An excerpt from the new forthcoming edition of Water from the Sacred Well.
Water, life giving, fertile, changing and mysterious has long been equated with the feminine aspects of creation, nature and spirituality. Wells are also feminine, symbolizing the womb of the Great Mother, in this aspect a closed well is symbolic of virginity. In the same way water, over the ages, has become a paradox. At once part of good and spirituality it also has become the dwelling place of water spirits, sirens and nymphs that are seducers of men and who lure humans to their watery graves. This piece of folklore is almost universal, from the mythology of Native Americans to that of Estonia. Realizing this, however, only signifies that good and evil are part of the whole, the yin and yang, the concept of opposites. Water is both life and regeneration and death.
In what other ways is water symbolized by the feminine? In many ancient societies the Goddess was born from the sea. “All the mother goddesses,” noted Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, “were born from the sea—from the Summerian Nammu, the Egyptian Isis, the Greek Aphrodite, the Aztec Chalchiuhtlicue, down to the Christian Mary (whose name in Latin means sea).”
The creatrix of the Hopi is known as Hard Beings Woman. Native American educator Paula Gunn Allen states that Hard Beings Woman “is a sea goddess as well, the single inhabitant of the earth, that island that floats alone in the waters of space. From this meeting of woman and water, earth and her creatures were born.”
The various female water spirits, nymphs, mermaids and Goddesses, according to Campbell, “may represent either…(waters) life-threatening or its life-furthering aspect.” Because of waters dual nature of both life-bringer and death-bringer Campbell’s statement is clearly an obvious understatement. Campbell continues to state that, “water is the vehicle of the power of the goddess.” This theme is a constant one throughout the mythology of water. The water from holy wells, rivers and hot springs are all part of the power of the Goddess and the vehicle she uses to transport both the denizens of the underworld and the souls of humankind between the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living.
Many of Europe’s rivers are named for the Goddess, such as the river Don in Russia and the Danube, Dee and Dnepr, named for the Goddess Danu, the River Boyne in Ireland named after Boann, and the Seine named for the Goddess Sequana. In many parts of the world rivers are regarded as masculine and springs as feminine. However, along each masculine river resided a female nymph to give balance. Nymphs, as defined by J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, are “emanations of the feminine productive powers of the universe; later guardian spirits, especially of groves, fountains, springs and mountains.” This, then, is the key to the presence of nymphs along the sacred waterways. They personify the “feminine productivity”—the very life force of the universe as embodied in the living waters. Nymphs are normally depicted as entirely human, although exquisitely beautiful in form. But exceptions do occur. The Native Americans had many legends of River Mermaids and the ancient Greeks had Eurynome who was said to be the daughter of the God Oceanus and who was “a woman down to the buttocks, and below that like a fish.” Of Eurynome Brewster wrote she “was most probably a local river nymph with the body like a mermaid’s.”
Mermaids, nymphs and water spirits may be survival tales of the sea Goddesses. Through time the original stories became more and more elaborate and took on a flavor of their own from the people who passed the stories on. Folklorist Shahrukh Husain, in her book The Goddess, wrote, “the sea goddess survives in a debased form as water-sprites, sirens or mermaids. Probably the first mermaids were images of the fish-tailed Aphrodite—they are famously able to seduce men away from the land, and draw them down to their underwater kingdom. A reminder of their lost divinity lies in the tales of a mermaid….receiving the souls of drowned men.”
Part of the fascination we have with Mermaids is their beauty and also the danger associated with them. Legends of sailors capturing these creatures for a short time or living with them longer as husband and wife are interspersed with other stories with more dire results. Fiske noted that “it has been a common superstition among sailors, that the appearance of a mermaid, with her hair comb and looking-glass, foretokens shipwreck, with the loss of all on board.”
The Benin people of Nigeria also speak of mermaids. In Benin folklore the River Goddess Igbaghon ruled the underworld, which was below the water. She was waited upon by mermaids who informed her of trespassers who went to the river to wash or to fetch water—they never returned from their tasks.
Are these stories simply that—stories? Or are they the collective memory of an older, more meaningful history, a history which has all but been swept away over the years? I agree that many of the stories we find entertaining today in fairy tales and mythology may have an origin and meaning far removed from what we now read but this explanation does not account for the very similar, if not identical, lore of the Native Americans and other cultures without historical ties to the Greco-Roman world.
I must agree with Horace Beck who writes “it is my belief that what we are dealing with when discussing Anglo-American mermaids is really a fractured mythology—beliefs so old as possibly to reach back to Neolithic times, beliefs long since vanished into limbo, with only fragments remaining.” Beck believes that the core myths of the mermaids have a northern European origin but I believe that they have a common origin that was instilled in our minds as a species and not as a geographical mythology. It would appear that a common theology existed at one time in our ancient history that still surfaces now and then in our mythology and folklore. Like the Faery, the legend of the mermaids also comes from this theology.
Water spirits as well cannot simply be dismissed as metaphors. The almost universal application of human-like characteristics and supra-natural powers, like those of the Faeries, demands a broader approach. At least through the 19th century the people of Christian Norway left offerings to water spirits every Christmas Day. The following account appeared in the December 17, 1859 issue of the British journal, Notes & Queries:
“…a fisherman wished on Christmas Day to give the Spirit of the Waters a cake; but when he came to the shore, lo! the waters were frozen over. Unwilling to leave his offering upon the ice, and so to give the Spirit the trouble of breaking the ice to obtain it, the fisherman took a pickaxe, and set to work to break a hole in the ice. In spite of all his labour he was only able to make a very small hole, not nearly large enough for him to put the cake through. Having laid the cake on the ice, while he thought what was best to be done, suddenly a very tiny little hand as white as snow was stretched through the hole, which seizing the cake and crumpling it up together, withdrew with it. Ever since that time the cakes have been so small that the Water Spirits have had no trouble with them.”
Many of the ancient gods and goddesses have been changed over time as a result of the societal alteration from a matriarchal to a patriarchal world. The Goddesses who had so many talents, responsibilities and powers in the ancient past became domesticated.
Likewise other important feminine symbols of the universe are associated with rivers and springs. The Moon itself is almost universally seen to be the Great Mother, the Queen of Heaven, and the ultimate symbol of the cyclic life, death and rebirth of nature. Nowhere is this more evident than at Bath, England. It is here that the striking Gorgon-like head of Sol, the Sun, is found along with the carved features of the Moon Goddess on opposite ends of the Sacred Spring Temple.
The universal concept of the Goddess as a being of the watery world is summarized by Merlin Stone in her book, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood:
“The recurring image of the Goddess as a being of the waters, or emerging from the waters, lake, river, or ocean, exists in cultures as diverse as the Woyo of Angola, the Chibcha of Columbia, the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, the Peruvians of the Andes, the Semites of Canaan and Mesopotamia, the Tantric groups of India, the Greeks of Cyprus and Greece, and the Celts of Western Europe.”
“As myths evolve and are rewritten,” writes Shaheukh Husain, “possibly for political reasons—primordial water deities who contain the world, or make it from their own being, are often displaced by males who manufacture a universe external to themselves.”
The underlying story of mythology is more complex and yet, at the same time, simpler than we may first perceive. The stories about the Amazon warrior-women are undoubtedly true accounts of the struggle between two cultures. One a matriarchal society governed by women, a society which worshipped a Goddess and which perpetuated an age-old Goddess tradition. The other a culture ruled by men who followed not the Earth Goddess but a Sky God. These were men who believed that the world was created for their domination and use rather than a world created to be nurtured and watched over.
The early Greek stories of the Amazons placed their original lands at the River Thermodon near the Greek colony of Amisus on the Black Sea. The detailed history, including wars between the Greeks and the Amazons, gives credence to such a society of women and is as specific as the Greek stories of Troy, which we now know to be true in substance. The naming of the mighty Amazon River after these women is in keeping with their strength and belief in the Great Goddess who is certainly associated with living water.
The Goddess and the Stone From Heaven
Many of the Goddesses worshipped around the world are associated with particular stones that hold incredible power. The Amazons in particular were said to have worshipped at a black stone on an island in the Black Sea. Probably obsidian, the stone of the Amazons figures in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. A similar black stone is now revered by the Islamic faith at Mecca, which was originally a sacred stone of the Earth Goddess. The Ka'aba stone at Mecca at one time was called "the Old Woman" and is tended by men called Beni Shaybah which means "Sons of the Old Woman.” Lynn Webster Wilde writes, "maybe those who guarded the (stone) idols were armed priestesses, Amazons, 'moon women' to whom this 'stone from the moon' was sacred.
"To me, the black stone was a connection to something very old and not human, something abstract, terrifying and yet absolutely essential to our lives. We try to pretend this level of reality is not there, but it is, and in the Bronze Age the moon-women knew it and valued it above everything else."
Perhaps one of the most dramatic images of ancient history is the story of how Astarte fell from the heavens as a fiery falling stone. Her arrival near Byblos as a falling star “was long remembered,” writes Merlin Stone, “that it was in this way that the Mother of Deities had first arrived, spinning round like balls of fire in the sky, skimming over the peak of Mt. Lebanon, Her fiery mass then cooling in the waters of Aphaca.” It was at this holy lake that the Temple of Astarte was built 5000 years ago.
Religiously important black stones are not restricted to those cultures in the Middle East. These stones are also found in New World cultures. Alexander noted a black stone called the “Thunder Stone” by the Omaha Indians that was an important symbol of the Thunder Society of the Omaha Tribe.