The personality of rivers

The Whanganui river in New Zealand now has the same rights as a person. It’s considered to be an ancestor by the Whanganui iwi people. Theirs is the old view. Ancient cultures tended not to imagine their rivers as geographical features found in certain places. Instead, they related to them, often as gods.

You can catch an echo of the old perception in Heraclitus’ famous remark that you can’t step into the same river twice. It’s heard now as a puzzle or paradox. Heraclitus is taken today to be using the river as an allegory of his intuition that nothing in the material cosmos is static; things are what they are because they are fluid.

But I wonder whether there’s a more subtle communication too. Perhaps Heraclitus is pointing to a river’s real significance: it’s not so much a geographical feature as a principle, a power, a presence. If your way of life depends upon it, you are always, already totally immersed in its influence, its flow. If you’ve ever been caught by a flood, when a river has burst its banks, an overflow of power captures the nature of the river much more precisely than a map tidily charting its course.

That sense of potency could be why the first Thames bridge, at Vauxhall, was built not to cross the river. It went half way, presumably to a sacred island, from which the river could be appeased. Similarly, an ancient Chinese would be more likely to call the Yellow River, “Scourge of the Sons of Han”. The ancient Egyptians didn’t even have a name for the Nile, which was a later Greek invention. Instead, they invoked the god, Hapy, meaning flood. The river was an inundation, more like a wind or a season. Hapy was depicted as a bearded man with pendulous breasts, a pater-mater archetype perpetually offering sustenance and strength.

Thinking of rivers as principles or wellsprings opens up other spiritual and divine associations. Peter Ackroyd notes that the Thames was linked to another Egyptian deity, the mother Isis, who embodied the hope of healing through risky transformation. “You have your changing powers, Isis!” one incantation rehearsed. The need to know how to relate to the river explains why a majority of the churches along the tidal Thames are dedicated to St Mary – St Mary Overy, St Mary the Virgin, or just St Mary. Many of the remaining churches might be linked to the Christianized Isis as well, as in the case of the city church, St Magnus the Martyr, which could be a corruption of Magna Mater, or Great Mother.

Jung linked rivers to the unconscious. Like the parts of the psyche that are nascent, rivers are never fully formed; they’re always in flux. Like the parts of a personality that are unacknowledged, rivers carry hidden detritus. Like a frontier or borderline, rivers can appear in dreams symbolizing boundaries that block or that the dreamer fears to cross. The advice is not to interpret the meaning of rivers too strongly, or demythologize their symbols. Relate to them instead. Retell their stories. Appease their spirits.

It is often better to keep them as wellsprings, as powers, as gods. That way, you can avoid the mistake of believing rivers stay in one place, as if a dependable, controllable blue line. You can become conscious of the hubris of thinking you can step into a river, when in truth it’s already filled you. “Sullen, untamed and intractable” was how T.S. Eliot imagined this “strong brown god”. There’s wisdom in considering rivers persons and divine.

This piece is adapted from a feature I wrote for Waterfront magazine. Photo credit: James Shook.

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