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rivers  

Brian Campbell

Ancient peoples lived in close proximity to the environment and experienced at first hand natural phenomena and landscape features that, while often helpful or indeed essential to life, were also potentially threatening. The land and its produce were crucial to survival, and in a predominantly rural world dotted with towns and cities, many people will have observed at first hand mountains, rivers, and the relationship of landscape to available space for settlement. Rivers expressed the local community’s link with the landscape and sustained river valley communities by providing water for drinking, washing, irrigation, and watering of animals, as well as offering routes of communication. Many rivers were also a fruitful source of fish, especially if the water was clean, such as the high-quality fish from the Pamisos in Messenia (Paus. 4.34.1–2). But of course rivers could also flood a settlement or sweep it away. In addition, popular reaction to the environment around the local area was often influenced by strong cultural and religious feelings associated with landscape. In this context, it is not surprising that some literary works were exclusively devoted to natural features of the landscape, for example describing rivers, their character, history, and legendary associations. Mythology helped to explain natural phenomena. Furthermore, the theme of rivers in various guises appears repeatedly in the work of geographers, ethnographers, teachers, poets, and historians. Philosophers were also interested in the curiosities of riverine conditions, which, by their timeless quality yet constant movement, seemingly offered a comment on the human condition.