The Transformative Power of Water

Michael Berman

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper, and water, in particular its healing and transformative powers, is one of these great mysteries.

A story is told of a man who was walking along the beach one day, when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, throwing starfish back into the ocean. “The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.

Then, smiling at the man, he said “I made a difference for that one.”

We all know by now what changes we need to make to our lifestyles to reduce the waste of precious natural resources, but how many of us can actually be bothered to make those changes, instead of just sitting back and leaving it to others? And what will be left for our children to inherit if we do not make the changes required? Hopefully, if we respect and care for the environment, it will care for us – just as it always has done, and just as it can continue to do.

Water, the Hub of Life.
Water is its mater and matrix, mother and medium.
Water is the most extraordinary substance!
Practically all its properties are anomalous, which enabled life to use it as building material for its machinery.
Life is water dancing to the tune of solids.
~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1972)

What Water means to me:

Water is the driver of Nature. ~ Leonardo da Vinci

We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one. ~ Jacques Cousteau

All the water that will ever be is, right now. ~ National Geographic, October 1993

Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water and nobody knows what that is. ~ D. H. Lawrence, in Pansies, 1929

Water, thou hast no taste, no color, no odor; canst not be defined, art relished while ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fillest us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939

{Water is} the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing; it sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips. ~ Jean Giraudoux, in The Madwomen of Chaillot, 1946

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Life originated in the sea, and about eighty per cent of it is still there. ~ Isaac Asimov, in Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature, 1988

The oceans are the planet’s last great living wilderness, man’s only remaining frontier on earth, and perhaps his last chance to produce himself a rational species.
~ John L. Cullney, in “Wilderness Conservation,” September-October 1990

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong. ~ Lao-Tzu (600 B.C.)

For we needs must die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person. ~ II Samuel 14.14

The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly. Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures in the flowing water. The river’s voice was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness, flowing towards its goal. Siddhartha…was now listening intently…to this song of a thousand voices…then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om — perfection… From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. ~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, 1951

When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

To trace the history of a river or a raindrop…is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body. In both, we constantly seek and stumble upon divinity, which like feeding the lake, and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself all over again. ~ Gretel Ehrlich, in Islands, The Universe, Home, 1991

To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together. ~ Barry Lopez (American author, essayist, and fiction writer)

Rivers are magnets for the imagination, for conscious pondering and subconscious dreams, thrills and fears. People stare into the moving water, captivated, as they are when gazing into a fire. What is it that draws and holds us? The rivers’ reflections of our lives and experiences are endless. The water calls up our own ambitions of flowing with ease, of navigating the unknown. Streams represent constant rebirth. The waters flow in, forever new, yet forever the same; they complete a journey from beginning to end, and then they embark on the journey again. ~  Tim Palmer, in Lifelines

All things are connected, like the blood that runs in your family…The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. ~ Chief Seattle

The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. You must give to the rivers the kindness you would give to any brother. ~ Chief Seattle

I chatter, chatter as I flow to join the brimming river, for men may come and men may go, but I go on forever. ~ Lord Tennyson, in The Brook, 1887

Water is also one of the four elements, the most beautiful of God’s creations. It is both wet and cold, heavy, and with a tendency to descend, and flows with great readiness. It is this the Holy Scripture has in view when it says, “And the darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Water, then, is the most beautiful element and rich in usefulness, and purifies from all filth, and not only from the filth of the body but from that of the soul, if it should have received the grace of the Spirit. ~ John of Damascus (679?-749), in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

Water, like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to it. People move when there is too little of it. People move when there is too much of it. People journey down it. People write, sing and dance about it. People fight over it. And all people, everywhere and every day, need it. ~ Mikhail Gorbachev, President of Green Cross International

I understood when I was just a child that without water, everything dies.
I didn’t understand until much later that no one “owns” water.
It might rise on your property, but it just passes through.
You can use it, and abuse it, but it is not yours to own.
It is part of the global commons, not “property” but part of our life support system.
~ Marq de Villiers, in Water, 2000

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:7

God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of sky.” God created the large sea creatures, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth. ~ Genesis 1:20-23

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. ~ Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, 1851

Before enlightenment, Chop wood
Carry water.
After enlightenment, Chop wood
Carry water.
~ Zen saying

There is no water in oxygen, no water in hydrogen: it comes bubbling fresh from the imagination of the living God, rushing from under the great white throne of the glacier. The very thought of it makes one gasp with an elemental joy no metaphysician can analyse. The water itself, that dances, and sings, and slakes the wonderful thirst–symbol and picture of that draught for which the woman of Samaria made her prayer to Jesus—this lovely thing itself, whose very wetness is a delight to every inch of the human body in its embrace–this live thing which, if I might, I would have running through my room, yea, babbling along my table–this water is its own self its own truth, and is therein a truth of God. ~ George Macdonald (1824-1905), “The Truth,” Unspoken Sermons, Third Series

From earliest times, water has always been acknowledged as a primary human good and an indispensable natural resource. Around the great rivers of the world, like the Mississippi, great cultures have developed, while over the course of the centuries the prosperity of countless societies has been linked to these waterways. Today, however, the great fluvial systems of every continent are exposed to serious threats, often as a result of man’s activity and decisions. Concern for the fate of the great rivers of the earth must lead us to reflect soberly on the model of development which our society is pursuing. A purely economic and technological understanding of progress, to the extent that it fails to acknowledge its intrinsic limitations and to take into consideration the integral good of humanity, will inevitably provoke negative consequences for individuals, peoples and creation itself. ~ Pope Benedict XVI, letter to Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, on the occasion of the Eighth International Symposium on Religion, Science and the Environment: “Restoring Balance: The Great Mississippi River.” 12 Oct 09

From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free. ~ Jacques Cousteau

And Allah has created from water every living creature: so of them is that which walks upon its belly, and of them is that which walks upon two feet, and of them is that which walks upon four; Allah creates what He pleases; surely Allah has power over all things. ~ Qur’an 24.45

Every human should have the idea of taking care of the environment, of nature, of water. So using too much or wasting water should have some kind of feeling or sense of concern. Some sort of responsibility and with that, a sense of discipline. ~ The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, quoted in Peter Swanson’s Water: The Drop of Life, 2001

Water is life.
We are the people who live by the water.
Pray by these waters.
Travel by the waters.
Eat and drink from these waters.
We are related to those who live in the water.
To poison the waters is to show disrespect for creation.
To honor and protect the waters is our responsibility as people of the land.
~ Winona LaDuke, in “Like Tributaries to a River,” 2002

It is time to respect the lives of Native and all peoples who do not support the continued devastation caused by the construction of huge power plants on the rivers that are the lifeblood of the land. ~ Patrick Spears, President of Inter-Tribal Council on Utility Policy in Fort Pierre, South Dakota from speech given at University of St. Thomas, 15 April 2000

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters. ~ Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, 1989

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine.
~ T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) from Four Quartets

The trouble with water—and there is trouble with water—is that they’re not making any more of it.  They’re not making any less, mind, but no more either. There is the same amount of water in the planet now as there was in prehistoric times. People, however, they’re making more of—many more, far more than is ecologically sensible—and all those people are utterly dependent on water for their lives (humans consist mostly of water), for their livelihoods, their food, and increasingly, their industry. Humans can live for a month without food but will die in less than a week without water. Humans consume water, discard it, poison it, waste it, and restlessly change the hydrological cycles, indifferent to the consequences: too many people, too little water, water in the wrong places and in the wrong amounts. ~ Marq de Villiers, Water, 2000

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night–

And I love the rain.

~ Langston Hughes, April Rain Song, 1921

Be glad, O people of Zion,
rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given you
the autumn rains in righteousness.
He sends you abundant showers,
both autumn and spring rains, as before.
~ the prophet Joel (c. 835 BC) in Joel 2:23

Water is the most precious, limited natural resource we have in this country…But because water belongs to no one – except the people – special interests, including government polluters, use it as their private sewers. ~ Ralph Nader quoted in Water Wasteland by David Zwick & Marcy Benstock, 1971

Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it. ~ Lao Tzu (Chinese Taoist Philosopher, founder of Taoism. 600 BC-531 BC)

Don’t you realize that the sea is the home of water? All water is off on a journey unless it’s in the sea, and it’s homesick, and bound to make its way home someday ~ Zora Neale Hurston (American folklorist and writer, 1903-1960)

In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference ~ Rachel Carson

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.
~ e.e. cummings

Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither.
~ William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

The sea has never been friendly to man.  At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.  ~Joseph Conrad

He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.  ~ George Herbert

By polluting clear water with slime you will never find good drinking water. ~ Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), Greek tragedian.

Meditation and water are wedded for ever. ~ Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick (1851)

The Waters have been described as the reservoir of all the potentialities of existence because they not only precede every form but they also serve to sustain every creation. Immersion is equivalent to dissolution of form, in other words death, whereas emergence repeats the cosmogonic act of formal manifestation, in other words re-birth (see Eliade, 1952, p.151). ‘The purpose of the ritual lustrations and purifications is to gain a flash of realisation of the non-temporal moment … in which the creation took place; they are symbolical repetitions of the birth of worlds or of the “new man” ‘ (Eliade, 1952, p.152).

In ceremony, the sacred circle in Wicca (or the sacred space in non-ordinary reality that the shaman journeys to), “becomes the pool of water on which the psyche floats, interacting and permeable to those with whom it has chosen to immerse itself. Through this ‘letting go’, a temporary sacrificing of our psychological boundaries, we open ourselves to spiritual and psychological growth” (Crowley, 2008, p.185). And, following on from this, the surface of water can be defined as “the meeting place and doorway from one realm to another: from that which is revealed to that which is hidden, from conscious to unconscious” (Shaw & Francis, 2008, p.13).

As for the ephemeral encounter with the unknown but alluring water world, it can be seen to estrange voyagers from their familiar life as the fluid and ever-cycling nature of water is particularly suited for undermining and deforming all things beyond recognition. Thus, the often-tragic encounter between mortals and immortal water beings may be a symbol of the unrequited love between humans and their natural environment … Some of the tales may further be interpreted as the alienation of humans from nature, or as their illicit intrusion into it, which in the end may have lethal consequences (Gerten, 2008, p.46).

The Japanese legend that follows provides a good example of this:

Urashima Taro

A very long time ago there lived in Japan a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father before him had been a very expert fisherman, but Urashima’s skill in the art so far exceeded that of his father, that his name as a fisher was known far and wide beyond his own little village. It was a common saying that he could catch more fish in a day than a dozen others could in a whole week.

But it was not only as a fisher that Urashima excelled. Wherever he was known, he was loved for his kindly heart. Never had he hurt even the meanest creature. Indeed, had it not been necessary to catch fish for his living, he would always have fished with a straight hook, so as to catch only such fish as wished to be caught. And as for teasing and tormenting animals, when he was a boy, his tenderness towards all the dumb creation was a matter for laughter with his companions; but nothing would ever induce him to join in the cruel sport in which some boys delight.

One evening, as Urashima was returning from a hard day’s fishing, he met a number of boys all shouting and laughing over something they were worrying in the middle of the road. It was a tortoise they had caught and were ill-treating. Between them all, what with sticks and stones and other kinds of torture, the poor creature was hard beset and seemed almost frightened to death.

Urashima could not bear to see a helpless thing treated in that way, so he interfered.

‘Boys!’ he said, ‘that’s no way to treat a harmless dumb creature. You’ll kill the poor thing!’

But the boys merely laughed, and, taking no further notice, continued their cruel sport.

‘What’s a tortoise?’ cried one. ‘Besides, it’s great fun. Come on, lads!’ And they went on with their heartless game.

Urashima thought the matter over for a little, wondering how he could persuade the boys to give the tortoise up to him. At last he said with a smile, ‘Come, boys! I know you’re good-hearted young fellows: I’ll make a bargain with you. What I really wanted was to buy the tortoise,—that is, if it is your own.’

‘Of course it’s our own. We caught it.’ They had begun to gather round him at the prospect of a sale, for they relished the money to buy sweetmeats even more than the cruel sport of tormenting an innocent creature.

‘Very well,’ replied Urashima, bringing a string of coins out of his pocket and holding them up. ‘See! you can buy a lot of nice things with this. What do you say?’

He smiled at them so sweetly and spoke so gently that, with the cash dangling before their eyes, they were soon won over. The biggest boy then grabbed the tortoise, and held it out to him with one hand, while he reached for the string of coins with the other. ‘All right, uncle,’ he said, ‘you can have the tortoise.’

Urashima handed over the money in exchange for the poor, frightened creature, and the boys were soon making their way to the nearest sweetmeat shop.

Meanwhile Urashima looked at the tortoise, which looked back at him with wistful eyes full of meaning; and, though it could not speak, the young fisherman understood it perfectly, and his tender heart went out to it.

‘Poor little tortoise!’ he said, holding it up and stroking it gently to soothe its fears, ‘you are all right with me. But remember, sweet little one, you’ve had a narrow squeak of losing a very long life. How long is it? Ten thousand years, they say;—that’s ten times as long as a stork can boast of. Now I’m going to take you right back to the sea, so that you can swim away to your home and to your own people. But promise me you will never let yourself be caught again.’

The tortoise promised with its eyes. So wistful and grateful were they, that Urashima felt he could never forget them.

By this time he was down on the seashore, and there he placed the tortoise in the sea and watched it swim away. Then he went home feeling very happy about the whole thing.

Morning was breaking when Urashima pushed off his boat for his day’s fishing. The sea was calm, and the air was full of the soft, sweet warmth of summer. Soon he was out skimming over the blue depths, and when the tide began to ebb, he drifted far beyond the other fishermen’s boats, until his own was lost to their sight.

It was such a lovely morning when the sun rose and slanted across the waters, that, when he thought of the short span of human life, he wished that he had thousands of years to live, like the tortoise he had rescued from the boys the day before.

As he was dreaming these thoughts, he was suddenly startled by a sweet voice calling his name. It fell on his ears like the note of a silver bell dropping from the skies. Again it came, nearer than before:

‘Urashima! Urashima!’

He looked all around on the surface of the sea, thinking that some one had hailed him from a boat, but there was no one there, as far as the eye could reach.

And now he heard the voice again close at hand, and, looking over the side of the boat, he saw a tortoise looking up at him, and he knew by its eyes that it was the same tortoise he had restored to the sea the previous day.

‘So we meet again,’ he said pleasantly. ‘Fancy you finding me in the middle of the ocean! What is it, you funny little tortoise? Do you want to be caught again, eh?’

‘I have looked for you,’ replied the tortoise, ‘ever since dawn, and when I saw you in the boat I swam after you to thank you for saving my life.’

‘Well, that’s very nice of you to say that. I haven’t much to offer you, but if you would like to come up into the boat and dry your back in the sun we can have a chat.’

The tortoise was pleased to accept the invitation, and Urashima helped it up over the side. Then, after talking of many things, the tortoise remarked, ‘I suppose you have never seen Rin Gin, the Dragon Sea-King’s palace, have you?’

Urashima shook his head.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘They tell me it is a beautiful sight, but in all the years that I have spent upon the sea I have never been invited to the Dragon King’s palace. It’s some distance from here, isn’t it?’

‘I do not think you believe there is such a place,’ replied the tortoise, who had seen a twinkle in Urashima’s eye. ‘Yet I assure you it exists, but a long way off—right down at the bottom of the sea. If you would really like to see Rin Gin, I will take you there.’

‘That is very kind of you,’ said Urashima with a polite bow, which pleased the tortoise greatly; ‘but I am only a man, you know, and cannot swim a long way under the sea like a tortoise.’

But the little creature hastened to reassure him.

‘That’s not at all necessary,’ it said. ‘I’ll do the swimming and you can ride on my back.’

Urashima laughed. The idea of his riding on the back of a tortoise that he could hold in his hand was funny, and he said so.

‘Never mind how funny it is,’ said the tortoise; ‘just get on and see.’ And then, as Urashima looked at it, the tortoise grew and grew and grew until its back was big enough for two men to ride upon.

‘What an extraordinary thing!’ exclaimed Urashima. ‘Right you are, friend tortoise, I’ll come with you.’ And with that he jumped on.

‘That’s better,’ said the tortoise; ‘now we’ll be off. Hold tight!’

The next moment the tortoise plunged into the sea, and dived down and down until Urashima thought they would never be able to reach the surface again in a thousand years. At last he caught sight of a land below them, shining all green with the filtered sunlight; and now, as they took a level course, he could make out the towns and villages below, with beautiful gardens full of bright flowers and waving dreamy trees. Then they passed over a vast green plain, at the further side of which, in a village at the foot of high mountains, shone the splendid portals of a magnificent palace.

‘See!’ said the tortoise, ‘that is the entrance to Rin Gin. We shall soon be there now. How do you feel?’

‘Quite well, thank you!’ And indeed, when Urashima felt his clothes he found they were quite dry, which was really not so surprising because, as he was borne swiftly through the water, there was all the time a space of air around him, so that not only was he kept quite dry, but he could breathe quite easily.

When they drew nearer to the great gate, Urashima could see beyond it, half hidden by the trees, the shining domes of the palace. It was indeed a magnificent place, unlike anything ever seen in the lands above the sea.

Now they were at the great gate, and the tortoise stopped at the foot of a flight of coral steps and asked him to dismount.

‘You can walk now, Urashima’; and it led the way. Then the gatekeeper—a royal sturgeon—challenged them, but the tortoise explained that Urashima was a mortal from the great kingdom of Japan, who had come to visit the Sea King, and the gatekeeper immediately showed them in.

As they advanced, they were met by the courtiers and officials. The dolphin, the bonito, the great cuttle-fish, the bright-red bream; and the mullet, the sole, the flounder, and a host of other fishes came forward and bowed gracefully before the tortoise; indeed, such homage did they pay that Urashima wondered what sway the tortoise held in this kingdom beneath the sea. Then, when the visitor was introduced, they all cried out a welcome. And the dolphin, who was a high official, remarked, ‘We are delighted to see so distinguished a stranger from the great kingdom of Japan. Welcome to the palace of the Dragon King of the Sea!’

Then all the fishes went in a procession before them to the interior of the palace.

Now the humble fisherman had never been in such a magnificent place before. He had never read How to behave in a Palace, but, though much amazed, he did not feel at all shy. As he followed his guides, he suddenly noticed that the tortoise had disappeared, but he soon forgot this when he saw a lovely Princess, surrounded by her maidens, come forward to greet him.

She was more beautiful than anything on earth, and her robes of pink and green changed colour like the surface of the sea at sunset in some sheltered cove. There were threads of pure gold in her long hair, and, as she smiled, her teeth looked like little white pearls. She spoke soft words to him, and her voice was as the murmur of the sea.

Urashima was so enchanted that he could not speak a word; but he had heard that one must always bow low to a Princess, and he was about to do so when the Princess tripped to his side, and, taking his hand in hers, led him off into a splendid apartment, where she conducted him to the place of honour and asked him to be seated.

‘Listen to me, Urashima,’ she said in a low, sweet voice. ‘I am filled with joy at welcoming you to my father’s palace, and I will tell you why. Yesterday you saved the precious life of a tortoise. Urashima, I was that tortoise! It was my life that you saved!’

Urashima could not believe this at first, but, when he gazed into her beautiful eyes, he remembered their wistful look, and her sweet words were spoken in the same voice as that which had called his name upon the sea. And he was so astonished that he could not speak.

‘Would you like to live here always, Urashima,—to live in everlasting youth, never growing tired or weary? This is the land of eternal summer, where all is joy, and neither death nor sorrow may come. Stay, Urashima, and I, the Princess of my father’s kingdom, will be your bride!’

Urashima felt it was all a dream; yet, if it were, then from the very heart of that dream he replied in words that came of their own accord.

‘Sweet Princess, if I could thank you ten thousand times I should still want to thank you all over again. I will stay here; nay—more: I simply cannot go, for this is the most wonderful place I have ever dreamed of, and you are the most wonderful thing in it.’

A smile spread over her lovely face. She bent towards him, and their lips met in the first sweet kiss of love.

Then, as if by this a magic button had been pressed, a loud gong sounded, and immediately the whole palace was in a bustle of excitement. Presently a procession of all kinds of fishes came in, all richly attired in flowing robes of various colours. Each one advanced with slow and stately pace, some bearing beautiful flowers, others great mother-of-pearl dishes laden with all the delicacies that go to make a feast; others bore trays of coral, red and white, with fragrant wines and rare fruits such as only grow at the bottom of the sea. It was the wedding feast, and with all decorum they set everything before the bride and bridegroom.

It was a day of great joy, a day of song and revelry. Throughout the whole kingdom the choice wine flowed and the sweet music resounded. In the palace the happy pair pledged themselves in a wedding cup, while the music played and glad songs were sung. Later on, the great hall of the palace was cleared for a grand ball, and all the fishes of the sea came dressed in their best gold and silver scales, and danced till the small hours. Never had Urashima known happiness so great; never had he moved amid so much splendour.

In the morning the Princess showed Urashima over the palace, and pointed out all the wonders it contained. The whole place was fashioned out of pink and white coral, beautifully carved and inlaid everywhere with priceless pearls. But, wonderful as was the palace itself, the wide gardens that encircled it appealed to Urashima even more.

These gardens were designed so as to represent the four seasons. Turning to the east, Urashima beheld all the wealth of Spring. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower, and bees were busy among the cherry blossoms. The song of the nightingale could be heard among the trees, and the sweetest fragrance was wafted on the breeze.

Facing round to the south, he saw everything at the height of Summer. The trees were fully green, and luscious fruits weighed down their branches, while over all was the drowsy hum of the cicada.

To the west the whole landscape was ablaze with the scarlet foliage of Autumn; while, in the north, the whole outlook was beautiful with snow as far as the eye could reach.

It was a wonderful country to live in and never grow old. No wonder that Urashima forgot his home in Japan, forgot his old parents, forgot even his own name. But, after three days of indescribable happiness, he seemed to wake up to a memory of who he was and what he had been. The thought of his poor old father and mother searching everywhere for him, perhaps mourning him as dead; the surroundings of his simple home, his friends in the little village,—all these things rushed in on his mind and turned all his joy to sadness.

‘Alas!’ he cried, ‘how can I stay here any longer? My mother will be weeping and wringing her hands, and my father bowing his old head in grief. I must go back this very day.’

So, towards evening, he sought the Princess, his bride, and said sadly:

‘Alas! alas! you have been so kind to me and I have been so very, very happy, that I have forgotten and neglected my parents for three whole days. They will think I am dead and will weep for me. I must say farewell and leave you.’

Then the Princess wept and besought him to remain with her.

‘Beloved!’ he protested, ‘in our land of Japan there is no crime so terrible as the crime of faithlessness to one’s parents. I cannot face that, and you would not have me do it. Yet it will break my heart to leave you—break my heart—break my heart! I must go, beloved, but only for one day; then I will return to you.’

‘Alas!’ cried the Princess, ‘what can we do? You must act as your heart guides you. I would give the whole world to keep you with me just one more day. But I know it cannot be. I know something of your land and your love of your parents. I will await your return: you will be gone only one day. It will be a long day for me, but, when it is over, and you have told your parents all, you will find a tortoise waiting for you by the seashore, and you will know that tortoise: it is the same that will take you back to your parents—for one day!’

‘Oh, my beloved! How can I leave you? But——’

‘But you must. Wait! I have something to give you before you go.’

The Princess left him hastily and soon returned with a golden casket, set with pearls and tied about with a green ribbon made from the floating seaweed.

‘Take it,’ said she.

‘After all your other gifts?’ said he, feeling rather ashamed.

‘You saved my life,’ said she. ‘You are my life, and all I have is yours. That casket contains all. When you go up to the dry land you must always have this box with you, but you must never open it till you return to me. If you do—alas! alas, for you and me!’

‘I promise, I promise. I will never open it till I return to you.’ Urashima went on his bended knee as he said these words.



Urashima was then conducted to the gate by the court officials, led by the dolphin. There the royal sturgeon blew a loud whistle, and presently a large tortoise came up. As Urashima mounted on its back, it averted its head as if to conceal its eyes. Perhaps it had a reason. And for that same identical reason Urashima sat on its back stolidly, and never a word spoken.

Down they went into the deep, green sea, and then up into the blue. For miles and miles and miles they sped along, until they came to the coast of Japan. There Urashima stepped ashore, answered the wistful eyes of the tortoise with a long, lingering gaze of love, and hastened inland.

The tortoise plunged back into the sea, and Urashima was left on the land with a sense of sadness.

He looked about him, recognising the old landmarks. Then he went up into the village; but, as he went, he noticed with some surprise that everything seemed wonderfully changed. The hills were the same, and, in a way, the village was familiar, but the people who passed him on the road were not those he had known three days ago. Surely three short days would leave him exactly where he stood before he went. Three days could never produce this change. He was at a loss to understand it. People he did not know—strangers in the village, he supposed—passed him by as if he were a complete stranger. Some of them turned and looked at him as one would look at a newcomer. Furthermore, he noticed that the slender trees of three days since were now giant monarchs of the wayside.

At last, wondering greatly, he came to his old home. How changed it was! And, when he turned the handle of the door and walked in, crying out, ‘Ho, mother! ho, father! I have come back at last!’ he was met by a strange man barring the doorway.

‘What do you want?’

‘What do you mean? I live here. Where are my father and mother? They are expecting me.’

‘I do not understand. What is your name?’

‘Urashima Taro.’

‘Urashima Taro!’ cried the man in surprise.

‘Yes, that is my name: Urashima Taro!’

The man laughed, as if he saw the joke.

‘You don’t mean the original Urashima Taro?’ he said. ‘But still, you may be some descendant of his—what?’

‘I do not understand you. My name is Urashima Taro. There is no other bears that name. I am the fisherman: surely you know me.’

The man looked at Urashima very closely to see if he were joking or not.

‘There was a Urashima Taro, a famous fisherman of three hundred years ago, but you—you are joking.’

‘Nay, nay, I am not joking. It is you that are joking with your three hundred years. I left here three or four days ago, and now I have returned. Where have my father and mother gone?’

The man stared at him aghast.

‘Are you mad?’ he cried. ‘I have lived in this house for thirty years at least, and, as for your father and mother—why, if you are really Urashima Taro, they have been dead three hundred years; and that is absurd. Do you want me to believe you are a ghost?’

‘Not so; look at my feet.’ And Urashima put out one foot and then the other, in full accordance with the Japanese belief that ghosts have no feet.

‘Well, well,’ said the man, ‘you can’t be Urashima Taro, whatever you say, for he lived three hundred years ago, and you are not yet thirty.’

With this the man banged the door in Urashima’s face.

What could it all mean? Urashima Taro dead. Lived three hundred years ago. What nonsense! He must be dreaming. He pinched his ear and assured himself that he was not only alive, but wide awake. And yet—and yet—everything about him seemed very much changed since he saw it last. He stood stock still on his way to the gate, and looked this way and that, trying to find something that had suffered only three days’ change. But everything was unfamiliar.

Then an idea struck him. On the morning of the day that he[Pg 156] had rescued the tortoise from the boys, he had planted a little willow slip down by the pond in the field. He would go and look at it, and that would settle the matter.

So he took his way to the pond. Half-way he was baulked by a hedge, high and thick, which was new to him, but he found a way through a gap. Well he remembered the exact spot where he had planted the willow slip on the edge of the pond, but, when he arrived there, he could see no sign of it. In its place was a gigantic trunk bearing vast branches which towered overhead. And there the birds were singing the same songs as they sang—three days ago! Alas! could it indeed be three centuries ago?

Perplexed beyond measure, Urashima resolved to go to the fountain-head and settle the matter once and for all. Turning away, he made all haste to the village—was this the village he had known?—and inquired of a countryman he had never seen before, where the village chronicles were kept.

‘Yonder,’ said the man, pointing to a building which had certainly taken more than three days to erect.

Urashima thanked him and then hastened to the building and went in. He was not long in finding what he wanted. It was an ancient entry, and it ran:

‘Urashima Taro—a famous fisherman who lived in the early part of the fourteenth century—the traditional patron demi-god of fishermen. There are many stories concerning this half-mythical character, chief of which is that he hooked a whale far from shore, and, as he would not relinquish the prize, his boat was dragged for ever and ever over the surface of the sea. Mariners of the present day solemnly aver that they have seen Urashima Taro sitting in his boat skimming the waves as he held the line by which he had caught the whale. Whatever the real history of Urashima Taro, it is certain that he lived in the village, and the legend concerning him is the subject of great interest to visitors from the great land of America.’

Urashima shut the book with a slam and went away, down to the seashore. As he went, he realised that those three days he had spent in perfect happiness with the Princess were not three days at all, but three hundred years. His parents were long since dead, and all was changed. What else could he do but go back to the Dragon kingdom under the sea?

But when he reached the shore, he found no tortoise ready to take him back, and, after waiting a long time, he began to think his case was hopeless. Then, suddenly, he bethought himself of the little box which the Princess had given him. He drew it forth and looked at it. He had promised her not to open it, but what did it matter now? As he did not care what happened to him, the deadly secret of the box was just as well out as in. Besides, he might learn something from it, some secret way of finding his beloved Princess—and that would be happiness; but if, on the other hand, some terrible thing happened to him, what did it signify?

So he sat down on the seashore, untied the fastenings of the little box and then lifted the lid. He was surprised to find that the box was empty; but, slowly, out of the emptiness came a little thin, purple cloud which curled up and circled about his head. It was fragrant, and reminded him of the sweet perfume of the Princess’s robes. Now it floated away towards the open sea and Urashima’s soul seemed to go with it.

Suddenly he stood up, thinking he heard her sweet voice calling him. For a moment he stood there, a splendid figure of early youth. Then a change came over him. His eyes grew dim, his hair turned silvery white, lines came upon his face, and his form seemed to shrivel with extreme old age.

Then Urashima Taro reeled and staggered to and fro. The burden of three hundred years was too heavy for him. He threw up his arms and fell dead upon the sand.

Taken from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Edmund Dulac’s Fairy-Book, by Edmund Dulac. This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

Urashima had a choice – to carry on living with his family and stay where he was, contented with what he had in life, or to take a chance and explore a different world, to try something new. He chose the latter course of action, but there was a price to pay as a result.

A shrine on the western coast of the Tango Peninsula in northern Kyoto Prefecture, named Urashima Jinja, contains an old document describing a man, Urashimako, who left his land in 478 A.D. and visited a land where people never die. He returned in 825 A.D. with a Tamatebako (a box in the form of a cube that can be opened from any side). Ten days later he opened the box, and a cloud of white smoke was released, turning Urashimako into an old man. It is said that later that year, after hearing the story, Emperor Junna ordered Ono no Takamura to build a shrine to commemorate Urashimako’s strange voyage, and to house the Tamatebako and the spirit of Urashimako.

By way of a conclusion, this is what Douglas Ezzy, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania, has to say on what we can learn from the two-sided nature of water:

“An immersion in water is an immersion in both the thrill of life, and the pain of death. There is no way out of this ‘two-sidedness’ of water. The best we can do is to experience honestly the pain of death and suffering (Ezzy, 2008, pp.131-132). ‘A central tenet of modern Western culture is the belief in progress, the belief that life should get better – healthier, wealthier, happier, more satisfying and interesting … One lesson of death, and of water, is that this assumption is not necessarily true” (Ibid. p.133). Seeing everything in terms of black and white, we either imagine we are in the driving seats and are totally in control of lives or we succumb to the belief that we are nothing more than helpless victims of circumstance. However,  “The more complex response is to understand ourselves as embedded in a network of relationships that at the same time facilitate and constrain the possibilities for action” (Ibid. p.134).


Crowley, V. (2008) ‘The mystery of waters’ In Shaw, S. & Francis, A. (eds.) (2008) Deep Blue: Critical reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Eliade, M. (1991) Images and Symbols, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (The original edition is copyright Librairie Gallimard 1952).
Ezzy, D (2008) ‘I am the river bleeding’ In Shaw, S. & Francis, A. (eds.) Deep Blue: Critical reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Gerten, D. (2008) ‘Water of life, water of death: Pagan notions of water from antiquity to today’ In Shaw, S. & Francis, A. (eds.) (2008) Deep Blue: Critical reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Shaw, S. & Francis, A. (eds.) (2008) Deep Blue: Critical reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

 Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, Journeys Outside Time for Pendraig Publishing, and Tales of Power for Lear Books. ELT titles include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom, In a Faraway Land (a resource book for teachers on storytelling), On Business and for Pleasure (a self-study workbook). and ELT Matters (written with Mojca Belak and Wayne Rimmer).  For more information please visit

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