Feb 16


Water is deep and shallow, life-giving and murderous. Twinned, water arises from chaos, and waters cannot be but dual’ (Illich, 1984:27).

The striking images that play with the credits for the current BBC drama Taboo seems to represent the loss of an illicit slave-ship and the subsequent drowning of slaves. Water is used very much to indicate death and a source of evil in this drama.  Historical records indicate that a number of terrible drownings occurred as a result of slaves being shackled or shut below decks when ships were wrecked.  Wrecks have now been found off Mozambique and perhaps the most infamous story of all is of the Zong massacre of 1781 when 142 slaves were either thrown overboard by the sailors or jumped into the waters in the mid-Atlantic.  Although the perpetrators of the massacre were never brought to justice, the event helped to fuel the abolitionists’ cause for the removal of slavery.

At our last Hydro group visit to the Lea Valley there was much talk within the team of shopping trolley ‘carcases’ in the water.  We have also had a lot of discussion about ‘water as life’ but apart from flooding, not much about the link between water and death.  There is however much literature that links water and death in all sorts of ways. Some myths use water simply as substance (H2O – see Illich) rather than symbol or signifier. Many cultures are permeated with ideas of water and death, often in relation to water as some kind of barrier which has to be crossed in order to enter a perceived paradise from the human world.  

In Greek mythology there were five rivers of the underworld: the River Acheron (woe) divides the living from the dead, Lethe (forgetfulness or oblivion), Styx (hate or unbreakable oath), Phlegethon (sorrow or fire) and Cocytus (lamentation or cries).  Coins were placed in the mouth of the dead to pay the ferryman Charon, in order to cross the River Acheron. In discussing associations between water and myths Illich (1984:30) suggests that crossing waters are ‘everywhere emblematic of the stream of forgetfulness; the water has the power to strip those who cross it of memories that attach them to life’.  In Judeo-Christian culture the ‘Promised Land’, Cannaan was across the River Jordan.  In the Finnish mythological Kalevala epic the hero Lemminkäinen tries to shoot the mystical swan in the watery underworld (Tuonela, or the realm of the dead) but he is killed by a poisoned arrow (see Rabb, undated).  In another of the myths his body is dismembered and thrown into the river (see also Sibelius’s tone poems from the Lemminkäinen Suite, premiered 1896, are distinctly watery in feeling).


Sacrifice relating to water is also common.  Frazer’s (1925) classic work documents how gods or spirits of water can be seen as both benevolent and death-giving. These spirits were often in the shape of some sort of serpent or sea monster but sometimes in other forms such as a ‘ship full of burning lamps’ (p145). Often a human sacrifice is given to appease the monster in the form of a young woman.  Frazer suggests that these customs, which are found all around the world, probably reflect real customs.  In Uppsala, Sweden, there was a sacrificial well where drownings were common. Brink (2013) writes about myth in the Scandinavian landscape: ‘water was the main interface for communication with the metaphysical world, something that has existed since time immemorial’ (p.27). He goes on to write: ‘Water from lakes, rivers, wells, and bogs — that is, liminal places — was looked upon as a medium that brought human beings closer to gods. If one wished to communicate with the gods, it would be wise to present values and goods — in other words, offerings — to these waters. This act would be by far the quickest way to get into contact with ‘the other side’ (p.27).  Human sacrifices were made into bogs, lakes and wells from the Stone Age right into the Christian period in Scandinavia; Brink describes a number of famous archaeological finds that indicate such practices.  Many of these places in the landscape were named in a similar way to those in ancient Greek landscapes to show that they were places inhabited by gods.  

Many of the myths and legends around the world relate to the dangers of water.  In Greek myths, which are regarded by Thoreau as representing ‘universal truths’ (Sattelmeyer, 1984: 184), there are many crossovers between the benign and malign nature of water. Tantalus was immersed in water up to his neck – but was not allowed to drink it as a punishment for murdering his son.   Perhaps the most famous myth, much represented in art and poetry, is the drowning of Icarus in the sea when he was trying to escape from the island of Crete (water here acts as the walls of a prison). Icarus did not heed the warnings of his father, Daedalus, and flew too close to the sun; his wax-based wings melted and he fell into the sea. Ovid’s Metamorphosis (VIII) provides a heart-rending account of this story that has stuck with me from O-level Latin days:

‘......oraque caerulea patrium clamantia nomen

Excipiuntur aqua; quae nomen traxit ab illo.

At pater infelxi, nec iam pater ‘Icare’ dixit

‘Icare’ dixit ‘ubi es? Qua te regione requiram?’


'His lips were covered by the blue waters as he called out his father’s name; this sea took its name from him. His unhappy father, now no longer a father, called ‘Icarus, Icarus’, he called, ‘where are you? In what region am I to look for you?’  (MHR translation).


That sea is now called the Icarian Sea after the tragedy.  The Icarus complex was coined by Henry Murray to describe some mental disorders ‘comprised of a number of interrelated personality traits including the following:  ascensionism, a love of flying, floating, heights, birds and mountains; narcissism, a great craving for attention and admiration; a fascination with fire and solar imagery; a predilection for water, including the coast, swimming, boating, etc.; and original imaginings that seem far-fetched’ (Sperber, p.166).


There are reports of sacrifices or drownings linked to the River Walbrook, now a ‘hidden’ river beneath the streets of London (Marsh & West, 1981).  A large number of skulls were found in the old river bed in the 1860s and there is much speculation as to their origin which are probably from the later Iron Age/early Roman period,  although they are part of a pattern of ritual deposition and death linked to ‘watery places’ including wells, ditches, rivers (Schulting & Bradley, 2014:30).  These rituals are likely to be linked to Celtic fertility practices.  Wells in particular seem to have been the focus of ritual killings and there is much evidence of a wide variety of objects put into wells and waterholes purposefully – although the actual purpose remains unclear.  It would also seem likely that wells that weren’t needed to supply clean drinking water would be a convenient place to dump unwanted rubbish as well as to provide a place for ‘intentional deposition’ of bodies (Chadwick, 2015: 41)

Kiblinger (2015) describes the Buddhist tradition as having no clear distinctions between life and death – the borders are ‘fluid’ and water is literally and ritually significant.  She gives the example of the ‘mizuko’ or ‘child of the waters’, which are miscarried, stilborn or aborted.  She suggests that ‘this term is traced to Japanese cosmogonic myths according to which ancestor gods, when unable to keep children, return them to the sea. The language of water-child and “return” to waters was drawn on when infants died or fetuses were aborted, affecting how the fate of the being was imagined’ (p.1)In Japanese Buddhist traditions the dead have to cross the River Sanzu.  The good people cross by a bridge and the ‘bad’ through immersion in the water.  



Water as a death-bringer is found in many stories.  In the form of a death-bringing mirror: the belief is that a person’s reflection is his or her soul and this could be taken by malignant spirits.  Once relieved of the soul, the body would perish (Frazer, 1925: 92).  Water brings death in the form of sea monsters: as serpents, such as the Midgard Serpent in Norse mythology; as the Kraken (often a giant sort of squid), also Norse; or as a whale as in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).  In Perry’s (2016) ‘Essex Serpent’ the smell from a rotting carcass of a whale which 'lay in putrefaction' (p325) at the water's edge is mistaken as the stench of the Essex Serpent of the title. 

There’s something about the rotting of corpses, on land, but particularly in water that is particularly repellent to us.  Human and other fleshy bodies do not last long in water.  If the water is cold then the creation of gases by bacteria within the human body slows down and a body may sink.  As water is absorbed by the skin it comes away from underlying tissues; this takes about a week (Science Focus, 2011).  Any decomposing body provides manna for other organisms and adds to the general watery ‘soup’.  Cold sea water apparently encourages the formation of ‘adipocere’ or ‘corpse, grave or mortuary wax’, through ‘saponification’.  This is a soapy wax-like organic substance created by the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fat in tissue, such as body fat in corpses.  This slows down decomposition and can mean that semi-intact bodies in cold water may be recognisable after several weeks of immersion (Science Focus, 2011).  Warm waters create a completely different effect and encourage the creation of gases which means that bodies tend to float.  The disintegration of the body is facilitated by the action of wind and waves and scavenging birds.  Bones will sink to the sea bed and disappear in the sand and silt. Representations of the decomposition process have been well used by horror film-makers.  In the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ the tradition of ‘Davy Jones’s locker’ is also used.  This refers to the bottom of the sea as a resting place for drowned sailors. The origin of the term is somewhat obscure, but seems to be from some time in the eighteenth century.


Although we can smell contaminated water and rotting bodies when we are out of the water, when underwater we are unable to smell, because of the problem of sniffing up water. However smell travels through water via diffusion as in air, but generally more slowly than in air, depending on water movement such as tides.  Sharks and other predators that live in water are known to be able to discern scents for long distances and recent research indicates that both the star-nosed mole and the water shrew are unusual in land-based mammals in having developed techniques to allow them to ‘sniff’ under water by quickly (about 10 times per second) re-inhaling the air bubbles that leave their nostrils (Khamsi, 2006). 

The whole thought of dead bodies in water is deeply discomforting for most people and is used to great effect by writers such as Dickens (1997 [orig1865]) in his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’ which starts by describing the how Gaffer Hexham and his daughter Lizzie are scavenging the River Thames for bodies in Victorian London in the hope of gaining recompense from relatives of those lost, and also anything of value left on the corpses.  The state of the river, the two people and their occupation are reflected in the description of dark, ‘filthy’ water full of decomposing matter.  Poole (1997:x) suggests that Dickens was partly inspired by Darwin’s (then) recent suggestions of ‘the slime and ooze and swamp from which human life might have evolved’. 


It is perhaps not surprising that we shy away from the associations between death and water.  The physicality or materiality of water is frightening, often unpredictable.  The boundaries between water-as-life and water-as-death in our culture are perhaps more obvious – or less fluid - than in some other cultures, although the associations seem violent in many traditions, including our own.  The intangible associations between water and death are rich and varied, with stories shared within cultures and certainly both the material and intangible aspects of death and water have provided a rich resource in the arts and artistic expression, particularly literature; these are certainly, a rich source for further research.

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:


Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.


Shakespeare, Ariel’s song, The Tempest, Act 1 Scene II



Brink, S. (2013) ‘Myth and Ritual in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Landscape’, in Nordeide S.W., and Brink, S., (eds) Sacred Sites and Holy Places: Exploring the Sacralization of Landscape Through Time and Space (Studies in Early Middle Ages 11) (Brepols) pp. 33-51.Available: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/staffpages/uploads/his237/02_Brink.pdf

Catania, K.C., Olfaction: Underwater 'sniffing' by semi-aquatic mammals, Nature, 444: 1024-1025, 2006. 

Chadwick, A.M. (2015) ‘Doorways, ditches and dead dogs: excavating and recording material manifestations of practical magic amongst later prehistoric and Romano-British communities’. In Armitage, N. (ed) The Materiality of Magic: An artifactual investigation into ritual practices and popular beliefs. pp. 37-64.

Dickens, C. (1997 [orig.1865]) Our Mutual Friend (London, Penguin).

Frazer, Sir James George (1925) The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (London, Macmillan).

Huscher, P. (undated) ‘Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Lemminkäinen in Tuonela and The Swan of Tuonela from Four Legends from the Kalevala’, Chicago Symphony Orchestra PROGRAM NOTES. Available: http://cso.org/uploadedfiles/1_tickets_and_events/program_notes/programnotes_sibelius_lemminkainen.pdf

Illich, I. (1986) H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness (London, Boyars)

Khamsi, R., (2006) ‘Star-nosed mole can sniff underwater, videos reveal’, New Scientist 20.12.16. Available www.newscientist.com

Kiblinger, K.B. (2015) “Water as a Symbolic Resource: Japanese Buddhist Ethical Reasoning on Abortion” Abstract for presentation at: Water in the World: Interdisciplinary approaches to access and sustainability, Conference, Winthrop University (November 7, 2015) http://digitalcommons.winthrop.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=water_conference

Marsh, G. and West, B. (1981) Sculduggery in Roman London? Transactions London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 32:86 – 102. file:///C:/Users/Maggie%20Work/Documents/Hydro%202016/32_Skull_LMS_81.pdf

Rabb, K.M. (undated) ‘The Story of the Kalevala’, National Epics, Authorama Public Domain Books Available http://www.authorama.com/national-epics-13.html

Schulting, R.J. and Bradley, R. (2014) ‘Of Human Remains and Weapons in the Neighbourhood of London’: New AMS 14C Dates on Thames ‘River Skulls’ and their European Context’, Archaeological Journal 170(1): 30-77. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00665983.2013.11021001

Science Focus (2011) How long does it take for a body to decompose at sea? Available http://www.sciencefocus.com/qa/how-long-does-it-take-body-decompose-sea

Sperber, M. (2010) Dostoyevsky's Stalker and Other Essays on Psychopathology and the Arts (Plymouth, University Press of America)

Sattelmeyer, R. (ed) (1984) Henry D.Thoreau Journal Volume 2: 1842-1848 (Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univ. Press)

Zong Massacre: The drowning of more than 100 slaves for the insurance money (2016) Available https://blackthen.com/the-zong-massacre-the-drowning-of-more-than-100-slaves-for-the-insurance-money/


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