Summer 2015

Water in Mythology

Michael Witzel

Water in its various forms–as salty ocean water, as sweet river water, or as rain–has played a major role in human myths, from the hypothetical, reconstructed stories of our ancestral “African Eve” to those recorded some five thousand years ago by the early civilizations to the myriad myths told by major and smaller religions today. With the advent of agriculture, the importance of access to water was incorporated into the preexisting myths of hunter-gatherers. This is evident in myths of the ancient riverine civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, as well as those of desert civilizations of the Pueblo or Arab populations.

MICHAEL WITZEL, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2003, is the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University. His many publications include The Origins of the World's Mythologies (2012), Linguistic Evidence for Cultural Exchange in Prehistoric Western Central Asia (2003), and On Magical Thought in the Veda (1979).

Our body, like the surface of the earth, is more than 60 percent water. Ancient myths have always recognized the importance of water to our origins and livelihood, frequently claiming that the world began from a watery expanse.

Water in its various forms–as salty ocean water, as sweet river water, or as rain–has played a major role in human tales since our earliest myths were recorded in Egypt and Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago. Thus, in this essay we will look toward both ancient and recent myths that deal with these forms of water, and we will also consider what influence the ready availability (or not) of water had on the formation of our great and minor early civilizations.

Many of our oldest collections of myths introduce the world as nothing but a vast salty ocean. The oldest Indian text, the poetic Ṛgveda (circa 1200 BCE), asserts: “In the beginning, darkness was hidden by darkness; all this [world] was an unrecognizable salty ocean [salila].”1 This phrase is frequently repeated by later Vedic texts with the mythic formula: “In the beginning there was just the salty ocean.”

Mesopotamian mythology, in its Babylonian form, differs somewhat: there was both salty water and sweet water, which mingled to produce the gods. “When on high heaven had not been named … Nought but primordial Apsu [the watery abyss], their begetter, and Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, their waters, commingling as a single body … then it was that the gods were formed within them.”2 .  .  .


  • 1Ṛgveda 10.129:3. The word salila clearly is related to the Indo-European word for salt–Latin sal–and thus indicates the primordial salty ocean.
  • 2From the Babylonian creation hymn, “Enuma Elish”; see Mircea Eliade, From Primitives to Zen (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 98; which has more recently been published as Essential Sacred Writings from around the World (San Francisco: Harper, 1992). Eliade’s text is based on Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, “Akkadian Myths, Epics, and Legends,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950).
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