Water is used as a symbol in cultures around the world and back through time. It represents life, death, purification and our emotions. The meaning or use of water as a metaphor varies depending on the particular body of water. Rivers for example can be used differently to lakes. Today, I’m looking at the sea although inevitably other water bodies will flow in as well.
In particular, I’m looking at the sea as a symbol of life, of death, of emotion and the unconscious. Being symbolic of birth, the sea is also associated with sexuality and I’ll be exploring this in another post.
Life, in all its entirety, originated in the ocean, in water so perhaps its unsurprising that water symbolises life. Especially when you think that we are all born from the waters of the womb. Water also sustains life, giving us the drink we need to survive and watering our crops so we have food to eat.
The sea also features in a lot of creation myths, giving birth to the world, gods and humanity. For example an ancient Egyptian story says that the sun god reposed in an ocean. An Assyro-Babylonian myth is broader, bringing in fresh water as well:
Assyro-Babylonian mythology states that the gods, and subsequently all beings, arose from the fusion of salt water (Tiamat) and sweet water (Apsu). Apsu is the embodiment of the freshwater abyss that lies beneath the Earth. From Tiamat’s water came forth the clouds, and her tears became the source of the Tigris and the Euphratus.
There is a mothering aspect to this symbolism; life creator, life sustainer. But any relationship can turn sour and so too can the seas of life turn on us. As easily as they create and foster life, the seas can destroy it. The sea, as unfathomable depths, can kill and is filled with killers. It is undoubtedly a dangerous place and can be a destructive force as much as a creative one.
Between life and death, we find the ocean used symbolically in a number of ways. A common interpretation of water and seas is that of purification. We have baptism in Christianity, the purifiying tears we cry and the powerful flooding that Noah endured was a purification of the world. Often, spiritual purification is seen as a type of rebirth, making it appropriate that the sea is as symbol of both life and death as well.
I am sure I am not the only person to find a day by the sea emotionally purifying and feel calmer as a result of it. For me, the pleasure of being by the water can bring with it a feeling of becoming new, of washing away the sorrows of life and starting afresh.
Life is a journey, and sea crossings can be used to symbolise this. They can be considered akin to transitioning into a new world and a new self. A new start, reached only by crossing treacherous waters. But can also be seen as the rhythms of life, the high tides, the low tides, the calm days and the storms we all face.
Under the surface of the sea, we find emotional depths and our unconscious. Like the ocean, our emotional world is changeable, sometimes it’s smooth sailing and other times its rocky seas. High, crashing waves can threaten to drown us in our emotions but when things are serene, we feel on a more even keel. Literature which involves characters going out to sea can be representing the exploration of emotions and our unconscious fears and desires.
The sea contains so much unexplored space, it has numerous different depths and what goes on under the surface is not visible from above. Similarly, we have unexplored parts of our minds, there is much that is unknown about ourselves and our minds and of course, what we present to the world often doesn’t reflect what is going on for us inside.
There is much to mediate on when we are considering the sea as a symbol for our own existence. It is a powerful tool and one we can use for our own reflection. How we see the sea often says more about our current state than the sea itself. We see, in the sea, what we want to see.