Holy Waters

Spiritual Life Returns to New York Harbor

Authorities are catching on that water access can be a First Amendment right, but there have been some legitimate concerns. Environmental and health agencies worry about some Latino and Caribbean spiritual practices that include sprinkling mercury on beaches. A few years ago, rangers at the Gateway National Recreation Area were caught between Hindus who came to Jamaica Bay for pooja—offerings of butter, grains, coconuts, mango leaves, sweet cakes, icons, and small brass or clay pots—and local residents who saw the remnants as unsightly. Today, the park seems to turn a blind eye to biodegradable items, but is stricter about foil wraps and plastics. And New York City police and firemen are fixtures at the Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany, in which priests pour holy water into the Upper Bay and send boys diving from the Battery seawall into the frigid January drink to retrieve a cross.

Others have risked being tossed in. Edward F. Bergman, author of The Spiritual Traveler in New York, cites documents indicating that in 1657, the Dutch pastors of the Reformed Church complained that William Wickenden, "a fomenter of error, a troublesome fellow," had the audacity to "preach at Flushing, and then went with the people into the river and dipped them." Today, some African Americans still hold baptisms on local beaches rather discreetly.

Suppressing religious adoration of water would be a fool's errand. Even the science of H2O lends itself to reflection over mystical dualisms. Hydrogen was the first element to rise from the quarks loosed by the big bang; oxygen is created as stars begin to die, and is scattered by supernovae, their final, violent spasms. And we humans, like all vertebrates, drink fresh water but are programmed to consume salts in our food, re-creating in our blood the brackish water of an estuary.

During Rosh Hashanah, Jews turn to the water for the washing away of sins.
photos: Rebecca Cooney
During Rosh Hashanah, Jews turn to the water for the washing away of sins.

For the Lenape Algonquins and their antecedents, who made their home in this archipelago before Europeans arrived, water worship was nearly instinctive—there was no line between the sacred and the profane. Evan T. Pritchard, a Micmac scholar and author of Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York, says they believed the whales—then a fixture of local waters—to be especially sacred. They were considered higher beings than humanity, and their fins were dried into a powder that was burned ceremonially much like tobacco. The fingerlike bones within were used as sacred writing implements.

The Orient Point people, who spoke a proto-Mohican language, made their homes at the mouths of New York Harbor's estuaries 3000 years ago. The names they lent to cherished sites linger, sometimes ferried through languages. According to Bob Singleton, president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the tiny Sunswick Beach in Astoria borrows its name from sunkisq, a word Pritchard translates as "the high woman's place." This woman—a shaman, chief's wife, or chief in her own right—may have found, Singleton posits, that "valuable herbs and plants used in medical and religious ceremonies were along the tidal wetlands."

That ground is still hallowed. A few feet from the Sunswick Beach waterline, offerings of open jars of honey and molasses, coconuts, apples, melons, bananas, and pastries can be found at the base of a tree or by small stone platforms and spent fires. Locals rumor of the occasional sacrificed bird, part of a rare Yoruba-Lukumi ceremony to transfer and transmute evil, though none were seen in many visits to the site. Remains of that sort are more often found along the Bronx Kill, on the northern coast of Randalls Island, and by the Brooklyn base of the Verrazzano Bridge, a place referred to by kayakers as Voodoo Point.

The Lenape also gave offerings from the earth to the water. Before making river crossings, they would spread leaves of cedar or tobacco (grown in what's now Greenwich Village) across the face of the water, asking permission and protection for the journey.

Such convergence between modern and ancient happens time and again. Today's Shinto worshipers turn to both a god and a goddess in the Hudson, a river subject to tides thus called "Muhheakunnuk" by the Algon-quin, for "the river that runs two ways." Followers of the Yoruba-Lukumi religion, which is commonly labeled Santeria, consider the harbor sacred because it's a meeting point between the ocean mother deity Yemaya and Oshun, another feminine force associated with sweetwater. Both powers, Yoruba-Lukumi priest Tony Mondesire adds, are ultimately aspects of a single God, as are we. Feng shui practitioners home in on this confluence as well. "Where fresh water ends, entering the ocean, there is very strong energy in that area," says consultant and author Zaihong Shen of the Feng Shui Gallery.

Yoruba-Lukumi believers perform rituals at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, also sacred ground for the Lenape. That was the location, Pritchard says, of "the place of stringing beads." Wampum beads, ground and polished from the abundant local shells, served not only as currency but also as ritual objects and tools of prophecy, Pritchard writes. Not far away is a site along the Bronx River where a turtle petroglyph was discovered, a place an Amazonian shaman independently rediscovered on his first visit to New York, Pritchard recalls.

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