The Great River

However, there eventually came a day when some people had to allow that maybe the earth wasn’t the Ultimate One after all. 

It happened in the desert—where there was little, if any growth worth mentioning, save wherever there was water: whether a well, oasis, or especially, a river. For only there did they find a plethora of plants, food animals that were drawn to the plants, and ultimately an escape from otherwise certain death among the dry, lifeless dunes.

And just like that, our Tree (see July 28th blog) developed an important new branch—from which many smaller ones, including some with their own branches and branches of branches would soon follow.

For in such country, water—indeed, moisture of almost any kind, even the occasional, brief rainfall—was now identified as the ‘real’ Ultimate One; since without it, the earth’s perpetually shifting sands came to be regarded by those who’d eventually begin to settle along its rivers as constituting nothing more than a reasonably stable platform provided by the Great Mother for all their tents, campsites, and trading caravans; causing at least one ancient people—the Egyptians—to actually view the earth as male!

But then, where did that leave the Earth-mother?

Why, most people living along those vital rivers and regarding them as the real source of all their sustenance simply described them as the Earth-mother’s daughter; and the feeder-streams as her daughters’ daughters, and the various wells and oases as but other daughters; all of whom people duly invoked whenever they availed themselves of their precious liquid, fish, mollusks, flowers and so forth; and to whom they duly tossed offerings of coins or food.

Indeed, they even came up with a few customs, stories, and mythical symbols of the rivers that should be of more than passing interest to us today.

For instance, it became commonplace to initiate converts to this new cult of Our Lady of the River by simply immersing them in one.

Similarly, mothers now briefly touched their newborn to the river, rather than the earth, as an acknowledgement of their ultimate source.

And it was commonly believed that the Great One actually lived somewhere upstream—where the river ultimately sprang from this Great Fount that kept the world perpetually youthful, you know?

Wherefore it was recommended that barren women should wade into the river, face upstream, and wait for some sign of the big water-bird that reportedly handled all of her deliveries: the stork.

And meanwhile, they thought to adorn themselves with the lotus, or this lovely water-lily that was commonly found along the shore of many rivers as a special sign of their Ladies’ great power.

While the sick and infirm were now advised to relieve their afflictions by simply standing amidst the current and beseeching her to ‘wash’ them away; albeit serious offenders risked being swept away, drowned, and ultimately consumed by her personal guardian, the crocodile.

But it scarcely ended there. For inasmuch as the rivers were found to typically wind all about the countryside in a serpentine manner, people began to speak picturesquely of this ‘great Serpent’—a divine Serpent, of course—that lived up there in the cave from which the Fount sprang; while down at the lower end of the river was to be found—well, you know: its mouth.

Moreover, in time people came to identify this Serpent with the principal of fertility, and to accordingly associate it with just any body of water—to the extent that they held it to fertilize the tree of Life itself, and to ultimately guard it against the world’s evildoers!

And in fact, much of the world began to think of the Great Serpent as the Great Mother’s preeminent guise; whence depictions of her as this ‘bosomy’ Serpent soon became commonplace in the world’s religious stories and visual arts, from Columbia’s Bachué to India’s Mai Ganga—literally, ‘Mother Ganges’ —as in this giant Hindu bas-relief representing the descent of India’s longest and since ancient times most sacred Ganges River from the Himalayas some sixteen hundred miles to the Indian Ocean.

1. Descent of the Ganges, Mallapuram, India

However, this new image of the Divine One eventually turned out to have one drawback.

For instance, the first Christian missionaries to penetrate the German Alps found that most of the peasants thereabouts had not only carved crude reliefs of the Serpent on their door as their ultimate defense against misfortune, but many—apparently none too bright—would happily invite some real, wandering snake into their home as a portent of good fortune; while more than a few went so far as to ask them to guard their children while they themselves went out to work in the fields!

It’s reported that barren women even prayed to these snakes, sang hymns to them, laid out various food offerings for them, and ultimately presented them with their pining bodies.

And of course, those bitten by such snakes were assumed to have offended the Divine One; while conversely, the unbitten were believed to remain in good stead with her—with suspects routinely subjected to this ‘test’.

In time, precisely because of this all too common naïveté, the Chinese came to replace the Serpent with a no less popular but far less dangerous symbol—a wholly imaginary creature, if for tradition’s sake retaining a serpent-like tail, said to dwell in almost any watery place, and of course intimately associated with fertility; which they called—as you’ve probably already guessed—a Dragon.

That the Chinese too originally beheld their rivers as a Serpent is recorded in the ancient tale of Nü Wa.

In Chinese folk religion, Nü Wa is the deity of the second longest river in Asia, the more than three thousand mile long Hwang Ho, or ‘Yellow River’. Usually depicted in art as either a snake or a snake with the head of a woman, her cult is found to have existed for at least four thousand years, or since the people of the ancient Xia clan—who are found to have worshipped ordinary snakes as her totem animal—dominated the northern regions of the Hwang Ho.

According to legend, then, she was sitting on the river bank one day feeling lonely because there was no one around but depressingly dumb animals for company; and so taking up a bit of her own mud, she began to create human beings—whence the Xia came to worship her as their ultimate ancestor, while over time, others came to worship her as in fact the Great Mother of all humankind.

2. Nü Wa

_________________________

Sources

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, 2 vol., ed. Maria Leach, 1949

Mythopedia, Nüwa https://mythopedia.com/chinese-mythology/gods/nuwa/

Acutonics https://acutonics.com/news/the-myth-of-nue-gua-chinese-snake-goddess/

Photo Credits

1. Smart History https://smarthistory.org/the-great-relief-at-mamallapuram/

2. Giantess https://giantess.miraheze.org/wiki/N%C3%BC_Wa

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