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Rivers, Oceans, and Spirits: Water Cosmologies, Gender, and Religious Change in Southeast Asia*

  • Barbara Watson Andaya


Water in many different forms and contexts is of central significance in Southeast Asia, and these differences are reflected in the vast range of spirits and deities. Despite wide variation, the most obvious distinction is between spirits associated with fresh and salt water. Those linked to water associated with fertility are typically regarded as female and sympathetic to human requests for assistance. By contrast, the spirits who inhabit turbulent river waters and patrol the shorelines may be male, female, or only vaguely gendered. Although they can be capricious and sometimes cruel, they are nonetheless amenable to individual or communal supplication. The same ambiguity is exemplified by the sea spirits, who extend rewards to those they favour but inflict harsh punishments when their anger is aroused. Yet regardless of their nature or the place with which they were associated, the ‘power base’ of indigenous spirits was always locally concentrated. The limitations in their reach help explain the appeal of cosmologies that extended across a much larger area, and even across the entire globe. The accompanying conceptualization of new and benevolent beings is especially evident in the maritime environment. Here human activity is male-dominated, and the male divinities and saints associated with supra-local belief systems might appear to be the natural guardians of mariners. Even so, culturally entrenched ideas of connections between water and maternal care facilitated the adoption of female deities as protectors of ocean-going voyagers.

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Abstract and keywords have been added since original publication. An erratum notice detailing this change was also published (DOI 10.1017/trn.2016.20).



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