The physical and metaphorical power of water is a universal human concern

Researchers analysed the meanings of water in different cultural and social contexts

The fact that there is no life without water is a familiar one both to farmers and to researchers looking for life in outer space. At the same time, water is one of the oldest enduring universal symbols; it features heavily in ancient myths and continues to play a key role in contemporary literature. The impact of water on human culture can be seen in many ways, and its ambiguous nature makes it an excellent topic for research.

Between 2012 and 2016, Professor Arja Rosenholm of the University of Tampere directed the Academy of Finland funded research project Water as Social and Cultural Space: Changing Values and Representations – AQUA, which investigated water from a multidisciplinary perspective. The project critically studied and analysed the representations and cultural meanings of water. The perspectives of language, literature, culture, history, technology and environmental sciences were used to illuminate what water has meant to people at different times and in different places. The aim of the project was to introduce a humanities perspective to the debate on water.

“Water is a fruitful topic. It has economic, technological and social dimensions, because communities are formed close to seas, lakes or rivers. Water also has an aesthetic and psychological meaning; what is the power in water that calms people when they sit on the beach and listen to the lapping of the waves?” Rosenholm says.

Throughout history, water has been researched in many different fields. Water is a thing related to our everyday lives.

“It is also an old symbol that has been pondered throughout the study of philosophy and the philological history of literature. In many ways, water is present in the great rituals of life, such as baptism. People spend their first nine months in water and are mostly made of water. Water is an element of both daily life and special occasions,” Rosenholm explains.

Water is also manifest in language and literature in the form of various metaphors, especially when a person’s inner life is described. For example, thinking “flows” and “still waters run deep”. Water is also used to describe our feelings: one can be “dead calm” or feel “waves” of emotion that “roil” and “burst out”, as if from a broken dam.

“Water has always been an element of literature. It has had significance especially as a metaphor when the process of creativity has been described,” Rosenholm adds.

The imagery of water has changed with the times. Water continues to be important, but today people may construct dams, run water through pipes or produce hydroelectricity. Because of scientific and technological progress, water may have lost some of its mythical significance.

“The technological standpoint has had an effect on the imagery. For example, in premodern times, mythical elements were associated with water and nature, which were read as superhuman elements closely connected to deities. At least partly today, efforts have been made to replace some of the holy and mythological elements of water by making people think of water as an element that can be controlled through scientific and technological knowhow. The human relationship with water is a story about scientific and technological advancements, the times we live in and how we see our role in the dialogue between nature and culture,” Rosenholm continues.

For Finns, who live in “the country of a thousand lakes”, access to clean water is taken for granted. However, water threatens people in many ways globally because there is often either too much or too little of it. On the one hand, melting glaciers threaten to raise sea levels and flood coastal towns, and tsunamis can destroy entire cities. On the other hand, droughts can decimate harvests and dam projects may lead to desertification.

“For us today in Finland, having this everyday relationship with water is rather exceptional, because having clean water has been rare throughout history,” Rosenholm says.

Water is a lifeline but also a devastating force. The hazards of climate change, which also include an increase in the occurrence of extreme weather conditions, are profoundly related to the relationship between water and people. People will never be able to control water completely.

Literary and cultural imageries show the human relationship with water in its different forms. Water can also be used to describe human characteristics, for example, to emphasise human strength. Flowing water can be presented as a challenge and a symbol of victory and vitality. To illustrate this point, Rosenholm and researcher Mika Perkiömäki mention the recurring cultural images of world leaders who swim in rivers. A swim in a river can elevate a leader’s image and endow him (or her, although it is usually a him) with an air of courage and bravery.

“Chairman Mao Zedong swam across the Yangtze and Benito Mussolini took a plunge in the Tiber. Saddam Hussein’s swim across the Tigris was a great media spectacle, and I believe President Putin is also a great swimmer,” Perkiömäki notes.

“Rivers are key waters. The imagery of flowing water is repeated in literature and culture and it connotes strength and power. One of the dimensions is to overcome water and to experience and show courage,” Rosenholm adds.

Everyday life and the holy are represented by water, just like life and death. It is an ambiguous research topic whose meanings are increasingly interwoven with ecological awareness. Water should not only be understood as a resource that serves people if it is properly channelled: it also reveals things about people.

“One of the guiding lights in our project was that as humanists we try to remind people that the way we talk about and produce representations tells us something about our nature-water relationship. It is important to realise that the different meanings also create a concrete environment. How we talk about water is crucially important,” Rosenholm explains.

Researching water
• The main aim of the Academy of Finland-funded multidisciplinary research project Water as Social and Cultural Space: Changing Values and Representations – AQUA (2012–2016) was to critically re evaluate the values, meanings, opportunities and threats associated with water.

• The project resulted in several publications, conference presentations and three books. Two of the books are in English: Meanings and Values of Water in Russian Culture (Jane Costlow and Arja Rosenholm [eds.] Routledge, 2017) and Water in Social Imagination: From Technological Optimism to Contemporary Environmentalism (Jane Costlow, Yrjö Haila, Arja Rosenholm [eds.], Brill Rodopi, 2017).The manuscript of the third book, which is in Finnish, Veteen kirjoitettu: veden merkitykset kirjallisuudessa, is currently undergoing the peer review process.

• A new multidisciplinary research consortium with funding from the Academy of Finland called The Changing Environment of the North: Cultural Representations and Uses of Water (2017–2021) is continuing research on the topic at the University of Eastern Finland, with the University of Tampere acting as a partner.

• The project investigates the meanings of northern – especially Arctic – areas from the perspectives of centre-periphery relations and aquagraphy. The study analyses the history and the real and imaginary realitites of the north and the Arctic through water (glaciers, ice, snow, and floods) rather than land.

• The aim is to generate new knowledge about life and narratives in the north, especially the Arctic, and their impact on contemporary debate.

Text: Anna Ojalahti
Photograph: Jonne Renvall