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    Water deities through Western history

    Holy Waters

    by M. Macha NightMare

    We Witches have a chant that goes: "The ocean is the beginning of the Earth. All life comes from the sea." And it does. Ninety-five percent of all life is in the oceans of the world. The womb waters where we all begin are like the salt water of the ocean, full of nutrients, creating a safe place for us to grow until we are ready to breathe air and live on land.

    As far back as ancient Egypt, we see that the sun god Atum (Re) reposed in the primordial ocean (Nun). The first gods in Assyro-Babylonian myth arose from the coming together of sweet water (Apsu) and salt water (Tiamat). Surrounded by seas, the mythology of the seafaring Greeks is filled with sea goddesses, nymphs and monsters. We get our word dolphin from the sea god Delphinos. Oceanus was the Titan of the sea. The Olympic god Poseidon, called Neptune by the Romans, rode white steeds that were the roaring waves, or rode in a seashell chariot pulled by seahorses. Aphrodite was foam-born. The Yoruba people of West Africa, and later the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean, worship Yemaya, a goddess who loved mirrors and pearls, and who appears dressed in blue skirts with white ruffled underskirts, suggesting the waves meeting the shore.

    Many peoples are fed by the oceans and rivers. For instance, the one-eyed goddess Sedna lives at the bottom of the ocean with the fish and the seals. If she is not propitiated, she will not provide food for the Alaskan people.

    Not only seawater but fresh water is sacred. Around the world people see the magic of rivers, lakes, ponds, streams and waterfalls. Our Pagan ancestors saw the feminine divine in rivers. For example, the Boyne in Ireland is the river of the cow goddess Boann, and the Seine in France is the goddess Sequana. The ancient Babylonians situated temples to the moon goddess Ishtar in natural grottoes where springs emanated. Many wells and streams are the home of ondines, water nymphs, and other beings.

    Sacred springs that bubble up from under the earth have healing properties. The ancient Celts built shrines to the goddess Sulis at the hot mineral waters at Bath, where people have gone to take the waters for seven thousand years. When the Romans later expanded their empire into Britain, they built a temple there to Sulis Minerva. Springs sacred to the goddess Bridget are found throughout Ireland; pilgrims leave offerings and pray to be healed with the water. At the Gallo-Roman Fontes Sequanae sanctuary at the source of the Seine, two hundred ancient carved oak figures representing all or part of the human body have been left by people seeking healing. People travel to the Dead Sea to bathe in its waters, which are especially efficacious for healing for diseases of the skin.

    Water purifies and renews, and can bring about powerful transformations. Bathing in the sacred River Ganges frees the bather from blemish. It is the custom in most initiatory traditions for the candidate to bathe to ritually purify herself prior to experiencing the mysteries and taking vows. For instance, pilgrims to the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece purified themselves in the sea prior to initiation.

    The river can be a boundary between worlds. The dead must pay a coin to Charon to ferry them across the Underworld River Styx. The bodies of the dead in ancient Egypt were taken from the east to the west side of the Nile for burial on the other side. Throughout the world the dead are washed with clear water to prepare them for the Otherworld. Kanaloa is the old Polynesian sea god of death, darkness, water, and squid.

    Some springs, wells and streams are sources of oracular wisdom. The sacred stream near Demeter's sanctuary at Patras in present day Jordan provides an infallible divination mirror. Drinking of magical water gives the gift of prophecy.

    Today, as we have for thousands of years, we drink water from springs such as Evian and Perrier in France, Pelligrino in Italy and Calistoga in California, for its healthful benefits. Yet in some places the people don't have enough clean drinking water. We have used our oceans as a global garbage dump; we have filled our rivers with contaminants. This desecrates the very source of life. Without a reawakening on the part of all people everywhere to the sacredness of water we as a species will vanish from the earth like six of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

    Excerpted from Pagan Pride: Honoring the Craft and Culture of Earth and Goddess, by M. Macha NightMare, Citadel Press. is a developing experiment -- give us your feedback! Write us at

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