All over the world people have at all times attached a wide variety of religious meanings to water and the permanent uncertainties and flux of the hydrological cycle. Tvedt has shown in his films and argued theoretically that a study of the role of water in religion and myths amounts to a comparative history of religions, since water plays such an important part in ideas of divinities, the rationale for religious practices, and in the history of the cosmos in most religions. The belief in the holy waters’ various divine capacities, powers and structures constitute or form religions.
The Ganga in Varanasi – the holiest of the holy rivers and the cosmic origin and end
The city of life and death. Cremations along the Ganges in Varanasi, India
Gish Abay, the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, running from Paradise and one of the rivers in the Garden of Eden
The yearly fishing ritual in Lake Antogo, Mali
Water and the Maya civilization, the Yukatan peninsula, Mexico
The holy spring in Lourdes, France – one of Christianity’s principle pilgrimage sites
Spas and water cures using hot and cold water for healing, Bad Vörishofen, Germany
Water has a particularly great potential as a religious medium, also because, unlike ordinary relics, it can very easily be used to transport and diffuse holiness from one place to another. Since there is always so much of it, nobody – neither church nor priests – can totally monopolise the control of this symbol of the sacred or of holiness. It is possible to lock up fragments of relics guarded by officialdom, but the fluidity of water usually evades such attempts at control. Holy water is and has always been more accessible to the general population, and this must be one reason why water rituals in many situations have become a kind of ‘people’s religion’.
This may also explain why water rituals have been so intricately interwoven with religious practices throughout history. Systematic comparisons of the role of water in different religions has therefore a great untapped potential: (a) water is an absolutely essential resource in all societies, (b) most religions give water a central place in texts and rituals, and (c) the paradoxical natures of water – it is a life-giver and life-taker, alluring and fearsome, creator and destroyer, terribly strong and very weak, always existing and always disappearing – mean that it easily can be, and often has been, ascribed all sorts of different and conflicting symbolic meanings of fundamental importance at a number of shifting levels.