GEO 10 The Most Important Way the Natural World Has Shaped the Development of Humans Essay


Make an argument about what you think is
the most important way the natural world has shaped the development of human religious,
political, economic, and scientific concepts, including taking regional differences into account. (900-word minimum.) -Please only use sources discussed in class as well as your own knowledge. Outside sources are not allowed.-Your argument should be primarily
based on the assigned required readings. -You must cite any specific references or quotations
you use from the materials, including page numbers and author/selection from the readings. -You can use citations in whatever format you wish; a separate works cited section is not needed.Water in Mythology
Author(s): Michael Witzel
Source: Daedalus, Vol. 144, No. 3 (Summer 2015), pp. 18-26
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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Water in Mythology
Michael Witzel
Abstract : Water in its various forms -as salty ocean water, as sweet river water, or as rain – has played
a major role in human myths, from the hypothetical, reconstructed stories of our ancestral “African Eve ”
to those recorded some five thousand years ago by the early civilizations to the myriad myths told by
major and smaller religions today. With the advent of agriculture, the importance of access to water was
incorporated into the preexisting myths of hunter-gatherers. This is evident in myths of the ancient riverine
civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, as well as those of desert civilizations of the Pueblo
or Arab populations.
a’ur body, like the surface of the earth, is mor
60 percent water. Ancient myths have alwa
ognized the importance of water to our orig
livelihood, frequendy claiming that the worl
from a watery expanse.
Water in its various forms – as salty ocean
as sweet river water, or as rain – has played
role in human tales since our earliest myths
corded in Egypt and Mesopotamia some fiv
sand years ago. Thus, in this essay we will
ward both ancient and recent myths that de
these forms of water, and we will also consid
influence the ready availability (or not) of w
on the formation of our great and minor ea
any of our oldest collections of myths introduce
MICHAEL WITZEL, a Fellow of the
American Academy since 2003, is
the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at
Harvard University. His many pub
lications include The Origins of the
World’s Mythologies (2012), Linguistic
Evidence for Cultural Exchange in Pre
historic Western Central Asia (2003),
and On Magical Thought in the Veda
the world as nothing but a vast salty ocean. The old
est Indian text, the poetic Rgveda (circa 1200 BCE),
asserts : “In the beginning, darkness was hidden by
darkness; all this [world] was an unrecognizable
salty ocean [salila].”1 This phrase is frequently re
peated by later Vedic texts with the mythic formula :
“In the beginning there was just the salty ocean.”
Mesopotamian mythology, in its Babylonian form,
differs somewhat : there was both salty water and
sweet water, which mingled to produce the gods.
© 2015 by Michael Witzel
doi :io.ii62/L)AfcL>_a_oo33ö
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“When on high heaven had not been
named… Nought but primordial Apsu [ the
watery abyss], their begetter, and Mummu
Tiamat, she who bore them all, their wa
of a primordial ocean (or void) is followed
by stages that lead to the emergence of
the inhabitable world and finally the first
ters, commingling as a single body… then
it was that the gods were formed within
The myths of sub-Saharan Africa (and
Australia) are structured differently from
those mentioned in that they stress fore
Ancient Maya mythology, as recorded
most the origins of humans, not of the
world.9 Even then, rather exceptionally,
the Boshongo in the Luanda area of Angola
in the sixteenth-century Popol Vuh, reflects
the same concept: “Only the sky alone is
there … Only the sea alone is pooled un
der all the sky…. Whatever there is that
might be is simply not there: only the
pooled water only the calm sea, only it
alone is pooled. “3
let the world begin with water and a preex
isting deity: “In the beginning, in the dark,
there was nothing but water. And Bumba
was alone.. .he vomited the sun.”10
Or, according to the first chapter of the
c,dearly, distinct from such concepts as
Hebrew Bible : “In the beginning the gods4
primordial chaos (Greece) or darkness
created heaven and earth… and the spirit
[ruah] of the gods5 hovered over water.”
(Polynesia), the concept of water pervades
many ancient and recent creation mythol
ogies. Questioning the universality of why
leads to psychology and, perhaps, to Jung
The Christian King James Bible revised this
to read: “In the beginning God created
the heaven and the earth And the spir
it of God moved upon the face of the wa
ian archetypes, though we cannot here
explore the psychic origins of myths,
whether due to universal characteristics
In ancient Egypt, in the book of over
of the mind or other human factors. Eth
throwing the dragon of the deep, Apophis,6
nologist Leo Frobenius and anthropologist
Hermann Baumann pointed toward other
explanations : namely, the spread of many
myths by diffusion from an ancient cen
the “Lord of All,” explains, “I am he who
came into being as Khepri… I was… in the
Watery Abyss. I found no place to stand. ”
Here and in the Biblical case, one or more
deities predate the actual act of creation,
a characteristic shared with other creation
ter. More likely still is the development of
our original myths (of the “African Eve”)
in East Africa, which then spread along the
mythologies, such as with the Winnebago shores of the Indian Ocean to Australia
of Wisconsin: “Our father . . . began to and South China some sixty-five thousand
think what he should do and finally began years ago, before finally expanding into the
to cry and tears began to flow and fall down rest of Eurasia and the Americas.11 Con
below him… his tears… formed the pres sequently, all humans have a few myths in
ent waters.”7
common (though that is denied for “the
oretical reasons” by scholars such as the
though not on all details. The Maidu of folklorist Alan Dundes). For example, the
California, employing a motif that also flood myth is universal : it is found all over
appears in Siberian mythology, state : “In Africa, Australia, Eurasia, and the Ameri
the beginning… all was dark, and every cas. Further, both the southern and north
where there was only water. A raft came ern versions of the myths share the com
floating… in it were two persons.”8 In all mon theme of shamanism, which is part
these examples, which primarily originate and parcel of many smaller local and major
Other Native American peoples agree,
from north of the equator, the initial stage religions to this day.
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Water in
As.s the Mesopotamian example indi
Danube (Danubius ; now feminine as Donau
cates, there is an important distinction be
or Dunarea), Tiber/Tevere (Tiberis), Po
tween sweet water and salty water.12 Sweet
(.Padus), as well as the Ebro, Tejo/Tajo, and
Brahmaputra (India). Closer to home, we
have the Ol’ Man River, the Mississippi,
the Rio Grande, and the Colorado.
water is obviously more important for
the sustenance of humans ; thus, from the
Rgveda onward, the ancient Indian texts
praise the flowing sweet waters but not
stagnant ponds (“tanks”).13 Indian texts
regard rivers as goddesses, and the term
“inviolate ladies” refers to their beneficial
waters (which are believed to carry milk
for women and semen for men). In Indian
The mythical cleansing power of rivers
is perhaps best demonstrated by the
bathing festival Kumbh Melä, in which
millions of Hindu pilgrims assemble every
twelve years at the confluence of the
Ganges and Jumna rivers with the myth
ical, underground Sarasvatl at Allahabad
(Prayäga).15 The purifying bath delivers
healing. Closely related is the ancient In people from their karma and allows them
dian and Iranian (Zoroastrian) idea of theto go to heaven after death. This belief has
river goddess Sarasvatï, “she who has manya long prehistory : taking a bath at certain
ponds.” Sarasvatï is the modern Helmand confluences is followed by a march up
River in Southern Afghanistan, which hasstream toward the “world tree” situated in
given its name (Haraxvaitï) to the ancientthe lower Himalayas.16 The pilgrims be
province of Arachosia. It swells in springlieve that at the meeting point of the river
after the snow melt, while the Sarsuti, itsand the sky, one can climb up to heaven.
Indian counterpart northwest of Delhi,As a result of these beliefs, a bath at any
mythology, the cakraväka bird actually dis
tinguishes between their water and milk.
Rivers are also invoked as sources of
swells in the monsoon season. Haraxvaitï s
confluence of two rivers (trivenï) is regard
rushing waters – or further downstream, ed as sacred and salvific.
its murmuring flows – gave rise to the be Reality obviously differs considerably.
lief that Sarasvatï is the goddess of speech By now the Jumna is virtually a sewer due
and poetry. Indeed, almost all Indian riv to the untreated waters of Delhi and
ers are regarded as female, with the major other big towns upstream. The Ganges has
exception of the male Indus (Sindhu ; Greek not fared much better. Its river dolphins
Indos), who has given his name to the sub are fast disappearing, and the organized
“clean-up campaigns” have not had much
Female river names, usually ending in a, success. Nevertheless, local folklore about
are found throughout the regions of the the Ganges’ cleanliness persists : the river
Indo-European language family, from “cleans itself’ in spite of all its garbage,
Iceland to Bengal: the Seine (Sequana), sewage, and half-cremated dead bodies. In
Thames (Tamesis), the Central European fact, people not only bathe in the river, they
Elbe (Albis), Weser (Visara), Saale (Sala), also collect it to carry home over long dis
Wistla/Weichsel (Vistula), and the Vltava/ tances; some habitually drink it. Such is
Moldau (Czech Republic), Drava (Slove the power of myth.
nia; or Drau in Austria), Drina (Bosnia), Water is used as a spiritual cleansing
Volga (Russia), and Gangä/Ganges (India) agent in diverse traditions inside and out
are all feminine.
side India, effectively blurring the bound
There are, however, quite a few male ary between cleaning and cleansing.17 In
Indo-European river exceptions, such as Japan, upon entering a Shinto shrine, vis
the Rhône (Rhodanus), Rhein (Rhenus), itors must cleanse themselves with water;
20 Dœdalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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and Islam dictates that adherents wash
festivals to ensure the timely beginning
their hands, faces, feet, and parts of their and end of the rainy season, on which the
head before prayer in an act called Wudü,l8 rice crops depend. The Jagannätha Festi
Washing hands for purification was also val at Puri in Eastern India is one famous
common among the Greeks and Romans,example, featuring a giant “juggernaut”
and Pontius Pilate famously did the same chariot carrying Hindu deities through
in an attempt to remove himself fromtown. In the Kathmandu Valley, there are
Christ’s death.19
two large, historically multilayered chariot
In ancient Israel, too, water was usedfestivals : the Indra Jäträ and the Macchen
for various types of purification, including dranäth Jäträ, both of which are celebrat
the consecration of Levites and before
ed to stop excessive rain. Furthermore,
priests approached the altar.20 Individu
the divine Nägas – moisture loving, snake
als purified themselves from guilt like,
by and shape-shifting beings – have their
washing hands and giving offerings. own
The festival at the onset of the rainy sea
cleansing and salvific force of water is also
son, announced by the ritual of humans
obvious in the Christian rite of baptism,
pasting an image of the Nägas above their
irrespective of how much water is used
front door. There are folklore practices as
(complete submergence in a natural body
well, such as burying a clay image of a rain
of water versus a gentle blessing of holy
loving frog in a newly dug up rice field (to
rains).21 The connection between
water). Baptism places the baptized ondeliver
path toward heaven, just like the Indian
monsoon rain and revitalized frogs can be
traced back to the oldest Indian text, the
bath at the Kumbh Melä.
Rs.ain is welcomed in traditions world
Rgveda.22 And should the rains fail, a village
may send naked women out into its streets
dance and entice Indra, the god of rain.
wide, especially those rooted outsidetoof
colder and temperate climates. InnumerSimilar customs were observed just one
years ago along the river Rhine, in
able prayers and rituals are performedhundred
Serbia and Greece : a small naked girl was
for drinking and agriculture – to areas that led into a river and hit with twigs. Or in
attract rain – an essential source of water
do not receive regular precipitation, suchTyrol, Austria, young women caught on the
as the Mediterranean winter rains, but inroad could have water poured over them
stead depend on unpredictable precipita to induce rain. The same idea may underlie
tion, like the summer monsoons in India,the famous water festivals of Burma, Thai
land, and Yunnan, which are carried out
Southern China, or Japan.
Similarly, the Hopi, living in the desertat the height of the hot season before the
of Northern Arizona, depend on the spotty monsoon. Buckets of water are poured on
summer monsoon and on winter snow
passers-by, especially by young men chas
for the success of their crops of corn ing
and young women; or showers from a
are splashed on onlookers.
beans. They therefore invite many ofstandpipe
An ancient Iranian text contained in
roughly two hundred Katsina spirits from
the Avesta provides a dramatic account of
the nearby snowy mountains to bring rain.
how the star Sirius (Tistriia) fights with his
Secret rituals are performed in under
ground sacred chambers (kiva), while
opponent Apaosa23 at the mythical lake
until fog and clouds rise and rain
dances – with humans impersonating Vourukasa
covers all “seven parts of the earth.”24
Katsina – are performed outside.
The many “methods” used to attract rain
In India and Nepal, priests perform var
are all based on the shared belief that
ious rituals and help stage great monsoon
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Water in
similar actions result in similar outcomes
strous reptile guarding hidden treasure –
awaits visitors at the end of a rainbow. The
(sympathetic magic). In some parts of
India, such as in Maharashtra, one cere rainbow can also function as a bridge be
moniously “marries” two frogs to stop atween heaven and earth, such as in South
drought and induce rain.25 At least since
ern Germany, in the Icelandic Edda, or in
the early eleventh century in parts of
Japan. The Roma (Gypsies), originally from
Northwestern India, believe that at Pente
Europe and Algeria, humans or animals
cost, it is possible to mount the rainbow and
are ceremoniously dunked in rivers and
ascend to heaven, a belief that echoes the
ponds to attract rain. In many traditions,
rain is regarded as the tears of deities : the old Indian concept of reaching heaven by
Maori of New Zealand believe Heaven
traveling upstream along certain rivers.28
In much of the Southern Hemisphere,
cried after he was pushed up and forever
the In
rainbow is viewed as a serpent. In Aus
separated from his wife, the Earth.26
tralian Aboriginal mythology, the rainbow
early India, however, rain was divine urine.
the primordial mother deity that gives
In many areas of the Greater NearisEast,
birth to the totem animal-like ancestors
the weather god – similar to the thunderer
humans, who roamed the continent in
Zeus and the Indian rain god Indra of
his troupe, the Marat – was regarded as
the time” before sinking back into eter
slumber beneath the surface.
dominant deity. Memories of this pagan
incarnation persevere : the Icelandic Thor
is commemorated every Thursday (Thor’s
Some of the world’s early civilizations
day) or the German Donners-tag (day
ofon major rivers, such as in Egypt,
Because deities tend to live on moun
Iraq, China, and the Indus Valley, while
other early civilizations developed apart
tains, pilgrims may travel to the mountains
from major rivers, such as in Greece, Iran,
from great distances to ask for rain. If mak
Japan, Mesoamerica, and the Andes. This
ing the request directly to a deity is not an
division obviously depends on particular
option, there are alternatives : the newly
geographical conditions. The riverine civ
introduced Tantric Buddhism in eighth
ilizations made use of the perennial water
century Japan allowed for religious rituals
supply of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus,
to be performed for the emperor in a peri
and Huang He. Other Neolithic peoples
invented schemes to harness river waters
od of drought. Across the East China Sea,
the Chinese thunder god Lei-shih was a for
sig irrigation. These civilizations devel
nificant deity, more so than, for example,
oped ingenious means – such as surpris
the river God Hopo of the Huang He (the
ingly complex irrigation networks that ter
raced and distributed small streams – to
Yellow River).27
harvest the much less abundant local wa
ter resources. This is evident in the long,
The rainbow – prominently connected
underground canals (qanat) of Iran ; in the
with rain – also plays a great role in vari
sharing water schemes for rice agricul
ous mythologies. In ancient India, and still
ture in the Himalayan hills, the Philippines,
with the pagan Kalasha people who live
on the border east of Afghanistan, the or Japan ; or in the remarkable irriga
tion channels of Peru that have endured
rainbow is regarded as the bow (Indra
dyumna ; Indron) of the great warrior since
and the Incas. Along the Salt and Gila riv
ers of Arizona we find the massive irriga
rain god Indra.
tion schemes of the Hohokam civilization,
According to common European folk
abandoned around 1450 CE after some
lore, either treasure or a dragon – the mon
22 Dœdalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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twenty-five years of drought (a similar
drought-induced decline hit the Anasazi
peoples of Northern Arizona).
In their mythologies, these varied civi
the mightiest river : “ahead of all streams,
the Sindhu overtakes them by his might” ;
it is “the best flowing one of the rivers,
white-streamed.”34 All other rivers “rush
lizations all share a close link with the
towards it like mothers to their young,
like cows,” while the Sindhu “moves like a
divine sources of water. An old Egyptian
bull… its noise stretches across
hymn addresses the Nile: “Greetingsbellowing
the earth up toward heaven.”
you, O Waters that Shu [air] has brought
… in which the earth [Geb] will bathe its
This praise is in addition to that of the
limbs ! Now hearts can lose their fear.” The
aforementioned half-mythical Sarasvatï.
Her name signifies two rivers in Southern
Nile spirit announces: “I am … the pro
vider of the fields with plenty,” to which
Afghanistan and in Eastern Punjab, now
the Helmand (the ancient Haraxvaitï) and
the gods answer: “There was no happiness
the almost disappeared Indian Sarsuti
until you came down !… ‘ Canal of happi
0Ghagghar). The Sarasvatï, too, is praised
floods the fields with plenty.”29 A special
in the Rgveda as a mighty river, and is later
on connected with the myth of the heav
god, Hapy, controlled the annual flooding
of the River Nile, which is caused by rainsenly and mundane river Gangä (Ganges).
in the Ethiopian Highlands.
The heavenly Gangä, the Milky Way, first
fell on the Great God Siva’s head before
Similarly, rain, flooding, and irrigation
reaching earth as the Ganges, which is de
played various major roles in ancient
Mesopotamia. Outside of Egypt, irrigation
picted in a famous rock sculpture at Ma
was necessary: rainfall and subsequent
habalipuram in Southern India. Thus, just
flooding was insufficient for agriculture.30
as the pilgrimage upstream the Sarasva
ness’ will be the name of this canal as it
Thus, Sumerian texts quote the major deitytï leads to the world tree in the lower
“Enki, the King of the Abzu [watery abyss ] Himalayas

– and from there to heaven – so,
who authoritatively states : “I am he who
too, does the pilgrimage and bath during
the Kumbh Melä at the Allahabad conflu
has been born as the first son of the holy
An [one of the two leading deities] . .ence
of the Ganges and the Jamna (Yamu
When I approached high heaven a rain of
na), where the Sarasvatï – “flowing under
prosperity poured out from heaven, when ground”
from its disappearance in the des
approached the earth, there was a high
erts of Southwestern Punjab – joins them
as the third “braid” (trivenl).
flood.”31 Enki “filled the Tigris with fresh,
life-giving water,” and to make both rivers In China, the Yellow River is regarded as
function, he appointed the god Enbilulu potentially
dangerous (like the Egyptian
“canal inspector.”32 The myth expressesand Mesopotamian rivers), and it has jus
this in striking terms : “He stood up proudtified its reputation as recently as the 1850s
ly like a rampaging bull, he lifts his penis,and 1930s, when it completely changed its
ejaculates, filled the Tigris with sparkling
course, leading to the deaths of millions.
water. … The water he brought is spar
Thus, the fearsome river is the target of
kling water, its ‘wine’ tastes sweet.” And
prayer. In Chinese origin myths, one of
the texts rejoice: “the inundation of Enlil
the major deeds of the second “emperor”
has come, the Land is restored.”
Nuwa, an early mythical deity, was to kill
In South Asia, the “river hymn” of the
the Black Dragon and to tame the river’s
flood waters.35 Nuwa collected reed ashes
Rgveda praises the “three times seven” riv
ers of Eastern Afghanistan and the Punjab,and built river dams, letting the flood flow
but singles out the Indus River (Sindhu )33 as
out through gorges to the eastern abyss.
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Water in
Beyond Nuwa, there are a number of mi
nor river goddesses in Chinese mythology,
such as the goddess Fufei, the deity of the
river Lo, along which the early capital Lo
yang was built.
Book) ; Saudi Arabia uses the same uniform
In contrast to these riverine civilizations,
lands41 and the search for water : for ex
the “desert religions,” such as Zoroastri
anism or Islam, extol the water of “life
Israelites wandered in the Sinai desert for
giving” springs and the resulting green
forty years,42 or a recluse’s stay in the des
green for its flag, adding only a sword and
the Islamic declaration of faith.
Much of this is also found in the Hebrew
Torah and the Christian Bible, with their
frequent references to deserts and waste
oases. Around 1000 BCE, the monotheistic
ample, Moses’s water miracle when the
menistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, in which
there are only a few perennial rivers. Zo
ert (often of forty days): such as that of
John the Baptist in the mountainous wil
derness of Judea while baptizing people
in the River Jordan, by Moses while fast
ing for forty days, or by Jesus who also
roaster’s society was dominated by pas
fasted for forty days in the wilderness.43
toralism, with some limited agriculture.36
The later Zoroastrian texts (Avesta), which
I n the myths of Sumer, Egypt, India, Chi
were largely composed in the arid lands
of Bactria and Arachosia, are rightfully
na, Japan, the Torah, and the Christian Bi
ble, to those of modern populations across
the globe, water is a central, critical force.
As we have seen, this is in part due to the
religion of Zarathustra (Zara9ustra) devel
oped in the desert borderlands of Turk
much concerned with water: they men
tion several deep, broad lakes37 and rush
ing rivers38 alongside the mythical rivers
CÄraduul, Daitiiä) and lakes (Vourukasa,
Püitika, Pisinah). One Arachosian text gives
a geographic account of the Helmand and
various individual ecological conditions
encountered by the ancient civilizations,
especially since the beginning of food pro
duction some ten thousand years ago. The
the other rivers flowing into the lake
Hamun; all of which could be used for
early civilizations were in need of a reliable
irrigation.39 The text warns, however, to
irrigation, and hence stressed the impor
tance of river or rainstorm deities. How
look out for the sometimes devastating
floods “at the end of winter” that can hit
villages and spread through channels and
underground canals.40
Islam, too, was first situated in the desert
regions of Western Saudi Arabia, in a pre
supply of water for their crops, by rain or
ever, ready access to water was imperative
even for our earliest human ancestors, and
thus, water myths persevered through then
descendants, whether hunter-gatherers or
agriculturalists, all over the globe.
dominantly pastoral society with some
Water was and still is predominant in
trading towns, including Mecca and Medi
na. By definition, nomads look at oases and
towns “from the outside, ” though they rely
creation myths and their connected rituals,
on their perennial springs for their ani
mals. Thus, it is no wonder that the green
of the oasis has become the favorite color
environment. While many of us today may
underlining the close relationship of myth
ological traditions with their immediate
not observe the same direct, spiritual con
nection with water, depending on our in
of Islam, so much so that Muammar
dustrial water supply, we still worship
Gaddafi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan water when we – as the great comic George
Arab Jamahiriya chose an unadorned green Carlin used to say – satisfy the great Amer
rectangle for its national flag (Gaddafi also ican fetish of carrying with us our own
published his political theories in The Green water bottles wherever we go.
24 Dœdalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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1 Rgveda 10.129 3- The word salila clearly is related to the Indo-European word
sal – and thus indicates the primordial salty ocean.
2 From the Babylonian creation hymn, “Enuma Elish” ; see Mircea Eliade, From Pr
(New York : Harper & Row, 1977), 98 ; which has more recently been publish
Sacred Writings from around the World (San Francisco : Harper, 1992). Eliade’s te
Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, “Akkadian Myths, Epics, and Legends,” in Ancient Near
Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton Un
3 Dennis Tedlock, trans., Popol Vuh : The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods
and Kings (New York: Touchstone, 1985) ; see also the German translation of L. Schulze Jena,
Popol Vuh. Das heilige Buch der Quiché-Indianer von Guatemala. Nach einer wiedergefundenen alten
Handschrift neu übersetzt und erläutert (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1944). 4: “Invisible was the
face of the earth ; only the ocean accumulated under the vault of the sky ; that was All” (my
translation from German).
4 The word elohîm, clearly a plural, creates a problem, though this is disregarded in the stan
dard Christian translations (or is explained away).
5 Again the plural elohîm.
6 Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from around the World, 96.
7 Paul Radin quoted in ibid., 83.
8 Ibid., 88.
9 See Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (New York : Oxford University Press,
10 Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from around the World, 91.
11 For a discussion of archetypes and diffusion see Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies,
22 sqq.
12 It would be interesting to see how many myths deal with real water bodies versus those that
are thought to be truly mythological. However, such a statistical investigation is impossible
for the time being since we only have partial myth indexes, such as Stith Thompson’s effort
of the 1930s or Yuri Berezkin’s more comprehensive index, which appears mostly in Russian.
See Yuri E. Berezkin, “World Mythology and Folklore : Thematic Classification and Areal
Distribution of Motifs. Analytical Catalogue,”
U For flowing and standing waters, see Rgveda 7.49:2 : “The heavenly waters, or those that flow,
those that have been dug, or that have been self-created … these divine waters shall protect
me here ! ” Similarly, with the Prasun of Nuristan (Northeast Afghanistan) ; see G. Buddruss
and A. Degener, Materialien zur Prasun-Sprache des Afghanischen Hindukusch (Cambridge, Mass. :
Harvard Oriental Series 80, 2015), Text 24.
14 The Indus was regarded as salty : it flows through the Salt Range of Northern Pakistan.
15 See my blog Vedagya, “Kumbh Mela-Its Sources,”
1(> For a full treatment, see Michael Witzel, “Sur le chemin du ciel,” Bulletin des Etudes indiennes 2
(1984) : 213 – 279, http ://
17 Purification with earth and water is mentioned by the eleventh-century poet-historian Kalhana
in his Räjatarahginl 6.69.
l8Qur’an 5.5-6
19 Hesiod, Works and Days, 725 sqq. ; and Matthew 27:24.
20Numbers 8:7; and Exodus 30:17.
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Water in
21 See Gautama V. Vajracharya, “The Adaptation of Monsoonal Culture by Rgvedic Aryans : A
Further Study of the Frog Hymn,” Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 3 (2) (1997), http ://www
22 Rgveda 7.103 ; 9.11214.
23 Bernhard Forssman, “Apaosa, der Gegner des Tistriia,” Kuhn ‘s Zeitschrift 82 (1968) : 37 – 61.
24 Yost 8.31-33.
25 My Own Market Narrative, “Well, They Practice Magical Thinking over Here Too,” July 14,
2012, http ://my0wnmarketnarrative.bl0gsp0t.c0m/2012_07_08_archive.html.
2^See the modern version at “Stories of Old; Creation,”
2? Wolfgang Münke, Die klassische chinesische Mythologie (Stuttgart: Klett, 1976), 86.
28 In the Bible, however, the rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant with Noah after the great
flood ; with some Native American peoples, the rainbow is the web of a giant spider, woven
to catch the sun, or it is the coat of the Great Spirit that covers rain.
29 R. T. Rundle-Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1959),
100 and 102.
3° This became even more important after the water level of the Euphrates and the Tigris fell
considerably during the major climate reversal of the late twenty-first centuries BCE, and
before it stabilized again during the seminal Ur III period.
31 See “Enki and the World Order” in Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from around the World, 22.
32 Samual Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago : University
of Chicago Press, 1963), 173,179,183.
33 Rgveda 10.75.
34 Ibid., 8.26.
35 Lihui Yang and Deming An with Jessica Anderson Turner, Handbook of Chinese Mythology
(Santa Barbara, Calif. : Clio, 2005), 11 and 105 ; and Münke, Die klassische chinesische Mythologie,
219 sqq.
3 6 Vîdëvdâd 3.23 30 sqq.
37 “Caëcasta” in Yast 9.21.
38 Yast 10.14.
39 “Kqsaoiia” in Yast 19.65 – 68.
4°Vöiynä or “inundation.” See Vîdëvdâd 1.3; and Yast 8.61, 8.56.
41 See the Internet Sacred Text Archive, http ://
42 The mysterious number forty appears in several ancient traditions, including those of Iran
and India ; it may be linked to an astronomical feature : the forty days of the disappearance
of the Pleiades. See Hesiod, Works and Days, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914), 383 sqq.,; and discussion in Michael Witzel,
“Jungavestisch apâxaôra- im System der avestischen Himmelsrichtungsbezeichnungen,”
Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft (MSS) 30 (1972.) : 163 -191.
43 Matthew 3:1; Exodus 24 :i8 ; Exodus 34:28 ; Matthew 4:2.
26 Dœdalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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Pluto Press
Chapter Title: An urbanising world
Book Title: Cities
Book Subtitle: Small Guides to Big Issues
Book Author(s): Jeremy Seabrook
Published by: Pluto Press. (2007)
Stable URL:
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An urbanising world
No one really knows at which point a majority of the world’s
population will become urban. Has it already occurred? Will
it happen in the next decade? In 1950, only 18 per cent of the
people in developing countries lived in cities. By 2000, this
exceeded 40 per cent, and the numbers continue to rise.
In any case, the distinction between urban and rural is hard
to sustain. Few areas of the world have remained closed to the
influence of industrial society. Not only is agriculture more and
more dominated by industrial inputs, but contemporary
communications systems ensure that the imagery of the metropolis penetrates more and more deeply into the consciousness
and imagination of country people everywhere.
In Asia, the spread of cities has been phenomenal, and is
still accelerating. China, in particular, whose celebrated
economic success has been paid for by spectacular environmental destruction and a dramatic increase in inequality, is a
country where it is widely estimateed that well over 100
million people are in a state of more or less perpetual migration between country and city. In the poor world, the urban
growth rate is 2.35 per cent a year, whereas in the rich world
it is a modest 0.4 per cent.
Few cities are prepared for this expansion. Neither national
nor local governments have planned to provide the necessary
extra land, housing, water, sanitation, work and waste disposal.
Legal frameworks are inadequate and defective, especially in
relation to land markets, including land registry, valuation and
legal instruments to make the acquisition of land easier.
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8 Cities
UN estimates of urban growth have repeatedly exaggerated
the rate of development. ‘Urban’ is in any case a confusing
definition, for it refers not only to cities but to big towns,
market towns and even industrial villages. Projections of
population growth in developing countries also serve as a
diversion from the consumption and waste-generation rates of
the rich world. In 1979 the United Nations predicted that by
2000 the population of Mexico City would be 31.6 million, of
Sao Paulo 26 million and of Kolkata 20 million.
Extrapolations from the recent past ignore social and
economic change: the deindustrialisation of both Sao Paulo
and Kolkata was not foreseen. In China, rapid urbanisation
took place from 1949–60, but the cultural revolution deurbanised the country, as people were forced into new settlements. After 1977, urbanisation rose rapidly, and it has accelerated since, so that established urban settlements are being
swept away to accommodate infrastructural developments
and newcomers. The urban poor suffer disproportionately,
especially in prestigious and capital cities: Beijing has been
expanded in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, pushing
migrants further from the centre.
It also became taken for granted in the 1950s and 1960s that
‘urban bias’ attracted people to cities: subsidised food, the availability of services and the infrastructure were seen as inducements to people to leave the countryside. It is true that average
income of cities remains higher than that of rural areas, but
conditions and the quality of life for some groups of urban poor
are now worse than those of many rural people. It may be that
a promise of wealth and the possibility of improvement draw
people to urban areas, but the actual experience is often of
declining health and new kinds of impoverishment.
Jorge E. Hardoy and David Satterthwaite1 insist each city
must be looked at according to its specific history and
circumstances. Some cities in Africa are now growing a large
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An urbanising world 9
proportion of their own food, and rather than the city
invading the rural hinterland, the countryside is imposing
itself upon the city. Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, for example,
have become more, not less, self-provisioning.
Cities also die: Delhi is the site of eight former cities.
Mahasthangarh, now in Bangladesh, is a ruin of a major
conurbation from the first millennium before the Christian
era. More than four millennia ago, the southern portion of
Mesopotamia had already become 80 per cent urban in the
cities of Sumeria. In 1600 Salvador/Bahia was the largest city
in Brazil, when Sao Paulo was a small frontier town. Potosi,
with its silver mines, was the biggest city in South America: in
1640 it had an estimated 140,000 people. The fate of cities is
far from uniform – dramatic growth awaits some, and rapid
collapse perhaps lies in store for others.
Towns and cities may also be destroyed. The South Asian
earthquake of 2005 destroyed large parts of Muzaffarbad in
Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Brigitte Overtop, an Oxfam
worker, describes what she saw:
In many streets nothing is left. Every school has
collapsed. Hotels, hospitals, banks and homes have been
razed to the ground. About 70 per cent of the people are
homeless. There is no water and no electricity. We have
to wear masks over our noses and mouths because the
stench of rotting human flesh is almost too much to bear.
People roam the streets dazed. Many of them are women
and children. Many people came from surrounding areas
to seek help.2
Apart from the scene of desolation, the destruction of a city of
some 600,000 people illuminated how far the surrounding
rural area was dependent upon the city: the life of the whole
region was disrupted.
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10 Cities
Agricultural ‘improvement’ is inseparable from the
growth of cities: patterns of land ownership, the dominant
crop or livestock, the role of intermediaries in marketing
cash-crops, diversion of land to other purposes by developmental imperatives, all undermine a self-reliance which has,
in any case, already been much reduced. The Green Revolution,3 with its intensifying industrialisation of agriculture,
increased productivity but impoverished many small farmers
over the long term. Landholdings become more concentrated, as small-scale farmers sell their land, unable to keep
up with the cost of agricultural inputs.
The need to increase agricultural exports to earn foreign
exchange sets poor countries in competition with one another to
produce the same products, and prices decline continuously. The
dumping of subsidised agricultural goods from the North – rice,
wheat, cotton – makes many local growers uncompetitive, and
they quit cultivation. The compulsory purchase of land for plantations, cattle-ranches and agribusiness often leads to the employment of former subsistence farmers as wage labourers. Land
reform, good agricultural productivity and agro-processing
opportunities may reduce rural–urban migration, but so far the
only significant reverse in the one-way traffic towards the city has
been the flight of the rich from the cities, as they reclaim the peace
and tranquillity of partially abandoned rural areas.
The Challenge of Slums
The most recent effort to define the likely outcome of accelerating urbanisation is the United Nations Human Settlements
Programme 2003 report, The Challenge of Slums.4 This shows
that in 2001 924 million people (31.6 per cent of the urban
population) were living in slums. In the developing world this
rose to 43 per cent, while in the developed world it amounted to
only 6 per cent. The report estimates that there will be 2 billion
slum dwellers within 30 years ‘if no firm action is taken’.
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An urbanising world 11
The Challenge of Slums is the most far-reaching official assessment of the implications of urbanisation. Despite the convoluted,
and sometimes contradictory, diplomatic style, its overall
message is clear: the ‘firm action’ of which it speaks means public,
government or international intervention, since the growth of the
kind of cities we are now seeing is a result of a global policy of
unrestricted free markets, which has been rehabilitated since the
fall of the Soviet Union and the decay of socialism.
The failure of governments to prioritise urbanisation leads to
some dramatic, even apocalyptic, forecasts. ‘Urban disaster’,
‘explosion’, ‘powder keg’ and ‘time-bomb’ are some of the lurid
images. This may be designed to inject some urgency into a
debate which scarcely reaches the mainstream press in the West,
but it underestimates the power of people to accommodate
themselves and to create livelihoods: to find a niche in the urban
economy in some of the most hostile and intractable conditions
on earth. The slums are not just the sites of breakdown, violence
and despair which some see. Women in particular do much to
make repellent environments habitable. Human attachments, of
kinship, neighbourhood and belonging, temper the worst
excesses of city life, while in many places rural roots offer
seasonal lifelines, and family livelihood strategies sometimes
bestride both city and country occupations.
At the same time, new health problems arise in the slums.
Life expectancy is lower than in the city as a whole. People are
worn out prematurely by work and want, and must struggle
daily for the necessities of life. This relative quietism should not
be read as satisfaction with their lives; but neither should it be
taken for granted that they will remain inexhaustible absorbers
of the humiliations and injustices heaped upon them.
The migration of poverty
Until recently, it was generally believed that poverty was
essentially an issue of the rural areas of the world. It is now
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12 Cities
clear that poverty itself is migrating with the people who have
left the wasting villages and abandoned farmsteads to seek
refuge in growing city slums. The rate of increase in the population in sites of urban desolation has created a new crisis,
which will worsen in the next two decades: the UN forecasts
that the numbers of people living in slums will grow to 2.5
billion. By 2030, rural populations will have reached their
peak, and almost all subsequent population growth will be
absorbed by cities.
Most people who have left the global countryside have been
driven by necessity from a homeplace that may have sustained
them for millennia. They have been evicted by the deteriorating
productivity of the land, the cost of industrial inputs, drought,
waterlogging or salination, declining prices for the commodities
they produce for the market, the enclosure of agricultural land
for airports, highways, resorts, or for developmental projects
such as big dams or wildlife reserves.
It is one of the great paradoxes of development that people
are leaving the areas where food is produced, in order that
they may eat adequately. This has meant movement to urban
areas, the livelihoods these generate and the markets that serve
them. However, as more people arrive in the cities, many
discover they have an appointment there with the very evil
they are fleeing.
And for a very good reason. A dying rural tradition, made
obsolete by mechanised agriculture, meets an industrial
culture, which is itself obsessed with a productivity that evicts
more and more people from the industrial process. Where
these two epic evictions meet, city slums are formed.
Why cities grow
Migration is not the only cause of rapidly rising city populations, although historically it certainly was. Between 1551 and
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An urbanising world 13
1801 the death rate in London was higher than the number of
births. Without continuous migration, the city would simply
have perished.
Today, the natural increase of people within the city itself
has become an equal factor, accounting for one-third of the
growth in many urban areas. This partly reflects the youth
and fertility of recent migrants. The third cause of growing
numbers is the constant expansion of city boundaries: this
absorbs former villages and rural areas, and also accommodates poor people dumped by authorities outside earlier
city limits, as well as new middle-class settlements which
have established themselves beyond the reach of pollution,
overcrowding, social dislocation and crime.
There are other contributors to urban growth too.
Violence, war, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, as well
as climatic disasters, earthquakes and landslides, drive large
numbers of people into temporary settlements – the flimsy
tents of refugees in Darfur and temporarily in Falluja – which
themselves constitute the rudiments of new cities. Palestinian
refugee camps have become semi-permanent slums. In
Uganda, the widespread kidnapping of children pressed into
the service of the Lord’s Resistance Army has driven people
into urban night shelters, while every year Dhaka in
Bangladesh is swelled by hungry people seeking escape from
the monga lean season. A report from Colombia in the New
York Times5 described the slum of La Isla:
a kind of halfway house between an urban slum and a
refugee camp. The inhabitants live as ‘internally
displaced persons’ a term the bureaucrats use to
describe refugees who stay in their own country, victims
of war who were uprooted from homes elsewhere in
Colombia, either by Marxist guerrillas or right-wing
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14 Cities
Box 1.1 Rural–urban – a false distinction?
The distinction between what is urban and what is rural
is artificial and increasingly untenable. Many people
survive by a mixture of urban and rural livelihoods. Nor
is the movement between town and countryside necessarily the epic one-way journey it was in the early industrial
era in countries such as Britain. Migration in Asia and
Africa between the local town and the family farm, either
seasonally or for a few years at a time, serves to enhance
lives neither rural nor urban. Many African and south
Asian cities have the aspect of an overgrown country
town rather than of a major conurbation. Small plots of
land on unused ground inside the city or on the periphery may well be used to grow food and reduce hunger as
city populations grow. In Havana, following the decadeslong US blockade, and the collapse of the Soviet Union,
urban huertos now provide a significant proportion of
the vegetables consumed in the city.
Although urban poverty is different from its rural counterpart, it
is not necessarily easier. It is attended by new forms of insufficiency, insecurity and violence, unfamiliar kinds of exploitation
and sickness.
Asymmetrical cities
If we understand globalisation to mean the incorporation of
all the countries of the world into a single economy, it is clear
that this process is occurring at a varying pace. Some countries
are advantaged over others. Certain regions gain while others
are bypassed. Parts of Africa are excluded, left to survive on a
dwindling resource base.
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An urbanising world 15
Cities too present great differences in the extent to which
they are absorbed into the global economy. Most Western
cities have been remarkably successful, since they have long
been at the centre of global economic activity. Some urban
centres in the South have also adapted, specialising in industrial manufacture, finance, tourism or serving as regional
headquarters of transnational companies; although this
usually leaves large tracts of the city beyond the reach of
formal housing markets, and devoid of services and basic
infrastructure. There is a thriving central area, with its
commercial and business districts, and pockets of middle-class
development, but the greater part of the city is abandoned to
the informal sector, where a majority of people must create
their own employment.
The growth of Dubai – a materialised desert mirage – illustrates the global asymmetry. It is the largest building site on
earth, employing one-fifth of the cranes in use in the world
and an army of Indian and Pakistani construction workers
housed in temporary barracks. More than US$100 billion is
being invested in creating a metropolis of giant malls, hotels,
the tallest building in the world and a series of artificial
islands, a centre for trade, travel, tourism, commerce and
financial services. Dubai is to be a model of what Arabia
might be in the twenty-first century, a response to Western
perceptions of the ‘backwardness’ of much of the Middle East.
According to Adam Nicolson:
this is the Dubai sandwich: at the bottom, cheap and
exploited Asian labour; in the middle, white northern
professional services, plus tourist hunger for glamour
in the sun, and, increasingly, a de-monopolised western market system; at the top, enormous quantities of
invested oil money, combined with fearsome political
and social control.6
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16 Cities
At the same time, the mirror-image of this is occasionally
glimpsed in the rich world. The waters that swept through
New Orleans in August 2005 did more than inundate a beautiful and historic city. Among the debris of buildings, stores,
churches, casinos, factories and fields, human wreckage was
deposited on the desolate streets – pictures of used-up humanity, the shut in and the locked away, an incarcerated populace,
a concealed people, those who pay the true cost of the expensive maintenance of the American dream, intruded brutally
into the sequestered dwelling-spaces of wealth.
Participants in globalisation
As cities dissolve into an increasingly amorphous countryside,
the beneficiaries of globalism inhabit sites of privileged conservation. These occupy old city centres, the embalmed core, or
the transformed industrial décor of warehouses and abandoned factories, or former aristocratic or merchants’
dwellings. Such people are linked through networks of belonging in finance, communications, global media and discerning
consumption. In one sense, they have bought themselves out
of the buy-in society; they use the restaurants, concert halls
and theatres of the city, and rarely meet those who have been
banished to the peripheries. Indeed, such encounters are only
at dangerous intersections of public transport systems, where
they may occasionally run into danger from muggers, pickpockets or the drug-crazed. Much of their leisure is spent in a
distant global elsewhere – the unspoiled town, the undiscovered beach, the private resort, often outside their country of
origin. These city dwellers are free of the taint of the city,
while still enjoying its social amenities.
The urban poor are equally participants in globalisation, but
theirs can in some cases be a coercive and involuntary involvement. If a subcontractor to an international clothing company
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An urbanising world 17
constructs a factory close to a poor suburb, it becomes the
object of a kind of immense cargo cult, which may provide the
residents with employment. When it relocates, they will have to
fend for themselves. For most of the urban poor, survival is an
individual quest; and in that respect they mirror the gilded privileged survivors in their central penthouses and ‘converted’
churches, lofts and industrial buildings. It would be wrong to
think of rich and poor of the city as belonging to separate
cultures. Both are fashioned in the image of the global market,
for lives of mobility, choice and freedom. Only the poor are, to
a varying extent, excluded from the opportunity to express
themselves in the great hypermarkets in which global choice
and freedom are located.
The networks of privilege which span the cities of the world
are bound to be mimicked from below. There are transgressive
networks, those involved in illegal migration, communities of
squatters on public or private land, makers of pirated
consumer goods or network hackers. These networks may
have the potential to subvert the globalising imperative. There
are also more dangerous networks set up by the urban poor:
networks of crime, drugs, smuggled goods, trafficked women
and children. These are caricatures of mainstream private
enterprise, not detached from it, but throwing back to the
dominant value-system a distorted image of itself. Cities are
made up of worlds within worlds, often not touching each
other and unaware of each other’s existence.7
The city invades the countryside
The city also invades the countryside. In China, many rural
areas have become dumping grounds for industrial waste. In the
Huai River basin, home to more than 150 million people, the
water has become too toxic to drink, with the result that liver
and stomach cancer are major causes of death.8 There are whole
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18 Cities
villages where a pervasive sickness is the ‘normal’ condition of
the people. Refineries and smelters, quarries and mines have
also been set up in rural areas, and their pollutants damage
wells and watercourses. The clean-up of Beijing in anticipation
of the 2008 Olympics involves transferring people and pollution
away from the prestigious central areas. In Kerala, South India,
in February 2004 a Coca-Cola bottling plant was ordered to
cease withdrawing groundwater for four months, when villages
in the Plachimada area suffered from drought and severe water
shortage. Millions of young migrants to the cities of Africa have
been taking the HIV virus back to their home villages, where
many die, leaving their orphaned children increasingly in the
care of elderly grandparents.
Even at the most elementary level, few places on earth are
untouched by the imagery of global advertising: an urbangenerated imagery of luxury, glamour and privilege which
insinuates itself into the remotest villages. In the earth and
wood homes of indigenous peoples, faded magazine cutouts of
Michael Jackson, Madonna and David Beckham flutter from
the walls; while in some parts of the world television sets,
given as part of a dowry or bride-price, sit on tables covered
with a cloth, waiting for the electricity that will summon them
into vibrant, shimmering life.
The end of the city or the beginning?
Maurice Henaff suggests that at the very moment when the
city is becoming global, it is ceasing to be the self-contained
world which it has always been.9 He wonders whether the
decay of a coherent architectural whole, overtaken now by
incontinent urban sprawl, has made the city obsolete as a
productive entity. The relocation of industry world-wide, and
new global technologies of communication, have overlaid
older networks of streets, localities, sites of sociability and
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An urbanising world 19
neighbourhood. Does this spell the end of the city? Or have
the dispersal of production and new networks simply replicated older networks of intercourse? Are we seeing a new kind
of city emerge, for which we have yet to find a form which
corresponds to the monumentality of archaic cities, which
embodied centralised power?
We may be in a period of transition from the monumental
city to the virtual community; and this requires a rethinking of
our ideas of the built environment, some aspects of which
have given way to wider elective networks of affinities and
sympathy. While the fabric of the city has everywhere been
stretched far beyond the confines of anything recognisable as
a city, the idea nevertheless remains. Its functions have simply
migrated into forms which differ from those traditionally
associated with ‘city’. The question, according to Henaff, is
how to reinvent the street and the square, the meeting place
and the market, while acknowledging that older ideas of the
city – as a place of familiar networks, and as a coordinated
machine of production and wealth creation – have remade
themselves elsewhere.
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