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IE Studies 2, Requirement 6

Describe and compare the importance of rivers in two cultures. (100 words for each culture)

It is well known that the Indo-Europeans had a religion in which rivers were often deified and worshipped as goddesses. Their central place in trade, defense, and the fertility of the land all contributed to the continued importance of these flowing bodies of water. Despite this, the Vedic conception of rivers as goddesses seems much more muted than the Celtic conception.

In the Vedas, river goddesses are classed among the terrestrial goddesses, but the goddesses of the Rgveda seem of far less importance than the gods (with the exception of Usas). Sarasvati is the river goddess most often named, and Saranyu is a goddess whose name means "swift" is also mentioned. RV Hymn X.75 celebrates the Indus river and its tributaries, while Hymn III.33 celebrates the Vipas and Sutudri streams. 21 additional streams are mentioned (the Ganges only once, in passing, being one of many passing references in the RV to later become major Hindu deities). Sarasvati is clearly the second most important goddess in the RV, with kings living on her banks and her water being described as pure and descended from the heavens. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sarasvati, though, is that the river that she is identified with appears to be a very minor stream that may never have reached the sea in Vedic times. (MacDonnell, 86-87) A character named Danu is mentioned in the Vedas, as well, but she is the mother of Vrtra, the serpent who steals the waters, and so is not well identified as a river goddess.

In Celtic myth, river goddesses are much more dominant: Danu (the goddess named for the Danube river, traditionally seen as the birthplace of the Celts) is the mother of the gods ("Tuatha De Dannan" = Children of the Goddess Danu), and several goddesses are identified with rivers, from Sequanna (Siene) to the Matres (Marne) to Nantosuelta, whose name has an element meaning "river" in it. (Puhvel, 174) Perhaps the most important river to the Gauls, though, was the Rhine, which formed the border between Gaul and Germania, serving both as a strategic border and a source of wealth and travel. It would later serve as the central dividing line between civilization and wildness as a Roman fontier.


  • Davidson, HR Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin. 1990
  • Enright, Michael J. Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press. 1996
  • MacDonnell, A. A. Vedic Mythology.
  • Mallory, JP. In Search of the Indo-Europeans.
  • Maurer, Walter. Pinacles of India's Past: Selections from the Rgveda.
  • Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins. 1987


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