The Motif of Living Water in Slavic Tradition

Environmental Factors

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

The Transition to Agriculture

Having characterized the so-called Slavic proto-home in

The Slavic Proto-Home

let's look at the transition to agriculture. According to B.V. Andrianov the transition from food gathering to agriculture in eastern Europe was a lengthy process of trial and error and involved a transition phase that could be called "harvest gathering," in which there was a regular, seasonal gathering and storage of grain.1 S.A. Semenov calls this phase poluzemledelie.2 During the transition phase the essential importance of water, without which there could be no harvest and therefore no life, must have been recognized. The early neolithic farmers must have seen their lives as dependent on the damp earth, and recognized the direct correlation between rain and harvest.

The next step in the transition process was the tilling of the soil.3 It was at this point that they must have recognized that it was necessary to destroy that which had grown before, to slice and chop the soil, in order to allow new growth to develop. It must have become evident that the destruction of one organism was the means by which another could be cultivated.4 The discovery that destruction of the earth by man would be healed and revived by water, whether independently discovered or borrowed from the autochtonous peoples living in the area of the so-called proto-home of the Slavs, must have had a profound influence on the mythical beliefs of the Slavs. The concept of mat' syraja zemlja, made fertile by the precipitation of moisture, must have been the basis for the belief in the magical power of water to bring forth life.

Dittrich concludes that the most important mythical concepts of the ancient Slavs were the belief in the earth as the universal mother and the association of water with the fertility of the soil. Thus in the strata of elements, the sun, moon, sky and earth, the latter was held to be female. This formed the foundation of their religious beliefs.5 Afanasev contends that the ancient Slavs believed in the marriage of the sky and the earth, in which the sky was masculine and the earth was its female partner.6 He states that water was viewed as the male sperm coming from the god of the sky and fertilizing the mother earth.7 This concept is supported by the results of our structural analysis of his collected folktales. We see the opposition of water coming from above to give life to that which lies below. We see that which has been destroyed by man being healed and revived by water. What could therefore be viewed as a case of natural beings that are mythically manipulated is, in fact, an expression of mythical concepts through natural beings. With regard to these natural beings, Levi-Strauss has stated, "mythical thought does not seek to give them meaning - it expresses itself through them."8 Based upon the fact that the Slavs saw their existence as dependent upon the damp earth, their source of life and original strength, and in view of the key role that environmental factors played in the Slavs' transition to primitive farming, it can be concluded that the mythical beliefs in the magical powers of water, as evidenced in the motifs of dead and living water, probably emerged during this period.

Next we examine folk tradition and ritual:

Folk Tradition and Ritual


1Andrianov, B.V., Zemledelie našix predkov (Moscow: Nauka, 1978), p. 26.

2Semenov, S.A., Proisxošdenie zemledelija (Leningrad: Nauka, 1974) p. 306.


4ibid., p. 301.

5Dittrich, pp. 487-490.

6Afanasev, p. 127.

7ibid., p. 135.

8Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology I, p. 221.