Water in Animism | The Water Page

The purpose of this article is to examine the relationship between animism and water. Animism can be defined as either “the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena and the universe itself possess souls, or the belief that natural objects have souls that may exist apart from their material bodies1.” Viewed in such terms, animistic religions accord water a supernatural life force. The manner in which it visualises this life force is dependent upon the specific beliefs of the people in relation to the environment that they inhabit. The range of examples for this article is not limited to one continent, but as is the case with animism, will take into account relevant beliefs from different geographical locations. Animistic religion may lead to the belief in specific water spirits, or the water itself may even be imbued with supernatural qualities, qualities which prove to be enduring despite supercedence by Islamic or Christian religion. In some cases, the influences of animism may lead to attempts to make rain, usually through the use of “medicines” to either create rain clouds or act as a supplication to a supreme being with the power to grant the needed rain. As there is a large scope for study, there will be an attempt to highlight common features that will allow comparison between animistic religions and their relevance to water. However, the focus will not just include animism and water, but will also examine a non-animistic religion in Malawi so that contrasts and similarities can be drawn.Where people believe in water-spirits, these entities can take on different physical forms. These range from serpentine to human/mermaid forms. In some cases the form is interchangeable or undetermined. It can also be observed that there is a general trend of a specific form dominating certain areas, for example, as will be illustrated, the serpentine form tends to dominate in Western and Southern Africa, whilst the “mermaid” entity is especially prevalent in Northern and Central Europe.Where people believe in water-spirits, these entities can take on different physical forms. These range from serpentine to human/mermaid forms. In some cases the form is interchangeable or undetermined. It can also be observed that there is a general trend of a specific form dominating certain areas, for example, as will be illustrated, the serpentine form tends to dominate in Western and Southern Africa, whilst the “mermaid” entity is especially prevalent in Northern and Central Europe. Serpents             The Congo River provides us with another example of serpentine gods.  It was believed that the river was inhabited by a family of water spirits in the form of four serpents. They were not only responsible for conditions and phenomenon on the river, they also were attributed the status of creator gods:  “Four spirits resided in the water beneath the rapids in the Congo River, in the form of four serpents, Kuitikuiti the Waving one, his wife Mboze the Fertile one, and their children Makanga and Mbatilanda. They lived in the Infernal Cauldron, as the white men call it, the maelstrom where the powerful current of the Congo meets the rising tide at every noon. The people say that Kuitikuiti has been seen in many other parts of the river as well.Long ago there was only the earth with the bushes on it. Then Kuitikuiti rose out of the water and created all the tail-less animals, and Mbatilanda created all the animals with tails. When they came home they found that Mboze was pregnant. She had committed incest with her son, Makanga. Furious, Kuitikuiti seized a club and beat her to death. Dying, she gave birth to a serpent daughter, called Bunzi. Bunzi is the goddess of rain and fertility. She gave birth to another water spirit called Lusunzi, who comes to visit his mother regularly, and whenever he does, there is -kalema-, springtide, in the vast estuary of the Congo.    Mermaids      Other Forms    Aside from the presence of water-spirits, the water itself may possess supernatural properties of its own. These can be healing, harmful or protective qualities. The belief in these qualities can exist alongside the major religions of Christianity or Islam, illustrating the resilient nature of animistic religion.The waters of the previously mentioned Lake Fundudzi in South Africa are held to have supernatural qualities. Only a maiden can enter the waters to give the offering of beer to the ancestors to intercede for them with the python god of fertility. “No one is allowed to look at the lake directly – one must look through your legs at the lake – and no one is allowed to touch the water – your skin will break out in sores if you do so.â€ The reputed harmful nature no doubt adds to the sacredness of the lake.In North American Indian religion, water in the form of a vapour bath has a cleansing effect on the soul. It was also held to have a healing and restorative effect, being used to bring the first man back to life. “In our Creation myth or story of the First Man, the vapour-bath was the magic used by The-one-who-was-First-Created, to give life to the dead bones of his younger brother, who had been slain by the monsters of the deep. Upon the shore of the Great Water he dug two round holes, over one of which he built a low enclosure of fragrant cedar boughs, and here he gathered together the bones of his brother. In the other pit he made a fire and heated four round stones, which he rolled one by one into the lodge of boughs. Having closed every aperture save one, he sang a mystic chant while he thrust in his arm and sprinkled water upon the stones with a bunch of sage. Immediately steam arose, and as the legend says, “there was an appearance of life.” A second time he sprinkled water, and the dry bones rattled together. The third time he seemed to hear soft singing from within the lodge; and the fourth time a voice exclaimed: “Brother, let me out!” (It should be noted that the number four is the magic or sacred number of the Indian.)â€32 Water-worn boulders are regarded as sacred, the ‘eneepee,’ (vapour-bath) is used by the doctor, and is followed by a cold plunge into water. It is used on occasions of imminent danger, possible death or spiritual crisis.Water could also be used for protective purposes against evil spirits or designs. There was a long tradition in Germany, predating the Reformation of using holy water to protect oneself and one’s goods and belongings. On buying holy water from the priest, one could hang it around the neck in an amulet to ward off evil spirits, or put it above the door of the house to keep them from entering. Livestock could be brought to the church to drink from a trough of holy water so that protection could be gained for them also. The walls and roof of a house would regularly be blessed by a priest with holy water to imbue it with resistance to any misfortune. The priest would bless the boundaries of the parish with holy water to ward off plague and evil spirits. These well established practices did not die out overnight, and are good examples of how Christianity could gain animistic qualities.In African communities dependent on the resource of regular, adequate rainfall, animism allows for a process of rainmaking with the use of “medicines” in times of drought, and also provides for the darker medicines for preventing rain from falling on ones enemies. By use of “medicines,” an appeal can be made straight to a supreme being with need of intercession from the ancestral spirits.The San of Lesotho made a direct appeal to the god !Khwa by use of a blood sacrifice, “which entailed medicine men of the rain capturing a rain animal by enticing it from its home in the waterhole. It would be slaughtered, and where its blood ran, rain would fall.” It would appear in this case that the blood of the animal, usually an eland or a rain bull represented the rain that they hoped would fall.Modjadji the Rain Queen of the Lobedu mountains in South Africa was, as her name illustrates, famous for her rainmaking abilities. “Her history can be traced back to Zimbabwe 400 years ago. She was a princess that had to escape her father’s wrath after having fallen pregnant by her half-brother. Her mother helped her to steal her father’s rainmaking medicine and with this and some of her followers she fled south. Eventually they came to settle in the mountains at the cycads forest, first at Lebjene and then where her royal enclosure is now. Here the Modjadji (as she was called) practised her rainmaking and as her reputation grew, her influence began to spread. As water is a scarce commodity in Africa all the other groups thought twice before messing with the Rain Queen. As a result, the Bolebedu people were unaffected by the many wars that ripped through the area and eventually the members of the Boer Republic of the Transvaal visited her.” Her example demonstrates the great political potential that rainmaking could have. To be denied water by your enemies would spell disaster. As such her “medicines” gave her kingdom greater power than it could otherwise have expected. Particular value is given to the person of the Queen herself, who is trained to succeed her predecessor. On death, some of her skin is added to the “medicines” to maintain their power.The information for this article has been taken from the book by Brian Morris, “Animals and Ancestors, An Ethnography”, (2000.) His book is based on the matrilineal peoples of Malawi, the Chewa, Chipeta, Nyanja, Mang’anja, Yao, Lomwe and Tumbuka. Their importance to this article is that they possess a non-animistic religion that allows comparison with what has been previously written.Their world is essentially a dichotomous one. In their polar world, there are two principle elements of hot, (da’a) and cold, (a i). Everything belongs to one element or the other:HotColdMenWomenSunMoonDayNightFireWaterThey are not, as has already been stated, animist. This is because, “Malawians affirm that humans are ‘animals’, but animals are not necessarily ‘persons’, either in the ontological sense, or normatively, even though in specific contexts spirits may take animal form (lion, puff adder, python) and thus the animals may be conceptualised as ‘persons’ (as chief or a grandparent.) Only spirits, (or humans with special powers – medicines) not animals have the ability to transform themselves into other forms of being.” As animals, (or for that case plants, stones or water) are not held to possess a soul, the Malawians are not an animistic religion.They possess a supreme being, whose name in Chewa is Chiuta. This supreme being is not an interventionist god. “Only in ‘calamitous circumstances’ was assistance sought from the deity – yet dependent as people are on agriculture, and on rainfall in the appropriate amounts and at appropriate times – the relationship between humans and the supreme being has never been too distant.” As social and individual wellbeing in rural Malawi is fundamentally focused on agricultural prosperity, and this is dependent on the fertility of the land and a controlled supply of rain, he is the deity to whom the people turn when the rains fail (he manifests his presence through the provision of rain). The Malawians regard water and fire as two creative transformations. Both are associated with important processes – the social and ecological cyclic processes. Whilst rainfall, as has already been mentioned, is important in regard to agriculture, fire is important in hunting. The men use fire to drive animals out of the bush when hunting. The smoke produced by these fires has great importance. “The smoke from bushfires form the rain clouds that eventually bring rain…Schoffeleers suggest that the myth embodies an implicit cosmology, with several important symbolic contrasts: between earth and sky, water and fire, and between downward and upward movements.” This fits perfectly into the dichotomous world in which the Malawians live.Certain animals are associated with the rains and the supreme being. “The Nile monitor…often shares its name, chiuta. According to Schoffeleers this lizard – the largest in Africa – is thought of living above the clouds and is linked to such phenomena as lightening and thunder. The monitor is highly sought after for medicine and its skin is the only one used for the sacred drums of the Mbona rain cult.”One animal that is not killed, but on the contrary is treated with utmost respect is the python or nsato. This is because it is believed to be the physical manifestation of a spirit, which is also associated with the rains. To kill one, and leave it unburied would bring madness and death upon the perpetrator and drought and disaster upon the village as Chiuta would withhold the rains. If it should happen, it must be buried with black chicken feathers and black cloth placed on top of the grave.43 The symbolism of this will be dealt with later. A great python-like serpent spirit called Thunga, “habitually lived in the mountains or in some deep sacred pool, and it was seen as moving from place to place and as controlling the rains. Thunga was associated with the mountains and hills throughout the central region.” If Chiuta tended not to interfere directly, then Thunga was definitely an interventionist spirit, actively in charge of rainfall. The hills and mountains are important for two reasons. They tend to be the charge of the spirits of powerful chiefs, who were used as mediators with Chiuta. The hills are also home to many rain shrines dedicated to Thunga and his namesakes. These were run by a celibate priestess or spirit-medium who was the earthly representative of either Chiuta’s or Thunga’s wife, depending on the shrine and region. She acted as a direct conduit to either the supreme being or Thunga, and was responsible for enacting rainmaking rituals with the aid of local chiefs. Sacred pools play a prominent role in the location of rain shrines, acting as a home for the travelling serpent-spirit. Hunting was forbidden in such areas, as it is a “hot” activity, likewise sexually active adults were not allowed to approach the shrine in order to conserve its “cool” status which encouraged the rains (again “cool”). In some shrines during the rainmaking ritual, the spirit-medium was decorated with black and white spots using flour and charcoal to represent clouds and a balanced rainfall. “Only black/dark, (wokunda) cloth and animals were accepted as offerings at the shrine, and the animals were killed using a short stabbing spear, (kathungo.) Offerings were reduced to ashes, then cast into the sacred pool of Malawi.”46 Black was an important colour as it symbolised rain clouds, and the smoke from the offering was believed to ascend and cause rain clouds.Another serpent-spirit, Napolo, is rarely invoked by the Malawians. It is also held that the person that observed him would die. On the whole he tends to be viewed of as a “huge subterranean serpent-spirit, associated with water. It is invisible, but it has the form of a huge snake, (njoka,) and is active like a wild animal (chirombo) destroying people and property as it makes it way, at intervals, to the lake.” The spirit, tending to move between Michesi Mountain and Lake Chilwa seems similar to the Nyaminyami of the Tonga. However, this serpent-spirit brings only destruction. It is associated with torrential rains and flash floods that destroy anything in their path. The last time that Napolo was believed to have struck was in March 1991, when an immense flash flood destroyed bridges and the town of Phalombe, resulting in the deaths of around 470 people out of a population of 21 000.Written by Christopher Redmond