Life-giving, cleansing, and endlessly abundant, water has nurtured humanity from the earliest times. When we swim, we are interacting with a medium that has exercised magical and spiritual associations for people since the dawn of history. In its myriad forms water has inspired poetry, art, literature, music, wonder, exploration, and love. In a world of dwindling ecological resources, it is a gift to value and cherish. The art of swimming cannot be complete without a profound appreciation of our connection as living beings to the wonderful, unique medium which is intertwined with every aspect of our existence. Water surrounds and embraces our lives with its awesome beauty and variety. We watch it, marvel at it, listen to it, bathe in it, drink it – and swim in it. According to ancient Egyptian legend, the gods bestowed the gift of water on humankind in recompense for enclosing us in a physical body. It was said that through our association with water we become connected to our spiritual nature, and our bodies might discover the freedom that our souls had lost. The Hebrews imagined water as a primordial element, present at the birth of all creation when ‘the spirit of the Lord moved upon the face of the waters’. The religions and mythology of Sumeria and Babylonia, of India and China, of peoples ranging from Australasia to the Americas, are replete with stories and symbolism which speak of reverence for water.
The ancient Greeks recognized water to be the source of life. They worshipped spirits of the water, and pondered deeply on its spiritual and physical qualities. Their myth, art, poetry and literature reflect on it and celebrate it in all its aspects. More than two and a half thousand years ago, Thales, one of the originators of the tradition of Western philosophical thought, identified water as the wellspring of all Being, the substance from which all things arose. Heraclitus used the image of water to demonstrate the ever-changing nature of the universe. ‘Everything is in flux,’ he stated, ‘one cannot step into the same river twice.’ The poet Pindar praised water in a famous line as being the ‘noblest of all the elements.’ And it was while bathing that Archimedes came upon his insight – immortalized by his exclamation ‘Eureka!’ -that a body’s mass can be determined by the amount of water it displaces.
The value of learning to swim is emphasized in many societies and traditions. For the Greeks it was a civilized accomplishment, on a par with learning the alphabet as a basic element of education. They were proud of their ability to swim and dive, activities represented in their earliest literature, the epics of Homer. Swimming was not viewed as a competitive sport, and did not feature in the ancient Olympic Games. But the Greeks took for granted that it was a skill necessary for self-preservation, not least in the event of shipwreck (it was a notable irony that the outstanding military genius of the ancient world, Alexander the Great, was unable to swim). The Romans were explicit about the instruction of swimming, both for military purposes and for pleasure. In a line of Ovid, a Roman poet of the first century B.C. and a keen swimmer, we encounter the first occurrence of the phrase ‘the art of swimming’ (arsnandi). In the Jewish Talmud it is considered an obligation, as well as a good deed worthy of respect, for fathers to teach their sons how to swim. In many countries today, children are expected to be taught basic swimming skills by the time they have completed their primary education.
For aquatic creatures like fish, seals, and dolphins, swimming is not an art. But for human beings, relating to water as if it were our element demands art. Thinking of swimming as an art encourages us to cultivate the natural affinity that human beings have with the water. It’s up to each individual how far we wish to develop that art for ourselves and incorporate it into our lives. Being at home in the water opens up a realm of possibilities which we can hardly contemplate if we are not familiar with the art of swimming. Aquatic activities such as snorkeling, diving, and swimming with dolphins, are exciting ways of discovering the underwater world and expanding our horizons through interaction with water.