Ur-Sea

Imagine a sea without shore.

Nothing but water, in the whole wide world.

They say this was the way it was in the very beginning:

and the spirit of God moved over the waters

or, in Dutch

en de Geest Gods zweefde op de wateren.

Before the waters had been separated between the clouds above and the oceans below, and before they had been withdrawn from the land, they were everywhere.

HollarChaos

‘Chaos’, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677), print scanned by the University of Toronto and published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is an image that captured the writers of the very first book of the Torah and the Bible – Genesis – two and a half thousand years ago.

This same image surfaces later on in the story, in chapters 6 and 7. In God’s voice

Behold I will bring the waters of a great flood upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, under heaven. […] I will rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and I will destroy every substance that I have made, from the face of the earth.

The point receives quite a bit of emphasis: Noah

was six hundred years old, when the waters of the flood overflowed the earth. […] And after the seven days were passed, the waters of the flood overflowed the earth […] In the six hundredth year of the life of Noe, in the second month, in the seventeenth day of the month, all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were opened: And the rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. And the flood was forty days upon the earth, and the waters increased, and lifted up the ark on high from the earth. For they overflowed exceedingly: and filled all on the face of the earth: and the ark was carried upon the waters. And the waters prevailed beyond measure upon the earth: and all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The water was fifteen cubits higher than the mountains which it covered. […] And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

If we ignore for a moment the comical effect of reading such repetitive language nowadays (also thanks to Monty Python), we are left with a desolate picture.

DoréDeluge

Gustave Doré, from a mid-19th-century edition of The Holy Bible (London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell), taken from Wikipedia.

The endless sea is meant to destroy

all flesh […] that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beasts, and of all creeping things that creep upon the earth: and all men. And all things wherein there is the breath of life on the earth, died.

The ur-sea forms the central image of many creation myths, in both its chaotic and destructive aspects. The devouring sea also plays a large part in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Around 1900, he wrote several volumes of poems exploring how people ought to deal with the exasperating reality of never-ending comings and goings on earth; the ever-present risk of loosing life and loved ones. (These volumes are titled, amongst others, Manasi and Sonar Tari, The Golden Boat.)

Destruction dances on the vast ocean waves –

A fearful festival!

Beating its hundred wings, the storm wind raves

In furious squall.

Ocean and sky conjoin – fierce intercourse,

While blackness shuts out heaven’s sight.

Terror-struck by lightning, the breakers roar:

Inert nature’s laughter, sharp, angry, white.

Unseeing, unhearing, frenzied giants come –

Homeless, loveless forms:

Where do they rush to die, bursting all bonds?

This forms the beginning of ‘Sindhutaranga’/’Ocean Waves. On the wreck of two pilgrim-ships bound for Puri’. Further on in the poem,

The surge stretches its million arms and calls “Give, give, give!”

Have you ever been in a pool, thinking you could stand up on the pool floor but, reaching for it, found yourself step underwater because the pool was deeper than you thought? Or, swimming in the sea, experienced one of those cool currents moving past your legs as you swim away from the coast, intimating that you are entering a literally un-fathomable expanse of the world? (A fathom-line was what seafarers used to measure depth with.)

Pink Floyd’s lyrics on the album The Wall express that feeling:

If you should go skating

On the thin ice of modern life […]

Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice

Appears under your feet

You slip out of your depth and out of your mind

With your fear flowing out behind you

As you claw the thin ice

But unlike this song, Tagore also employs that more benign side of the endless ocean. The poem ‘Ahalyar Prato’/’To Ahalya’ compares the rebirth of a petrified woman to

the first slow dawn

On the blue waters of oblivion’s sea.

[…]

Ocean, first mother, the earth is your child (‘Samudrer Prati’/To the Ocean’)

Tagore described his ‘boat of life’ sailing ‘across unending oceans’ (in ‘Biday’/A Farewell’). In a letter, the poet wrote:

how can it be explained to one who does not feel it within his heart, face to face with nature in a setting of solitude? When there was no land on earth, when the ocean was alone by itself, my restless heart of today was tossed inarticulately amidst that unpeopled mass of water: I seem to apprehend this when I look at the sea and hear its single-noted murmur.

As a destructive power, the seas often feature in our common images and experiences. In their reflections on personal or shared disasters, many have turned to the regenerative, fertilising capacities of the sea, as of rivers and vulcanoes. But perhaps the most beautiful image is that of the first dawn rising over a calm sea, where life has yet to begin. Some solitary creative being hovers over the water, pondering what they might create, imagining all the million possibilities… and perhaps postponing the start of a new world, just for a bit, enjoying the silence.

 

P.S. I have used an English translation (the ‘Douay-Rheims’) of the Latin Vulgate Bible (itself a translation, but still used in Latin everywhere in the world), as well as the standard Dutch authorised Reformed translation from 1635 (the Statenbijbel). Although perhaps not the best translations we have, they are beautiful as poetry. With my apologies to those who regret I am not treating the Bible as the Word of God. The translations of Tagore’s poems and letter, originally in Bengali, were taken from the Oxford India edition edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, which we are very lucky to have.