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.
“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.
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
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 pushing a boulder up hill.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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