Water is one of the four elements according to classical thought. By extension it is associated with any liquid; Plato classified water as being primarily cold, and secondarily wet. In the Ancient World, water represented travel into the unknown, food and fertility, and the natural vicissitudes of life. As such, it played a central role in the evolution of religion in many different cultures.
In most religions, water is considered a purifier. Ablutions are performed in the major religions of the world, from Christianity, Islam and Buddhism to Judaism and Hinduism. Baptism is a sacrament in Catholicism, and Muslims cannot pray unless they wash their hands and feet, that is, unless water is unavailable. In Taoism, water is considered the ideal element, for both its weakness and its ability to overwhelm things stronger than itself. Most Hindu temples are built on rivers to allow pilgrims to bathe before entering.
In Ancient Egypt, Sobek was the god of the Nile. Sobek was an aggressive character with the head of a crocodile. Ancient Greece had over thirty different aquatic deities besides Poseidon, ranging from Proteus, the shape-shifting sea god to Thetis, mother of Achilles and goddess of water. In Norse Mythology, Njord is the god of the sea, seafaring, wealth, fishing, and crop fertility.
Water is the original state of the world in many creation myths. Many primeval abysses are oceans, from which a god decides to bring man into existence. It is common in these stories for a bird or other messenger from the skies to dive into a primordial ocean for sand to create earth. Similarly, the Deluge Myth is based on the need for renewal within a culture and usually features a hero who survives the regenerating flood.
Historical evidence exists for numerous large-scale floods, which correlate to the myths that exist in Assyrian and Judeo-Christian religious texts. Reasons for these floods are unknown, however, the most likely circumstance was a rise in sea levels after the end of the last ice age. Comets, the breaching of a silt dam in the Hormuz Strait, a tsunami from the explosion of Thera, as well as the filling of the Black Sea by the Mediterranean due to rising sea levels sometime during the sixth millennium BC are also theories as to the value of the deluge myth in ancient societies. Even Plato drew on these histories in creating the Atlantis myth.
By Roman times, water represented luxury, and the lavish baths the Romans built they supplied with water from aqueducts. These aqueducts, along with drainage systems and paved roads are what led to the dominance of their Empire, according to the ancient scholar Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The Romans were able to guide sustainably produced water along a slight downward grade, so that only gravity carried it to the city to quench the thirst of its citizens.
The Tiber had notoriously filthy water due to pollution, and the groundwater around Rome was unpleasant too. The Romans’ first aqueduct was built in 312 B.C. and was fed by an artesian aquifer some ten miles from Rome. It descended about ten meters to a fountain in the city’s lowest public space, the Forum Boarium, a cattle-market.
By Augustus’ reign, huge amounts of water drained into theaters to provide entertainment for the people in the form of staged sea-battles. Two hundred years later, the city had a total of eleven aqueducts. After the invasion of Rome by barbarian tribes, the aqueducts fell into disuse through a lack of maintenance. And by the medieval era, Rome’s population had fallen to 30,000 from over one million during the Imperial era.
Today we continue to value water and our ability to control it. Irrigation, potability and rising sea levels are evidence that although we have thousands of years of aquatic management technology, we still have a lot to learn.
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