While Europeans may read into the marsh the sense of sloth and idleness, Asia does not regard absence of movement as something negative. The Chinese hexagram t’ui, which duplicates the sign for still water, carries the meaning of concord, fulfilment and wealth.
In Sumerian mythology, the marsh is passive, female, undifferentiated matter.
In China marshes were places for fishing and hunting, but the hunting was ritual. This was because the powers of Heaven were manifested in marshes and because they, too, were spiritual centres.
This is why after the Great Yu had regulated space, he fashioned the marsh of Hia and there built a royal watchtower, the ancestor of the Temple of Heaven and centre of the Chinese empire. In the Celtic world, marshes must have carried a very similar significance, if the location of Glastonbury is anything to go by. In Ancient Greece marshes played parts similar to mazes.
A very different approach is to be observed in the Samyutta-nikaya, in which the Buddha takes the marsh as an image of sensual pleasures which are obstacles along the Eightfold Path.
A Fulani tale depicts the path beside the marsh as a phase in initiation. Hammadi’s lament develops the theme still further: ‘O you marsh of deception! Woe to the thirsty who rush to your pools! Our throats are dry, our misfortunes have reached their peak, we die in torment!’ The deadliest of poisonous snakes writhe round marsh-pools and deny access.
The ‘bright’ side of the symbol of the marshy pool which denies the stranger access, bears the meaning of a united family, a well-defended country or a secure village, the still water being the image of a peacefulness which nothing can disturb. The ‘dark’ side of the marshy pool protected by poisonous snakes symbolizes selfishness and the greed which refuses to share the good things of life with neighbours, even if they are dying of poverty. This aspect may also bear a meaning, in line with the symbolism of treasures guarded by monsters, of the difficulties to be overcome before the cool of the oasis or the pool can be attained.
Analysts make pools and marshes a symbol of the unconscious and the Mother, a place where matter germinates in secret.