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BSRS 2016

Religion and water

This course addresses the role of water in religious mythologies and rituals as well how these religious understandings and affinities with water are manifested in various socio-cultural practises around the globe.

Hindu public prayer in Haridwar


Water in religions
Water has many functions in religions. For example, there are rituals that try to call forth more water and others that try to stop the rain; there are lakes, rivers and springs that by religious people are regarded as having the power to heal the sick and overcome death – some of them are even regarded as divinities.

Water is used in religious rituals, either for bathing, washing, drinking, or as a sacrifice; it is no surprise that the largest religious ritual in the world – the Hindu Kumbha mela festival – is a water ritual.

In many religions, there are narratives about different forms of water. Among other things, these narratives tell that the world was created out of water, that there were struggles between fresh water and salt water in the early history of the world, that there once was ‘a great flood’ that killed nearly every living being on the earth, or that dangerous creatures try to entice people into the sea.

Water is also one of the most common religious metaphors, representing as different things as ‘knowledge’, ‘life’, ‘salvation’ and ‘time’, to mention only a few examples.

The lectures on water and religion take up these and other themes in a comparative perspective and with empirical examples from both the large religions of today, historical religions of antiquity, and religions of indigenous peoples.

Religion, Water, Culture and Society
By emphasizing lived lives, practices and experiences, rather than exegesis, theology and eschatology as ideologies, this part of the course will address the role of water and religion in history, societies and cultures today in a wide range of contexts. Moreover, water will be addressed as part of nature and environment, as well as a politically contested resource of which religious and other groups may fight or argue over. We will also present new avenues of research, where water is seen as intrinsic in all religions and where the particular and pervasive historic role of water in religion will be highlighted.


16. June

09.00 – 12.00,  Håkan Rydving "Water and ‘religion’; Water in religious rituals"

13.00 – 15.00, Bron Taylor "Water and the greening of religion hypothesis"

16.00 – 18.00, Guest Title to be announced

20 June

09.00 – 12.00, Håkan Rydving "Water in Religious Narratives and discourses"

13.00 – 15.00, Hans Geir Aasmundsen "Religion, Politics and Water"

16.00 – 18.00, Hans Geir Aasmundsen "Religion and Climate Change"

21 June

09.00 – 12.00, Håkan Rydving "‘Sacred’ waters: a comparative overview" Concluding remarks

13.00 – 15.00, Terje Østigård "Blocking a billion dollar dam - the powers of the Bujagali spirit in the 21st century in Uganda" and "Disappearing rainmaking cosmologies and inventions of witchcraft traditions - a case study from Tanzania"

16.00 – 18.00, Hans Geir Aasmundsen Concluding remarks, summary

Reading list

Håkan Rydving

Armstrong, A. & M. Armstrong. 2006. A Christian perspective on water and water rights. The History of Water. Vol. 3, The World of Water, pp. 367–384. Ed. by T. Tvedt & T. Oestigaard. London: I. B. Tauris.

Chamberlain, Gary L. 2008. Troubled Waters: Religion, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefeld.  ISBN 978-0-742-55245-6. 227 pp.


Kodiyanplakkal, Joisea Joseph. 2006. River cult and water management practices. The History of Water. Vol. 3, The World of Water, pp. 385–406. Ed. by T. Tvedt & T. Oestigaard. London: I. B. Tauris.

Terje Østigård

Tanzania (20 pages)

Oestigaard, T. 2012. When everything depends on the rain. Drought, rain-fed agriculture and food security. The Nordic Africa Institute  Annual Report 2011: Africa’s Changing Societies: Reform from Below: 24-25. The Nordic Africa Institute. Uppsala.


Oestigaard, T. 2015. Witchcraft, witch killings and Christianity: The works of religion and parallel cosmologies in Tanzania. In Ståhl, M. (ed.). Looking back, looking ahead: land, agriculture and society in East Africa: a festschrift for Kjell Havnevik: 182-199. The Nordic Africa Institute. Uppsala.


Uganda (45 pages)

Oestigaard, T. 2015. Dammed Divinities. The Water Powers at Bujagali Falls, Uganda. Current African Issues No. 62. The Nordic Africa Institute. Uppsala., p. 7-21, 54-84.

Generally (30 pages)

Oestigaard, T. 2011. Water. In Insoll, T. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion: 38-50. Oxford University Press. Oxford.


Oestigaard, T. 2010. The Topography of Holy Water in England after the Reformation. In Lykke Syse, K. V. & Oestigaard, T. (eds.). 2010. Perceptions of Water in Britain from Early Modern Times to the Present: An Introduction: 15-34. BRIC Press. Bergen.