15 Water Symbolism Examples: Dive into Its Many Meanings

Water

Water is an element that is rich with symbolic and metaphorical meaning. It’s no wonder, as the Earth itself is about 71% water1 and our own bodies range from 50-75% water. In fact, the Lakota Native Americans have a saying, “Mní wičhóni,”  which translates to “Water is life.” In this post, we’ll explore water symbolism and its many metaphorical meanings.

Raindrops on Tiger Lilies
Photo: Audrey.

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” 
– Leonardo da Vinci

1. Water Meaning: Life

Because water is essential for life on Earth it has come to symbolize life itself. As the saying goes, “Water is life.” Thus, water symbolism embodies the concepts of vitality, growth, and  life-giving energy.

2. Healing and Rejuvenation 

A soothing element, water also symbolizes healing, rejuvenation, and renewal. It’s fitting that the iconic “fountain of youth,“ which the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about in the 5th century BC2 was indeed a fountain because of water’s capacity to replenish what it touches.

3. Purification

Ganges River
The banks of the Ganges River. Photo: Edson Walker.

We use water for cleaning because it has the power to wash away impurities. Thus, water has long been a symbol for purification, both in a literal and spiritual sense. 

In fact, a number of spiritual beliefs incorporate water in spiritual purification practices. For example, Christians use water in baptisms to cleanse people of original sin. As well, a number of other spiritual beliefs incorporate immersion in water as a spiritual purification process.

In addition, people of many spiritual faiths believe in sacred bodies of water. For example, Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges River brings forgiveness from transgressions and helps one to achieve spiritual transformation.3

4. Movement and Being in Flow 

Surfer

Water symbolism also includes the idea of movement, or being in flow. Often described in the context of a river or wave, water can imply going with the flow or moving in the right direction. For example, if two people don’t see eye to eye, they might be described as rowing in different directions. 

When you feel like you are in flow in life, it’s as though things are effortless and fluid, such as a surfer who catches a wave. (This is the opposite of the metaphor of pushing a boulder up a hill.)

5. Depth

The saying, “Still waters run deep,” is a way to describe someone who is seemingly calm, cool, or collected as being a deep thinker, or someone who has more to their personality than what appears on the surface. 

Along these lines. water is also a metaphor for the mysterious or unknown.

6. Emotions

Our tears are made of water. Thus, water has also come to symbolize strong emotions or being in an emotional state. 

Indeed, in the Western zodiac, the water signs of Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio are said to be the most emotional of all the signs.

Water is also used to describe different emotional states or feelings because it can take on varied forms. For example, someone might be described as lukewarm or ice cold.

7. The Subconscious and Intuition

Woman Floating

Along with different emotional states, water symbolism also includes the subconscious mind, or those thoughts and feelings that lay beneath, or hidden behind, our conscious, wakeful thoughts and behaviors. 

For example, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the sea represents the beauty, chaos, and madness of the human psyche and the human experience. 

And in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, water symbolizes dreams, solitude, and the characters’ internal mental journeys and states of mind.

Similarly, in the study of animal symbolism, aquatic animals, such as dolphins, whales, and turtles, are strongly associated with delving into one’s subconscious and intuitive abilities.

8. Wisdom 

Water is also associated with wisdom and hidden depths of knowledge. For example, in Norse mythology, the Yggdrasil Tree, which was the Nordic Tree of Life, grows out of the Well of Urd. The mystical well was an endless pool that held universal wisdom and other powerful cosmic forces. 

9. Transformation

Water is also a symbol of transformation or metamorphosis. For example, water can take on many different forms, from liquid to solid to gas. Thus, it reflects our own ability to change and transform our lives.

In evolutionary history, living creatures started life in the water and then evolved to exist on land. Then some evolved further and returned to the water. Thus, animals such as frogs, alligators, otters, and sea lions, which have evolved to live in both water and land are symbols of transformation.

10. Self-Reflection

Sailing on the Water

Though some bodies of water can seem like they are endlessly deep, water can also act like a mirror, reflecting its surroundings. So, water can be both a symbol of superficiality or deception as well as self-reflection, introspection, and self-awareness. 

For example, in the Greek myth about Narcissus, a beautiful young man falls in love with his own reflection when gazing into a glassy pool of water.

Yet, in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the main character Holden cries with happiness as he watches his younger sister Phoebe ride the carousel in Central Park. His watery tears coincide with poignant thoughts of self-realization. 

11. Rebirth

As it is a symbol of transformation and self-reflection, water also represents renewal and rebirth. As water is needed for plants to grow as well as for life in general, it plays a role in the cycle of life from birth to death to rebirth.

For example, in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, the main character experiences near death at sea in a cataclysmic storm. He then undergoes a process of confusion, self-discovery, self-awareness, and ultimately, personal enlightenment.

12. Adaptability

As water can change its form to fill any shape of a container or move around objects, it symbolizes adaptability and versatility. This metaphor reflects our ability to adjust to different circumstances and environments.

Martial arts expert Bruce Lee once said, “Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”4

13. Clarity and Truth

Water can also be a metaphor for clarity and truth. The transparent nature of water allows us to see through it, representing honesty and the unveiling of hidden truths. In literature, a character looking into clear water for answers may symbolize their quest for truth or self-discovery, as seen in The Legends of King Arthur where the Lady of the Lake reflects Arthur’s realization of his calling and being true to his purpose.

14. Fertility and Abundance

Water is also a symbol of fertility and abundance, as it is essential for growth and nourishment in nature. This symbolism is evident in many ancient cultures where rivers and rain were worshiped for their life-giving properties. The Nile River in Egyptian mythology, especially when it flooded and brought water to crops, was revered as a source of fertility and sustenance, integral to the civilization’s prosperity.

15. Passage and Transition

Lastly, water can symbolize passage and transition, often in a spiritual or metaphysical sense. Rivers, in particular, are seen as paths leading from one realm to another. In Greek mythology, the River Styx represents the boundary between the Earth and the Underworld, symbolizing the transition from life to death and the journey of the soul.

Summary

Water can take on many varied forms and it can be both life-sustaining and deadly. So, it’s no wonder why it inspires our imaginations so much as we seek to understand and describe our life experiences.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you Kristen for a lovely article and inspiring pictures. I had been searching for reflections about water (as a symbol) as I myself am very connected with water as a spiritual and therapeutic element in my life. Am in the process of crafting a speech for my Toastmasters Club, doing, LOL– an “icebreaker” or hello, get-to-know-you introductory speech. Your communications helped me clarify some things I want to say.

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Kristen M. Stanton

Hello. Thanks for visiting UniGuide. My name is Kristen and I started UniGuide as a tribute to nature, animals, and spiritual exploration. I hope you enjoy your experience here!