An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2015

Water in Mythology

Michael Witzel
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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

Ancient Maya mythology, as recorded in the sixteenth-century Popol Vuh, reflects the same concept: “Only the sky alone is there … Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky…. Whatever there is that might be is simply not there: only the pooled water only the calm sea, only it alone is pooled.”3

Or, according to the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible: “In the beginning the gods4  created heaven and earth … and the spirit [ruah] of the gods5  hovered over water.” The Christian King James Bible revised this to read: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

In ancient Egypt, in the book of overthrowing the dragon of the deep, Apophis,6  the “Lord of All,” explains, “I am he who came into being as Khepri … I was … in the Watery Abyss. I found no place to stand.” Here and in the Biblical case, one or more deities predate the actual act of creation, a characteristic shared with other creation mythologies, such as with the Winnebago of Wisconsin: “Our father … began to think what he should do and finally began to cry and tears began to flow and fall down below him … his tears … formed the present waters.”7

Other Native American peoples agree, though not on all details. The Maidu of California, employing a motif that also appears in Siberian mythology, state: “In the beginning … all was dark, and everywhere there was only water. A raft came floating … in it were two persons.”8  In all these examples, which primarily originate from north of the equator, the initial stage of a primordial ocean (or void) is followed by stages that lead to the emergence of the inhabitable world and finally the first humans.

The myths of sub-Saharan Africa (and Australia) are structured differently from those mentioned in that they stress foremost the origins of humans, not of the world.9  Even then, rather exceptionally, the Boshongo in the Luanda area of Angola let the world begin with water and a preexisting deity: “In the beginning, in the dark, there was nothing but water. And Bumba was alone … he vomited the sun.”10

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  • 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).
  • 3Dennis Tedlock, trans., Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings (New York: Touchstone, 1985); see also the German translation of L. Schulze Jena, Popol Vuh. Das heilige Buch der Quiché-Indianer von Guatemala. Nach einer wiedergefundenen alten Handschrift neu übersetzt und erläutert (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1944), 4: “Invisible was the face of the earth; only the ocean accumulated under the vault of the sky; that was All” (my translation from German).
  • 4The word elohīm, clearly a plural, creates a problem, though this is disregarded in the standard Christian translations (or is explained away).
  • 5Again the plural elohīm.
  • 6Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from around the World, 96.
  • 7Paul Radin quoted in ibid., 83.
  • 8Ibid., 88.
  • 9See Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • 10Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from around the World, 91.