This is my take on it – other mods like theheadlesshashasheen may also want to chime in, so this is by no means what I’d call a definitive answer.
First, let’s look at the Orphic/Totenpass angle:1 You will find in the house of Hades, on the right side, a spring,
2 and standing by it a white cypress.
3 Do not even approach this spring!
4 Ahead you will find from the Lake of Memory,
5 cold water pouring forth; there are guards before it.
6 They will ask you by what necessity you have come.
7 You, tell them the whole entire truth.
8 Say, “I am a child of Earth and starry Sky.
9 My name is ‘Starry.’ I (masculine) am parched with thirst. But grant me
10 to drink from the spring.”
– Tablet found at Pharsalos, Thessaly circa 350-300 BCE, Graf/Johnston trans.
This is not the only mention of the dead being parched in these tablets, which seem to stretch for several centuries, even into the early Common Era, and further back. It seems as if the dead are driven to drink by thirst, which either gets them rebirth if they drink one source, or heroic status, from the lake of Memory.
So that’s the Greek angle. But it also, given that ” Witchcraft’ is where the western grimoire tradition reacts with the local biosphere.” as gordonwhite says on Runesoup, and most historical witches and Cunning Folk used the Bible as sacred text and magical manual, there’s also this:
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:19-31, emphasis mine
Note that this is the exception in Christian uses of Hades as the abode of the dead, or intermediate state prior to resurrection. It’s the one reference we have to it as a place of torment and fire. Mostly, Hades is applied to Sheol (the grave/underworld) in the Old Testament, rather than Gehenna which is the fiery place of punishment for the wicked.
That said, the passage above seems to imply that there’s a sort of compartmentalising of the underworld – perhaps similar to the Hades/Tartarus split. The idea that there might be multiple post-mortem fates is, after all, very old.
There is somethiong to be said for the idea that the cool water not only soothes the dead, but actually nourishes and/or helps them remember their Primordial nature. Some traditions suggest that ‘hot’ spirits are more concerned wit ‘worldly’ work than ‘cooler ones’ – one’s mileage with that idea may vary, but it’s certainly the case that cool water seems well received.
We might also consider that in certain traditions, humanity comes from the sea, whether that sea be the ancestral dwelling of the dead or a path to a mythic homeland such as Guinee – or even the notion of the ambient dead/dreaming sea of theKalunga. Norse myth says that the gods found the trees that they made into humans as driftwood on a beach, washed up from the sea, as well as the Nornir, givers of destiny and wyrd, being gathered around a well – one of three in the cosmology.
Finally, we might want to look at the etymology of sea, soul and lake:
sea (n.) Old English sæ “sheet of water, sea, lake, pool,” from Proto-Germanic *saiwaz (cognates: Old Saxon seo, Old Frisian se, Middle Dutch see, Swedish sjö), of unknown origin, outside connections “wholly doubtful” [Buck]. Meaning “large quantity” (of anything) is from c.1200. Meaning “dark area of the moon’s surface” is attested from 1660s (see mare (n.2)).
Germanic languages also use the general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.)), but have no firm distinction between “sea” and “lake,” either by size, by inland or open, or by salt vs. fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated. The two words are used more or less interchangeably in Germanic, and exist in opposite senses (such as Gothic saiws “lake,” marei “sea;” but Dutch zee “sea,” meer “lake”). Compare also Old Norse sær “sea,” but Danish sø, usually “lake” but “sea” in phrases. German See is “sea” (fem.) or “lake” (masc.). The single Old English word sæ glosses Latin mare, aequor, pontus, pelagus, and marmor.
soul (n.1) “A substantial entity believed to be that in each person which lives, feels, thinks and wills” [Century Dictionary], Old English sawol “spiritual and emotional part of a person, animate existence; life, living being,” from Proto-Germanic *saiwalo (cognates: Old Saxon seola, Old Norse sala, Old Frisian sele, Middle Dutch siele, Dutch ziel, Old High German seula, German Seele, Gothic saiwala), of uncertain origin.
Sometimes said to mean originally “coming from or belonging to the sea,” because that was supposed to be the stopping place of the soul before birth or after death [Barnhart]; if so, it would be from Proto-Germanic *saiwaz (see sea). Klein explains this as “from the lake,” as a dwelling-place of souls in ancient northern Europe.
lake (n.1) “body of water,” early 12c., from Old French lack and directly from Latin lacus “pond, lake,” also “basin, tank,” related to lacuna “hole, pit,” from PIE *laku- (cognates: Greek lakkos “pit, tank, pond,” Old Church Slavonic loky “pool, puddle, cistern,” Old Irish loch “lake, pond”). The common notion is “basin.” There was a Germanic form of the word, which yielded cognate Old Norse lögr “sea flood, water,” Old English lacu “stream,” lagu “sea flood, water,” leccan “to moisten” (see leak (v.)). In Middle English, lake, as a descendant of the Old English word, also could mean “stream; river gully; ditch; marsh; grave; pit of hell,” and this might have influenced the form of the borrowed word.
Add to this that water itself is a fantastically liminal substance – witches and other spirits are sometimes said not to be able to cross running water, and also that sacrifices were sometimes made to wells, marshes, rivers and the sea so they could be carried to the realm of the gods, and I think you’ve got some hints as to why water is so important to the dead.
By giving them water, we are giving them refreshment, we draw them into the field of memory, strengthen them and deepen our connection to them and the wider kosmos.
Excellent post. Thought I would add a bit. From an alchemical standpoint water is a transferative medium. Through water the dead move between. When water is understood alchemically, it’s very clear why it is important to the dead.
Each mind is a drop of water in the sea of mind, each soul a portion of the sea of Kalunga. The waters that coagulate to make the firm and sublimate to make the subtle. Water is a close physical coagulation of the substance of spirit, at least for spirits on earth. When we offer the dead water, we are offering them substance. We are also giving them a medium for manifestation.
We can manipulate the nature of a manifestation by charging the water. We can offer different waters….fiery waters like chamba, rum… intoxicating waters like the wine so loved by Dionysus. The waters are a road, a body, a portal. —Chris