Life, Death, and Water Mythology

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for some time. The movie is loosely based on Tim Power’s  novel by the same name. In anticipation of this event, I talked my fearless editor into letting me celebrate with a post or two.

While chatting about potential topics related to the movie centering around water and the fountain of youth, she mentioned water myths in the context of space travel. I was surprised at first. I so seldom think about such things when I consider space exploration. Sure on alien lands, encountering alien cultures I can absolutely see it. I just don’t think of any kind of belief system in relation to spaceships and travel. The one exception might be John Scalzi’s  The God Engines.

Ok so let’s try an experiment. I am going to share with you locations, creatures, and ideas both real and fantastic that belong to our collective human mythology involving water. They will be direct quotes from various sources.  As you read over them, try and think how they might fit into stories involving space travel. Are you with me? Good.


“In India, the sacred River Ganges embodies the water of life for Hindus. Legend has it that the Ganges is the river that flows beyond its earthly bounds to Moksa, the realm of Nirvana.” (Water Myths, Mysteries and Symbolism)


“The river of which many know its name, without knowing its origin or what it really stood for. A river that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. Styx it is said winds around Hades (hell or the underworld are other names) nine times. Its name comes from the Greek word stugein which means hate, Styx, the river of hate. This river was so respected by the gods of Greek mythology that they would take life binding oaths just by mentioning its name, as referenced in the story of Bacchus-Ariadne, where Jove ‘confirms it with the irrevocable oath, attesting the river Styx.’” (Styx, The River)


“The Greek philosopher Plato first mentioned Atlantis as an island that once existed. He stated this island was a naval power that had conquered parts of Western Europe and Africa. Some 9,000 years before Plato’s time a natural disaster caused Atlantis to sink into the sea. It is thought to have been located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and America. Throughout the centuries the theory of Atlantis was mostly rejected, and often parodied…It was thought they possessed aircraft and ships powered by some form of energy crystal. Modern theory sometimes states that some modern Islands are parts of Atlantis that rose from the ocean.” (Water Mythology)
Ritual purification is a feature of many religions. The aim of these rituals is to remove specifically defined uncleanliness prior to a particular type of activity, and especially prior to the worship of a deity. This ritual uncleanliness is not however identical with ordinary physical impurity, such as dirt stains; nevertheless, all body fluids are generally considered ritually unclean, and some religions have special treatment of semen and menses, which are viewed as particularly unclean.” (Ritual purification)

“A flood myth or deluge myth is a mythical or religious story of a great flood sent by a deity or deities to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution. It is a theme widespread among many cultures, though it is perhaps best known in modern times through the biblical and Quranic account of Noah’s Ark, the Hindu puranic story of Manu, through Deucalion in Greek mythology or Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primeval waters found in some creation myths since the flood waters are seen to cleanse humanity in preparation for rebirth. Most flood myths also contain a culture hero who strives to ensure this rebirth.” (Flood Myth)


Bäckahästen: “It was often described as a majestic white horse that would appear near rivers, particularly during foggy weather. Anyone who climbed onto its back would not be able to get off again. The horse would then jump into the river, drowning the rider. The brook horse could also be harnessed and made to plough, either because it was trying to trick a person or because the person had tricked the horse into it.” (Neck/Water Spirit)


“The shy Selkies are marine creatures in the shape of a seal. They can be found near the islands of Orkney and Shetland. A female can shed her skin and come ashore as a beautiful woman. When a man finds the skin, he can force the Selkie to be a good, if somewhat sad, wife. Should she ever recover the skin, she will immediately return to sea, leaving her husband behind. The male Selkies are responsible for storms and also for the sinking of ships, which is their way of avenging the hunting of seals.” (Selkie)
“In Teutonic folklore, undines are female water-spirits who like to associate with humans. They often join villagers in their dances and merry-making. An undine was created without a soul, but by marrying a mortal and bearing him a child she obtained a soul and with it all the pains and penalties of the human race.” (Undine)
There are some examples. Share more in comments if you like. Now how would this work on a space ship? Would part of interplanetary travel preparation include storage of water from the Ganges? Would a holy person need to travel on a ship to bless the water? Would purification systems be installed on the ship (obviously) to recycle the water not only for standard usage but also for homeopathic treatments? Would certain asteroid belts take the place of the Styx? Would a planet missing from the night sky be considered a new Atlantis? Would inhabitants of new-to-us oceanic worlds carry a mystique promoting space folklore that depicts them as undines or selkies as travel stories sift back to Earth?
Toss around some ideas with me. If you’ve read treatments of any of these ideas or others that fit, mention the work in comments below. Oh and if you caught the movie, don’t spoil the ending. Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing it for a while.
For additional reading you can check out Wikipedia’s Water and Religion and Water Diety pages. As always, play with the links above. There is so much more on each topic to explore. Where Wiki is linked, check out the links list at the bottom of the articles. If you read something exciting, come back and leave me a comment, share!
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