Rituals | Water

Heaven and water

More than any other element, water is charged with meaning in many societies and religions. These beliefs and practices continue to shape people’s day-to-day around the globe. An overview

Creation and Fertility

Whether it comes from the depths of the earth or from above: water is holy to many people. When it falls from the sky, it symbolises celestial powers and is embodied by deities like Tlaloc, God of rain and vegetation in the Aztec empire, Anzar among the Berbers or Zeus, ruler of the heavens amongst the ancient Greeks. The Gods are also invoked to make the earth fertile. In some countries, there are rituals to summon the rain when it fails to appear. At the Tislit Buwanzar (“Betrothed of the rain”) ceremony in Kabylei, a region in Algeria, a young woman at the head of the procession carries a wooden doll dressed in cloth and jewellery through the village. In the past, a naked girl was wrapped in nets that otherwise served the purpose of transporting sheaves, and she would call on Anzar, God of the rain. While doing so she would list all living creatures that were also waiting for the blessed water. Meanwhile other girls gathered around Anzar’s “betrothed” and began to play a ball game called Zerzari. The ceremony in honour of the heavenly water combines provocative nudity and the ball game, which symbolises the seed entering the earth. The cult around sources of water and its power is a phenomenon that spans across many cultures. From America to Asia, myths can be found that emphasise the meaning of water as the source of all life. Stories of the so-called creation dive are especially numerous. Here, an animal dives to the bottom of the ocean, to bring some moist earth up, which is then used to form the world. In Genesis in the Old Testament, everything begins with the primeval flood in which the “Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” Water is a principle of life. But it also brings destruction: Floods are depicted in myths from Papua New Guinea to the Amazon to North America, in the Bible, in Mesopotamian and ancient Indian Epics – possibly to initiate renewal.

Rituals of change

The element water symbolises regeneration. It accompanies the transition from a social, physical or spiritual state into another. The Christian baptism is certainly amongst the best-known rites of transformation. The sacrament is carried out by being either immersed in water or having it sprinkled or poured over you. Like this, the baptised leaves behind the old being in sin for a life with Christ- as though reenacting his death and resurrection once more. There are many different forms of baptism. In the religion of the Akan, who live in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the process is particularly elaborate. There, babies receive their names in a ceremony that takes place eight days after their birth. Traditionally, the village elder touches the baby's tongue with his finger, which has been dipped in the water. The same ritual is repeated – except with gin (now often with non-alcoholic drinks) instead of water, as well as the saying “If you say it’s alcohol, then it’s alcohol.” Through this ceremony, the infant is given human dignity and is accepted into the community of people.

But it’s not only in initiations that water plays an important role, but also in farewells. This is even true for Hindu funerals, which are often cremations: during the ceremony, which includes a public cremation, a hole is beaten into a ceramic container filled with water. Afterwards, the container is smashed, and all the participants go to a stream or river. There, they dive under three times, and take a sip of water. Then the stone, with which the hole was made in the clay vessel, is handed over to the floods.

Water is suited for ends and beginnings, for farewells and welcomes.  The Bambara Volk from Mali has a particularly intimate welcoming ritual for new members of the community. Here, the head of the village takes water in their mouth and sprinkles it on the newcomers, who are then washed by an older initiate of the village at the local water source.


Washing plays a symbolically important role in all world religions. In order to be able to commune with the divine in prayer, it is necessary to cleanse yourself of the sins and impurities of profane life.  Here too, the religions are similar, especially those from the Middle East. In Islam, to reach the state of ritual purity (Tahara), you must carry out Wudu or Ghusl, the minor or major ablution, before praying or visiting the Mosque. Wudu is used to remove minor impurities, caused for believers through urination or defecation. Impurities that are culturally perceived to be more serious  –  caused by menstruation, sexual intercourse or touching a dead person – are removed with the major ablution, Ghusl.

Washing in the Mikvah, a bath of natural water, fulfils the same function in orthodox Judaism. In the evening before the wedding as well as after menstruation or giving birth women must submerge themselves completely, while men traditionally only do so before Shabbat or Yom Kippur. Ritual hand washing, called Netilat Jadajim, is carried out, amongst other things, after getting up in the morning as well as before prayer.

Related, but charged with a more specific symbolic meaning, is the washing of feet, known to Catholics, orthodox Christians and certain free churches. This ritual, that was originally one of hospitality, refers to Jesus when he washes the feet of his disciples in the New Testament as a sign of religious humility and charity.  This Christian custom was created from the instruction to follow his example, and is practised on ecclesiastical holidays.

Hinduism is particularly varied in its selection of water rituals. In Kumbhabhishekam, for instance, a newly built temple is consecrated and ritually cleansed by priests sprinkling holy water from the Ganges and other rivers in a multi-part ceremony with various offerings. Balinese Hindus bathe in holy water, especially in waterfalls, to cleanse body and soul during the Melukat, which also includes sacrifice, prayer and meditation. And the probably biggest religious event in the world does not happen at St. Peter's Square in Rome or in Mecca, but at an Indian body of water: Kumbh Mela, the jug festival, is celebrated by believers every three years in one of four Indian towns. More than 200 million people take a mass bath in the holy Ganges; sometimes dressed in special clothes or rubbed, naked, with ash, they douse themselves with water, often while dancing to music, to wash away their sins.

On the other end of the spectrum are rituals that signify contemplation, for instance those in Zen-Buddhism. Before entering a temple or beginning a tea ceremony, believers wash their mouth and hands at Tsukabai, a small basin usually made of stone. The name, which derives from the old Japanese word for “bending down” or “bowing”, refers to the central importance of humility and inner calm.

In some religions the type of water itself is a factor. Among the Mandaeans, a dualistic religion with Gnostic, Jewish and Christian elements that is at home in modern-day Iraq, there is a symbolically significant distinction in water: flowing, “living” water (Maia Hayyi) represents the good; “dead”, salty or stagnant water (Maia Tahmi) represents evil. For that reason, Mandaens perform baptisms, which serve to wash off sins, in flowing water. These take place several times in a lifespan. In the Tigris, where Mandaeans from Baghdad purify themselves spiritually, this is now as dangerous to health because of the water pollution.

Compiled by Cécile Calla 
With additional reporting by Justus Tamm
Translated by Ysanne Cremer