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Water: A Spiritual History

Water: A Spiritual History

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Water: A Spiritual History

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371 pagine
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Nov 2, 2012


Water has long been associated with the magical, the mysterious and the divine.

From sacred springs to holy wells, and from hydropathic cures and temperance reform to the modern spa, Ian Bradley explores how water's creative, health-giving and restorative powers have been conceived, worshipped and marketed in an essentially spiritual way.

In pre-Christian times, springs and rivers were seen as the dwelling places of deities with magical life-giving and curative powers, associated especially with the feminine and with ritual cleansing and rebirth. With the coming of Christianity, water was incorporated into Christian ritual and tradition through baptism and the cult of holy wells. From the 16th century onwards, the benefits of water came to be seen more in terms of therapeutic healing than the miraculous. Through the development of drinking and bathing cures, spas and hydrotherapy, a more scientific but still essentially spiritual understanding of the curative properties of water was developed. By the eighteenth century, spas and watering places had acquired their own enchanted and mysterious qualities, in many ways taking the place of medieval pilgrim shrines. Now, a new, more hedonistic kind of pilgrim comes to modern spas to experience a potent post-modern elixir of self-oriented well-being.
Nov 2, 2012

Informazioni sull'autore

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews and a prolific author and broadcaster.

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Water - Ian Bradley


Preface and acknowledgements

Water is at once mundane and mysterious, ubiquitous and precious. Odourless, colourless and tasteless, it is unique as a chemical compound in terms of its stability, solvent properties and potential as an energy source. Covering roughly 70% of the earth’s surface and making up a similar proportion of the human body, it is essential to life in all its forms and is at both the start and the heart of the evolutionary chain. The most primitive single-celled organisms are almost entirely composed of water, as is the human embryo. The breaking of waters is the signal that human life is ready to emerge from the watery environment of the womb. For most readers of this book, water is an everyday commodity instantly available at the turn of a tap. In many parts of the world, however, it is becoming increasingly scarce. Women in developing countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to fetch clean water. Global consumption is rising twice as fast as the increase in world population and experts in international relations and conflict studies predict that the major wars of this century will be fought over water.

Water has held a fascination for some of the greatest minds in history. Drawings and memoranda scattered through the papers of Leonardo da Vinci show that it was the major preoccupation of his intellectual attention throughout his life. ‘Water’, he held, ‘is the driver of nature, the vital humour of the terrestrial machine’ (Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.18). He felt that he might solve the mysteries of creation by studying the laws of its movements. A massive treatise on the subject remained unfinished at his death. It is not surprising, given its essentialness to life in all its forms, that water has been revered throughout human history. Wells, springs, pools, lakes and rivers have been regarded as especially sacred sites, the dwelling places of deities, gateways to the next world and sources of healing and rejuvenation. The foundation texts of the world’s great religions are united in describing water as the principal agent of creation and source of life, the special gift of God or the gods with exceptional power to purify, cleanse and renew.

This book aims to trace the spiritual history of water – how it has been understood as a religious symbol and used as a healing, purifying and sanctifying element in ritual and worship. A word is needed about the book’s scope and limitations. It is restricted to fresh water, which, in fact, makes up just 1% of the water that covers the world – 97% is salt water and 2% is locked in snow and ice. In turn, 97% of the total supply of fresh water on our planet is contained inside the earth from which it emerges in springs and geysers or through wells and boreholes, sometimes boiling hot and sometimes icy cold, sometimes sluggishly and sometimes with enormous force, sometimes containing a rich variety of minerals and salts and sometimes containing almost nothing at all. It is this fresh water, bubbling up from the ground, tumbling down hillsides in fast flowing streams, flowing more sedately through great rivers and forming pools and lakes that has been accorded particular spiritual significance and venerated through human history. The much greater quantity of salt water that makes up the seas and oceans has, on the whole, inspired rather different religious emotions – awe and wonder, certainly, but also fear and dread. The sea, conceived of as ‘the deep’, has been seen as something other, a remnant of the chaos that existed before creation, untamed, savage and associated with danger and death. Fresh water has, for the most part, been conceived of in much more positive and benign terms, although it too has not been wholly without negative and demonic associations.

While there are frequent excursions into continental Europe, the Middle East and North America, and across different religious faiths, the main focus of this book is on the British Isles and on the western Christian tradition. It aims to be representative rather than exhaustive. A fully comprehensive examination of how water has been understood and used in all religious traditions would occupy many volumes. My purpose here is to chart certain key developments and themes in the spiritual history of water – from classical bathing cults and medieval holy wells through the emergence of spas and the temperance and hydrotherapy movements to New Age spiritualities and the rediscovery of water’s sacred character in both the modern leisure industry and the recent liturgical practice of the churches.

Water has two particularly striking and seemingly contradictory characteristics – its propensity to flow and be always on the move and its calm stillness while at rest to form a perfect mirror. Both of these qualities are at the heart of what I seek to explore and illuminate in this book. Like a flowing mirror, water reflects the fluidity of the beliefs and practices of humankind over thousands of years – from primitive animism and medieval piety through the rigour and rationalism of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the idealism of the romantic movement and the hedonism and individualism of the modern age. The regimented routine of taking the waters in 18th century Bath is as much an expression of the mindset of moderate deism as the steamy enervating atmosphere of the hammam is of certain aspects of Islam and the modern spa’s array of hot tubs and Jacuzzis of the contemporary religion of de-stressing and having ‘me time’.


Kevin Tingay, Geoffrey Rowell, Gavin Hopps, Zero Qurbani, Charlotte Hanna, Alick Bartholomew, Bill Pritchard and Gregory Morris have helped me with thoughts, references and suggestions. James and Jane Bradby, Nicholas and Jane Ostler, Stephen and Rosie Shipley, Andrew and Teresa Orange and Peter and Molly Lawrence have provided very welcome hospitality and refreshment, not just of a watery kind. Nicholas Ostler has further helped me by reading and commenting on three of my chapters and supplied the interesting suggestion about the interrogative being at the root of the word for water in several languages (p.19). Oliver Smith kindly translated the Hungarian inscription on the Promenade at Jesenik.


The spiritual significance of water in the world’s major religions

Water features in both the opening and closing passages of the Christian Bible. The first chapter of Genesis portrays the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters, in keeping with the finding of science that all life owes its origin to water and that it was from a primeval watery soup that the first organisms emerged. The last chapter of the Book of Revelation describes ‘the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb’ through the middle of the new heavenly city of Jerusalem. Between these first and last statements of its importance, the Bible is crammed with other references to water, presented as a symbol and agent of life and death, spiritual yearning and refreshment, healing and ritual purification. Specific wells, springs, lakes and rivers are identified as sacred places where significant encounters and events take place, often directly involving God or Jesus Christ.

Water plays a similarly central role in the foundational scriptures, myths and stories of the other major religious faiths. This is hardly surprising given its fundamental importance and particular preciousness in those parts of the world in which the world’s first cultures and major faiths arose. The earliest human civilisations grew up around rivers. The area often considered as the cradle of civilisation and known as Mesopotamia – a Greek word meaning the land between the rivers – encompasses the delta marshes of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq. From before 5000 BC the plain between these two great rivers was transformed by the first known drainage and irrigation works into the granary of the Middle East and the most densely populated part of the ancient world, accommodating successively the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The great Egyptian civilisation that emerged around 3000 BC was built on the fertile alluvial plain created by the regular annual flooding of the Nile, which was held to be sacred. The ancient Egyptians constructed nilometers, vast crypts under their temples, to measure the rise and fall of the water and symbolically recreate the springtime flood, which was seen as marking the annual rebirth of the river. They also invented the 365-day calendar on the basis of the Nile’s inundation. The Harappan civilisation, the first of the great Indian cultures, which flourished from c. 2600 BC, was located in the 1000 mile flood-washed valley of the river Indus. The first great Chinese civilisation was centred around the basin of River Hwang Ho or Yellow River. Not surprisingly, water was central to the beliefs and rituals of these ancient peoples. So it was for the adherents of the great monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that arose slightly later in the harsh desert regions of Palestine and Arabia. In their case, it was a critical shortage of water that made it so precious and wonderful.

Common to all the early myths and stories that seek to explain the origins of the world is the idea that creation arose out of water, rather in the same way that the human foetus is formed and nourished in the maternal waters of the womb. The Sumerian creation myth, dating from the third millennium BC, tells of the primeval sea, represented as the goddess Nammu, giving birth to Heaven and Earth. The Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, describes the primal fresh and salt waters Apsu and Tiamat commingling to bear silt deposits which eventually form land. A descendent of their union, Ea or Enki, was venerated by both Babylonians and Assyrians as the primordial water god, creator of life-giving streams, rivers and lakes and associated with fertility and wisdom. The ancient Israelites pictured the world coming into being with the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters. The Jerusalem Talmud, a compilation of early Jewish oral tradition and teaching, likens the process of creation to kneading flour, representing inert matter, with water, the agent of dynamic change and organic transformation. In Islam water is seen as the origin of all life on earth, the substance from which Allah created every living thing, including humans (Koran 21.30, 25.54).

In the Vedic tradition of Hinduism water, or Apah, is identified as the pratishtha or underlying principle and foundation of the universe. The creation hymn in the Rig Veda suggests that before there was anything else, there was ‘water bottomlessly deep … all was water’ and describe its central role in the creation of both the cosmos and the gods:

When the mighty water moved, conceived the All as an embryo, giving birth to fire, then did he evolve, the One life force of the gods … He was the first embryo the waters bore in whom all gods together came. (Rig Veda 10.121)

In one Hindu creation story primordial cosmic man, Purusa, is born out of the waters and in another the divine swan, Hamsa, hatches the golden egg of earth as she swims on the primordial waters. In several other cultures and religious traditions what have become known as earth-diver creation myths tell of an animal or bird, sent by the Supreme Being, entering the primal or maternal waters as a kind of midwife and bringing back the mud or clay of creation. The waters here are envisaged as the unformed female principle and the diver as the creator god’s emissary into that principle, out of which will come cosmos. Such myths are particularly common in native American spirituality and are also found in Central Asia where the creator, Otshirvani, orders a frog to dive to the bottom of the waters and bring back what it finds there – this turns out to be earth, which forms the first land

Water has an ambiguous status in these early religious texts and stories. It is seen, quite rightly, as an agent of chaos and destruction as well as of creation and life. The cosmology of the ancient world envisaged a three-decker universe with waters both above and beneath the earth held in restraint but always threatening to break out. It is predominantly but not exclusively the salty water of the sea that was taken to be the angry and unpredictable element representing chaos. The destructive power of the sea is a major and consistent theme of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament and it is significant that one of the marks of the new heaven and earth described in the Book of Revelation is that ‘there will be no more sea’.

Perhaps the clearest affirmation of the destructive power of water, fresh as well as salt, among ancient cultures and civilisations is in the many stories that tell of a cataclysmic flood or deluge brought about by the gods soon after the creation of the world. The earliest extant flood legend is almost certainly found in the Sumerian Eridu Genesis, dated by its script possibly to 2000 BC. It tells of the gods’ decision to destroy humankind in a flood and to preserve just one man, Ziusudra. A similar story is recounted in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Utnapishtim is warned of the gods’ plan to destroy all life through a great flood and instructed to build a vessel so that he may save his family, friends, wealth and cattle. A variant of this story is found in the Book of Genesis where Noah is the one who is warned by God and preserved during a great flood.

Even in these flood and deluge myths water is not portrayed in a wholly negative light. Although destructive of life, it is also purging and renewing. These stories convey the idea of humanity returning to the water from which it originally came and establishing a new relationship with the divine order, as in Noah’s rainbow covenant with God after the flood. It is almost as though a periodic deluge in water is necessary to dissolve human selfishness and rebelliousness. In the words of Mircea Eliade, the pioneer historian of religion:

From the point of view of water, human life is something fragile that must periodically be engulfed, because it is the fate of all forms to be dissolved in order to reappear. If forms are not regenerated by being periodically dissolved in water, they will crumble, exhaust their powers of creativity and finally die away … The flood effects an instantaneous dissolution in water, in which sins are purified and from which a new, regenerate humanity will be born.¹

The Hebrew Bible illustrates very well the ambiguity with which water was regarded in the ancient world. This is particularly true of the Psalms, which are full of watery imagery, both positive and negative. Psalm 46, for example, moves in adjoining verses from the terrifying image of the mountains shaking in the heart of the sea, its waters roaring and foaming, to the reassuring statement ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.’ The stark contrast here between the savagery and violence of the sea and the pleasantness of rivers and streams is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. It is entirely understandable given the experience of the ancient Israelites who were not natural seafarers but rather in origin a nomadic people who wandered through parched desert lands seeking out water in pools and springs. Their search and longing for water is one of the main motifs in the story of the Exodus and the journey to the promised land. It is the dream of the prophets that ‘waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water’ (Isaiah 35.6–7). The Israelites’ consciousness of the preciousness of water in their arid land explains why the Psalmist praises God as the great water giver: ‘Thou visitest the earth and waterest it. Thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water’ (Psalm 65.9). It also explains why the Hebrew Bible is so full of practical advice about using, conserving and cherishing water:

Drink water from your own cistern,

Fresh water from your own spring.

Do not let your well overflow into the road,

Your runnels of water pour into the street.

Let your fountain be blessed. (Proverbs 5.15 and 16)

Water plays an important role in the stories of the leading figures in the foundational history of Israel. It is beside a well that Rebekah is identified as the future wife of Isaac, that Jacob first meets his future wife Rachel and that Moses helps the daughters of Reuel, or Jethro, the priest of Midian, to water their sheep, leading the priest to give him one of them, Zipporah, to be his wife (Genesis 24 and 29; Exodus 2.16). These three leading patriarchs, the progenitors of the people of Israel, all gain their wives as a result of meeting at a well. It is also beside a well that Abraham first invokes Yahweh by name as the everlasting God (Genesis 21.33). His son, Isaac, is portrayed several times as one who both digs and unblocks wells and springs. In one of the most dramatic stories in the early books of the Hebrew Bible, Moses follows a divine command to strike a rock and produces a gushing stream to quench the thirst of the disbelieving and grumbling people of Israel (Exodus 17.1–7).

The Christian New Testament picks up and amplifies the Hebrew Bible’s fascination with water and its spiritual significance. Nowhere is this more evidenced than in John’s Gospel. In his classic commentary, J. B. Lightfoot notes that the theme of water runs ‘like a silver thread’ through the early chapters of this Gospel.² In fact, the whole Gospel is full of references to water: as a symbol of purification, life and the Holy Spirit; an agent of healing; the medium through which Jesus repeatedly chooses to display his identity and saving purpose; and a sacramental symbol of baptism and the Eucharist. The watery motif first appears when John the Baptist announces himself as the one who baptises with water (John 1.26). It is continued in the first of Jesus’ miracles described in this Gospel when at the marriage feast in Cana water from vessels used in the Jewish purification rites is turned into wine, providing the guests with renewed alcoholic refreshment when supplies run out and enabling the disciples more fully to grasp Jesus’ identity (2.1–11). In his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus says that only those born of water and the Spirit will enter the kingdom of God (3.5). He goes on to have a highly significant encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well where much of his conversation is about water (4.6–30), heal a paralytic by the pool of Bethesda (5.2–9), astonish his disciples by walking on water (6.16–21), heal a blind man with water at the pool of Siloam (9.7) and wash his disciples’ feet in a symbolic gesture of servanthood (13.1–20). Water makes a final powerful appearance in John’s description of the Crucifixion when it flows intermingled with blood from Jesus’ side as he hangs on the Cross, suggesting, perhaps, that he saves by water as much as by blood. From this last reference the practice has arisen in several Christian traditions of mixing water with wine in the communion chalice. The use of wine mixed with water in the celebration of the Eucharist is first mentioned by Justin Martyr, the early Christian apologist, in the mid-2nd century.

Three of these episodes are worth looking at in slightly more detail because they have been highly influential in the spiritual history of water within the Christian tradition. The two healing stories point to the therapeutic powers of pools and springs. They appear to have conflicting messages. The pool of Bethesda is presented as a well-known place of healing in Jerusalem much resorted to by the sick, blind, lame and paralysed. Some early texts, usually relegated to a footnote in most editions of the Bible, suggest that they congregated there, ‘waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and troubled the water; whoever stepped in first after the troubling of the water was healed of whatever disease he had’. Jesus appears to have little time for such supernatural nonsense. Instead of helping the paralytic into the water as requested, he simply tells him to pick up his mat and walk. At the pool of Siloam, by contrast, Jesus enlists the healing power of the water, telling the blind man to go and wash in it. We seem to be presented here with Biblical warrant both for rationalist Protestant critiques of miraculous water cures and for Catholic holy healing wells.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman has had an even greater impact on Christian understanding of the spiritual significance and symbolism of water. The story bears retelling. Jesus is sitting beside Jacob’s well in the city of Sychar in Samaria. A local woman comes to draw water. He asks her for a drink. She is amazed that he as a Jew should ask her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink. He offers her living water and when she asks him what that means he responds: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4.13–14). That statement is echoed later in John’s Gospel when Jesus identifies himself as the one out of whose heart shall flow ‘rivers of living water’ (7.38) and in the Book of Revelation when the one who sits on the throne and describes himself as the Alpha and the Omega says: ‘To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life’ (Revelation 21.6). Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman have appeared on countless drinking fountains, appropriately so given that he also identifies himself very clearly in this story as a thirsty traveller who is desperate for a drink of water. They can be read at several levels and taken literally as a testimony to the benefits of drinking water, allegorically, symbolically or sacramentally. This is a story about real thirst as well as about salvation to eternal life.

What is striking about these three watery episodes in Jesus’ ministry as told in John’s Gospel is that they are all set at very specific named locations. The Hebrew Bible similarly locates very precisely the wells and springs at which the significant encounters it records take place. It also makes much of both the physical and symbolic power and presence of other particular watery locations, notably the river Jordan. This Biblical anchoring of the symbolic spiritual power of water to specific pools, wells and rivers has had a considerable influence throughout Christian history not just in promoting cults and pilgrimages around particular sites but also in devotional life and liturgy, as shown by its take-up in hymns about the verge of Jordan and cool Siloam’s shady rill.

Other religions make even more of specific sacred rivers and springs. Hinduism accords huge importance to the Ganges, or Mother Ganga as it is known after the goddess who gives it its name. One sip of water from the river, or a ritual bathe in its waters, takes away the sins of a lifetime. Journeys to sites near rivers are especially meaningful for Hindus who describe pilgrimage as tīrtha, a ford or bridge to the divine. The most important of all Hindu pilgrim places are on the Ganges: Benares where it is joined by the Varuna; and Allahabad where the rivers Ganges and Yamuna converge with the mythical underground Saraswati River and which is the venue for the Kumbh Mela, a massive religious festival held every 12 years. In 2001 this attracted 25 million pilgrims in one day in what is thought to have been the largest gathering in human history. For Muslims, drinking the zamzam water which emerges from a rock near the Ka’ba at Mecca and is believed to have been miraculously provided by the Archangel Gabriel for Ishmael and his mother in the desert is an important element of participation in the Hajj.

Sometimes a particular spring or pool has been successively venerated by different religions. A good example is the fishpond of Abraham, a long rectangular pool fed by a spring next to a mosque at Urfu in Edessa, southeast Turkey. Muslim legend has it that Abraham was carried as a baby to the edge of this pool by carp to prevent him being destroyed by Neptune who hurled him into a fiery furnace which God turned into a pool. In fact, the pool was originally venerated by devotees of a Syrian fertility goddess whose worship centred on the adoration of water and ponds full of fish. When Edessa converted from paganism to Christianity, the pool became a holy Christian shrine and Muslims later took it over.³

The religions of the Far East often combine veneration of specific water sites with a more general emphasis on water’s spiritual symbolism and message. Japanese make pilgrimages to waterfalls and gaze for hours at the unruffled surface of a temple pond. In the words of Titus Burckhardt:

An awareness that the soul recognises itself when it beholds water – finding animation in its play, refreshment in its rest, and purity in its clarity – is perhaps nowhere more widespread than amongst the Japanese. The whole of Japanese life, to the extent that it is still formed by tradition, is penetrated by a sense of purity and pliant simplicity that finds its prefiguration in water.

Arguably the religion with the strongest attachment to water is Taoism. Here it is primarily valued for its symbolism and metaphorical message. Alan Watts, a leading 20th century expert on Chinese religion and philosophy, has called Taoism ‘the Watercourse Way’ because its two original exponents, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, used the flow of water as its principal metaphor. In Taoism, water is seen not just as the source of life, the mysterious female base from which heaven and earth sprang, but as a metaphor for the Tao, or way of life itself, the flowing course of nature and the universe. Like the Tao, water has the character of quiet effortlessness and calm efficiency. Unaffected by what is going on above and around it, the river gets on with its business, which is simply to flow, sticking close to the ground and not getting bothered or agitated. For Taoists, the strength of water lies in its weakness, fluidity, adaptability, coolness and judgement, its gentle persuasion and lack of passion. In the words of Lao-tzu: ‘The highest good is like water, for the good of water is that it nourishes everything without striving. It occupies the place that all men disdain. It is thus that Tao in the world is like a river going down the valley to the ocean.’⁵ Chuang-tzu made even bolder claims for water’s spiritual significance:

Water is the blood of the Earth, and flows through its muscles and veins … it is accumulated in heaven and earth, and stored up in the various things of the world. It comes forth in metal and stone, and is concentrated in living creatures. Therefore it is said that water is something spiritual. Being accumulated in plants and trees, their stems gain their orderly progression from it, their flowers obtain their proper number, and their fruits gain their proper measure. The bodies of birds and beasts, through having it, become fat and large; their feathers and hair become luxuriant, and their stripes and markings are made apparent. The reason why creatures can realise their potentialities and grow to the norm is that the inner regulation of their water is in accord.

Man is water, and when the producing elements of male and female unite, liquid flows into forms… What is it, then, that has complete faculties? It is water. There is not one of the various things which is not produced through it. It is only he who knows how to rely

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