The Motif of Living Water in Slavic Tradition

The Lexical Definition of the Living Water Motif

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Lexical Definition of Living Water

Having defined our concepts, definitions, and terminology in

What is a Folklore Motif

it is now possible to define lexically the specific motif of living water. Living water, like water labeled by other attributes, is hardly completely stable in its usage. On the contrary, it is used in a wide variety of contexts and its meaning can vary. Living water in Slavic folklore, in the words of I.L. Los',

"brings the dead back to life and gives sight to the blind. In addition it is the drink of heroic figures who, according to Afanasev (Alexander Nikolaevič Afanasev, 1826-71), intercede for the thunder-god."1

The term appears with several attributes. Dead water (mertvaja voda), also called healing (celjaščaja) water, is sprinkled on parts of the body that have been cut or completely severed, thereby healing wounds and causing body parts to grow back together. Although the wounds at this point have been healed, the formerly severed body parts are still in a state of death. For example, legs that were cut off are now reattached but are still non-functional, and a body that was chopped into pieces is again whole but completely lifeless.2 Living water, also called magic (volšebnaja) water,3 is then applied to the body to bring it or its dead members back to life. The distinction between dead water as a healing element and living water as a revitalizing element is often found in Slavic folklore, and, as will be shown, is a concept common to Eastern, Western, and South Slavs.

Strong (sil'naja) water, which at least one source equates to living water,4 has the ability to give great strength. It is seen in Slavic folklore in one of three oppositions: strong water versus weak (bessil'naja) water, strong water versus normal water, or water on the right versus water on the left.

Some of these terms are found in contemporary Russian vernacular speech, and in folk sayings and beliefs. The expression oprysnut' (okatit', etc.) živoj (mertvoj) vodoj means to give life to, to revive or to inspire.5 According to folk belief, a person who is cleansed in the rain which immediately follows the first thunder of spring will receive beauty, health and happiness.6

Magic Water

Next we look at possible Greek and Latin origins of the living water motif:

Greek and Latin Origins


1Los, I.L., "Voda živaja," Ènciklopedičeskij slovar', ed. F.A. Brokgauz and I.A. Efron, vol. 6A (St. Petersburg, 1892), p. 749. The entire article translates as follows:

"Living Water, also strong or heroic, in the folktales of all Indo-European peoples, which symbolizes spring rains, that resurrect the earth from the deathly sleep of winter. It brings the dead back to life and gives sight to the blind. In addition it is the drink of heroic figures who, according to Afanasev, intercede for the thunder-god. The distinction between dead and living water occurs only in Slavic folktales and is not repeated elsewhere. Dead water is sometimes called healing water: it heals wounds, causes the severed parts of a dead body to grow back together, but does not raise it from the dead, only the sprinkling of living water brings it back to life. According to Afanasev, dead water is the first spring rains which drive the ice and snow from the fields and seem to tie together the severed parts of the mother-earth. The rains that follow bring it greenery and flowers. Living water is found in a distinct kingdom where two mountains come together. The mountains separate for only a minute and are guarded by a serpent or ravens with iron beaks. According to folktales, living and dead water are brought by the personified forces of storms (i.e. whirlwind, thunder, or hale) or prophetic birds, in the form of ravens, sparrows, eagles and doves. A person who drinks living or heroic water immediately receives great strength. The belief in living water is tied to the folk ritual in which everyone, upon hearing the clash of the first thunder, rushes to wash themselves in water. The act was thought to bring beauty, health, and happiness."

2Evgen'ev, A.P., ed., Slovar' russkogo jazyka, 4 vols., 2nd ed., (Moscow: Russkij jazyk, 1981-1982), II:255.

3Tolkovyj slovar' živogo velikorusskogo jazyka,, ed. Vladamir Dal', (Moscow: 1882), I:538.


5Slovar' sovremenogo russkogo literaturnogo jazyka, (Moscow: A.N. SSSR, 1951) II:494.

6Ènciklopedičeskij slovar', XXI:749.