
Myths involving water are not just a product of Europe. For example, there are indigenous stories in Puerto Rico and Cuba that tell of a ‘fountain of youth’. Also, in an Indian legend, the prophet Khizr drinks from the fountain of life and obtains knowledge of God.
Pagan and Christian practices eventually blended with respect to wells and springs. Holy days replaced pagan festivals, and celebrations often retained elements of pagan ritual. Many religious practices now refer to ritual washing or immersion. For example, baptism in Christianity symbolizes death and rebirth (death to the self and rebirth as a child of Christ). The Hindu ghat involves public ritual bathing accompanied by prayer. Judaism and Islam also have ritual washing before meals and prayers.
There is such a tradition of the magic of water that it is often used in fantasy books and films. In ‘The Ocean at the end of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman, there is the idea that an entire ocean can be contained in a pond. In ‘Lord of the Rings’ by JRR Tolkien, a flood rises to stop the Black Riders outside of Rivendell, and Galadriel’s mirror is a bowl of water. The television series ‘The Last Airbender’ includes water ‘benders’, people who can manipulate water. It is what in many fantasy stories would be called ‘Elemental magic’ (from the tradition of the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water).
I think water is such a fundamental and vital aspect of our lives (after all, we would die without it) that it makes a certain sense to regard it as sacred. Human beings from the dawn of time have seen magic in water, and respected it. I think these stories can remind us to respect water, and all of nature.