Why were earth and water considered symbols of submission in the ancient world?

In the ancient world, symbols carried profound meanings, often distilled from observations of nature, mythology, and the daily lives of the people. Earth and water, as primal elements, held particular significance in various cultures and contexts, especially in diplomatic and military traditions. Understanding how these elements came to symbolize submission involves exploring their mythological, cultural, and practical implications.

Earth and Water in Mythology and Culture

In many ancient cultures, earth and water were considered fundamental components of the universe, essential for life and growth. These elements were often personified and revered as deities.

In Greek mythology, for example, Gaia was the goddess of the Earth, a primordial and motherly figure, while Oceanus and various river gods represented water. These deities were seen as both life-givers and ultimate rulers of their domains, commanding respect and veneration.

The symbolic power of earth and water extended beyond their mythological representations. These elements were omnipresent and essential, governing the rhythms of agricultural and maritime economies, respectively. As such, they were intrinsic to survival and prosperity, representing not only physical but also existential sustenance.

Political and Military Symbolism

The use of earth and water as symbols of submission has its most famous historical attestations in the interactions between the Persian Empire and the various states it sought to control. When the Persian kings, such as Darius and Xerxes, demanded “earth and water” from the cities or peoples they sought to subjugate, they were asking for more than just a handful of soil and a scoop of water. These elements were symbolic tributes, representing the submission of one’s land and sea—essentially all one’s resources and sovereignty—to the Persian authority.

Image: Persian king Darius, reigned from 522 BCE – 486 BCE

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This demand was not merely symbolic but also a clear assertion of dominance and control. Submission of earth and water meant acknowledging the Persian king’s authority over everything that sustained the lives of the submitting people: their agriculture, their water supplies, and by extension, their livelihoods and lives.

This practice was especially poignant in the context of the Persian wars, where Greek city-states were often on one side of the conflict, resisting the Persian demands as a stand against tyranny and loss of autonomy.

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A notable historical account by famed Greek historian Herodotus recounts how, during the Persian Wars, Persian heralds (i.e. ambassadors) demanded symbolic submission (“earth and water”) from Greek city-states. And in some cases, the Athenians and Spartans responded by throwing these envoys into a pit or a well. This act was both a literal and figurative refusal of the demands, suggesting that the envoys could find the earth and water they sought at the bottom of these structures.

Despite the strategic message behind this, such treatment of heralds was considered a serious breach of diplomatic protocol, tantamount to a crime, with Herodotus noting that divine retribution supposedly befell Sparta as a consequence.

Image: Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC)

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Earth and Water in Diplomacy

The symbolism of earth and water also played roles in more peaceful contexts. In treaties and pacts, the exchange or sharing of these elements could signify mutual respect, a promise of shared resources, or a commitment to peace. However, in the hands of empires like Persia, these symbols were transformed into tools of imperial policy, used to signify and enforce subjugation.

The giving of earth and water could also be seen in a ritualistic light, where the act itself was part of a ceremony designed to bind the submitting party to their vows. This ritualistic aspect underscores the deep-rooted cultural significance of these elements, transcending their everyday uses and elevating them into the realm of sacred acts.

Archaeological and Textual Evidence

Archaeological digs and ancient texts provide insights into how these practices were embedded into the fabric of ancient political life. Documents and artifacts, such as inscriptions and reliefs, often depict or describe rituals involving earth and water, highlighting their importance in ancient statecraft. For instance, Herodotus’s accounts of Persian demands provide primary historical sources that underscore the ritualistic and symbolic use of these elements in diplomacy and war.

Broader Implications

The symbolism of earth and water as submission did not remain confined to the Persian empire. Variations of this theme can be seen in other cultures and epochs, where different elements or objects might take on similar symbolic roles. For example, in medieval Europe, the act of handing over soil or the keys to a city’s gates could represent the transfer of control and allegiance.

Conclusion

The use of earth and water as symbols of submission in the ancient world reflects a complex interplay of mythology, cultural values, and political power. These elements were deeply woven into the lives and beliefs of ancient peoples, representing fundamental life forces over which gods presided and kings sought control. In demanding these elements as tributes, empires like Persia effectively demanded control over the very essence of life and governance of the submitting states.

This practice illustrates how natural elements transcended their immediate physical presence, embodying broader themes of life, sustenance, power, and domination. The legacy of such symbolism is profound, influencing diplomatic and cultural practices long after the decline of the empires that once demanded such tributes. Through these symbols, ancient societies communicate complex ideas about authority, submission, and the natural order, which continue to offer valuable insights into their worldviews and political systems.

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