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In my fantasy world, there is a massive river that flows through the heart of the empire. This river is used for obtaining potable water as well as feeding crops, however, boating is strictly prohibited. I have linked this with a belief in the religion of the empire that the water symbolizes the deity's blood, and thus it would be disrespectful to use it as a way of transport. However, with as with most religions, things like this are created from real-life reasons that they cannot understand, and thus will blame them on the god, so, my question is, what would this be (the real-life reason, that is)? So, why would boating be unsafe or not useful?

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    $\begingroup$ Are there any beasts lurking below in the water? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 15 '17 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ How this is not an idea generation? Please provide with details of your river or society. For now VTC for opinion-based AND too broad. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Nov 15 '17 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Vylix I do not think it is too broad. It takes a very good reason for people not to use water transport when a "massive river" is available. That narrows it down enough IMHO. Maybe enough to avoid being "idea generation" or "opinion based" even? I do not see urgent need to close this, in any case. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 15 '17 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ kind of weird that your empire can still retain control the other side of such river.. $\endgroup$ – Thỏ Già Nov 15 '17 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ Vylix is correct, this is too broad and primarily opinion based. The reason for this is that you're not asking us for reasons why people won't boat --- they already have one: a religious proscription. You're asking us for the kernel of truth that justifies the religious proscription. That's a fishing-for-ideas question and they're off-topic without providing us the rules and structure of your world. $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 15 '17 at 3:49
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Lost History.

In the ancient past, the river separated two kingdoms. They were not terribly expansive, just some miles of shore on each side, so they did not need the river for shipping. After a few costly but indecisive wars, they had a truce which included no boating of any kind on the river. A boat on the river meant an attack in progress.

Rather than try to explain the complicated truce to illiterate and child-like peasants, both sides invented the religious myth together and told it as new revealed wisdom, part of the actual religion about the river being the life blood of the creator. Just a new twist on that: The creator recently sent us a memo, it said "I hate boats!"

The kings passed away, the truce held, their successors passed away, and eventually revolutions, coups, assassinations and so on. After many centuries the actual truce was long turned to ash, but the nature of the agreement held, and the religion and its proscription against boats held as well.

Nobody knows why God hates boats, but it says so, right here in the Bible, and this Bible is over a thousand years old, so show it some respect. Even if you built the boats, nobody is going to set foot on 'em. Because even if they float, they're still going to hell when they die.

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The actual reason they think the river water is the blood of their God, is because it is bright red. The reason for that is cyanobacteria. These are endemic to the chain of lakes that the river originates from. The cyanobacteria are toxic and the toxin is volatile enough that boating will result in the people involved feeling the wrath of the God in their bodies.

This would require the people not to drink the blood of the God without boiling or some other preparation that removes the bacteria and cleanses the toxin. A closed vessel in full sunlight for few hours would probably be enough. This contradicts the question about potability, but requiring people to do a ritual before drinking what they think of as the blood of their God is reasonable IMHO.

Interestingly the most likely reason for the bacteria being red would be that the light they get is green. This would be most likely because the river is overgrown with plants. Lots a narrow and shallow channels overgrown with trees. Water filled with reeds and water plants such as water lilies. Slow moving water and verdant life. Very pretty and abundant. Like a green natural cathedral for your God.

It would also be a pain to navigate with boats of any size which would supply an explanation why the people do not want to use water transport. You'd need to create artificial channels for that and with the toxins in the water all your workers would probably die soon after starting work on that sacrilege.

An added bonus is that the cyanobacteria can fix nitrogen meaning the water would come with fertilizer ready. So the plants on the river and on the fields irrigated with the river water would get an extra boost. If you have occasional or seasonal floods leaving river mud on your fields that mud will be very fertile. A blessing from God.

Only real downside is that the toxin would probably kill all the fish and water birds. But, if you do not want boats, you probably do not want a thriving fishing economy either. The river would be eerily silent, sacred.

EDIT: One added benefit of this solution. As mentioned in comments it would be very difficult for the empire to retain control of the both sides of a massive river without boats. Unless the river is divided into multiple channels narrow enough to bridge over. This solution already has that for other reasons.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would suggest that a few plants and animals have adapted to the toxins in the water. They would however be toxic to consume and would therefore be sacred (messengers) of the god. The people have not adapted due to their ability to cleanse the water before drinking. Bridge-building would be a perilous business for the same reason boating would be though. $\endgroup$ – Rissiepit Nov 15 '17 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ If the river was red and dead then the people wouldn't have settled near it, the point of having a river is good water, fishing and transport. We're taking one away, taking away the other two means no town. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 15 '17 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix The point of a river is that the land along it grows more food than other lands. This difference can be rather large especially in ancient times before soil quality has dropped. Also even if the river water itself was undrinkable (it isn't in my answer as the ritual is simple) this is where all the clean water in the area flows to. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 15 '17 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Rissiepit I am assuming plants have no issues with the water. I am assuming individual river channels might be narrow enough to bridge over without building anything in the water, but I agree it would probably still be dangerous. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 15 '17 at 14:04
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My first thoughts are related to the current. If this massive river has a strong current and (say) some jagged rocks, reefs or other dangers to boats lurking just below the surface, the first attempts to put a boat on it could have resulted in disaster. In such a case, if the religious belief was beginning to form around the river already, a priest points to drowning people who can't be reached (again, because of the current) and says 'See! Our God rejects our attempts to travel through his lifestreams!'

The agrarian population all nod sagely and agree, and the proscription is born.

The only problem with this is that a long-existent river would have worn down such obstructions under its own current over time, so the timing of the creation of the river itself and the 'accidents' would have to be somewhat close. That may fit however, because a people dying of thirst who see first a trickle, then a stream, then a raging river over the space of a few years may well accept the original formation of this river as an act of a deity instead of a simple change in climate and weather patterns.

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In New Zealand there are plenty of rivers, but relatively few that people can boat on. Why? Most of them look like this for most of their length: enter image description here
(Image from https://www.owenriverlodge.co.nz/ )

Quite frankly, you couldn't boat on that with "normal" boats if you tried! But jet boats were designed in NZ in 1954 and now we can travel on the rivers:
enter image description here
(Image from http://www.hamiltonmarine.co.nz/hamiltonjet_nz/hjnz_jet_boats.html)

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yn3lOtabSNo

However, the water is (or used to be) potable.

This leaves you completely free to figure out why the villages think it's a deity without wondering why they can't boat on it. They can't boat on it because of the geology of the environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ With this reason, you could have some "chosen" persons who are able to travel the river - might be nice for storytelling $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner Nov 15 '17 at 7:44
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder how large that river could get, and for how long it could flow, without erosion digging in and providing a clear navigable channel. Still, I really like the idea of the river simply having really shallow portions at such regular intervals that navigation is just not possible in anything bigger than a draft. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Nov 15 '17 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ These river beds have looked like that for millenia, and some are pretty massive. Some of the bigger ones (eg the Waimakariri) are more navigable, but still only by modern boats and adrenaline junkies on rafts.... NZ is geologically young, but we're still talking eons before erosion wears them down to more continental style rivers. $\endgroup$ – sdfgeoff Nov 15 '17 at 12:06
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The joys of religion mean that the reason doesn't have to be entirely logical, but should be based on something logical if you dig deep enough.

And it was, that a man tried to cross the river on a boat. And it was a beautiful calm day and the river was quiet. And it happened that as he approached the middle of the river, god sent a vast wave which swallowed him and he was drowned. And the priests said, no man shall again put a boat on the river, such is the judgement of god. And every month when the moon is full, god sends the wave and the water turns to salt, to remind us that his river is holy.

All hail the patriarchy.

Let me introduce the Severn Bore, these days mostly used by surfers, but such a thing could easily be the judgement of god for those who dare to use boats on the holy river.

Your river is only tidal on spring tides, so mostly flows fresh, but the particular combination of tide and current mean that you get a large tidal bore on those tides. The fact that the rest of the time it's perfectly safe to take a boat on the river notwithstanding, to do so is heresy and punishable by drowning by the priests if the wave of god doesn't take you.

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