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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Water as Sacred Power

Water has held an emotive role within the beliefs and religions of societies world-wide, from prehistory to the present. Since the earliest documented accounts of human society, water has served as a component in rituals; a medium for disposal of the dead; a place for offerings; a source of oracles and a home to deities and supernatural powers. As an example, it has long been assumed that water held a powerful place in the beliefs and religions of communities in the prehistoric and pre-Christian societies of Northern Europe. Wide-spread discoveries of metal artefacts from springs, wells, bogs, rivers and lakes have been used to underpin this idea, as well as limited evidence for deity-names associated with rivers and human sacrificial remains preserved in peat-bogs.

In 2009-10, a collaborative venture between the Departments of Archaeology, Anthropology and Classics, facilitated by funding from the IAS, will culminate in a series of three interlocking workshops on the over-arching theme of Water as Sacred Power. These will explore: water as sacred environment (Archaeology), water as rituals and memory (Anthropology) and water and the mythic imagination (Classics). Each workshop will comprise 4-6 papers by established academics and early career researchers. Workshops will offer an opportunity for cross-period and interdisciplinary discussion. All are welcome to attend

The series will commence with a day session 'Water as Sacred Environment' at the Theoretical Archaeology Conference 2009, hosted in December by the Department of Archaeology, Durham University. A workshop in the Department of Anthropology will take place in April 2010 and the series will draw to a conclusion in June 2010 with a workshop in the Department of Classics.

Workshop One:         Water as Sacred Environment

19 December 2009
Department of Archaeology, Durham University
Organisers: Dr Tom Moore, Dr. Sarah Semple & Dr Pam Graves


Across religions world-wide, water can be shown to draw ritual actions such as votive deposition and temple building. Rivers, lakes, pools, wells and springs as well as river mouths and intertidal locations, have provided a foci for ritual practices and structures, or even the presence of ritual specialists, hermits and monastic/ religious communities in the past and present. This opening session will, via ten papers, seek to explore the different ways in which watery environments provide a forum for religious or ritual action and how such places are enhanced and developed as sacred foci.

Provisional speakers: Professor Richard Bradley (Reading University); Dr Julie Lund (University of Oslo); Dr Eugène Warmenbol (Brussels) Mr Chris Davis (Durham University); Dr Pam Graves (Durham University)


Workshop Two:     Water as Ritual and Memory

Institute of Advanced Study, Cosin's Hall
Organiser: Dr Alex Bentley, Department of Anthropology


In this session the papers will offer differing perceptions on how water can be used as a medium to purify, bless and baptise and nurture sacred places, objects and even living organisms. The power of water often needs specific controlling rituals too such as blessings, royal commands and special depositions, if it is to be crossed and tamed. Such concepts extend to the role of water in 'new-age' religion and through beliefs in water memory and homeopathy.  Provisional Programme  


Workshop Three:        Water in Myth and Cults

24 June 2010
Organiser: Dr Ted Kaizer (Department of Classics)


Water holds an emotive place within the human imagination. Intriguing parallels exist between the flood in Genesis and Greco-Roman mythology, in particular the enmeshing of the two traditions in early Christian thought, with interesting repercussions for conceptions of universal history. Although lakes, rivers and seas are resources for communities - fished, consumed, utilised in production from salt-working to metallurgy and agriculture, watery places are imbued too with mythic and supernatural aspects and powers by communities: seas are the domain of monsters, rivers the home of deities and supernatural powers, while all types of watery places have been considered interfaces with the supernatural whilst rivers, seas and lakes are often intertwined with past concepts of identity and origins.


Workshop Programme