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The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils

The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean

Kimberley C. Patton
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils
    Book Description:

    Kimberley Patton examines the environmental crises facing the world's oceans from the perspective of religious history. Much as the ancient Greeks believed, and Euripides wrote, that "the sea can wash away all evils," a wide range of cultures have sacralized the sea, trusting in its power to wash away what is dangerous, dirty, and morally contaminating. The sea makes life on land possible by keeping it "pure."

    Patton sets out to learn whether the treatment of the world's oceans by industrialized nations arises from the same faith in their infinite and regenerative qualities. Indeed, the sea's natural characteristics, such as its vast size and depth, chronic motion and chaos, seeming biotic inexhaustibility, and unique composition of powerful purifiers-salt and water-support a view of the sea as a "no place" capable of swallowing limitless amounts of waste. And despite evidence to the contrary, the idea that the oceans could be harmed by wasteful and reckless practices has been slow to take hold.

    Patton believes that environmental scientists and ecological advocates ignore this relationship at great cost. She bases her argument on three influential stories: Euripides' tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris; an Inuit myth about the wild and angry sea spirit Sedna who lives on the ocean floor with hair dirtied by human transgression; and a disturbing medieval Hindu tale of a lethal underwater mare. She also studies narratives in which the sea spits back its contents-sins, corpses, evidence of guilt long sequestered-suggesting that there are limits to the ocean's vast, salty heart.

    In these stories, the sea is either an agent of destruction or a giver of life, yet it is also treated as a passive receptacle. Combining a history of this ambivalence toward the world's oceans with a serious scientific analysis of modern marine pollution, Patton writes a compelling, cross-disciplinary study that couldn't be more urgent or timely.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51085-1
    Subjects: Religion, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Dutch Bread-Man: Ocean as Divinity and Scapegoat
    (pp. 1-25)

    A controversy of quite modern as well as strangely anachronistic dimensions raged during the summer of 1992 in Holland. Its focus was a plan called the “National Gift to the Sea.” The idea was to tow a 100-foot welded steel–framed human figure, with arms raised and stuffed with 20,000 loaves of bread, out into the North Sea and sink it there as a thank-offering. The bread-man was constructed on a giant dike north of Amsterdam and packed with locally baked loaves purchased by members of the public for $7 each. The half-million-dollar enterprise was sponsored by the Cargo Foundation,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Crisis of Modern Marine Pollution
    (pp. 26-36)

    Triumphant newsreels that played in theaters at the end of World War II showed aircraft carriers as they made their way home from the Pacific Theater, dumping their ordnance directly into the deep ocean. Just as one might conduct a marine burial, Navy personnel slid tons of explosives along planks and into the ocean. “The boys are coming home!” ran the voice-overs. “And they won’t be needing their weapons anymore!” For complex symbolic reasons only partially accounted for by military ideology, the ordnance could not be returned to American soil. The war was over. The ocean, again “notland,” “no-place,” provided...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Purifying Sea in the Religious Imagination: Supernatural Aspects of Natural Elements
    (pp. 37-54)

    In Natural Symbols, Mary Douglas asserts that “the social experience of disorder is expressed by powerfully efficacious symbols of impurity and danger.”¹ Perhaps no symbolic dichotomy better expresses this principle than the relationship between land and sea. Furthermore, this has always been the case; only the “disorder” has changed, from the destabilizing impurity of ritual transgression to that of chemical, biological, and domestic waste products. The anxiety, however, has remained. Disorder, as expressed by ideas of impurity, is too dangerous to tolerate or integrate in human social experience (although, pace Douglas, as I argue in chapter 1, impurity itself is...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils”: Ancient Greece and the Cathartic Sea
    (pp. 55-78)

    Because of its geophysical situation, Greece is home to a people for whom the sea has been a potent religious, aesthetic, and economic entity throughout history. The Mediterranean is an eternal presence in the landscape, charged with cultural meaning for a society that was oriented as much to the sea as to the land from its earliest stages. This reality was enacted in the opening ceremonies to the Olympics in Athens in the summer of 2004, when the enormous train of a tiny Icelandic singer’s aqua and green dress, representing the ocean—central to Greek imagination and identity—gradually unfolded,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “The Great Woman Down There”: Sedna and Ritual Pollution in Inuit Seascapes
    (pp. 79-96)

    On November 14, 2003, three astronomers at Mount Palomar Observatory, led by California Institute of Technology’s Michael Brown, discovered a small red planetoid of rock and ice, deep red in color, currently eight billion miles from the sun—three times farther away than Pluto and three-quarters its size. The object’s elliptical orbit is unlike that of any other planet and takes 10,500 years to complete, leading it as far out as eighty-four billion miles from the sun. Within hours after the announcement of its discovery on March 15 of the following year, and before scientific debates about what constitutes a...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “O Ocean, I Ask You to Be Merciful”: The Hindu Submarine Mare-Fire
    (pp. 97-113)

    Themes of gender, its relationship to authority, and the religiously imagined sea revolve kaleidoscopically in the disturbing myths we have just considered. Iphigenia and Sedna are women who are derailed from the anonymous social tracks that should have been their respective lots: marriage, household, children, widowhood, old age, death. That uncanny derailing segregates them and lifts them out of the quotidian world of domestic endeavor, interlaced as it is with the observance of taboo, setting them instead into direct, chronic relationship with supernatural beings and forces, violence, and the ocean. Having failed for one reason or another as brides, both...

  11. CHAPTER 7 “Here End the Works of the Sea, the Works of Love”
    (pp. 114-134)

    Apparently “freed from that fire” of our own toxic by-products—that of which we would be rid forever—like the gods and sages we too are “happy” that the ocean has relieved us of them. Only recently has it come to our attention that, as the Purāṇas tell us, the sea might not always embrace that which could destroy the world. What went into its depths has the potential to emerge once more, when the time comes.

    “O lord of rivers, when I shall come and stay here, you shall release it.” Brahmā’s words to Ocean forecast a grim...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 135-166)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 167-176)
  14. Index
    (pp. 177-185)