Structural Analysis of the Living Water Motif

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Structural Analysis

We introduced the methodology of Levi-Strauss in

Levi-Strauss and Structural Analysis

For the purposes of this investigation the structural analysis of Afanasev's folktales was accomplished in three phases: the identification and documentation of all tales which refer to the magical powers of water, the development of a PROLOG1 database from these tales, and the manipulation of the database to identify and document structural oppositions.

Thirty-three tales were identified as containing references to the magical powers of water. For each of these tales a series of short sentences was produced to document information which could be of value to structural analysis.

For the next step each of these sentences was transformed into one or more database entries in PROLOG format, producing a body of information to be manipulated by the algorithms of the programmer.

The analysis of the tales produced two important oppositions: the opposition of water brought from above to be applied to entities below, and the opposition of destruction by man and renewal by water. For the many attributes associated with magic water, including living, dead, healing, strong and weak, only motifs containing dead water, healing water and living water were found to exist within these two structural oppositions, to the exclusion of the others. This is an important discovery, because our investigation, in keeping with the methodology of Levi-Strauss, did not focus on the attributes of water, but on the structural oppositions associated with it. It is therefore interesting to note that only water with the three attributes mentioned is associated with the emerging structural oppositions.

Before discussing the oppositions in detail, it would be advantageous to address issues previously mentioned concerning living water and the classification of folklore. What has emerged in this study is not a single motif "living water," but, as Thompson has suggested, a division of living water motifs. This division contains the specific motif "resuscitation of the dead by water," as well as others which, according to our investigation, include "quest for living water," and "delivery of living water by a bird." The division is part of a broader cluster of motifs, categorized under the heading "magic water," which contains motifs for water with other attributes. Two attributes which emerge from our study as having significance in the structure are "dead" and "healing," which appear to be equivalent in terms of function. They are contained in a motif that could be called "integration of the body by water." Dead or healing water reunites separated parts of the body, making it whole but not bringing it back to life.

In the first opposition, involving dead water, healing water and living water, water is brought from above for application on persons located below. The most common implementation is in the form of a bird used to bring the water to the location on the ground where it is to be used. The bird is often a raven, as in tale number 134 in which a raven brings healing and living water to Pekacigarosak, located on the ground below. A raven is also used in tales 136, 159, 168, 204, and 209. In tale number 159 a raven brings dead water but a hawk brings living water. In another variant of the same tale a falcon brings both the dead and the living water. In tale number 172 a firebird brings dead and living water and applies them to Ivan in an open field. In tale number 209 a raven brings dead and living water which is sprinkled on Ivan by an eagle, a falcon and a sparrow. The apparent equivalence of each species of bird in terms of their role in the delivery of magic water suggests that the particular type of bird is not a factor in the preservation of the structural opposition.

Another implementation is characterized by a person flying to the location of the water. In tale number 160 Fedar Tugarin's brothers-in-law fly to the location of healing and living water. In tale number 171 a prince flies on a horse to a well containing living water. In number 176 Prince Ivan flies to the source of dead and living water on a falcon. Some tales contain the same concept to a lessor degree, in which the person who obtains the water does not fly to its location but is required to merely jump over an object to reach the water source. In tale number 172 the prince on a horse jumps over a paling to obtain living water. In tale number 174 he jumps over a wall. In tale number 177 Prince Vasilij climbs 100 fathoms on a horse and then gallops over a wall to obtain dead and living water.

The opposition of water from above to a location below is encountered in each of the tales mentioned above. Additionally, eight applications of water occur specifically in an open field. The significance of the open field is clearer when the second important opposition is considered: destruction by man and renewal by water.

The pervasiveness of the second opposition in Afanasev's tales is such that each instance will not be discussed, but grouped by common characteristics. The most common implementation of destruction is by the chopping of the head, legs, eyes or body of the victim. Another form of destruction is the tearing of the body in half. In several tales the means of destruction is the killing of the victim, but the exact means of death is not specified.

Destruction by man is contrasted by the healing and renewing powers of water. Water is used in two processes: to mend the wounds that have been inflicted and to restore life to that which has been killed. In some tales each process takes place distinctly, i.e. healing or dead water is applied to mend the wounds and then living water is used to bring the body back to life. In other instances the processes occur simultaneously and no distinction is made between the actions of the healing or dead water and the action of the living water.

The Oppositions

Two important oppositions have therefore emerged. Water comes from above to benefit persons below, who are sometimes specifically located in an open field. Destruction by man, usually involving the chopping of another living being, is opposed by the ability of water to head that which man has destroyed and bring it back to life. The origin of these oppositions and the conditions which may have brought them about may best be understood by examining the environmental factors which affected the mythical beliefs of the ancient Slavs.


1PROLOG is short for PROgramming in LOGic, a high-level computer language that was developed in the early 1970's for use in artificial intelligence applications. Because it is a relational, logic-oriented language, it stands to reason that PROLOG could also greatly benefit research in structural systems that are based on relations, and be of particular benefit to the analysis of structural anthropology.