The Waters

A wide range of evidence attests the holy status of terrestrial (potable) waters among Indo-European peoples. Sometimes they are venerated collectively, as 'the Waters' or divided into 'Rivers and Springs'; sometimes individual rivers or fountains are worshipped under their own names.

The Indo-European animate word for water, *öp-, became assigned to the feminine gender, probably because of water's fostering properties. In the Indo-Iranian tradition we find it developed as an individualizing (non-collective) plural, 'the Waters', Vedic Apah, Avestan Apö. In the case of rivers the assignation of gender was not straightforward. As fosterers they might be considered female; as fructifiers and fertilizers they might be seen as male. If they were large and fast-flowing, their strong and forceful nature might also favour this choice. In south-eastern Europe (Greece, the Balkans, Italy) rivers are generally masculine, but in Iran and India they are generally feminine. Elsewhere the picture is more mixed. In the Germanic and Celtic areas feminine names have come to predominate more widely than they did in antiquity.128 Some names fluctuate; for example, the Danube is masculine in Latin and Slavonic, but feminine in German and Romanian (and in Dante, Inferno 32. 26), while the Rhine is masculine in Latin and German, feminine in Old Norse.

128 On the gender of rivers see P. Kretschmer in Mélanges linguistiques offerts à M. Holger Pedersen (Acta Jutlandica 9, Copenhagen 1937), 76-87; P. Arumaa, Annales Societatis Litterarum Estonicae in Svecia 5 (1965-9), 16-34; Schramm (1973), 26 f.

In the lists of divine witnesses to Hittite treaties the Rivers and Springs, like the Winds, appear repeatedly. In Suppiluliuma's treaty with Mitanni the Tigris and Euphrates are named specifically.129

Four hymns of the Rigveda are devoted to the Waters, and there are many references to them in other hymns. Several more are addressed to particular rivers, sometimes invoked as mothers (RV 2. 41. 16; 10. 64. 9). The Vipas and Sutudri are said to speed their waters down 'like two bright mother cows who lick their calves' (3. 33. 1), and at the end of the same hymn they are called bulls.130

In the Avesta water is frequently mentioned as a holy element, and the Waters are sometimes paid homage in direct addresses and prayers, as for example in Y. 38. 3-5 (from the Gatha of the Seven Chapters), 65, 68. 6-12. In mythical cosmology they are all held to derive from the celestial river Ardvi, which flows down into the lake Vourukasa. The fifth Yast is a lengthy hymn to this river, pictured in the form of a beautiful maiden. She is a source of human fertility, perfecting men's seed and helping women to give birth (2, 5).

Herodotus in the passage cited earlier (1. 131. 2) correctly includes the Waters among the divinities that the Persians worship. He has to use the word vSara, as Greek had lost the word corresponding to apah/apo (*apes).131 But Durante has well noted that in Homer vSwp is still essentially a passive element and does not normally occur as the subject of active verbs. Instead it is words like norapos 'river', poos 'stream', Kpyvy 'spring', that have intrinsic energy and send out their vSwp.132 These are the live forces that are capable of personification and may have divine status. Hesiod's divine genealogies include a section devoted to the Rivers, who are collectively the sons of Oceanus and Tethys (Th. 337-45). This leads on to the same couple's daughters, the Oceanid nymphs, who are associated especially with springs. At the beginning of Iliad 20 Zeus summons all the gods to assembly, 'and none of the Rivers was absent apart from Oceanus, nor of the Nymphs who inhabit the fair woods and the sources of rivers and the grassy meads' (7-9). Agamemnon includes the Rivers in the divine witnesses to his treaty with Priam (Il. 3. 278), as in the Hittite treaties, and 'Springs and Rivers' or 'Rivers, Daimones(?), and Waters' recur in a similar role in certain Hellenistic oaths and treaties.133

129 Gurney (1977), 5 f.; Beckman (1999), 40, 47, 53, 58, etc.

130 On the Waters and rivers cf. Macdonell (1898), 85-8; Oldenberg (1917), 246-8.

131 It may be seen in Apia, an old poetic name for well-watered Argos, and the Thessalian river name Apidanos.

133 Like other features of Greek treaties, however, this probably reflects oriental cultural influence, not Indo-European inheritance; see West (1997), 19-23.

Individual rivers are personified in Greek myth and honoured in cult.134 Poets and artists represent them with the head or at least the horns of a bull. Scamander, who plays a lively role in the narrative of Iliad 21, bellows like a bull (237). Achelous fought with Heracles. These and other rivers fathered heroes by impregnating nymphs or mortal women.135 Rivers and nymphs are often associated with the nurture of young people to adulthood.136 They could be prayed to as appropriate. Odysseus prays to the river he is trying to swim into (Od. 5. 445), and Hesiod advises never crossing a river without a purificatory hand-wash and a prayer uttered while gazing into the water (Op. 737-41).

In Italy too rivers could have divine status. The cult of Father Tiber (Tiberinus) is well attested. The Augurs' prayer included him with a number of other rivers (Cic. De nat. deorum 3. 52). There were also goddesses of springs such as Egeria and Iuturna, to whom we shall return in the next chapter.

But the water god who chiefly interests the comparativist is Neptunus. Originally he was the god of rivers, lakes, and springs. (If we think of him primarily as god of the sea, that is because he was assimilated to the Greek Poseidon.) His name invites analysis as 'Master of the *neptu-, and *nep-tu-(*nebh-) is a plausible word for 'wetness', with presumptive cognates in Avestan nap-ta- 'wet', Vedic nabh-anu- 'spring'.137

Against this conventional etymology there stands a rival one which relates Neptune to the Indo-Iranian Apam napat and the Irish Nechtan.138 Nechtan was the inhabitant of a sid, which marks him as one of the old pagan gods. Near by he had a well from which only he and his three servants could draw water with impunity: anyone else would suffer burst eyes or some other harm. Nechtan's wife Boand, thinking her beauty would protect her, approached the well. Three great surges of water erupted, depriving her of a thigh, a hand, and an eye. The flood then pursued her all the way to the sea, thus creating the river Boand (the Boyne). This river continues under the sea, reappearing as other rivers in other countries, finally finding its way back to Nechtan's sid.

134 For a full treatment see O. Waser, 'Flufigotter', RE vi. 2774-815.

135 Similarly in an Ossetic legend a river-god impregnates a girl and she gives birth to the hero Syrdon: Sikojev (1985), 250.

136 West (1966), 263 f., where a reference to Pind. Pyth. 9. 88 may be added.

137 Kretschmer (1896), 133; S. Weinstock, RE xvi. 2516; Meid (1957), 103 f.; IEW 316; Dumézil (1968-73), iii. 41. Umbrian nepitu (Tab. Iguv. VIb. 60, VIIa. 49) has been interpreted as 'let him flood', but this is a guess based on Neptune's name.

138 The connection with Nechtan was first suggested in the nineteenth century, that with Apaam napaat by Ernout-Meillet; the larger hypothesis was developed in stages by Dumézil, cf. Celtica 6 (1963), 50-61; id. (1968-73), iii. 27-85; J. Puhvel, JIES 1 (1973), 379-86; id. (1987), 65, 277-82; Olmsted (1994), 398-400; EIEC 203 f.

Dumézil argues dashingly that the well, as it was so injurious to eyesight, must have contained something fiery, analogous to Apam napat. With its inundation he compares on the one hand the Roman legend of the miraculous overflow of the Lacus Albanus early in the fourth century bce,139 and on the other the Avestan myth of Fraqrasyan, cited earlier, in which the Turanian dived three times into Vourukasa in quest of the sovereign glory that Apam napat guarded there: each time it eluded him, and the lake developed a new 'outflow'.

As for the names Neptunus and Nechtan, Dumézil suggests that *nept-, an Ablaut form of the 'grandson' word, was furnished in proto-Celtic with the individualizing suffix -ono- which appears in certain other divine names, including a couple formed from names of family relationships.140 *Neptonos would have developed regularly into Irish Nechtan. For Neptune Dumézil has to assume some more Italic suffix such as *-0no-, and then deformation on the analogy of Portunus.

This is all ingenious and beguiling. Puhvel and others have taken it over wholesale. But even allowing that the Grandson of the Waters could be abbreviated to the Grandson, it is hard to see why this title should devolve upon a Roman god who does not represent a fiery element nurtured by the waters but the waters themselves; and the argument that there was something fiery about Nechtan is a dubious inference from the circumstance that his well was damaging to eyes. We shall see below that the same was true of a stream in another country, where there is no suggestion that fire or brightness was involved. Satisfactory alternative etymologies exist both for Neptunus (as above) and for Nechtan.141

There were of course other Celtic water deities. Many local cults are attested by inscriptions in Roman Gaul, where their names are often rendered as Neptunus, confirming that he represented water of all kinds and is not to be relegated to the sea.142 The Life of St Patrick records that in Ireland a rex aquarum was worshipped 'ad fontem Findmaige qui dicitur Slan'.143

It is not surprising if the Rhine was considered a god, though the evidence is scanty. Propertius (4. 10. 41) refers to a Belgic chieftain who boasted that he was descended from it, just as Asteropaios claims to be a son of the Axios in

139 The sources do not connect this with anything fiery, or with Neptune. However, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. 12. 10. 1) says that the prodigy occurred 'about the rising of the Dog star' (as against Plutarch, Camillus 3. 2, who puts it in the autumn), and Dumézil connects this with the date of the Neptunalia, 23 July.

140 Matrona 'the Mother (par excellence)', = the river Marne; Maponos 'the Son'; Dumézil (1968-73), iii. 38.

141 Either *nigw-to- 'washed, pure, bright', or *nebh-tu-: W. Meid ap. Olmsted (1994), 399.

142 Vendryès (1948), 279 f.; Duval (1957), 59; de Vries (1961), 85, 114-16.

143 Vita Patricii i. 122 (ii. 323 Stokes).

Homer. In one of the Eddic poems Gunnar says that the Rhine 'will rule over' the Niflungs' treasure, and he appears to call the river 'of the race of the gods' (Rin ... in askunna, Atlakvida 27). Rivers and springs were no doubt venerated in Germanic lands from the earliest times. Agathias reports that the Alemanni worshipped rivers (peidpa nora^Mv) as well as trees, hills, etc., and that they made sacrifices of horses, bulls, and much else to such divinities. Christian writers in the following centuries routinely refer to Germanic cults of rivers and springs.144 Canute's edict quoted earlier shows that 'flood, water, wells' were still objects of reverence to some in eleventh-century England.

Of the Slavs Procopius (Bell. Goth. 3. 14. 24) writes that they 'revere rivers and nymphs and various other heathen powers' (dWa drra Sai^ovia); and they sacrifice to them all, and practise their divinations at these sacrifices'. Again, this is a commonplace that recurs in many later sources, both Latin and vernacular.145 In the Russian byliny rivers are affectionately referred to as Mother Dniepr, Mother Volkh, Papa Don. A princess anxious to escape from captivity prays 'O you river, Mother Darya! Grant me to ford you and go to my husband.' 'And the river gave ear to Marya, it let her ford it and go to her husband.'146

Among the Balts too the worship of springs and streams is attested by many writers from the Middle Ages on. Some sources provide circumstantial detail, like the sixteenth-century report of a holy stream Golbe near Chernya-khovsk in east Prussia which, as a sign of special favour, sometimes deprived its devotees of the sight of one eye, which they regarded as a great honour; or the account from the Jesuit Relatio for 1600 of a rustic who made an annual sacrifice of a hen to a river in which he had once nearly drowned while crossing.147 Another sixteenth-century source names a god Upinis, 'who had rivers in his power; and to him they sacrificed white piglets, so that the water should flow clear and transparent'. His name is equally transparent, being formed from upe 'river' (IE *apa). So are those of 'Ezernis, lacuum deus', from eZeras 'lake', and 'Szullinnys, der den Brunnen vorsteht', from sulinys 'spring'. The great god Potrimpo is sometimes identified as the god of flowing waters, or of rivers and springs; he was invoked in a form of divination that involved dropping wax into water and observing the images formed. In Latvia

144 Grimm (1883-8), 100-2; Agath. Hist. 1. 7; Clemen (1928), 38. 36, 42. 3, 45. 8, 46. 3, 18, 37, 51. 13, 61. 11, 68. 12-21, 72. 24; de Vries (1956), i. 349 f.

145 C. H. Meyer (1931), 15. 23, 20. 27, 21. 3, 22. 23, 23. 21, 26. 37, 43. 38, 46. 15, 58. 15; Vaiia (1992), 109.

146 Chadwick (1932), 112 lines 309, 327, 332, 352, etc.; 140 line 148; 171 lines 104-9.

147 Mannhardt (1936), 313, 433. The loss of an eye recalls the Irish legend of Nechtan and Boand, as well as the Norse myth that Odin deposited one of his eyes in Mimir's well. More general references to holy rivers and springs: Mannhardt, 12, 28, 39, 87, 107, 280, 443, 464, 511.

these male gods give way to Mothers: a Mother of Water, Udens mate; a Mother of the River, Upes mate.148

Everywhere the picture is similar. These cults of fountains and rivers cannot have developed independently all over Europe and the Middle East. No doubt the Indo-Europeans had no monopoly in religious feeling and observance of this type; it may go back tens of thousands of years. But it must have been part of their religion, and its prevalence among their linguistic and cultural heirs must be due at least in some degree to the power of Indo-European tradition.

148 Upinis: Mannhardt (1936), 331, 340. Ezernis: Mannhardt, 356, 369 f.; Usener (1896), 90. Szullinnys: Mannhardt, 545; Usener, 102. Potrimpo: Mannhardt, 245, 295 f. ~ 362 f.; Usener, 98 f. Udens mate: Mannhardt, 622; LD 30731, 9549 = Jonval nos. 521 f. Upes mate: LD 30890 = Jonval no. 519.

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