To call swimming a religious experience might sound like sacrilege.
But for many of us, every time we slip into a bikini, or plunge into the ocean, or pound out our laps, we’re actually taking part in a spiritual rite. Swimming is an ancient activity, combining the mystical properties of waters with the pure joy of liquid flowing over the body. Not to mention the possibility of outpacing your enemies or tightening your midriff in the process. I do it to relax and revive, to quiet my angst and invigorate my soul; to enter a world of silence and weightlessness far more peaceful than the one in which I live.
One of my great discoveries while writing about swimming was its rich history, starting with cave paintings and moving on to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek and Roman manuscripts. Swimming was so deeply embedded into the culture of classical Greece, Plato quotes the proverb, well known in 360 BCE, that calling men ignorant meant “they know neither how to read nor how to swim.” More than three centuries later, Julius Caesar, during the revolt against him in Alexandria, tore himself away from his beloved, Cleopatra, and swam to safety amidst a barrage of enemy swords and ships. His escape was a one-armed marathon, as he clenched his sword and purple cloak in his teeth, his papers held high above his head. Without it, Cleo may never have been Queen.
But it wasn’t all smooth gliding for this most divine diversion. Unfortunately, swimming moved into the Middle Ages as a military function, not a satisfying sport. It mostly took place in moats, which were designed to keep people out. Some historians blame its decline on the church, which censured everything from the revelries of Rome to the curves of the human body. Some say the ban on mixing water and flesh- even bathing was seen as a pagan ritual-was due to misguided medicine, with terrifying warnings of diseases lurking in contaminated water. The ignorance and charges of immorality worked. With rare exceptions, swimming vanished as Europe plunged into intellectual darkness
Swimming pools suffered the same fate. Once a source of ancient pleasure, with public baths dotting the Roman Empire - they were vital centers of social discourse, until they devolved into playgrounds of debauchery. The biggest pool empire of that world was built by the erratic first-century BCE dictator, Herod the Great, whose indoor and outdoor tanks can be seen in Israel from the top of Masada to the ramparts of old Jerusalem. The archeological evidence of this master builder’s monuments are dazzling. Herod built a 250-meter pool at his palace in Jericho, now in Jordan, which might have been used for sailing. Also for a drowning. The maniacal king was so identified with the structures, in the 1970s Broadway hit “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” the character of Herod challenges Jesus to “walk across my swimming pool,” an irreverent allusion that is at least rooted in historic real estate.
Swimming, like many wondrous things, reappeared with the Renaissance. And today plenty of folks understand the joy of being in the water, the Zen of the sport, the transcendent nature of immersing your body in a substance that is totally alien. For countless religions, water is sacred; baptism, a sacrament; liquid, a means of rebirth. I just think it’s magical.
Excerpt from “SWIM: Why We Love the Water,” by Lynn Sherr (Public Affairs Books):
Life lessons from swimming permeate the foundations of our society, with references in everything from the Bible to rock music. In a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript accompanying Psalm 69, King David-naked, a crown atop his curls-swims through an ocean of blue waves (“the deep waters” of despair), praying for salvation. The Talmud says that a Jewish father must do several things for his son: circumcise him, teach him Torah, find him a wife, teach him a trade. And teach him how to swim. According to Rabbi Anne Ebersman, director of Jewish programming at New York’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, that can be interpreted two ways: First, to prevent drowning in a world where trade depended on sea travel. “Ships were dangerous,” she explains to me. “And probably there were stories about drowning. But swimming can also be seen more metaphorically,” she goes on, “how to take care of yourself, knowing that you can master something by yourself. So it’s a basic skill to get through life and also a metaphor to get through life.” The same point is made by an advisor to Mohammed and one of the major voices of Islam, Umar Ibn al-Khattab. “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse-riding,” he says, a directive often interpreted as serving the soul as well as the body.
More contemporary moral guidance comes from the bighearted blue fish named Dory in the movie Finding Nemo. When Marlin, the clownfish, gets the grumps, Dory grabs his fin, wriggles onward, and sings, “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”
Former ABC News Correspondent Lynn Sherr has been swimming since she was a toddler, learning first by watching frogs in a Pennsylvania lake. She has since expanded both her strokes and her waterways. Her new book, “SWIM: Why We Love the Water,” was just published.