Exploring the Local Watershed with Sobek, Lord of the Rivers

Shortly before Wep Ronpet, about a month ago, I felt a strong push from Sobek to go to my local river. Not just look at it from high up on a ledge, as I usually do, but actually step into the water, feel its life-giving power, its purifying properties. I got the sense that there was some mystery to be explored in this process. Many things can be found in the river — after all, that’s where Sobek found His father Wesir (Osiris)’s dismembered body parts (and consumed them, in some cases, but I’ll pass on that!)

The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea where I could carry out His suggestion.

I had explored a fair expanse of my local riverbanks, and I couldn’t think of a single location where I would be able to actually enter the river; all the spots I was familiar with were either narrow, concrete-paved boat launches off-limits to pedestrians, or natural banks high above the waterline. I have a weak ankle from an old rock-climbing injury, so clambering down steep slopes wasn’t an option. I also don’t drive, so I couldn’t take the more straightforward route of googling a beach and driving out there. (Plus, I got the feeling that it needed to be a river local to me.)

So I started searching more manually, with maps and a lot of legwork.

There’s a certain heka (magic) in searching the waters. It comes up again and again in Ancient Egyptian myths, and perhaps the most famous is Aset (Isis)’s search for the body of Her husband. But we also see it in other stories, such as when Ra-Atum sends His daughter, the Eye of Ra, “to search for his lost children, Shu and Tefnut, in the darkness of the primeval ocean,” and when Sobek searched the “Great Green” (i.e. the  Mediterranean) for His father’s remains. [1] More abstractly, we also see water used in some forms of divination where one observes the water for answers from the gods.

And I did a lot of searching.

Searching the Banks on the Horizon

After I crossed off the first half-dozen or so possible sites off my list due to inaccessibility, I found a spot along a tributary river not far from a large lake that seemed like a solid bet (at least from the Google Maps street view scouring), but after a couple hours of trekking, the closest I got was about a 15-ft drop straight down into the rocks. Not the safest spot for wading, but a beautiful place to soak in the sun on the warm stones and make clean water libation offerings to Sobek and the local nature spirits. Crocodiles are ectothermic, and raise their body temperature by laying in the heat on warm surfaces or in direct sunlight, so I set out His prayer card to enjoy the warmth with me.

A photo of a rocky riverbank with a prayer card of crocodile-god Sobek on one of the rocks in the sun.
(It’s hard to tell in the photo here, but this was about 15 ft/5 m above the waterline.)

Next, I tried a spot along the main river close to a water testing site. After trekking through a lot of undergrowth — and earning a lot of weird stares — I realized with horror that I had actually just trespassed onto city property and had somehow gotten through some gates I shouldn’t have. (No photos of this one, as you can imagine!) The next day, I found some nearby canals, but these were also a no-go, blocked off on expensive private land that I definitely should not be trespassing on.

And on it continued. I did find one promising area, with a much smaller drop down the bank, but as I approached the ledge, something fluttering on a tree branch caught my eye. It was a laminated sheet of paper tied with thick cord to a tree, and my heart sank as I read it.

“WARNING,” it said in bright red font. “DANGEROUS LEVELS OF MERCURY AND OTHER HEAVY METALS, E-COLI AND OTHER BACTERIA, AND OTHER CONTAMINANTS. UNSAFE FOR WILDLIFE. UNSAFE FOR SWIMMING. UNSAFE FOR CONSUMPTION.” It continued on with a full advisory report from our local water authority, and it got worse the farther I read. Even if I could have clambered down into the stream, I shouldn’t. But this was just a stream, not the main river — surely the full river couldn’t be that bad? Disheartened, I continued searching nevertheless.

Finally, last week I found a spot along the main river with a gently-sloping sandy beach. Unfortunately, I smelled it before I saw it. The beach was tucked away behind an aging housing development and the skeletons of some ancient machinery — for logging, possibly? — and the water was so thickly coated in algae and slime that it looked more solid than liquid. Flies saturated the air and everything felt sticky.

“Sorry, Sobek,” I said quietly. “Not here.”

I took a couple photos, poured clean water libation offerings, took one last look at the sad site, and left.

When I returned home, I dug into the US Environmental Protection Agency’s report on my local watershed. [2] Before this, I knew roughly where the boundaries of my watershed were, but I admit that my knowledge was fuzzy. Now I saw the digitized full sprawling extent of my local river and its many little tributary streams that crossed my running route. It was remarkable to see just how far it extended, how many places it meandered and curved. But my stomach dropped when I saw that every inch of my local watershed was labeled as “impaired” and unsafe for general use. Out of curiosity, I checked the watersheds of three other places I’ve lived in the US, and though they weren’t of ideal quality, nothing compared to the substandard state of my current home watershed.

Photo of a forested riverside.
(One of the failed attempts of finding a bank/beach to walk out onto, but at least it was nice and green.)

“This water regenerated all that was decayed…”

Water was life to the Ancient Egyptians, literally and figuratively, and had life-sustaining and life-restoring powers. The Pyramid Texts alone mention water over 90 times. [3] As Jan Assman explains, the Nile flowed out of the primeval waters of the Nun, and…

“Whoever immersed himself in the primeval water escaped death and gained strength for new life. Death was the consequence of a pollution that could be erased by means of the primeval water. This water regenerated all that was decayed, and it turned back the hours. A world in which this water was effective needed no creator, for it was itself creative, divine, and holy, carrying within itself the mysteries of redemption.”

Assmann, J. (2005). Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.

For me, my local river is my Nile, my source of life that pours out from my faucet and waters our plants and animals.

So what do we do when water, the great purifier, is itself a source of sickness?

And I do not mean this in a strictly anthropocentric sense — my local waterways are ill-suited for wildlife as well. Despite ongoing water treatment efforts, steelhead and trout are still declining year over year, and have disappeared entirely from many tributaries. (And it’s worth noting that salmon is sacred to many of the local Native American peoples whose land was violently stolen from them, adding another point to this ongoing tragedy.)

Up until the 1970s, wastewater, fertilizer, and other contaminants were dumped liberally into the local waterways, leading to catastrophically high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that federal and local government agencies started putting more regulations in place to curb this pollution, and though these efforts have helped to some degree, the watershed will need many more years — and a lot more commitment from local communities, governments, and corporations — in order to fully recover. The skyrocketing local population does not make this any easier, and I suppose I am part of the problem there, as I moved here within the last four or five years.

There are parallels in countless other locations. The Nile River, as one topical example, is becoming ever more polluted with wastewater from human activities, and the levels of heavy metals in the river have now made it unsafe for both human and non-human consumption in many locations. [4] I also acknowledge my privilege in that in spite of the poor condition of my local waterway, I still have access to safe drinking water due to the nearby water treatment facilities. Not everywhere has that luxury, and many people do not have regular access to any sort of water at all. One of my most frequent prayers of thanks to the gods is for the readily accessible water I have. When I was a child growing up in a low-income family in central California, a land of fire and drought now more than ever, I used to have nightmares about running out of water. Sometimes I still do. 

“May you speak my name when you bring water, may you remove any corruption…”

As of yet, I still haven’t stepped directly into the river. It’s not because I’m especially worried about immediate effects from the contaminants; a quick rinse off with clean water would do the trick. Instead, I believe Sobek was nudging me to seek out the river in this way not necessarily to literally immerse myself in the physical water, but to better understand the spirit of my local river. Sobek is Lord of the Rivers, and all rivers are sacred to Him; I ought to have known that I needed to get to know mine better after living here nearly half a decade.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize how bad of a shape my local waterways were in until this adventure. I had heard anecdotes from longtime residents of the area, like my partner’s mother, that our river and tributary streams had been “gross” for a long time, but I shrugged it off. How bad could it be?, I thought.  Now I know the rough condition it’s in. But I also now know all the tiny winding streams and brooks and creeks that feed the main river, that then feeds an even larger one to the north. I feel like I understand our river on a personal level more than I did before; I have a sense of who it is, not just what.

Needless to say, I’ll be focusing more on cleaning the riverbanks as a devotional act too. 

My master’s thesis focused on aquifer management in Southeastern Europe, and I’ve had a fascination with water (despite my dislike of swimming!) for a long time; it made sense to finally start approaching it in a spiritual sense too, and I thank Sobek for that. As mentioned before, the side of Sobek I connect with is “the wild Sobek, free from any ties with any cities, who lives in a natural environment made of water and plants and who interacts with natural phenomena,” [5] and this search for the river helped solidify that. I haven’t spent that much time outside for non-exercise purposes in a long time. And I spoke His name at each watery location I found, pouring libations to Sobek, Lord of the Rivers, when I brought Him water. (The quote in the heading above is from a deceased human to anyone who might enter their tomb [6], but the verbiage was fitting in this sense too, I think.)

There’s one other reason why I think Sobek sent me on that hunt, but I’ll save that for the next post. Until then, may the water flowing from your tap, the Inundation of Sobek, cleanse you.

“You have your water, you have your inundation, the effluence that comes from the god, the decomposition that comes from Osiris.

Your arms have been washed and your ears opened: this powerful has been made akh for his ba.

Wash yourself and your ka will wash himself, your ka will sit and eat bread with you without termination forever and ever.”

Pyramid Text spell 436. Cited from Popielska-Grzybowska 2016.
Photo of a riverbank with lots of algae.
(The place where I finally found an accessible beach. Not as slimy as in other areas that I found, but still not especially inviting…)

References

[1] Pinch, G. (2004). Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[2] If you’re located in the United States, I recommend checking out the EPA’s “How’s My Waterway?” site and entering in your zip code: https://mywaterway.epa.gov/

[3] Popielska-Grzybowska, J. (2016). Contexts of Appearance of Water in the Pyramid Texts: An Introduction. Études et Travaux XXIX, 157-167. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/37744683/Contexts_of_Appearance_of_Water_in_the_Pyramid_Texts_An_Introduction_An_Introduction_%C3%89tudes_et_Travaux_XXIX_2016_pp_157_167

[4] Abdel-Satar, A. M., Ali, M. H. & Goher, M. E. (2017). Indices of water quality and metal pollution of Nile River, Egypt. The Egyptian Journal of Aquatic Research 43(1), 21-29. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1687428516300917

[5] Zecchi, M. (2011). Sobek of Shedet: The crocodile god in the Fayyum in the Dynastic Period. Todi, Italy: Tau Editrice. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/2624950/Sobek_of_Shedet._The_Crocodile_God_in_the_Fayyum_in_the_Dynastic_Period
I can’t recommend this paper highly enough, if you’re interested in Sobek!

[6] Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “Exploring the Local Watershed with Sobek, Lord of the Rivers

  1. So sad to hear about the state of your local rivers. I’ve long been worshipping my local river goddess, Belisama, of the Ribble, but wouldn’t dare step into her waters even though they are cleaner then they were and the fish and wildlife are returning. There is still agricultural run-off plus the Springfields, where they manufacture nuclear rods downriver and the tide comes back up from there to me. What I manage to do, however, in my wellies, is clear Fish House Brook, my local brook, which is a tributary of the Ribble. Finding a small brook to go into in wellies may be a safe way to go?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Man, that must have been so disheartening, to try to do something for Sobek and then get there in each instance and find the river in such a state. It turns out that following the EPA link, my watershed too is “impaired,” which is really disturbing considering Wakulla Springs State Park is not far from me. This is one of the largest freshwater springs by volume in the United States (I think?). The park has boat tours, which my husband and I have taken several times. Manatees, an endangered species, come there sometimes. And the water seems clear enough, although it’s never clear enough for the glass bottom boat tours – those haven’t run on a regular basis in years. What are we doing to our planet? It’s so distressing. Hopefully the coming generations can fix our screwups.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s heartbreaking, I’m sorry to hear your local watershed is in a rough spot too. That’s awesome that manatees are able to survive there just fine — that gives me hope! And agreed, I really hope that future generations don’t continue our poor decisions…

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  3. Pingback: In Praise of the Goddess of the Sewers – Roving the Two Lands

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