The Crowded Oceans: Swimming with Spirits

It is unsurprising that primitive peoples, faced with a world whose range and patterns they couldn’t comprehend or predict, imbued all aspects thereof with a supernatural aspect.

Before the development of monotheism, the belief in a single god, often traced to Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten in the Fourteenth Century B.C., that desire to invest every natural force or occurrence with a mysterious and superior and even willful personality led to pantheons of gods both large and small.

The bigger the personal import of an aspect of nature, the world or even Universe on the lives on humans, the more likely that aspect was to reign high in each pantheon. Beyond and literally above all was the Sun, immediate, live-giving and over all. But across peoples of the coasts, Sea-Gods also loomed large.

While modern humans seem to retain much of the superstition of yore but in different forms (lotteries, miracles, luck, UFOs), outside specific polytheistic religions such as Shintoism or Hinduism, and following the Enlightenment with a growing understanding of the mechanisms of the world, we’ve slowly lost that personification of nature’s forces.

Open water swimmers get very close to Sea and one of the greatest and most widespread of those anthropomorphisations of nature, applying human nature to something not human , is the water deity or the Sea God. Many of the pantheons had multiple water deities of different aspects of water, from springs through storms and rain, to the ocean, far too many to itemise here.

Neptune, the classic sea god image

Neptune, the classical sea god image

The Greek and Roman pantheons are most familiar to western cultures. Rome’s god of both the Sea and freshwater was Neptune. The Greek pantheon equivalent was Poseidon. Both are similarly depicted as powerful men who carry a trident. Unlike Neptune, Poseidon’s domain was more exclusively the Ocean. Like all gods of the seas, both are powerful, and mercurial. Quick to anger, and also capable of unexpected mercy in extremis. Both must be placated to ensure safe passage but such appeasement could never be completely effective of course…



The Greek water deities were very many and due to the use on Greek root words, many still reside with us in our language.

Of the most important or memorable were: Cymopoleia, goddess of giant storm waves: Aegæon, god of storms, cognate with the Aegaen Sea: The Gorgons, malevolent sea spirits, of whom we best know the Gorgon Medusa of the stone gaze, and the Harpies, sea-spirits of sudden wind: The Hippocampi, the elemental horses of the sea: the Nymphs, of whom the Nereides (not the Naiades) were the sea spirits: the Sirens, whose call epitomises the call and hold of the Sea over many of us: Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea: Triton, son and Herald of Poseidon. Thalassa, primordial goddess of the sea, now fittingly part of our name for the primordial sea, Panthalassia. And of course the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, the “rock and a hard place” of modern idiom. And finally, Oceanus, son of Uranus and Gaia, Titan and god of the river that encircled the earth, from whom we derive Ocean.

Water deities flood our world.

Mesopotamia had many, of whom the two with whom we are most familiar through mythology are  Enki, god of water, who appears in some of the oldest surviving myths, and Tiamat, mother goddess of all the gods, saltwater and chaos, who name has been appropriated by pop culture stories.

In Indian Vedic religion, Varuna is god of water and in Hindu god of all forms of water, of the ocean and also of the Celestial Ocean.

The sea of night, the ocean of stars. The boundless limits of the world’s seas mirrored in the sky.

In Shinto, Suijin the Water God is the benevolent deity of water while Susanoo-no-Mikoto is the god of storms and of the sea.

In Mãori religion, Tangaroa is god of the Sea, one of the great gods, and son of Sea and Sky. Like Oceanus, Tangaroa was son of Gaia and Uranus, also gods of  Earth and Sky.

The ocean, born of the earth and of the sky. Interesting that idea should repeat around the world.

Celtic triskele, symbol of Manannan

Celtic triskele, symbol of Manannan

Irish  mythology is the most extant oral mythology in the world outside Greek. The main Irish sea gods were Lir and his son Manannán. Lir actually means Sea in old Irish but he is himself obscure in tales, more a distant figure. Manannán Mac Lir, i.e. Manannán son of Lir, is the more familiar, but as with others of the pre-Christian pantheon, and unlike many of the other pantheons, is more a heroic figure, like a hero-sailor, than an avatar of the sea. Manannán rides Aonbharr, his white horse of the sea, his boat is called wave-sweeper or foam-rider and it needs no sails or oars, to Manannán the sea was as land. His symbol, the triskele, represents along life, death and afterlife; the intersection of Earth, Sea and Sky.

In Scandanavian lore, Aegir was the lord of the endless sea. With his wife the sea-goddess Ran, they had nine daughters, the Billow or Wave Maidens, all named for different types of waves. I mourn the loss of this poetic conceit. I’m not a scholar, but in anything I’ve read of the Scandanavian mythologies of the Nine Maidens, I see little evidence that those doing the interpretation of names really knew the sea. The Maidens were:

Bylgja; Billow. I imagine this as representing a sea with groundswell, the long period undulations hiding a power that catches all those unaware of the real nature of the sea.

I - Swell.resized


Blóðughadda: Bloody Hair, apparently representing the blood in the sea after a battle. I imagine also an encounter with Finbarr at Sandycove’s Second Corner reef brings Blóðughadda. I also wonder if it could have referred more simply to a Red Tide, a sudden growth of plankton.
Dröfn; Comber or Foaming Sea. Comber is just another name for wave. The most common wave shape is either crumbly onshore or groomed offshore depending on prevailing wind type so the original meaning may have referred to one of those.
Hefring: Riser. A waves that rises has usually hit a reef. Surfers call it a jacking wave. Hefring should be the Maiden of Surfers.
HiminglævaThat through which one can see the heaven. Almost Celtic in its long description which imparts little. I image this is the water of no wind, the flat calm of a stationary high pressure, it reflects the sky and invites a sea swimmer like little else. Oh, Himinglaeva, you temptress.
Hrönn: Welling Wave. Groundswell waves on a steeply rising beach? So much fun, so enchanting.
Dúfa: The Pitching One. What I’d call a scending wave, what others might call a pitching wave.
Uðr: Frothing Wave. A frothing wave has lost most of its power. The water ours over the falls, it’s chaotic but weakened. It is fun, but never to be dismissed.
Kólga: The Cold One. The dangerous one, I think. The one we European winter swimmers know too well. If I had a boat, I’d name her Kólga.


The oceans not being sufficiently populated, there are other old and new mythological water spirits, demons, and beasties who are not deities but who populate our imagination and our seas: Leviathan. Hydra. Moby Dick. The Kraken and the Aranc. The Midgard Serpent. Cthulhu and Dagon. The Bloop. Godzilla. Davy Jones. Jaws. The Peist. We will invent more.

All these and more. Gods and spirits and monsters and stories, ancient and modern.

We fill the waters, trying to measure our imagination against the raw power and untouchable vastness of the seas. It’s a crowded ocean.

Peist from John Speed's 1611 map of Ireland

Peist from John Speed’s 1611 map of Ireland

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7 thoughts on “The Crowded Oceans: Swimming with Spirits

    • Ha. I did in fact do Latin with Roman history and culture in school. I hated it. However I was also very interested in Greek and Scandanavian mythology as a kid, and later as an adult more Irish mythology, which we also do in primary school and which I now prefer. And of course, wikipedia!


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