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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rotkowitz


"Water, water, everywhere

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink."

Water plays a huge role -- in life, in ancient mythologies, in religious rituals. I have tried using the power and symbolism of water in ESCAPING THE WHALE. As my title alone tells you, the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale played a background role as inspiration and motivation for me in creating the dilemma of my protagonist, Marcia Gold.

The famous stanza quoted above from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge presents a picture of the duality of water. The old mariner, in relating his story, recalls how the sea became fierce and everyone on the boat was in danger, yet in spite of the huge quantity of water surrounding them, the sailors were all parched and dying. Water was there, threatening and destroying, but not available in the nurturing and life-sustaining role in which it was needed.

In ancient mythologies, water is recognized as both a life-giving force and a destructive force. Today we have science to prove that water is necessary for life. The ancients did not need science to understand that. Along with the appreciation for water's life-giving properties was the knowledge that water, in the form of floods and storms and preying sea creatures, can destroy life. The Biblical story of Noah and the ark clearly shows us that people always recognized the power of water to wreak total destruction.

Creation myths in many ancient cultures begin with water. The ocean, in these stories, is a place of chaos. Out of this chaos, life forms. In Babylonian, Hindu, Polynesian, and Egyptian creation myths, to name a few, the origin of life is water. In Egyptian myths as well as in the Bible and the Qur'an, a deity speaks and with words, creates order out of the chaos of the ocean. In some myths, as in the Hindu and Greek, there are deities that emerge from the ocean.

Water was and is also a pathway from one place to another, a form of transportation. This can be literal as well as figurative. People always traveled across bodies of water, devising boats and rafts to carry them and their goods for trade and survival as well as to explore unknown places, lured by the mysterious possibilities. But mythologies show us that a trip on or through water can also represent a spiritual journey, a rebirth or transformation. In Homer's epic The Odyssey, Odysseus must travel for ten years to get back to his home after the Trojan War. His experiences on this trip test him and change him, and he arrives home a more mature and responsible man.

Pagan cultures appeased their gods and goddesses to prevent destruction by water. The Greeks sacrificed to Poseidon, the god of the sea, so that the waters would remain calm for them when they were setting off to war. A Babylonian myth tells of a hero who traversed a dangerous sea and was rewarded with eternal life. In the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero searches beneath the ocean for a special plant reputed to grant eternal life, The ancient Israelites, according to the Biblical book of Exodus, had to cross the Sea of Reeds in order to escape slavery in Egypt. The waters split for them to pass, illustrating the assistance the water was providing them, and then destroyed the Egyptians chasing them, demonstrating the power of water to do harm.

Religious rituals involving water are numerous. Baptism in Christianity is a means of transforming the person being baptized. In orthodox Judaism, the mikvah, a ritual bath, is designed to purify and cleanse. And the yearly tradition of tashlich on the Jewish New Year, when one's sins are symbolically scattered into a body of water, represents the shedding of past sins and the ability to start over with a fresh slate. These rituals are clear examples of the powerful meaning of water to one's spiritual wellbeing.

The Biblical story of Jonah provides a fascinating study of the dual nature of water. Jonah does not wish to go to Ninevah, the city where God has ordered him to preach repentance to the sinners there. He fears that if they repent and are saved, he will be perceived as a false prophet. Instead, he boards a ship going in the opposite direction, believing he can disappear, become anonymous, and avoid this mission. The ocean, he hopes, will carry him to a new life. On the boat, the sea becomes stormy and dangerous. Once Jonah is thrown overboard, the sea calms.

The water reflects Jonah's mental state. When he is angry about the job he has been assigned and about his life, the sea rages. When he admits that he is the cause of the storm and offers to be hauled overboard, everything calms down. Fleeing does not work for him. When he takes responsibility for what is happening, the situation improves. He believes he will die in the sea but the sea ends up saving Jonah in the form of the fish that swallows him and keeps him alive. (We assume it is a whale since we are told that it is a large fish)

Many ancient mythologies and folktales are full of sea monsters. The sea, it was understood, could be a dangerous place, full of hidden creatures. The ocean can appear calm and beautiful, but beneath the water swarm many dangerous animals. This giant fish could well be a version of such a fearsome monster or dragon.

Even though the sea itself and the huge fish seem dangerous, Jonah survives inside the fish for three days and three nights. The fish becomes a safe haven for him, and saves his life. Again, what could be scary and dangerous actually has a nurturing function as well.

While inside this animal, Jonah prays. I see this as a time-out for the confused Jonah, a chance to meditate and take stock of his choices. By praying to God to be saved, he is recognizing that he misses his life and hopes to return to it. Therefore, it seems that his sojourn inside the fish is a form of returning to the womb. He is in a dark, enclosed space, alone and isolated, in a sort of limbo. He comes to the realization that he wants to live. To do that, he recognizes that he will have to do God's will and preach to the sinful city of Ninevah.

After Jonah's prayer, God instructs the fish to spit him out, and Jonah then continues on to fulfill the mission God had assigned him. He has been reborn in the fish, in the ocean, and emerges a more responsible person, one who accepts what he must do instead of fleeing from it. In life, we learn, we do not always like what we have to do, but we can be mature enough to accept it. His water journey has transformed him.

Jonah is also, like my protagonist Marcia, a depressed person, it seems. When the ship on which he hopes to escape from God and from his assigned task encounters a storm, all the sailors are busy hauling water and praying to their gods. What does Jonah do? He goes down to the lower level of the ship and falls asleep. Incredibly, he is able to sleep during a terrible, dangerous storm. Sleep is an escape. Jonah is trying to obliterate from his mind what he is doing. When the captain challenges him, he readily admits that the storm is his fault, thereby recognizing that hiding from God, and from himself, is futile. Once thrown overboard, he knows he has saved the other sailors but expects to die. His depression, I believe, renders him ready to die.

Inside the fish, Jonah does not get over his depression, just as Marcia does not get over her anxieties in Mexico. There is no magic bullet for that. But he does come to the realization that he cannot escape his destiny, which is to be a prophet, even though he will never be happy about it. Marcia, at the edge of the ocean, comes to realize that she cannot run from herself, that her problems will remain within her wherever she goes, and she must work on facing her issues if she wishes to have a real life.

Water carries both of them, Marcia and Jonah, to the wrong destination, one that is fraught with danger. Both of them believe the water will cure them of what is wrong with their lives, and allow them to recreate themselves. Jonah thinks he will travel to a different place and be anonymous; Marcia thinks she will be able to be a different, less anxiety-ridden person in a beach resort far from her regular life. Ultimately, the ocean does allow them both to become reborn, but not in the way they planned. They both realize that they are who they are and they have to face life. They are finally able to tackle life instead of attempting to escape from it.

I have been asked what the whale in my title represents. My answer is that it might be something different for each reader. I love hearing the various suggestions and ideas! Keep 'em coming!


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