Roman River Gods
A Still River....
The significance of rivers in our lives, and why they merited Classical deities.
There are some who love the mountain, and some who love the sea but the brown, bubbling river is the dearest thing to me... ran a poem I remember from childhood. Sadly, I cannot find any attribution either online or off - maybe a reader can help? In the meantime, the memory of the words set me off on a meditation over the beauty of rivers and their meaning in our lives. Rivers are physical and geographical. In the past, they provided a means of transport from one place to another. They provided food in the form of fish, water for drinking and facilities for washing. Rivers provide meanings and metaphors of flow and stagnation. We talk about the course of a river in the same way as the course of time. Still waters run deep, we say of a quiet person. And of course, rivers are very beautiful.
The birth and progression of a river metaphorizes that of a person. The river "rises" from a spring that grows into a stream, which becomes a smaller and then a larger river. After many twists and turns, this river flows into another larger river or even into the sea. This progression of events parallels growth and development, marriage and moving into the wider world. Like people, rivers seem to have different "personalities". Some are deep and flow slowly. More are shallow and flow quickly. Some rivers are full all the time while others reduce to a trickle after a period of dry weather. No doubt there are exacting geological and topographical explanations for these phenomena, but the denizens of ancient Greece thought differently. They endowed their rivers with various deities to explain this difference in character. The Romans, with their culture adapted from Greece, carried on this tradition by dedicating rivers to particular deities. Volturnus became their god of water, while the river Tiber was named in honour of deity Tiberinus.
In his book, Metamorphosis, Roman poet Ovid mentions a number of gods and their rivers. Ovid writes about the river Sperchius, with banks bordered by poplars, and the god of the same name. He was the son of Oceanus, who had fathered all river gods. Oceanus is not to be confused with Poseidon (Neptune) however, who was quite another deity. Peleus dedicated son Achilles to Sperchius before that warrior went to battle in Troy. Sperchius was actually the brother-in-law of Achilles, being married to his sister Polydora.
Tyro fell in love with "restless" river god, Enipeus. She would often lie on his banks and lament her passion. One day, Poseidon took the form of Enipeus, emerged from the water and seduced her. She eventually gave birth to twins Pelias and Nelus. Inachus (also the son of Oceanus) was a river deity of the Argolid. After the flood of Deucalion (the classical equivalent of the Biblical flood), Inachus resettled people in the valley that is named after him. Goddess Hera quarrelled with Poseidon for possession of the country, and Inachus ruled in favour of Hera. In revenge, Poseidon caused the rived bed to become dry every summer.
Perhaps the most curious of all river sprites is Melusina. Mythographers have traced her origins to the Melissæ, priestesses of the Greek goddess, Demeter. In turn, the Melissæ can trace their forbears to the servants of African goddess, Mylitta, a “universal mother” and source of all life. The legend of Melusina centres around a fountain that is associated with the Lusignan area, near Poitiers in France. The story goes that a prince named Emmerick saw Melusina bathing in the fountain, and was struck by her beauty. She agreed to marry him on condition that he was to leave her alone every Saturday, to not approach or try to gain access to her in any way. Emmerick agreed readily. The pair married and lived happily together for many years, and had many children. However, as time went on the cold winds of jealousy began to blow about the kingdom.
One Saturday, a relative told Emmerick that Melusina was being unfaithful to him. Upset, he peeped through the keyhole of her room, whereupon he saw her lying in her bath – with two fishtails extending from where her legs should be. Emmerick tried to keep his discovery a secret but one day, he let slip to Melusina that he knew that she was a “half serpent”. She immediately went away and neither he nor the court ever saw her again. However, don’t forget all of those children. For many centuries afterwards, a goodly number of the French nobility and aristocracy believed themselves to be “descended” from Melusina including, rather curiously, Emperor Henry VII.
The Romans carried on dedicating rivers even after they came to Britain. For example, the River Soar in Leicester is dedicated to god Janus. Tradition has it that this river marks the tomb of the legendary King Leir or Lear. In Bitterne near Southampton, goddess Ancasta is associated with the river Itchen while goddess Covetina is associated with a spring lying near the Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall. There is most likely many, many more of these river traditions in Britain. Looking down into the waters of a river, whether shallow and bubbling or deep and still, it is not difficult to understand the ancient belief in river gods and water sprites. Water has a primal attraction that appeals to all of us, reminding us that all life came out of water, and some part of us – dreams, half-forgotten memories? – reside there still. River gods and sprites will be around for as long as we need them.
Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Pierre Grimal, Penguin
Metamorphosis by Ovid, Penguin Classics, translated by David Raeburn