Water was among the prime deities in an animistic universe. Its influence permeated the world of myths and folklore and impacted the rituals that helped perpetuate a chosen way of life.
Almost all creation mythologies have the universe emerging from a watery abyss, some imagine a smooth landing while others pick a more fiery and tumultuous awakening. The Indian, Chinese and Sumerian-Babylonian myths carry a memory of a life-giving ocean; in the Rig Veda, the ocean is dark and sludge-like while others shape their beliefs around local contours and contexts. The Babylonian creation myth says that in the beginning nothing existed except the sweet water ocean, Apsu, and the salt water ocean, Tiamat, who mixed together to bring forth the world.
In tribal folklore, water acquires demonic proportions even when it is involved in the creation of the world. Among the Gonds in Central India, for instance, Budha Deo, the great god, killed the demon in the ocean and created the mountains out of his bones, putting the rest of his body to various other uses.
While water runs as a motif across creation myths, it is a destructive force in the flood myths. This duality in the nature of water shaped the gods that governed it. Thus, there are plenty of stories about a benevolent river goddess turning into a child-killer or a mighty ocean monster claiming his pound of flesh from the people he serves. And there is the amrita manthan myth that shows the ocean throwing up both poison and nectar.
Feared for its whimsy and revered for its creative powers, water imbued its gods with a duality, similar to that of other gods of nature. Take the rain, sky and thunder gods across cultures; Indra in the Vedic pantheon, Tlaloc for the Aztecs and Zeus for the Greeks, they are all-powerful, benevolent as well as destructive. Among old Chinese folktales is the figure of Wen Zhong, the god of thunder, who is described as a hideous beast and must be kept in chained custody or else he could destroy all life.
There are other stories too, extolling the virtues and generosity of the water gods while asking people to goose-step around the mighty protectors. Among the Slavic people, there is a particularly ghastly set of stories about the vodianoi, a threatening male water spirit. He is covered in slime, frightening to look at and takes malicious pleasure in drowning those who offend him. In Africa, women of child-bearing age in Rwanda leave a pot of water outside their homes at night so that the god of creation does not have any difficult shaping new life inside their womb. Gods shaped human beings out of clay and need water to serve the divine hand, the locals believe.
Tempting though it may be to draw a lesson from these tales that societies that worship and fear water also save it, it would be unreasonable. A quick glance at the rivers in India, of the cities along its banks and of the manner in which we continue to defile it with plastic and sewage, is enough to assign any such notions into the dump yard. The point is that myths were not meant to be didactic tales, preserved in cotton wool and rituals — instead, they were explorations into philosophical abstractions that the ancient world was grappling with. If there is anything that we can take away from the past, it is that the ancients revered water because they respected its right to withdraw the life-generating principle, while we claim it as a right and look at ways to extract more and more out of a depleting storehouse.