The Mythology of Water: Living and Dead Water

Have you ever seen photos of Russians getting in long lines in the middle of winter only to jump into a cut-out in the ice? Have you just thought that they were all crazy? Well, turns out that this fascination with the power of water is something that goes very far back into Russia’s mythological consciousness. As you read these fascinating historical and cultural tidbits, maybe you’ll recognize something from your own culture here as well.

Ultimately, I think you’ll agree that this fascination with water is something that is universally human.

This post is a partial translation of Vladimir’s Shuklin’s book Myths of the Russian People. It’s part 2 of a series on water that I started a few months ago. Here’s a link to part 1, if you missed it.

“Magic Water”

In pagan Rus, ritual washing was considered necessary on the second day of every spring and summer festival. Later, it was still considered important to bath on the day of Ivana Kupala, the day before the beginning of the Saints Peter and Paul fast, and on the mid-point of the period between Easter and Pentecost.

Druids used to counsel people to bath in rivers and lakes during the rain, as well as to wash from a silver basin before ever new moon. It was supposed to be an excellent remedy for bad skin. (It reminds me as well of the scene in Dawn Treader where Lucy reads the book of the sorcerer and is tempted by a vision of herself as a great beauty, like Susan).

Living and dead water

Of course, druids were also notoriously unreliable when it came to “Water divination.” As I wrote in a previous blog post, the expression “to beat water with a mortar in a pestle” (which is found in other cultures as well with slight variations) referred to a druidic practice of “preparing magic water” by beating it. It was often found to be lacking in any magic whatsoever, so teh expression came to mean “engaging in a pointless act” or “wasting one’s time.”

Water as a Source of Power

living and dead water

Some “waters” were considered especially important. “March water” is supposed to protect people from all the diseases that were locked in the snowy hills during winter. (To be honest, seeing how much people get sick here in NY after the first thaws, I’m almost tempted to try this myself). The water from the snows is a kind of vaccine, covering people against the winter ills.

Water was also considered important in determining man’s fate. This water, called “the water of contention,” was taken from the confluence of two rivers. This kind of water was especially useful in telling a person on his death bed whether or not he was to become well or die.

Dew, a form of water, was usually considered equally potent in giving superhuman strength as the earth itself. Young women used to gather it by dragging a piece of cloth over morning grass, then wrung it out and gave it to the sick to drink. However, some dew was dangerous to drink. It was called “Iron Water,” and it only appeared on the mornings between May 23 and 25th (for some reason). Children especially would fall sick from such water, as well as domestic animals and trees. Only a druid could heal from such diseases.

Living and Dead Water

Living and Dead Water

All the many supernal qualities of water are concentrated in the folk image of “Living and Dead Water.” These two versions of water were sometimes also called “Living and Whole Water,” since it first made a person whole, then brought him back to life. The reference here is to the extremely common fairy tale trope of the hero being chopped into pieces by his enemies to prevent any sort of supernatural help from coming to him.

This water is similar in its qualities to ancient Greek ambrosia or nectar. It gives great physical strength, heals wounds, and returns life to the dead. According to the fairy tales, this water is brought by Thunder, Hail, and Wind (in their personified, fairy-tale incarnations). Alternately, their “symbolic animals” would bring it—the falcon, the eagle, or the raven.

In my own first novel, The Song of the Sirin, Living Water plays an integral role. What’s missing in the mythology of my created world, however, is “Dead Water”. This was pointed out by a very astute Romanian reader, who was keen to encourage me to fix this very serious error. I quickly reassured him. Dead Water would play an important role in book 5 of the Raven Son series (as yet untitled)

The Underwater Kingdoms

Living and Dead Water

It’s not surprising, given water’s extensive power both to heal and to destroy, that it should eventually get its own kingdom in the mythological consciousness of the Rus. One of the earliest animal symbol of this world is the lizard (or serpent). He is the lord of the waters and all the inhabitants of all waters. There was even a cult of the serpent in Novgorod as late as the 13th century. You can still see it in some interesting artifacts from the time.

Living and Dead Water

In ancient times, the serpent was a symbol of the chaos at the beginning of the world. (He swallows the sun and only returns it in the morning). But in the Novgorodian version, he became an actual “King of the Waters.” The king and the serpent-lizard eventually became two separate characters.

He was the lord of all seas, rivers, lakes, and head of all their inhabitants. His crystal palace was found in the depths of the sea. These depths are illuminated brighter than the sun by self-shining gems. His main job is to increase his kingdom by forming new lakes and rivers. Interestingly, he is married, but has no children.

living and dead water

This Queen of the Waters has her own, and very interesting, mythological existence. Sometimes, she even rules alone, without any king. Under the headboard of her bed lies the source of Living Water. Sometimes, it even flows directly from her hands and feet. The way to her underwater palace is nearly always guarded by a twelve-headed dragon. (Perhaps there’s a silent wink here to the fate of her husband). Interestingly, despite his being underwater, he still breathes fire.

This connection between the purifying and destructive forces of fire and water is present in nearly all the tales. It’s one that I explore in the “seven baptisms of fire,” an idea that forms the mythological backbone of book 5 of my series. And yes, there will definitely be a trip to the crystal palace (or something like it) planned for that book.

In the next post in this series on the mythology of water, I’ll explore the fairy tale of Sadko the harpist. And maybe we’ll talk about mermaids…

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About Nicholas Kotar

Hi! I'm Nicholas Kotar, and I write epic fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales. As I've been doing research for my novels, I've found a lot of edifying and interesting articles in Russian about Russian history, culture, fairy tales, and traditions. None of them are available in English. What astounded me was how applicable so much of it was to our own day. The stories I found illuminate a lost past where Orthodoxy, history, and culture were all one and the same. In our own time of inner and outer fracturing, these people, events, and stories inspire us to think, act, and live differently--more in tune with our age-old faith, and less pandering to the demands of the fickle world. Plus, a lot of the stories I find are just plain fun and entertaining.



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