Strang, V. (2023). Water beings: From nature worship to the environmental crisis. Reaktion Books. ISBN 9781789146882 (paperback/ebook, US$45)
Northern Arizona University
To cite this review: Radonic, L. (2023). Review of “Water beings: From nature worship to the environmental crisis”, Reaktion Books 2023 by V. Strang, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/358-beings
This is a hefty book, both in length and in depth. The book has an encyclopedic quality providing the reader with a comparative analysis of the different roles water serpentine beings have taken through human history. But why 280-pages dedicated to serpentine water beings? Because, as Veronica Strang shows, they are ubiquitous cultural symbols in human history and they are latent with meaning. Most importantly, she argues, water serpentine beings illustrate how human groups engage with the non-human domain, with implications for the governance and sustainability of water resources.
A cultural anthropologist, Veronica Strang draws on research by anthropologists, archeologists, and material culture specialists to detail shifts in human-water relations as well as water’s more constant meanings and values over the course of millennia. This book offers water serpentine beings – like the Rainbow Serpent in Australia or Mami Wata in Africa– as a lens for readers to examine the cultural and political arrangements that mediate our relations with the environment, especially with water.
The eleven chapters of this book (plus an introduction and a conclusion) do not follow in purely chronological order. Instead, they are organized around major changes in human adaptive strategies that do not occur on a linear timeline. Every chapter focusses on the parallel roles taken up by water serpents through changes in human economic and political organization by drawing on examples from the world over. For example, within the span of a few beautifully illustrated pages, the author points to artifacts and myths from Ancient Egypt, the Sumer Civilization of Mesopotamia, and the Harappan Civilization of India to argue that, as irrigated agriculture expanded and humans’ relations to water became more instrumental, water serpents were subdued in form and force by humanized deities. In this way, each chapter integrates multiple illustrative affluents from different cultures. While at times this comparative approach feels like a whirlwind, more often than not each affluent offers a remarkable side canyon for exploring specific human-water relations in a given cultural context.
The first part of the book (chapter 1-4) explores narrative tropes centered on the creative and destructive forces of serpentine beings, specifically their role as world makers and as mediators of matters of life and death. These chapters focus on placed-based societies –primarily those with hunter-gatherer and small-scale horticultural lifeways– who had, and sometimes continue to maintain, intimate and permanent relationships with their homelands. Chapter 4 had particular resonance for me. Here the author draws extensively on her own long-term ethnographic research among Aboriginal Australians to argue that water serpents –in particular the Rainbow Serpent– reveal an enduring ethos that locates humans and non-humans as kin with tangible implication for local environmental sustainability.
The second part of the book (chapters 5-8) explores how the roles of serpentine beings change with the emergence of small-scale agriculture and the new social and economic practices that accompanied this shift in livelihood strategies. Chapter 6 focusses on hydraulic civilizations that developed large-scale irrigation schemes requiring vast communal labor. As societies developed more centralized and hierarchical political arrangement governed by theocratic elites, the author shows a symbolic shift where divine power and authority moved away from serpentine deities into deified human beings. Chapter 7 focusses on the imperial expansion of great irrigation societies across vast lands and oceans, and the resulting transformations in the roles of serpentine beings in places of encounter. This chapter also touches upon the growing role of science and engineering in reshaping our relationship to the environment. Chapters 8 and 9 focus on the role of water serpent beings in urban societies with hierarchical structures, sophisticated technologies, and monotheistic belief systems where water serpent beings remain but are shown to be wholly humanized or made subservient to human authorities.
Finally, the last section (chapters 10-11) details how water serpents have endured as powerful symbols despite all these changes, and argues that they have a powerful role in contemporary struggles for environmental sustainability. Strang closes this volume by drawing attention to the political mobilization of the beliefs and values held by contemporary Indigenous and place-based communities as a way to offer insights into lifeways that recognize a reciprocal relationship of mutual care and responsibility between human and non-human beings.
While “Water Beings” is set up as a comparative history of human-water relations, and likely designed to be read in order, a reader could approach it as an encyclopedia with chapters that can stand on their own. The book includes helpful signposts with a few sentences at the beginning of each chapter synthesizing the previous one and leading the reader into the next stage of symbolic exploration in human-water relations. As I finished reading this book, I just wished it had a more complete index for readers to more easily find materials related to the many different cultures and regions mentioned along the pages. Given the wide-ranging comparative nature of this hefty volume, a working index could make the book more accessible for the broad readership to which, I think, it is directed.