The river is a healer. The rushing river. The gentle river. The cleansing river. Seven rivers flow down from around the Tree of Life in Heaven. Seven rivers to bless us, seven rivers to heal us. Let’s go down to the river to pray.

The symbol of the river goes across cultures here in the South. The Protestant dissenters brought to the mountains and hills their need for baptism by immersion, this merged with indigenous and African beliefs surrounding the importance of the river as liminal space and mode of purification.

“Going to water” has been crucial to Cherokee traditional beliefs for centuries. It can involve both the act of the individual petitioning the river to carry away illness, evil, etc. and the act of the healer taking many people to the water for a cleanse.

“Because of the importance of water in Cherokee beliefs, practices, legends, and myths, it is safe to say that their use of water for religious ceremonies probably dates back thousands of years. Taking the most conservative view – even if we were to say that the emphasis on water had been shaped by their living in the southern Appalachians, and even if we were to take the most conservative archaeological view, that the Cherokee had only been here five thousand years or so – (which tenure seems to be in the process of being extended by recent archaeological finds) – Cherokee water rituals may be at the minimum several thousand years old.” ~Barbara Reimensnyder Duncan “Going to Water: A Cherokee Ritual in Its Contemporary Context”

It’s likely that already present water and river traditions from multiple sources (European, Indigenous, African) merged together through exposure, and the mythos behind these traditions became blended, especially in the South. This is most seen in the case of early New World converts to Protestantism who are introduced to the importance of immersion baptism (Protestant/Orthodox Christian mythos) but still retain their traditional beliefs about the healing power of the river/water woven into the fabric of daily life. There are still areas of the South were frequent mini “baptisms” in a lake or river are used as sources of renewal and healing for congregants, a clear divergence from traditional European beliefs surrounding the act of baptism as more of a one-time occurrence in a person’s life.

“In Cherokee ritual, the river is the long man, Yunwi Gunahita, a giant with his head in the foothills and his foot far down in the lowlands, pressing always, resistless and without stop, to a certain goal, and speaking ever in murmurs which only the priest may interpret. In the words of the sacred formulas, he holds all things in his hands and bears all down before him. His aid is invoked with prayer and fasting on every important occasion of life, from the very birth of the infant, in health and sickness, in war and love, in hunting and fishing, to ward off evil spells and to win success in friendly rivalries. Purification in the running stream is part of every tribal function, for which reason the town house, in the old days, was always erected close to the river bank.

“We shall speak here of ceremonial rites in connection with the running stream, saying nothing of the use of water in the sweat-bath or in ordinary medico-religious practice, beyond noting the fact that in certain cases the water used by the doctor must be dipt from a waterfall. Two distinct formulistic terms are used for the rite, one of which signifies ‘plunging into the water,’ the other ‘dipping up the water,’ nearly corresponding to our own ‘immersion” and “sprinkling’ in baptism. Whenever possible, the priest selects a bend in the river where he can face toward the east and look upstream while performing the ceremony, which usually takes place at sunrise, both priest and petitioner still being fasting.

“At regular intervals, usually at each recurring new moon, it is customary among the more religiously disposed of the old conservatives for the whole family to go down together at daybreak, and fasting, to the river and stand with bare feet just touching the water, while the priest, or if properly instructed, the father of the household, stands behind them and recites a prayer for each in turn, after which they plunge in and bathe their whole bodies in the river.” ~James Mooney “The Cherokee River Cult”

The river as a spirit has the power to carry illness and evil away with it. Many traditional Cherokee healing formulas (as recorded by Mooney) include “going to water” as a final act of cleansing. Often the patient will take an emetic and throw up into the river, or at the very least spit into the flowing water, allowing whatever evil that was trapped inside to be carried away into the mythical land where all bad things are sent. Similar beliefs can be found throughout Europe and the World. One example is seen in the Middle Irish text the Saltair na Rann where we see Adam and Eve atoning for their sins by fasting in a flowing river up to their chins while holding bowls of burning herbs above their heads. The river has been seen cross-culturally as a force that has the power to carry away things with it, in both a physical sense and spiritual one. Along similar lines, not only can the river act as a means of physical transportation but it can also carry us into the “otherworld” which lies beyond (or below) certain sacred wells and bodies of water.

The Southern river cult, as we can call it, is best characterized by the traditional folk spiritual “Down in the River to Pray”, most likely composed by an African slave, with clear indigenous overtones when it comes to the melody and phrasing. On the surface level we see a Christian song referencing baptism by immersion in a river, underneath this, however, the song harkens back to traditional beliefs regarding the river as healer and carrier of prayers. Even deeper and we can see references to a sort of map-song for escaping slaves. The river being both road and way of masking human scent from slave hunters and their dogs, and the “starry crown” which has been considered by some to be a reference to traveling by night.

The river is a healer. The rushing river. The gentle river. The cleansing river. Seven rivers flow down from around the Tree of Life in Heaven. Seven rivers to bless us, seven rivers to heal us. Let’s go down to the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O sisters let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sisters let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O brothers let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
Come on brothers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O fathers let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O fathers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O mothers let’s go down, come on down
Don’t you want to go down
Come on mothers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O sinners let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sinners let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way