Nature and the supernatural: meaning(s) of water and humanities in Ethiopia's Upper Nile

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Water is a media that sustains both belief and life. One of its powers is symbol of power and destiny. In the Upper Nile it carries meaning as a place (point of origin, a highland spring or montane rivers), a conduit for travel, and a source of food. In Orthodox Christian allusion to magic revelation and spirituality it is ubiquitous at its source and in its flow. In this structured ecology, the human relationship with environment requires the intervention of the supernatural that can be reached through mediation by holy men. Hitherto, there has been no study looking at how local ecology and the spiritual realm collide and interact. This relationship reveals itself, for example, in wall murals of the nearly two-dozen monasteries depicting biblical and apocryphal scenes. Many of these paintings involve holy figures and fish, which is understandably a key feature of the local ecology. Such images have been studied for their artistic qualities, but they carry a wealth of meaning regarding human attitudes to ecology that have not been considered and will be explored in the paper. Drawing on a broad range of local sources, this seminar addresses human interaction with environment in the Abbay and Awash watersheds and sheds light on competing narratives that have resulted from this interaction. The presentation recognizes the centrality of religion(s) in the relationship between people and nature in this part of Ethiopia and addresses the impact of human belief systems on ways in which people make sense of their environment (past and present). A cultural history approach will allow us to untangle culture-specific ways in which local peoples viewed the natural world.