Libmonster ID: U.S.-921
Author(s) of the publication: Yevgeniya SIDOROVA

Various cultures the world over have produced their own images of the environment, and humanitarian geography - a comparatively new sphere of science-is engaged in such studies. Experts argue that by conceptualizing geographical images one may rise to a higher level of regional self-identification and thus uncover the structure and dynamics of cultural-and-geographic interactions.


Water was regarded as the source of life in ancient mythology: for instance, Babylonians identified Mother Thiamat with the deep, and old man Nun personified water for ancient Egyptians. And the ever-changing river stood for one of the images of its perpetual revival and movement, for you cannot wade into the same river twice. Journal Chelovek (Man) has carried an article on river images by Dmitry Zamyatin, a geographer and culturologist. He describes these images as "an area of spatial possibilities realized ... by most numerous and continuous ... forms of terrestrial relief and ... landscapes". In ancient times people's life was closely bound up with rivers (it is not by chance that river gods play a notable role in key myths). They supplied water for drinking and land irrigation, water served as a source of food and as a driving force for mechanisms; waterways were also used for transportation. Lev Mechnikov, a 19th century Russian scientist, wrote this in his book Tsivilizatsiya i velikiye istoricheskiye reki (Civilization and Great Historical Rivers): "Not only in the geological world or in the sphere of botany but also in the history of animals and man water serves as a motive force behind cultural development, behind the urge to leave river systems for inland sea coasts and, next, move to the ocean." He singled out three periods in historical development: the fluvial (Egyptian, Assyro-Babylonian, Indian and Chinese

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civilizations); the Mediterranean (Phoenicia, Carthage, Greece, Rome); and the oceanic, primarily with reference to the Atlantic (Spanish, Dutch, English and French civilizations), and then other oceans; exploring them man moved into the epoch of global civilization.

However, the source of life could all of a sudden turn into a lethal force of flood or drought. Sometimes it so happened that a river that served as reliable protection against foreign invasions became treacherously shallow. So, its image was contradictory.

By crossing a river that served as a natural border dividing different tribes people were confronted with alien reality, quite often bristling with threats. And this is reflected in many popular myths: river crossing was associated with the dead person's travel to the nether world, and certain descriptions give an accurate picture of funereal rites. Ancient Greek myths depict dead souls being ferried across the Styx by the gloomy ferryman Charon. One of the Russian fairytales describes its hero standing in front of "three rivers with three ferries: if you take one, your right arm will be cut off; on the second ferry you will lose your left leg, and on the third one-your head will be chopped off'. Vladimir Propp, a Russian local lore expert who made a study of the historical roots of fairy-tales, noted (1946) that "by such butchery the ferryman unfolds himself as the ferryman of death".


He who lived in the same area for years formed a static view of the river image. Zamyatin described it as follows: "A natural seasonal force that may carry both benefits and losses, happiness and grief." However, quite a different, dynamic image was born among river travelers, mostly merchants, pilgrims and soldiers. Many dangers lurked there, such as sand shoals, waterfalls or hostile local tribes. For instance, as soon as Russians who traveled in old times along the Dnieper "from the Varangians to the Greeks" and back had reached the Dnieper stone rapids and had to haul on land their rowboats made of whole oak trees, they were often attacked by Petchenegs. However, the dangers, new landscapes and unexpected geographic discoveries brought new impressions and ideas, which though hardly reliable, were always vivid and highly emotional. Thus strong-willed people were born in the process.

The images of conquistadors, pathfinders and Cossaks of the period of Great Geographic Discoveries (the mid-15th; 16th, and 17th centuries), of the periods of colonial conquests and of the imperialist division of the world are, in the author's opinion, closely bound up with the river. In the 18th-19th centuries the freedom-loving Cossaks of the Dnieper, Don, Kuban, Ural, Ob and Amur rivers created original communities that impacted Russia's ethnic and cultural image.

Zamyatin says that the river's static and dynamic images may combine someway the archetype images of frontiers, roads and bridges. That depends on a particular age and level of political and economic development. Thus, the Rhine and the Danube were regarded as frontiers from the times of Roman domination when

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fortified military camps were set up there. In our days this function is of secondary importance, for the world regards them primarily as "river-bridges" and "river-roads".

However, the Rhine for Germany and the Danube for Hungary, and the Volga for Russia, and the Dnieper for Ukraine still persist as sacred national symbols: a great number of historical and cultural events are associated with them! And each of these rivers is a home for those populating their banks. Ancient Egyptians used to refer to the Nile simply as the River and to themselves, just as the People, as if they were the only people in the world. The similarity of the names of the rivers Danube, Don, Dnieper and Dvina is by no means accidental, for all of these names appeared when each of the native ethnic groups referred to their river simply as the River. Now, let's recall The Lay of Igor's Host, an epic poem of the 12th century and a unique literary monument of medieval Rus. This is how the unknown author describes Russian Princess Yaroslavna's weeping song she sang on the town wall of Putivl: "On the Danube Yaroslavna's voice is heard..." But the fact is that Putivl stood on the Seim bank, while the Danube was located hundreds of kilometers away. The point is that the name "Danube" once stood fora river. In modern Ossetian "Don" means "river", for their ancestors - Sarmatians-had migrated to the Caucasus from the Don area.


The image of the river-bridge, Zamyatin believes, combines and eliminates its two archetype images. On the one hand, the bridge promotes closer contacts among people on both sides of the border. On the other, that is a fragile way from one system of world vision to another. In the course of conflicts between the Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo in the late 20th-early 21st centuries, the author contends, bridges were many times destroyed between the confronting ethnic groups of the same city across the river.

However, within a peaceful and prosperous city a river bridge often becomes a center of attraction for contacts and trade such as, for instance, the Charles Bridge across the Vltava in Prague or il Ponte-Vecchio across the Arno in Florence. This "microcosm" suspended above the river merges into "a broader image of inhabited, comfortable medium in mid-air above water," Zamyatin says. And he goes on: "The combination of the vibrant image of the bridge and its seething life with the magnificent panoramic view of the river flowing below together with sights of the old city on both banks conjures up an impression of several landscapes hovering simultaneously, and life on earth appears in its rich and varied fullness."

There are also rivers that are, just as the Danube is native to many different ethnic traditions and cultures and at the same time serving as cross-country borders

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and used as waterways for interethnic contacts (in this case, for Serbians and Austrians, Hungarians and Gypsies, Romanians and Bulgarians). As a result, the river-bridge image encompasses a great space serving as a metaphor for the unification of countries and peoples.


In choosing a title for his novel Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak was for a certain time inclined to use the name of a Ural river where the action takes place, i.e., the Rynva (actually he meant the Kama, a wide navigable river, just as the one described in the novel). In reality, the word "Rynva" is nonexistent. The fact is that the writer coined the name by combining two Komi-Permyak words. He added the adverb "ryn" (wide open) to the noun "va" (water) used in the names of most of the local rivers (for instance, the Vilva or the Inva). Consequently, the Rynva may be translated as "the river thrown wide open", or metaphorically speaking, "the river of life". There is only its name in the novel of immortality but Yuri Zhivago's ("zhivago" means alive) verse seems to be devoted to its spring tide rampage:

 ...Someone laughing, someone weeping, 
 Stones crushing in their fall 
 And tree stumps uprooted 
 Sinking in the whirlpool... 

("Spring Freshet")

Dmitry Zamyatin also mentions Pasternak's essay "Origins of Prose" (1936), for it was there that the poet first mentioned and described the Rynva. "It seems strange that I have not yet said anything about that demon of the locality mentioned in songs and put on the maps of any scale..." In this case the river looks like a living being, growing and enabling one to look into the past, present and future as really existing spaces with distinct features of their own.

The river's upper and lower reaches, its source and mouth, and up-and-down journeys carry opposite mythological connotations. For instance, the upper reaches are an unfathomable, dangerous and demonic world (thus, the Rets' mythical character Kaigus, the hunters' patron, is to be sought precisely here). Joseph Conrad, a British writer of the 19th-20th centuries, noted in his story Heart of Darkness that in traveling up that river one seems to be going back to the first days of the world's existence.

But the lower reaches, according to Dmitry Zamyatin, "are the space of a bright future, of the fulfilment of cherished desires, the space of broad vistas and full-flowing life". Pasternak, he believes, was poignantly conscious of the river's dialectics as the birth of life space.

Zamyatin D., "River's Images", CHELOVEK, No. 5, 2006

Prepared by Yevgeniya SIDOROVA


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Yevgeniya SIDOROVA, AREA OF POSSIBILITIES // New-York: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 01.10.2018. URL: (date of access: 25.04.2024).

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