The Fire in the Waters

The Indo-Iranian pantheon includes a marvellous, mysterious being known as (Vedic) Apâm nâpat-, (Avestan) Appm nâpat-, the napat- of the Waters.113 The Waters are themselves a holy quantity, to be considered below. As we noted in connection with the Divine Twins in Chapter 4, napat-, the cognate of Latin nepïs, means literally 'grandson' or more vaguely 'progeny'.

This deity resides in the waters. He shines there in golden splendour, surrounded by the youthful, divine, female Waters, who nurture him (RV 2. 35. 3-5). He is the source of all life; plants and creatures propagate themselves as his branches (2. 35. 2, 8, cf. 7. 9. 3). He created mankind (Yt. 19. 52), and helps to distribute the waters to human settlements (Yt. 8. 34). He can be identified with Agni (RV 1. 143. 1; 3. 9. 1; 7. 9. 3), but also distinguished from him (6. 13. 3); he is somehow a form of fire, but not synonymous with fire. Agni too is often said to have his abode in the waters, or to have been discovered by the gods in concealment there. In 3. 1. 3-9 it is related that they found him 'in the activity of the sisters', that is, of the rivers: 'The seven streams nurtured his strength . . . They ran up to him like mares to a newborn foal; the gods admired Agni at his birth. ... He went in to heaven's streams .. . There the old ones who are (ever) young, who share a common womb, . .. received the one embryo . . . Moving hidden from his good friends, from heaven's streams he was not hidden.'

112 Mannhardt (1936), 432, cf. 435; F. Solmsen in Usener (1896), 89, 'Dimstipatis zu dimstis haus hof, also herr des hauses, hofs'.

113 Cf. Macdonell (1898), 69 f., 92; Oldenberg (1917), 101, 117-20; Hillebrandt (1927-9), i. 349-57, ii. 304 f.; Dumézil (1968-73), iii. 21-4; Oberlies (1998), 176 f.; in Iran, von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 490-2; Dumézil, 24-7. The Avestan references are Y. 1. 5, 2. 5, 65. 12, 71. 23; Yt. 5. 72, 8. 34, 13. 95, 19. 51 f.

There are a few possible traces of these motifs in Greece. The fiery god nurtured in the waters by their female embodiments recalls the Homeric myth that Hephaestus, having been thrown out of heaven at birth by his mother Hera, was reared in secret in Ocean's stream by Eurynome and Thetis, chief of the Oceanids and Nereids respectively, who received him in their bosom. For nine years he stayed with them, crafting lovely ornaments, with Ocean flowing all around (Il. 18. 395-405). As usual, Hephaestus is here portrayed as a smith. But if we think of him in his more basic identity as fire, a similarity to the Agni myth becomes apparent.

It has been suggested that the story related by Bacchylides in his H'ideot (poem 17) is relevant.114 Theseus, claiming to be a son of Poseidon, is challenged to recover a gold ring that Minos throws into the sea from the ship in which they are travelling. Theseus dives in and is carried by dolphins to his father's home beneath the waves. There he sees the Nereids dancing, their bodies shining like fire. The similarity with Apam napat is somewhat indistinct, but the fiery apparition deep in the water, with the female spirits of the water circling about, may possibly owe something to the old myth. The dive for the gleaming gold ring, which might be taken as the concrete symbol of Minos' sovereignty, has an analogue in the Avestan myth that the Turanian warrior Fraqrasyan dived three times into the lake Vourukasa in a misguided attempt to obtain the shining xvaronah- (sovereign glory) which Apam napat held in the depths of its waters for the Aryans (Yt. 19. 51-64); there is evidently a close relationship here between the effulgent symbol of sovereignty and Apam napat himself.115

A poetic formula resembling apilm napat- seems to occur at Od. 4. 404, where Proteus' seals are called venoBes KaX^s AAoovSvys, 'the nepodes of fair Halosydna'. Nepodes is apparently a Greek cognate of napat-/nepos, while Halosydna 'Sea-watery' is in another place a name or epithet of Thetis (Il. 20. 207; of Nereids collectively, Ap. Rhod. 4. 1599). We might hypothesize that there had once been a figure called *nepos Hudnas, 'Grandson of the Watery (goddess)', and that after his nature had been forgotten the phrase was adapted as a picturesque designation of other denizens of the deep.116

The old Armenian poem about the birth of the hero Vahagn may preserve another reflex of the motif of the fiery divine figure in the waters.117 A little red reed in the sea bursts into flame, and from the flame a golden-haired youth leaps forth, with hair and beard of fire and eyes that are suns.

115 Yt. 19. 51-64. Cf 13. 95, where Apam napat appears as a guarantor of governmental authority; Gershevitch (1959), 27 f., 59 f.

117 Compared by Watkins (1995), 254.

Finally, the ninth-century Norwegian poet Thiodolf uses the phrase sccvar nipr 'grandson/descendant of the sea' as a kenning for fire (Ynglingatal 4. 3). That so distinctive an expression, asserting a paradoxical kinship between fire and water, should have been created in the Nordic tradition independently of the Indo-Iranian parallel is difficult to credit. The Norse kenning may derive ultimately from a sacral formula of Indo-European hymnic poetry, based on a cosmological myth.118

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