"Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink" is a line from the famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the poem, the narrator or speaker is a sailor on a ship, which is becalmed and surrounded by water that he cannot drink. By extension, this is perhaps how many atheists feel. They are surrounded by religious people and their rituals, none of which make a great deal of sense to them, nor do they feel that they should be compelled to partake in any of them.
One of these religious rituals is baptism. The words "baptize" and "baptism" are of Greek origin. They simply mean to wash or to immerse. (Greek: baptizo, wash or immerse) The word itself takes on a religious context when it is used to describe a ritual, which is specific to the given religion. A water rite is a rite or ceremonial custom in which water is used as the central religious feature, in which a person is immersed or bathed as a symbol of religious indoctrination or ritual purification. So, a baptism can be seen as a water rite or a water ritual, which has religious significance. There are other baptisms, which do not involve water as the purifying element, such as fire, earth, wind and even blood. But I am essentially discussing religious water rituals or rites in this article.
Water has played an important role in many religions and beliefs around the world. It has represented the source of life and the source of birth and rebirth. Water was used to cleanse the body and thus by extension it purified the body. This has lead water to be considered as extremely symbolic and at times sacred. Water is therefore a key symbolic element in ceremonies and religious rites.
Water was and still is in some places perceived as a god, goddess or a divine agency. Once water is assumed or inferred through religious belief to have a divine agency, it ceases to be neutral or passive. Under these circumstances it is considered to have powers and capacities of transformation, removal of sin or to transfer its divine or holy powers to the recipient through religious ceremony. In this way, water often represents the border between the natural world and another supposed supernatural or spiritual world.
The concept of purification with water, either religiously symbolic or as a literal act of cleanliness is probably older than recorded history. Pagans purified themselves with fire, incense, blood sacrifice; they even purified themselves with a winnowing fan. But the most used, most widespread tool of pagan purification was water. A pagan is basically anyone who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. So pagans were anyone who pre-existed or lived outside the religious constructs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This of course includes the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, the ancient Romans and the Greeks, and anyone else who lived in any other part of the world who wasn't one of the Abrahamic religions. Prior to the foundations of the "big 3" this word, "pagan" would have described everyone who existed in the world, or who had ever existed. (Though it wouldn't have been a term they would have used to describe themselves. They would have called themselves whatever was the appropriate term for their religious practices.) After the foundations of the "big 3", the word, "pagan" is used to describe everyone else who ISN'T a member of the "big 3."
Pagan water purification rituals were used in the ancient world and are written about in the Old Testament. Homer mentions the washing of hands before prayer, and the purification of an entire army with water (Iliad, 1.313). The Greeks even had priests, kathartai, who specialized in purification with water. After the conspiracy of Cylon in Athens in 632 BC, a fellow named Epimenides of Crete purified the entire city with water. (Diogines Laertius 1.10.3)
Those of us who live in a predominately christian nation, or who have a predominately christian worldview, find it difficult to consider these religious water rites as baptism. Yet the intention, motive and action are in many instances identical. It is only that this actions or intents were not performed invoking in the name of the Abrahamic god/gods.
The mystery religions of that period often included ablution rites of either immersion or a washing of the body for the purposes of purification or initiation. Other concepts said to have been associated with these forms of cultic baptisms included the transformation of one's life, the removal of sins, symbolic representation, the attainment of greater physical vitality, a new beginning, spiritual regeneration. It is believed that all ancient religions recognized some form of spiritual cleansing, renewal or initiation that was accomplished through a washing or immersion in water.
So why were water rituals or baptisms performed in the ancient world? Basically for the same reasons that they are performed now. They are performed because of the belief that water can be or is embued with special divine properties.
These divine or religious properties are considered to have the power to either literally or symbolically: -
- 1. purify the individual, or the object of evil forces or sin.
- 2. purify the individual or object in preparation for death or for an afterlife.
- 3. symbolically represent initiation into a specific religion and its tenets.
In many cases, it is all of the above. What is the main difference is the divine power. or religion to whom the ritual is attached.
So, let's have a look at some of these water rituals/rites or baptisms.
- 1. Hindus believe that bathing in the waters of a holy river, such as the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh and the Ganges in India, will purify one's life of past sins.
a. Sprinkling of holy water on persons is called prokhshanam. In order to purify places and persons, consecrated water or punyaaham is sprinkled. In purificatory rites, water is sprinkled on the object to be purified.
- 2. The ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile had regenerative powers, and was used to baptize the dead in a ritual based on the Osiris myth. Egyptian cults also developed the idea of regeneration through water.
a. The Book of "Going Forth by Day" (Egyptian Book of the Dead) contains a treatise on the baptism of newborn children, which is performed to purify them of blemishes acquired in the womb. " He has made an end to hours, and likewise, counted them. In the morning, earth fills with light. Law and baptism. The one of us all, endures. It is our work under the sun." - from "The Egyptian Book of the Dead"
b. Egyptians who lived by the laws of Ma'at took a sacramental drink, which conferred ritual purity. Ma'at's potion brought life after death to the peaceful and law-abiding citizen, but death to violent persons. Ma'at Responsible For: Justice, Law and Order, Immortality, Primordial Being
c. Egypitan priests were initiated into their temple duties through baptism in a sacred pool. This pool was symbolic of the waters of Nu, (the Cosmic Ocean), which washed away all evil. The Purification Ritual for officiating priests is contained in a papyrus of the Berlin Museum, whose analysis and table of chapters has been published by Herr Oscar von Lemm, Das Bitualbuch des Ammonsdienstes, p. 4, et seq.
- 3. In Buddhism, water is sometimes used in funeral ceremonies. It is poured and overflows into a bowl placed before the monks and the dead body. As it fills and pours over the edge, the monks recite ‘As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.’
a. Water, which has been through religious ritual, purified or made sacred, is used in some Buddhist ceremonies to initiate priests and in ceremonies when a priest leaves the priesthood.
- 4. In Zoroastrian initiation, the rite of baptism was performed through the use of either blood, urine, or water.
- 5. In Judaism, the mikvah, which translates from Hebrew to mean a "collection of water," is a body of water where a person immerses herself or himself to become "ritually pure." The mikvah is used by some religious men before prayer, a bride before she is married, and by a person in the final stages of conversion to Judaism.
- 6. In ancient Japan, Furo, or the Japanese hot bath, was originally part of a religious rite in which man merged with the divine through purification in the bath.
- 7. The ancient Greeks had various religious rites, which involved the use of water. These religions were what are described as the "Eleusinian mysteries" as they occurred in, or were originated in Eleusis. "Thus were men initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis, and he who initiated them was called "Hydranus, the Waterer'" Tertullian says that thus men were initiated into the mysteries of Isis and Mithra; and Apuleius describes purification by water as part of the ceremonial of the Isiac initiation. Those initiated into the mysteries of the Goddess Cotytto were called Baptes, from the ceremony of Baptism, which was part of the initiation; and Eupoles, rival of Aristophanes, wrote a comedy called The Baptes, ridiculing them. That was in the time of Socrates." The Reverend Mr. Reeves. The Eleusinian Mysteries
- a. The mystery followers were bound by an oath to keep the mysteries secret. The actual initiation was preceded by numerous rites of purification such as fasting, baptism, and confession. The Christian theologian Tertullian (ca. 155-220 CE) wrote, "In certain mysteries, e.g. Isis and Mithra, it is by baptism [Latin: per lavarum] that members are initiated ..." Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-211 or 215 CE) wrote, "... in the current Mysteries among the Greeks ceremonial purifications hold the premier place."
b. The Greater mysteries included baptism in the sea, three days of fasting, and the completion of the mysterious central rite. These acts completed the initiation, and the initiate was promised rewards in the life after death. Esoteric Christianity: The Greek Mystery Religions and Their Impact on Christianity
- c. The mystery religions often included ablution rites of either immersion or a washing of the body for the purposes of purification or initiation. Other concepts said to have been associated with these forms of cultic baptisms included the transformation of one's life, the removal of sins, symbolic representation, the attainment of greater physical vitality, a new beginning, spiritual regeneration.
d. A bath in the sanctuary of Trophonion procured for the initiate a blessed immortality even while in this world. Before entering the cave where the god Trophonios dwelled, the person would receive a bath and was anointed with olive oil. The priests then took him to water springs where the water of forgetfulness (for the loss of memory of all that was past) and the water of memory (to recall all that would be seen) were consumed. Baptism: A Pre-Christian History
- 8. Isaac de Beausobre, best known for his history of "Manichaeism, Histoire Critique de Manichée et du Manichéisme" says that "The Persians carried their infants to the Temple a few days after they were born, and presented them to the priest, before the sun, and before the fire, which was his symbol. Then the priest took the child and baptized it for the purification of the soul. Sometimes he plunged it into a great vase of water, and it was in the same ceremony that the father gave a name to the child." The Manichaeans
- 9. New members into the Mysteries of Isis / Osiris began their initiation with a sprinkling of purifying waters brought from the Nile. The result of the baptism and initiation? "a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace." (Apuleius, Metamorphosis, Book 11, 21), and "..we shall have salvation" (Firmicus Maternus, The Error of Pagan Religions, 22.1).
- 10. Pagans at Gerasa celebrated the Maioumas, rites in which women bathed and were purified in a sacred pool outside town.
- 11. The religious ceremony to the ancient Greek Goddess Persephone, began by ritual purification in the sea.
- 12. The act of ritual washing is the beginning of the idea of Misogi, the physical act of ritual purification in water which is the prototype of the Shinto ritual of O-harai or purification. Misogi is a Shinto practice involving purification in a waterfall or other natural running water. Misogi
- 13. And of course there is perhaps the best known religious water ritual, that of Christian baptism.
- 14. In Islam, purification through ablution is an obligatory component of the Islamic Prayer ritual and prayers carried out in an impure state are not valid. This means Muslims are obliged to carry out ritual ablution before each of the five daily Prayers. In addition, a more thorough ritual is required on specific occasions.
Not all the water rituals listed here preceded the concept of christian baptism, but many of them do. What is shown is that many ancient religions recognized some form of spiritual cleansing, renewal or initiation that was accomplished through a washing or immersion in water. What they all have in common, is the belief that water, through religious ritual, can confer either literally divine properties upon people or objects, or that water can symbolically represent, through religious ritual, the initiation into a specific religion or cult. The practices have many things in common. What they DON'T have in common in most instances, is the deity or divine power, which is represented through the ritual. So when a person refers to baptism as if they invented it, they are essentially ONLY referring to the water rite associated specifically with their religion.
What has Christianity to say concerning religious water rites or ritual baptisms which preceded Christianity?
"We know of an ablution in the ritual of Eleusis; the laurel-wreath oration of Demosthenes speaks of purificatory ablutions in the mystery of Sabazius; the cult of Attis had its taurobolium, and the mystery of Isis knew a sanctifying baptismal bath, as did the mysteries of Dionysus and of Mithras. Upon mature consideration modern scholarship has rejected the ideas that such rites exerted an influence on the baptismal doctrine of the New Testament," (Hugo Rahner, The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries, section 3, in The Mysteries; Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell)
Yeah right... And the person who invented the first wheel, didn't have an influence on the latest Mercedes Benz.
Religious Water Rituals Etc
water water ritual water rite baptism history of religion history religion religious rituals the rime of the ancient mariner coleridge