The Pattern of Water as Death and Chaos

Jonathan PageauSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

One of the problems with symbolism is that when people hear symbolic interpretations for the first time, they can often feel like the person doing the interpreting is jumping all over the place. However, for those who have developed a sense for the underlying patterns, what can sometimes seem like strange jumps is in fact a very tight and coherent structure of analogies, which is built out of the extremely dense origin, and then taking on a more and more explicit form as the story unfolds. In terms of Christianity, the pattern begins in Genesis and then unfolds, finding its highest and most complete/internalized version of meaning in the person of Christ. And in the end these patterns are the underlying patterns of reality in particular forms, the web that links consciousness to phenomena and maps out how the world presents itself to us.  So I am going to follow a golden thread you could call it, and try to unpack this for all of you. I am going to get this thread from the very beginning, Genesis 1.  

1  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  2  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  3  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.  

Genesis 1:1-4

So notice there is a very deep pattern which is set up, two opposites, heaven and earth, as the first poles, the extremes of creation we could say. The earth is described first, chaos, empty, darkness, also deep, all of these are below we could say, and then above is the spirit or wind of God which is related to heaven.  Then there is also the first word and that word is for there to be light.  So you can see above, wind, spirit, heaven, but also word, identity, name, and light as the prerequisite for vision, clarity, and identity.  So all of these are related to one another, and give us a very powerful set of analogies by which to view all things.  Of course there is more subtlety here, but this level of resolution is sufficient to at least perceive the pattern.  It is important to notice though that darkness which will be associated in that which is below, with potentiality, precedes light as an extension of the chaos, void, and potentiality of creation. This helps us to understand what might seem like the stranger aspects of some of the other days during the creation account, the teaming up of opposites with the stating of what is below and then what is above.  On the third day there is the pulling of dry land out of the waters, and then there is vegetation which is brought forth from that land, so you can imagine the lower waters as a kind of bottomless chaos, the deep, then later the land itself, as being slightly higher and coming out of that watery chaos and then immediately on top of that comes the vegetation on this land, then on the 4th day there is the creation of the heavenly bodies.  So you can see this opposite relation being repeated.  Scientifically of course this makes absolutely no sense, and it is not as if early Christians didn’t know this, Origen pointed this out in the third century. In scientific terms vegetation does not come before the sun or the moon.  It is a pattern of being.   Then on the 5th day, the fish are created.  So the lowest form of life, in terms of their phenomenological place, and then birds above, as the highest form of life, closest to heaven and in a way related to heaven itself. This day will give us the key to understanding fish as the “lowest” life, or  life hidden in chaos.  We can understand why Christ speaks of being fishermen, and the birds will play spiritual roles and represent the influence of heaven. This pattern will play out in several stories. So then finally there is Man on the 6th day, who unites the earth with heaven, and who also contains both Male and Female, the two opposites within himself. We also learn in the next chapter how Man not only reproduces in himself the cosmic duality, but ultimately acts as a union of Heaven and earth because the breath, the spirit of God, that very spirit which was over the surface of the deep on the first day, now enters into the earth, as God blows into Adam’s nostrils after fashioning him out of dust in his own image. So we have the basic pattern.  Once again, we realize that it is not a scientific description, but rather an ontological hierarchy with Man in the Middle as the microcosm, the anchor of creation who holds heaven/meaning/light/spirit  together with Earth/chaos/potential/darkness/body within himself.  Now versions of this pattern will be repeated in several places in the Bible in different ways, and with different variations, but if one pays attention, one can see it clearly.  Firstly, when the world falls apart during the time of Noah, this is shown as a return to the primordial state of the beginning, where all is swallowed up by the chaotic waters, and heaven and earth are completely separated once again. Here also, we  begin to see the intuitive relationship between a descent into the chaotic waters and death, as the whole world and all life that is outside the ark vanishes into the flood.   In this story you also see this notion of mixture as moving towards chaos, so you can imagine the world as related to a center, an identity, and then the chaos, or potential, is seen as on the edge, on the outside of this world. The chaos of death will be associated with the notion of what is foreign and so the foreigner can often act as a proxy for what is unknown, what is uncharted, and that which is chaotic.   This idea can be shown in terms of sacred geography to help us understand.  For example there are many ancient traditions such as that found in  The Hymns of Paradise by St-Ephrem the Syrian.  

In The Hymns of Paradise, a book I recommend highly by the way, the Garden of Eden was a mountain, with the Tree of Life at the summit. A bit further down was the Tree of Knowledge and then lower still was the wall. Then you can see how the fall of man is a descent down the mountain. For example, in St-Ephrem’s vision, when Cain tells Abel, “let us go to the plain”, the idea is that he is saying ”let us go to the valley, to the lowpoint”, and so that is where Cain kills Abel. Various traditions show this geographical descent to exemplify the accelerating fall. And so we see the story of the Flood where the sons of God go into the daughters of Men and this mixture causes the giants.  In St-Ephrem, he envisions the Sons of God as living higher up on the mountain and the daughters of Men as living lower on the mountain, closer to the Ocean. Closer to the waters of chaos.   So now in the Flood story we also find the first pattern of Creation repeated.  As the world is covered in water, Noah sends a Dove, a bird representing heaven to fly down and find land within the chaotic waters, participating in the recreation of the world after the flood.  

The early Christians took advantage of this relationship between the waters and death. We can see for example the ark represented here in an early Christian tomb of the Roman catacombs. Notice how the ark is made to look like a sarcophagus of some kind. The waters also become the fish, or rather the great sea monster. The mouth of the monster like this, taken from the story of Jonah, will become an image of the Mouth of Hell in later Western Christian art and even some Eastern examples where being in the mouth of a monster is related to death as the bottom of the ladder of divine ascent.    So always keep in mind the original pattern of the waters with the way in which the Spirit of God descends to create the world.  We see a pristine example when the Israelites come to the Red Sea with Moses, and by the actions of Moses, a Great wind appears. Always remember that though spirit and wind are used differently in English now, these are the same in many of the ancient languages. So as the Israelites face death at the Red Sea by the hand of the foreign Egyptians, a wind from the East blows open the sea and reveals dry land. Notice how dry land is pulled out of the sea like in the creation story by the blowing of the wind/spirit. The Israelites pass through the waters, and the Egyptians get caught in the chaos. The waters cover them like the flood covered the corrupt world in the story of Noah.   So you can see this general notion emerging that sinking into the waters, sinking into the mire, or descending into the earth is related to death, but also how this is related to the foreigner as a marker of death. All of it gets multiplied into several examples which repeat once again the original pattern through different guises.  Joseph gets descended into a cistern to then go to the land of the foreigner. Daniel is descended into the lion’s den by a foreign king.  Also Jonah is thrown into the waters by foreign sailors, going down into the waters and facing the sea monster.  The  pattern is the same but it plays out differently.  There is also a duality which gets set up, in which the foreigner is both an image of chaos, but also becomes an image of resurrection  Notice for example how Joseph goes into the cistern to be sold to the Egyptians, but then his travel into Egypt is what will ultimately save his family from starvation.  There is another even more explicit version of this, where the Prophet Jeremiah is placed into a cistern like a prison, and is then pulled out of the cistern by an Ethiopian man using rotting decaying rags.  This pattern of death saving us from death, of what the Orthodox call “trampling down Death by Death” is very important and I won’t emphasize that too much today. I just want you to notice it is there and it is important.  Hopefully I can explain more fully in another video.    So, to the main pattern I am trying to show you, there are plenty of other micro-examples where this gets repeated, but I won’t go into all of them:  The crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites, the crossing by Elijah, Elisha’s axe-head rising up and floating on the waters, being raised as earth is raised from the sea.  Notice for example this powerful Psalm which plays on this motif.  

1  Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. 2  I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. 8  I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children. 14  Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters. 15  Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.  

Psalm 69:1-15

Notice his sinking into the mire or emergence out of the deep waters.  The flood is akin to dying but also to becoming a stranger, an alien.  Now I want to show you how all of this comes together in the story of Christ.  There are several examples I could choose, but one of the clearest seems to be the story of Christ’s Baptism.  In the Gospel of St-Matthew it is very powerfully described like this.  

16  As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  

Matthew 3:16-17

So hopefully, it will be pretty clear that this image repeats the Genesis creation story, with water below and heaven above which opens. The Spirit descends, and the voice of God is heard from Heaven. The spirit is a bird, a dove like in the story of Noah and in this story. Christ appears as a kind of bridge which unites heaven and earth. You have to see it like it is in the traditional image, with Christ’s feet at the bottom of the water and his head up above, while the dove comes down. In the traditional icon, the way the Jordan river is displayed suggests a cave as well, so that we understand how Baptism is really a descent into the earth, a descent into death and chaos. There are even some versions of the Baptism icon, where Christ is shown standing on the doors of the abyss or  Hades, and crushing snakes. And so, the image of Baptism is really a cosmic image. It becomes an image of the incarnation itself, of how heaven and earth have come together, have been fully united.  Also, at least in the Orthodox spirit, it is also a vision of how the entirety of creation mysteriously participates in the incarnation, and how all creation can be a symbol of divinity.    So the day of the Theophany, which is the day we celebrate the baptism of Christ, is also the day where the waters of the world are blessed, and so all over the world, processions go out to large bodies of water, and the priest throws a cross into the water in order to show, and not just to show, but also to participate in how all of this is related together, the creation of the world, the incarnation, and Baptism. All of these are like an interwoven web of meanings and actions which point to the mysterious way in which the universe is full of the infinite, full of the mystery.  In the service of Theophany we hear a return on some of the pattern I mentioned here, so we hear phrases like:

You are our God, who drowned sin in the waters at the time of Noah. You are our God, who in the sea, and at the hands of Moses, delivered the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh.

And so you can see how there is an interlocking of these threads of reference together with one another.    Then when you read certain other texts in the Bible, the pattern reappears over and over, and if one is not keen on the pattern then some phrases lose their weight.  For example, there is a text in the Epistle of St-Peter which says:  

19  He was put to death in the body, but made alive in the spirit, in which He also went and preached to the spirits in prison 20  who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ark was being built. In the ark a few people, only eight souls, were saved through water. 21  And this water symbolizes the baptism that now saves you

1 Peter 3:19-21

So there is a restating of the basic duality of body, chaos, and death below, with life and spirit above.  It is the heaven and earth duality from the beginning. But then he speaks of these spirits who are trapped in prison, trapped in the earth, which are related to Noah and the flood, and the waters of the flood symbolize the baptism that now saves you from that prison.  So you can imagine not only Noah, but Jonah in his fish, Joseph in his cistern, Jeremiah in his cistern, or else the Psalmist talking about his descent in the mire. All of this comes together.  This is just a very tiny thread, simplified to a great degree in order to demonstrate it, but hopefully people will start to see how all of this works and how such a system of symbols can act as the basis for a worldview.  

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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