Water Symbolism: Religion, Culture And Literature

The symbolism of water is vast, widespread and fluid as the water itself. It is present in almost every area or field that involves symbolism, ranging from art and literature, spirituality and religion to science,  magic and alchemy.

Let’s not keep you waiting, here is everything you should know about how water has been used as a symbol across cultures throughout history.

Water Symbolism Explained: A Waterfall Photographed
Water, A Rebirth Symbol by Rifqi Ramadan

Water Symbolism: The Many Meanings of Water As a Symbol

Since water is an element of nature and vital not only for our survival but also for the existence of life on this planet, it is only natural that people associated various symbolic connotations to it over time.

Water, as is common knowledge, is a universal symbol of life. However, it is also one of the most prominent symbols of rebirth and transformation. Water symbolizes movement and change, but it can also be a sign of stillness. Sometimes, water can also be used as a symbol to represent chaos.

In the spiritual realm, it represents flexibility, forgiveness, and purity (or purification), whereas, in the psychological world, water symbolizes the unconscious mind. Moreover, a symbol of water can denote mystery, cohesion, wisdom, and femininity.  It is also an ancient symbol of healing.

Water can symbolize many different things, depending on what form of water a symbol indicates and how it is used. For example, an ocean can symbolize chaos, power, or things beyond control, whereas a lake symbol can refer to peace and tranquility. Some even associate lakes with representing the conscious mind.

Water Symbolism in Literature

Water has been used to represent many different concepts throughout history, the most common ones being life, growth, rebirth, transformation, rejuvenation, healing, and purification.

However, it has also been used to denote diverse concepts like power and strength on one hand and fluidity and ease on the other.

Many literary experts have also used water as a symbol of grace. Some of the popular literary works that involve water symbolism include:

  • The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway – Uses water as a symbol of rebirth.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville – Also known as The Whale, the book uses water (sea) to represent change and the unpredictability of the transformation journey.
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare – Uses water as a symbol of purification or washing away one’s sins.
  • The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls by H.W. Longfellow – Equates the fluidity of water with life and the rise and fall of tides with the change of time.
  • Moonglass by Jessi Kirby – The author draws a very interesting symbolical connection between water and turbulent feelings and emotions.

Water Symbolism in Religion

From a religious and spiritual perspective, water typically denotes purification and is presented as a tool to cleanse one’s body, wash away their sins, and purify their souls.

Muslims perform ablution – wash certain body parts with water in a specific manner – to cleanse themselves before offering a prayer.

Jews perform mikveh – a ritual bath performed by immersing in water – for spiritual purification.

The Christian religious tradition of Baptism also involves the use of water to symbolize purification. Eastern Orthodox Christians also believe in the healing powers of water.

Noah’s story, narrated in both the Bible and Quran, also represents water as a tool for destruction.

In Hinduism, water represents life and living beings as well as a tool for purification. According to Hindu religion, the water of the River Ganges has the power to cleanse and purify their bodies and souls.

The symbolism of Water in History and Culture

Water has held significant importance in every cultural tradition in history, not just because of its importance for life but also because of the symbolic values and mystical properties it is believed to possess.

Ancient Greeks viewed water as a symbol of power. They also associated it with invincibility (some specific waters, to be more accurate).

The River Styx was the most popular example of the water bodies that ancient Greeks believed had mystical and magical properties (including making someone invincible). Greeks also associate water transition and transformation.

Water symbolism was prevalent among Native American tribes, too. The exact meaning each tribe associated with water was different. However, the majority of them valued and honored water as a symbol of life and purification. Many Native American tribes also view water as a symbol of growth and nourishment.

An interesting symbolic interpretation of water comes from the Taoist tradition. The followers of this ancient Chinese philosophical and spiritual tradition believed that water, among many other things, also symbolizes wisdom, humility, kindness, and power.

This notion is based on the various natural characteristics of water. Water does not have its own shape; it takes the shape of the vessel or equipment it is held in.

Also, it flows in the direction where there is the least resistance. Yet, it is powerful enough to remove or overcome all obstacles that come in its way. Taoists highly revered water as a symbol of kindness and humility; it benefits every living being without discrimination.

Water Symbol in Alchemy

The alchemical symboll for water is a downward triangle, which is the opposite of the fire symbol. It represents the element of mercury, which symbolizes mind and intuition. Mercury is also considered a symbol of femininity in alchemy.

Water Element as a Pagan Symbol
Alchemical Water Symbol

This wraps up our piece on water symbolism across cultures and religions. If you liked it, you should definitely check out our other  symbolism section here. Thanks for reading with us!

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