Darkened Waters

Hello readers, and a good day to you all! I apologize for my delay in posting, but I have been mired in the evils of work, preparing my Thesis proposal for presentation. Other than this gruelling task, I have also been following the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard with great fascination. As I have heard many say, I find it quite irksome that “It will redefine the Dark Ages.” As somebody said, what is this, the nineteenth century? Fox News I could forgive for their atrocious coverage, but this is written in very large letters on the main website for the hoard! Surely this discovery demonstrates that this period in British history was anything but dark!

After reading Jeffrey Cohen playing with the idea that the owner of the hoard was none other than Saint Guthlac the swamp dweller, it seems appropriate that this post cover the symbolic intersection between water with a negative valence and knowledge. My friend recently told me an interesting story about her father,  a man who believes that water has a ‘spirit’, and that one ought not to drink a glass of water that has remained stationary for too long (because this spirit has dissipated). In The Meaning of Water Veronica Strang had this to say of this dynamic:

“In becoming the substance of the Holy Spirit, water acquired a role as a metaphor of moral consciousness – of ‘purity’ and immortality, with the pollution of sin and ‘impurity’ bringing eternal damnation. Thus evaluations of water came to bear a specifically moral dimension: the ‘living water’ of the ‘high’ mountain spring offered illumination and spiritual rebirth, while the impure ‘low’ water of the swamp was polluted with ‘corruption’, signifying both moral disorder and death.”

In the absence of mobility (a symbol of the dynamism of grace and the vigor bestowed upon the soul by moral rectitude), water becomes stagnant and morally ambiguous. Without change and flow (a necessary symbolic component of morality), water represents the poison of an immobile soul wallowing in the filth of its own wickedness. In the words of one of my personal favourite writers on water, the ever-eloquent Gaston Bachelard:

“Impurity, as far as the unconscious is concerned, is always multiple, always abundant; it has a polyvalent noxiousness. From this point on, it is understandable that impure water can be accused of all possible misdeeds. If, for the conscious mind, it is accepted as a simple symbol of evil, as an external symbol, for the unconscious it is the object of an active symbolization that is entirely internal, entirely substantial. Impure water for the unconscious is a receptacle for evil, one open to every evil; it is the substance of evil.”

Once the purity of water is called into doubt, it is transformed from the clear, wondrous avatar of ascendent spirituality into an avatar of evil. In his 12th century memoirs, Guibert of Nogent used the following description of sin as a sucking, sinking mire :

” Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire and there is no standing. Evil indeed ye had aforetime, but now the sword hath come even unto my soul. Ye are sunk in deep mire, being fallen in reward of your sins into extreme evil of utter despair.”

The trope of the sinful swamp is common in Medieval literature, from the Haunted mere of Beowulf to the frozen and noxious swamp of Dante’s Inferno. A particularly memorable example from Dante occurs in very lowest circle of hell (Cocytus) where to poet encounters the terrifying figure of Satan’s frozen into the icy plain. Cocytus is the very heart of Dante’s vision of hell, formed by the frozen confluence of the infernal rivers; the bodies of traitors can be seen frozen in the ice, doomed to spend all of eternity enveloped (in a fashion reminiscent of Guibert’s quote above).

Wherever water fails to move, evil creeps in and makes its home. In the world of Tolkien, locales such as the dead marshes, the black lake at the gate of Moria and the filthy, stagnant waters of Mordor present this tropology to a wider audience (a piece of literary magic worthy of good ole’ J.R.R.). Without the spirit to move and imbue the waters with sacrality, they become impenetrable and darkened by unspeakable things. Think of something from your experience: would you want to be swimming in a black lake in the middle of the night? We trust water when it is transparent, yet when this transparency ceases, its symbolic darkness speaks to a primeval terror deep within our beings.

Anyway, gratias maximus ago tibi readers!

James.

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3 thoughts on “Darkened Waters

  1. For those of you that weren’t aware, Guibert de Nogent is making a reference to psalm 69 in this passage. As a case-in-point of why translation is betrayal, the passage reads “for the waters have come up to my neck” in the New International version.

  2. Swimming in “a black lake in the middle of the night”… not a pleasant thought. Do you remember the story about ‘the blind man looking in a dark cupboard, for a black hat, that wasn’t there’! Nonsense of course yet for me it produces such a strong feeling of complete darkness. In the South West(of Western Australia)clean unpolluted rivers and streams run dark brown with tannings dissolved from trees on their banks and so most people find it hard to accept that the water is in fact clean, pure and not polluted. The strength of conditioning that white and clear is good and dark and black is bad and evil?

  3. I’ve googled “spirit in water” and “water losing its spirit” and it’s come up with nothing helpful. Maybe I unconsciously made up the memory of my dad, somehow?! I do remember being surprised at him saying it, since he’s a JW and all.

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