And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail :
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
-Excerpt from “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Rivers have always been inherently powerful to me, radiating a sense of peace, will, and mysticism. They have always been innately important to me, and so when it came time to think about my path and the symbols that marked it, rivers were among the top of the list.
O sisters let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sisters let’s go down
Down in the river to pray
-“Down to the River to Pray,” Alison Krauss
The river a place of beginnings and endings. It is a source of life, but can also take life away. Rivers—and rain, too—are common symbols for rebirth or baptismal experiences. The sense of being reborn, of going into the river and coming out as new, refreshed, and different. One of the first spiritual experiences I have had was watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? and watching the scenes of the sirens at the river and falls, and the scene at the river of the Baptists. Even with the overtly Christian themes, especially of the latter scene, it is still a spiritual (and even Pagan) scene to me, not least because the movie is a modern interpretation of The Odyssey.
The scene of the sirens, too, reminds me of the variety of lore and folktales surrounding rivers and the creatures and beings and spirits that live in and around them. The naiads of Greece especially come to mind, spirits of the waters in a specific area. They are, in a sense, also land spirits, but inherently river-like to their cores. You find more rivers in Greek myths with the rivers of Hades; some are also found in the myths of Persephone, something I only learned recently, despite having associated her with rivers (and commonly the Ophelia archetype) for about a year before learning this.
In literature, rivers are typically viewed as a liminal place, a between place. Unsurprising since rivers are inherently paradoxical: they are both water and land; both life bringer and death dealer; both always the same and never the same. As the saying goes, one can never step in the same river twice. And that’s true—for one can never have the same circumstances occur exactly the same way a second time. The same water is not there, the same bits of the land are not there, and you are not the same the second time. And yet, we still know that it is the same river as before, even if circumstances have changed. Even if we have changed. The lane the waters have carved from land and rock is still the same—or not, as rivers themselves will move and reshape the land over time, or even in a great swell of rushing water blasting off the small precipice that had for years blocked its path.
As someone who follows a very liminal path, this imagery, these inherent paradoxes of such a common location in our histories, in our own lives, rivers are a very potent symbol for me. They have meaning and mysticism inherent to them that I cannot ignore. And as someone who is unable to reconcile themselves with their dislike for water, it is peculiar that rivers hold such a vehement meaning for me.
I have always found rivers to be calming. Whether playing in them as a child, watching their waters sparkle and dance over stone and rock, or listening to the sound of it rushing by, I can always be calmed by rivers. Some of the most potent memories of my life have rivers associated with them, and the two cities which are close to me, either in my heart or my home, are both known for their rivers—the Chicago River in Chicago, my hometown and birthplace; and the Potomac River here in Alexandria, VA, where I live now. Both rivers have had their place in my life, and when I miss Chicago, I can look at photos of the river and feel peacified. When I am stressed with work or personal things, I can walk down King Street to the docks and walk along the edge of the Potomac, staring across its grey waters to Maryland or Washington, D.C., beyond.
The mysticism of rivers, too, is something I cannot ignore. It calls to something within me, my predilection for magic and spirituality. These feelings came rearing up again today as I listened to a podcast recently recommended to me by my friend Sionnan: Story Archaeology.
In the first episode, Chris Thompson and Isolde Carmody discuss the lore of the River Sinann and its creation by its namesake, an accomplished woman named Sinann who desired inspiration. I won’t go into the story in detail, because Chris and Isolde do a wonderful discussion and breakdown of the story and its variants that should not be missed, especially if you have an interest in Irish mythology.
But as I listened to this episode, they were discussing the liminal places that one finds in mythology, and the river Sinann itself comes from a place beneath the waves, in the west, beneath the sea. They discuss the idea that, in myths, the protagonist must often “…find the impossible place… the place where poetry is found…is between the water and the dry land. It’s in the place between.” These words hit me quite squarely, and I found myself musing on that place, that liminal space where poetry is found, throughout the day.
There is a saying that when you are called upon to serve the spirits or the gods, you emerge either as a spirit worker (or shaman, but that word has many other connotations that lead it to be more trouble than it’s worth), a poet, or mad. Now, I’ve been mad, and I’ve written a great deal of poetry (none of which is really fit for public consumption, for various reasons, at least not yet), and I’ve done spirit work or witchcraft time and again. And having experienced these three states, though rarely if ever at the same time, I can look back and see that they each have a state of otherness to them, a feeling of being outside one’s self and trying to describe the experiences to those not involved. Often, when discussing spirit work or witchcraft, you can tend to “wax poetic,” and I do the same whenever I talk about my time of madness and intense depression. This is, for me at least, because it is impossible to apply physical ideas to an abstract concept such as these without using metaphor. And so, for me, each of these concepts, each of these states, are inherently entwined, each pushing and pulling into one another to create something else. There is also a lot of romanticizing of the mad poet, or of someone mentally ill who is thus capable of seeing the world in a different, commonly viewed as beautiful, way. But that is a discussion for another time, and likely another blog entirely.
For me, rivers embody all these ideas. The power of the mystic, the beauty of the poet, and the unadulterated chaos that comes from madness. It is all three, and yet none of these, for a river is naught but a river itself.
But rivers are also endings, too. They can take life as quickly as they can save it, and though they are a source of food, travel, and purity, once tainted they can destroy an entire city or civilization. A river has a birth and a death, a coming and a going, where it springs from the earth then fades into the sea.