Why does water appear to be a common creative principle across Indo-European culture?



Thales (one of earliest Greek philosophers) said, as reported by Hippolytus, in the Refutation of all Heresies

the archê (principle) and the end of all things is water. All things acquire firmness as this solidifies, and again as it is melted their existence is threatened; to this are due earthquakes and whirlwinds and movements of the stars. And all things are movable and in a fluid state, the character of the compound being determined by the nature of the principle from which it springs

And in the Rig-Veda, verse 10.129:

There was neither existence nor non-existence then.

There was neither sky nor heaven beyond it.

What covered it and where? What sheltered?

Was there an abyss of water?

And, in Genesis, at the very beginning we have:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void;

and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Does this point towards a common Indo-Aryan philosophic culture?


A curious feature is that:

in [modern] cosmology we typically model the matter filling the universe as a perfect fluid.

From Carrolls spacetime and geometry, a textbook on GR ie not a popular account.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2014-12-12T13:54:06.633

Reputation: 1

I think it's just indicative of the ubiquity of water on Earth more than anything else. If these different cultures all alluded to something like bismuth as a creative principle instead of water, that might really be evidence of common cultural origin. – David H – 2014-12-12T15:57:25.920

I kind of agree, but isn't dirt more common in human experience? (I mean, we named the place Earth.) Not as many myths involve it. (The prime examples are tree-motifs, or burrowing animal motifs. I find these hard to relate to. For instance, the Norse origin stories are just outright stupid -- and one half of those are even about ice.) I do believe water is special in some sense. – None – 2014-12-12T16:16:20.683

1This is a very interesting question. A solution would involve something from C.G. Jung. As an example, his commentaries (in seminar form) on Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Jung says a lot on 'water'. I know enough from neuroscience to relate your question to neurochemistry and ultimately neurophilosphy. The brain is a 'wet-quantum computer'. Ultimately, Joseph Campbell would call the significance of 'water', "cross-cultural" (it is not something exclusive to Indo-European significance). Follow the index in any of Jung's, Freuds, or Cambell's works. – Darcy Davis – 2014-12-12T18:51:40.203

2Incidentally (@DarcyDavis): it is not at all clear that a brain is in any meaningful way a "quantum computer", though 'wet' is surely apt. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2014-12-12T21:04:50.470

@Mozibur, do you mean to imply that "water as a creative principle" is not a theme of non-Indo-European cultures? – James Kingsbery – 2014-12-12T22:28:34.377

@David H:well, yes; but I think there is more to it than that; after all land and sky are equally ubiquitous – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-13T13:52:15.890

@jobermark: earth rather than dirt appears in Greek mythology - Gaia; but another ubiquitous element is sky. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-13T13:53:40.577

@kingsbery: no, I don't; I just don't happen to know a great deal about them, or much about them; it would indeed be interesting to look at African, Austronesian & polynesian myth; I have read 'black elk speaks' which was central to a religious revival amongst the plains Indians of America; water wasn't made much of there - rather sky, mountains, animal and ancestral spirits. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-13T13:55:21.860

@de beaudrap: I'd agree that the brain is not a quantum computer; but it will use, and in fact must use quantum effects in its operations; as all matter does. I recall reading somewhere that people have begun investigations quantum effects in biology; probably a lecture by Jim Al-Khalili. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-13T14:00:13.567

@MoziburUllah I agree. My initial guess would be that the complex inhomogeneities of earth and the intangibility of sky/air leaves water as the simplest starting point by process of elimination. – David H – 2014-12-13T14:08:23.563

@MoziburUllah: because biology is chemistry, it necessarily relies on quantum mechanical effects. Photosynthesis is a good example. However, from a computational perspective, the extent to which brains work on quantum mechanical principles may be only an elaboration on how rocks "work" (i.e. keep rigid) on quantum mechanical principles. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2014-12-13T17:05:45.070

I would argue that Gaia is not Earth, but "Land" and includes Water. She is not a substance, but a 'place' ("Down"). If we are considering 'elements' in contrasting Earth and Sky vs Water then you need a reason why Fire is uncommon, so @DavidH's does not hit me as a good deduction. – None – 2014-12-13T17:57:49.010

@jobermark: are you arguing along with James Lovelock where he suggests the entire Earth ecological system is to be thought as Gaia; so Earth, Air, Land & Water (the four elements); or from the traditional understanding of Greek Mythology? – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-14T13:37:10.563

From Greek tradition. The elements are Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and I was arguing Fire is uncommon as a creation motif. The corresponding triad of places is Land, Sea and Sky. But the Gaia/Ouranos distinction is even simpler, just Down vs Up as I see it. There is water in the sky, too, in most primitive mythologies, or where would rain come from? This is the Earth/Air axis, but here, to my mind, it is just a dichotomy, and not an elemental association. – None – 2014-12-14T16:39:03.060

Kind of aside: I do buy Lovelock, and would go so far as to say that Gaia is not just a single being, but an intelligent one. To my mind, we are the second intelligence on the planet, genes constituting the first. – None – 2014-12-14T16:53:24.123

Actually the fact that Fire is seldom an aspect of creation myths makes it really funny, to me, that it is the basic substance in our modern creation myth. If the four elements map to the four states of matter, then Fire clearly maps to plasma, which is surely what the Big Bang theory predicts as the first form of matter. – None – 2014-12-14T17:09:48.273

@jobermark:Fire is in the Genesis - 'and God said let there be light' (light coming from fire); and in the Rig-Veda, the Nasadiya sukta 'In gloom profound, - an ocean without light/The germ that still lay covered in the husk/ Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat'; and the Sun-god is a potent divinity in many mythologies; I'd suggest its the possibility of the quiesience as well as its turbulence that makes it suitable as representing before creation and after; whereas fire, being essentially always in motion can only represent creation; there is also Suhrawardis illuminationism – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-18T16:18:27.540

which is Neo-Platonism in an Islamic context (possibly inspired by the Qu'ranic verse about God being a 'light in a Niche'); light of course is not fire, but there is some relation there. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-12-18T16:20:01.340

True enough. Storms calm, and so seeing chaos as a storm rather than a conflagration lets it end without disappearing. Also, sun-gods are generally created and put in place by some other power, and get left out of initial creation myths. As I understand it even monotheistic Amon-Ra Egypt did not see the Sun as the source, but only as the pinnacle of creation, putting all the other gods to shame or killing them off. I think it has something to do with the boundedness of fire. The sun is a disc, the sea is vast; a storm is everywhere, a fire, even a big one, is local, or very few survive. – None – 2014-12-18T16:46:11.707



Jung once floated a theory on Thales that the easiest thing to imagine all things made of is water because it is one of the pure substances we see in all three forms in a non-technological culture. Seeing ice or mist become water and realizing that they are the same substance is a major, striking scientific development that has spoken profoundly to integrative thinkers.

This phenomenon strongly influences various associations water has as an 'element'. It emphasizes the already notable flexibility of the substance to realize that even that flexibility is flexible. If anything was everything, the seemingly infinite changeability of water makes it a prime candidate.

At the same time, water has a range of roles in the lives of people near the sea, or in places where very bad weather is about precipitation. It is associated with is the most necessary functions, but also often the most dangerous situations one can be in -- storms, especially at sea, are 'angry' water. We like to imagine the early world as either empty and infinitely peaceful or ultimately chaotic, and those two states are modeled in most places by pools or storms, and therefore as water. Clearly what is comes out of what was 'before it was'.

Either through those associations or others, the core meaning of alchemical water is tied up with femininity -- flexibility, extreme anger and extreme peace, the hidden power implicit in the two roles of 'necessary' wife and 'punitive'mother, Kwan Yin and Kali Ma. It is also clear that human life comes, literally, from women. So creation myths around water are often seen from a psychoanalytic point of view as recognizing the power of women as the a active givers of life. Modeling 'the above' on 'the below', we are made both 'by' and 'of' our mothers (not to mention amniotic fluid) and so the world emerges from water.

So I think there are enough naturally occurring sources of this motif that we would not need to suppose common sources. I think that to the degree these messages are expressions of shared roots, those roots are less information-transmission than they are natural observations cultures make, which predict impending intellectual development.


Posted 2014-12-12T13:54:06.633



First, the scientific axiom - correlation is not causation. I do not think there were common sources.

Water is that which is necessary to life more than any other material thing in this world. A person can go weeks without food, but only days without water.

From an Eastern perspective, water was the first object of worship in Hinduism (See Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization by Heinrich Zimmer). Even today, vedic altars will have some vessel with water in it.

The Rig Veda says that when the universe was first projected out of Brahman, the waters (materials for the universe) were first created. Then Brahma (the creator) was created.

Swami Vishwananda

Posted 2014-12-12T13:54:06.633

Reputation: 3 667


I will give you a short answear. Let's start with Thales, he traveled in many countries including Egypt. Therefore one of the main reasons for water being common material of creation is, he probably saw how when floods of Nile receded from the lands, all livng creatures started to "shine", plants growing, animals moving towards the water.

Also if you think about how water turns to ice, steam and then can go back to its natural form, you probably would think it's easly transformable, so maybe you can create everything from it.

Another reason is, you know water is more than the land on earth and even first men needed water for them to live, so water was essential for living. Knowing this that water gives life maybe water is the essence, the beginning of this life.

Also the womb of women contains water, and since we come from there, but not only we but also the mammals, so water if you are in the old times and you know nothing about big bang, genetics and etc, why would not it be so?


Posted 2014-12-12T13:54:06.633