I'm going to start by saying that if you want to blame anybody for this, you can blame my partner.
We decided, finally, to watch season three of The Mandalorian this week. Yeah, so we're behind everybody else and we're still only on the first episode. Part way through, Mando (Din Djarin, played by Pedro Pascal), is attempting to redeem himself to the leaders of the Mandalorian sect to which he belongs.
He's commanded by the Armourer that the only way he can achieve this is to bathe in the Living Waters on Mandalore. These would be Living Waters on a planet that's apparently now completely toxic to all life and impossible to reach. The Living Waters might not even be there any more.
"Well, that's stupid," said my partner.
"You realise I have a whole chapter of my PhD about purification with water, don't you?" I said. This would be the PhD I've only just been awarded (as of May 2023).
I'm exaggerating, but only slightly. I do have a whole chapter of my thesis—a good ten to twelve thousand words of text—on purification, and a lot of it features water rather heavily.
That gave me an idea. I've been considering writing blog posts sharing some thoughts about the materiality of various books, films, and TV shows and thought... why not start here?
Purification with Water
It's the most obvious, obvious thing, right? In their article about the Living Waters on Mandalore, Game Rant mentions the use of water as a baptismal tool. Babies being blessed with holy water in fonts or adults in rivers or even swimming pools. If it seems like it's too obvious and contrived, I'm here to argue that it really isn't.
In fact, from a ritual perspective, and a materiality of ritual perspective, Mando having to go all the way to a forbidden, toxic planet in order to be purified by sacred water in one specific place seems perfectly obvious and straightforward to me.
After all, Mando removed his helmet. This is forbidden according to the creed of his particular culture (This Is The Way). All cultures have actions that are considered taboo, and usually a scale of least to most. Often, from the outside, these can seem strange or arbitrary, but they carry a great deal of meaning and power within that culture.*
In order to redress the balance, Mando must do something at a similar scale of difficulty. In this post, I'm going to use this whole problem to explore the idea of water as a tool of purification, with a lot of references to the academic work and ancient world thrown in. Enjoy!
Materiality in the Mandalorian
First of all, I need to explain what it is that I do and how I think about things as a researcher. I study the materiality of magic. Or the materiality of ritual practice. Or the materiality of religion. Some combination of all of those three. Essentially, I'm interested in how the immaterial is rendered material, usually through objects and environments. I'm really curious about those things intersect with humans.
I'm not an expert on Star Wars. I grew up watching it, like most children in the 80s, on TV. I haven't read the extended universe books and comics, although I have seen that terrifying Christmas special that's partly in unsubtitled Wookieean. This does mean that I'm missing a lot of necessary world-building background. I'm essentially looking in from the outside, which is why this is a blog post and not a 15k thesis.
The Mandalorian has a lot of potential for materiality of magic/ritual/religion because it has, sorry, a lot of material in it. I thought about writing one post on this, but decided I'd have to make two because I'd also like to write about the role of the Armourer, Beskar steel, and blacksmithing as ritual practice. That deserves its own space, though. For now, this will be all about water.
The core of season three's plot revolves around what, for plenty of people throughout history, might have been a major constituent of their lives, i.e., the necessity of conducting a purification at a ritual place in a ritual way, in order to redeem themselves or otherwise render themselves ritually clean.
It's not just baptisms, as Game Rant mentioned, but also evident in the cleansing Muslims and others use prior to prayer every day, the monthly bathing of Orthodox Jewish women after their period or after giving birth. In the latter example, this requires visiting a specific place to bathe.
Now, there are different ways of considering the role physical materials play in rituals and culture. We can look at them from a semiotic or symbolic perspective. This is essentially saying that all actions taken using these materials are symbolic of something else. Mando's need to bathe to cleanse himself of his transgression is not something physical, and there's nothing inherently special about the water.
I tend to take things from a slightly different angle. I follow the line of reasoning of specialists like Tim Ingold, who's concerned that all this talk of symbolism often ignores the two-way interaction between material and person or people (Making, 2013). Materials don't just represent something else, something in the minds of people. They're real and present.
As a researcher interested in materiality, I'm curious to know how Mando removing his helmet before somebody else willingly has changed his physical being. I can see it's a major transgression, because we're told this, but it has clearly changed his physical status in some crucial way, partly because he's been seen and partly because the helmet is a vital aspect of his personhood as a member of this sect. And then... what happens to the Living Waters if he touches them? How do they remove his transgression?
We'll come that later. This is starting to look like it'll need a third blog post. The short version of this is that even what seem like the most immaterial aspects of human lives tend to be expressed through interactions with the material world.
Let's get back to the water
Water is clearly important to Mandalorian culture not just as a purificatory tool but as a site of transition and initiation. In the opening scenes of S03E01, we see a young Mandalorian being presented with his first helmet. He stands in the water with his trousers rolled up, and the Armourer brings the helmet to him.
Then everything is ruined by a Mythosaur showing up.
There are so many layers to this from a ritual and materiality perspective it's hard to know where to start. Even the Mythosaur could be considered essential to the quality of the water. I wonder if the possible presence of a Mythosaur, even if it didn't show up, might be part of the water's importance, either because it makes it more dangerous.
The water flows around the boy's legs. Water is often treated as liminal, a point of contact between this world and others. In the ancient world, curse tablets and pleas for justice were thrown into wells, baths, and other water sources. This was because it was the best way to contact supernatural personalities (a fancy way of saying gods, goddesses, and other powerful non-corporeal entities) to achieve what you wanted to happen.
In Egypt, walking into, standing in, or walking out of the Nile was important for ritual success, even into Late Antiquity. Joshua Roberson, in a long-lost talk I loved on Ancient Egyptian mythology, described how the souls of those who drowned in the Nile were given special status in the afterlife, having been able to go directly there.
As the boy stands in the water, he's separate from the other Mandalorians. This is fantastic staging, emphasising that he isn't wearing a helmet, that he is separate and in a liminal state until he has the helmet safely on. Thus we know that the helmet is vital. And why I know I'm going to have to investigate the material significance of helmets in Mandalorian culture next.
For now, we know that Mando has breached the creed of his people and the only way to atone for this transgression is to bathe himself in the Living Waters of Mandalore. I like that his position as an outcast is clear, but that just as he would have initially have to exist in the liminal, watery space to first put on the helmet, he has to go back to those waters. It's like a way of crossing back and forth between the worlds of the dead and the living. We could even think of Mando as being culturally dead until he can cross back by means of a ritual bath.
We're only on the first episode, so I don't know how this ritual bathing plays out. One of the aspects of purification I'm very curious about is how purificatory material act on the body to rid it of transgressions.
I have a lot of questions about this, and I won't be able to answer them until I've seen the later episodes. I'd love to know how Mando bathes, whether he has to ingest some of the water, and whether there is any kind of ritual clothing involved. Once I've seen the rest of the series, and we have some kind of resolution, I'm going to come back to these questions and write about them. Of course, if Mando never manages to get to his ritual bathing for whatever reason, then I'll have to abandon the whole project.
In the meantime, it might be worth thinking about the role of the water and where it is next. There are a bunch of questions we can ask ourselves around the significance of these being the only waters, but suffice it to say it doesn't surprise me, given the scale of Mando's transgression, that he has to travel so far and to such a dangerous place in order to find some form of redemption.
Water, Purification, and Place
There's something special about this depiction of purifying water in The Mandalorian, because it goes beyond water being a purificatory agent. It's water in a specific place, an environment with its own special social and cultural resonances.
While I've already mentioned that water anywhere can take on the special characteristics of a purificatory substance, in any world (real or imagined), the water in or of a particular location can become imbued with special powers because it's in that place.
Environments (well, spaces and places) are a crucial but often overlooked aspect of ritual activities. Jonathan Z Smith has done a lot of work on the role spaces play in embodying ritual and cultural significance (see, for example, To Take Place). Places matter to ritual efficacy, but they often fade into the background.
One question I'd love to investigate, if I was studying the materiality of Mandalorian culture, would be whether the Living Waters get their ritual significance from their location so close to the mines that produce Beskar steel. Does the general location, including its association with such a vital material to Mandalorian culture give the waters their particular powers?
The difficulty of doing a ritual activity, or accessing the material tools for completing a ritual activity, is another part of this whole story. In the ritual texts of the ancient world, items are often described as hard to obtain. Sometimes, they're almost as inaccessible as the Living Waters are.
Frankincense, for example, is a resin taken from trees in the Arab peninsula. Herodotus describes how these trees were guarded by dangerous winged serpents. In a magical sense, that would well account for a financial cost at market otherwise explained by the general difficulty of getting a material from Arabia into Egypt.
Magical texts include lists of items that are supposedly nigh-on impossible to access, although most of the practitioners of the magical handbooks I've studied usually suggest some more easily obtained alternative, just in case you can't get the lion's tongue for your ritual because, let's face it, there's nothing safe about collecting a live lion's tongue.
While my partner thought it was daft and contrived that Din Djarin had to visit these waters to be purified, I'm not surprised at all. It makes sense that in order to rectify something so culturally significant as removing his helmet would require an action as difficult to achieve as this.
Washing in water is both physically, psychologically, and ritually powerful. It has to be the right water, of course. Baptisms often take place either in sanctified or flowing water. The latter will carry away the sin or transgression or lack of ritual belonging. All of this matters to Mando. He is cast out due to the transgression of removing his helmet, which has changed his whole being as far as the sect is concerned. The transgression implies a layer of ritual dirt, in a sense. All this can't really be clarified until we know whether he must wash his body or actually ingest the water too—there's a bit of a difference between absorbing purificatory substances and needing to use them to wash off external forms of taint.
We think of these things as obvious, but it's always worth highlighting them when we reproduce them in stories like this one. Mando is enacting the kind of pilgrimage that many millions of people have undergone in the past, with a special emphasis on attempting to restore himself to the community to which he wishes to belong. Belonging is denied to him until he is washed clean.
On top of this, the specific Living Waters matter because these are located in the mines where the material sacred to the sect is found. It can only be this water because it has also somehow absorbed or carries in it the special ritual qualities of the metal. I'll discuss this in another post. Mandalorian culture revolves intensely around blacksmithing and the role of an Armourer, and to some extent, we can only understand the significance of the water and its place in the story when we start to unpick what's going on with that Beskar steel.
I find all this rather wonderful and very well thought out in terms of story and world design. We could roll our eyes at the appearance of water as a tool of purification, but this goes beyond that.
What Mando is doing in this season is essentially a pilgrimage. This has been a significant factor in religious and ritual practice, and all of it is framed around the idea of travelling to a specific physical location with ritual or religious associations. From the ancient world on, pilgrimages were common, and included bringing back small artefacts collected there. Even the ancient world had its tourist souvenirs.
If I write any more posts about this, I will try to explore some of the details around the Living Waters and their location, and what that might tell us about how they function as a tool of purification. For now, this is how my researcher mind works: I'd like to know whether the waters flow, or if they are contained; is there any ritual around the bathing and what form does it take? Will there be sounds, speech acts, or does it have to take place at a particular time?
In my next post, I'll take a look at the materiality of Mando's helmet, and what it might mean from a material perspective that he cannot be seen. Then we'll move on to Beskar steel, and what we know about the way blacksmithing in a variety of cultures is often treated as an activity with ritual overtones.
If you're interested in materiality, object oriented ontology, and some of the authors mentioned here, I recommend:
Ingold, T. (2013). Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. Routledge.
Smith, J. Z. (1987). To take place: Toward theory in ritual. University of Chicago Press.
See also various works by Dr Joshua Roberson on Ancient Egyptian culture and mythology.
*This isn't to argue that these prohibitions are necessarily right. There's a difference between being important to any given culture and correct from a modern human rights perspective.