A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Art
Professor Chris Witcombe


One of the many special properties of water, listed among the Facts about Water, is that it is one of the best known solvents. On a daily basis, many people, and animals, use water to help remove dirt and grime from their bodies. Since ancient times, washing has signified literally and metaphorically a process of cleansing, of purification, of transformation, even metamorphosis. The water itself may contain the power to bring about change, but often it also serves as the medium through which a god, goddess, or priest exercises change.

Water can also bring about change in other ways. In ancient Greece, it was believed that the newly dead, before they were reborn, drank the water of the river LETHE (meaning "oblivion"), a waterway in the underworld, so they lose all memory of their past existence. In Book X of Plato's The Republic, in the last step before rebirth into their new, self-chosen life on earth, the dead must drink from the "stream of Oblivion". Plato adds that "All had to drink a measure of this water, but those who were not preserved by wisdom drank more, and as they drank they forgot everything." In the Greek mystical religious movement called Orphism, the initiated were instructed to seek instead the river of memory, MNEMOSYNE, and thereby secure an end to the transmigration of the soul.

At times, water itself can change, or be changed. At the marriage feast at Cana, Jesus Christ turned water into wine.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College