Greek and Latin Origins of Living Water

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Universal or Polygenetic?

The presence of the living water motif in Slavic folklore can be deduced from different sources. Speaking entirely speculatively, it may pertain to a broad human community, or even be universal. Myths containing living water motifs are common to many cultures and may indeed point to its universality and possible polygenetic origin. The Algonquin tribe of North America believed in an earth-mother, Nokomis:

"Beneath the clouds is the Earth-Mother from whom is derived the Water of Life, who at her bosom feeds plants, animals and men."1

A myth from the Malanesian island of Malekula in Vanuatu describes a journey to the Land of the Dead. When the voyager has proven himself by completing a labyrinth created by the dangerous guardian, he finds a great subterranean sea called the "Water of Life."2 A Celtic folktale concerns an island, called the Green Isle, which is sometimes located above the water and sometimes below. Its people are immortal and skilled in magic. Its waters bring health and restore life to mortals.3

By its genesis, the living water motif could be either of one origin or polygenetic. In both instances, it could be ecologically conditioned and therefore more closely linked to linguistic and/or cultural orbits in terms of anthropological influences, unwritten and written. To investigate these orbits, two sources seem to be most relevant in our investigation of possible non-Slavic origin of the motif.

Classical Greek and Latin Tradition

The first source is classical Greek and Latin tradition which permeated Western European cultures in the Middle Ages and could have easily entered East European folklore from here. According to Ernst Curtius the Empire of Charlemagne acquired the Roman concept of a world empire, which was universal in character.4 In the period which followed the Germanic barbarians fell prey to the Latin church, which had "survived the universal-state end phase of antique culture," and thereby failed to make significant intellectual contributions to the new historical entity."5 Latin tradition continued to expand during the Latin Middle Ages, culminating during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Latin language and learning extended to Iceland, Scandinavia, Finland and Central and Southern Europe.6 Thus East European folklore could have easily accepted ideas from the west during this period.

Some of these ideas could have come originally from the ancient Greeks. In the "Romance of Alexander," written by Callisthenes about 300 A.D., Alexander the Great visits the "Well of Life."7 The ancient Greeks envisioned an opening to the underground kingdom through every gap in the earth from which water flowed.8 There were two forms of water in the underground kingdom, one flowing from the left and the other from the right. A white cypress tree grows near the former, which the spirit of the dead is instructed to ignore. The water on the right is watched over by a guard, to which the spirit should exclaim, "I am overcome with thirst, give me drink!"9 Propp contends that the water on the right allows access to the land of the dead, whereas the water on the left enables one to return to the land of the living. He therefore links them to dead and living water. In Homer's Odyssey there stands a grove of "water-loving" willows near the cool waters which flow down form a rock.10 Hugo Rahner sees this water as the giver of life and the willows as symbols of life. On the other hand he notes the fact that the same tree also grows near graves, symbolizing mourning and death. He therefore concludes that the tree that grows from these life-giving waters is both a symbol of life and a symbol of the death to which all things must return.11 In a Babylonian myth Ishtar, the embodiment of the reproductive energies of nature, descends every year to the subterranean world to rescue her dead lover, Tammuz. Allatu, the stern queen of these regions, reluctantly allows Ishtar to be sprinkled with the Water of Life, after which she returns with Tammuz to the upper world. During Ishtar's absence the plants and animals of the earth have stopped reproducing, and upon her return nature once again begins to reproduce.12 Myths such as these could have had an influence on East European folklore via the west during the Latin middle ages.


1Guirand, Felix, ed., New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, translated by Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, from Larousse Mythologie Générale, (Paris: Librarie Larousse, 1959), p. 428.

2Layard, John, "Der Mythos der Totenfahrt auf Malekula," Eranos-Jahrbuch 1 (1937) pp. 274-275.

3MacDougall, James, Folk and Hero Tales, (London: D. Nutt, 1891) p. 261.

4Curtius, Ernst Robert, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, translated by Willard R. Trask, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953), p. 29.

5ibid., p. 5.

6ibid., p. 26.

7Cavendish, Richard, Legends of the World, (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), p. 164.

8Rahner, Hugo, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, translated by Brian Battershaw, (New York: Biblio and Tanner, 1971), p. 298.

9Propp, Vladimir, Istoričeskie korni volšebnoj skayki, (St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Leningradskogo gosudarstvennogo ordena Lenina universiteta, 1946), p. 179.

10Odyssey XVII.

11Rahner, pp. 289-290.

12Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough, 11 vols., (London: Macmillan and Co., 1890-1915), V:8-9.