The waters are the source of all potentialities in existence; the source and grave of all things in the universe; the undifferentiated; the unmanifest; the first form of matter, ‘the liquid of the whole verification’ (Plato).
All waters are symbolic of the Great Mother and associated with birth, the feminine principle, the universal womb, the prima materia, the waters of fertility and refreshment and the fountain of life.
Water is the liquid counterpart of light.
The waters are also equated with the continual flux of the manifest world, with unconsciousness, forgetfulness; they always dissolve, abolish, purify, ‘wash away’ and regenerate; they are associated with the moisture and circulatory movement of blood and the sap of life as opposed to the dryness and static condition of death; they revivify and infuse new life, hence baptism by water or blood in initiatory religions in which the water or blood also washes away the old life and sanctifies the new.
Immersion in water not only symbolizes the return to the primordial state of purity, death to the old life and rebirth into the new, but also the immersion of the soul in the manifest world.
The waters of the Spring, or Fountain of Life, rise from the root of the Tree of Life in the centre of Paradise. As rain, water is the inseminating power of the sky god, fertility. As dew it is benediction and blessing, spiritual refreshment and the light of dawn.
To dive into the waters is to search for the secret of life, the ultimate mystery.
To walk on waters is to transcend the conditions of the phenomenal world; all great Sages walk on waters.
Running water is ‘water of life’ or ‘living water’.
Crossing waters is to move from one ontological state, or plane, to another; it is also separation as the sea or river of death, but, as water can be the power of both life and death, so it can also both divide and unite.
Water and fire are the two conflicting elements that will ultimately penetrate each other and unite; they represent all contraries in the elemental world. In a state of conflict they are the heat and moisture necessary for life, but ‘burning water’ is the union of opposites. Fire and water are also associated with the two great principles, the Sky Father and the Earth Mother, but the Sky Father can also represent the fecundating moisture of rain falling on the earth.
Water with wine signifies the blending of the human and divine nature, or divinity mingled invisibly with humanity. In Christian art it depicts Temperance. Surrounding water, e.g. a moat, furrow, gutter, etc., is not merely defensive but the water makes the place within pure and encloses the sacred space.
Water with clay is creation and also represents the potter as the shaper of the universe.
Deep waters, e.g. seas, lakes, wells, are associated with the realm of the dead, or are the abode of supernatural beings and are closely connected with the Great Mother.
The Lower Waters are chaos, or the everchanging manifest world, and the Higher Waters are the realm of the unifying waters; these are also connected with the Lesser and Greater Mysteries, and together they complete the One and mark the universal regeneration.
Troubled waters depict the vicissitudes, illusion and vanity of life, ‘the phantom flux of sensations and ideas’.
Running water signifies life, the ‘waters of life’, the river, spring, or fountain of life, symbolized by the undulating line, or by the spiral or meander.
The waters, like the tree, grove, stone, mountain, can represent the cosmos in its entirety. Symbols of the life-giving, life-destroying, separating and uniting powers of the waters are often composite creatures, monsters or dragons, serpents, the falcon, lion, crocodile and whale, while the nourishing and fertilizing power is depicted in the cow, gazelle and, pre-eminently, the fish. Water is of great significance in magic rites.
- Amerindian: The flowing power of the Great Spirit. Water sprites are tempters to evil; they are seducers and signify change and decay and both the life-giving and life-taking aspects; they support the earth and are static as opposed to the dynamic sky aspect.
- Aztec and Inca: The waters are primaeval chaos.
- Buddhist: The perpetual flux of the manifest world. ‘Crossing the stream’ is frequently used as a symbol of passing through the world of illusion to attain enlightenment, Nirvana. Out of the primordial waters rose the stem of the great lotus, the world axis.
- Celtic: The waters, lakes, sacred wells, etc. have magical properties and are the dwelling place of supernatural beings, such as the Lady of the Lake; they also give access to the other world, and the powers of the waters represent other-world wisdom and the foreknowledge of the gods. Tir-nan-og, the Celtic Paradise, the land of the ever-young, is beyond or under the waters, or, like the Green Isle, surrounded by water.
- Chinese: The yin, lunar principle, symbolized by the trigram K’an (see PA KUA), with fire as the yang and solar power. Water denotes purity, the North region, and its symbol is the Black Tortoise, black being the colour of primordial chaos.
- Christian: The waters of regeneration; renewal; cleansing; sanctification; refreshment; baptism. A spring of water depicts Christ as the fountain of life; the fountain or living spring also represents the Virgin Mary, who is also the waters as the womb of creation. Water mixed with wine is the passive acted upon by the Spirit, ‘born of water and of the Spirit’. The mingling of the human and divine at the Incarnation. According to St Cyprian, Christ is the wine and the water is the congregation as the body of Christ. In Christian art Temperance is depicted as water mixed with wine. Dew is benediction.
- Egyptian: Birth; regeneration; growth; the fecundation of the waters of the Nile, symbolized by the God Hapi who pours water from two pots.
- Graeco-Roman: Aphrodite/Venus rose from the waters; Poseidon/Neptune controls the power of the waters. The river Lethe is oblivion and the river Styx is crossed at death. Hebrew: ‘The waters of the Torah’ are the life-giving waters of the sacred law. The spring of water constantly available to the Israelites is wisdom, the Logos, according to Philo. At the creation ‘the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters’.
- Hindu: Agni is born of the waters and the earth and is the pillar supporting all existence. Varuna is controller of the waters. Vishnu sleeps on the waters, on the serpent, and from his navel grows a lotus enthroning Brahma, ‘He who walks on the waters’. Lakshmi, ‘she of the lotus’, is also ‘ocean-born’.
- Iranian: Apo, the water, is both solar and lunar power and the primordial ocean.
- Islamic: Water signifies mercy; gnosis; purification; life. As rain, or a spring, water is divine revelation of reality. It is also creation: ‘From the water We made every living thing.’ ‘His throne was upon the waters’ (Qoran).
- Mandaean: Water and wine represent the union of the Cosmic father and Mother.
- Maori: Paradise is under the waters, which symbolize primordial perfection.
- Scandinavian and Teutonic: The waters, in which dwelt the serpent of Midgard, encircled the earth, and the underworld was a place of mists. The Yggdrasil had its roots in the underworld and from them sprang the fountain Hvergelmir, the source of the rivers.
- Sumero-Semitic: Apsu, the primordial waters, existed in the beginning, with Tiamat as the sea and chaos. The serpents Lakhmu and Lakhamu were born of the waters. Marduk, as light, created the earth by overcoming Tiamat as chaos and the unmanifest. Ea-Oannes is Lord of the Deeps and ‘God with the Streams’ who can have a watering pot or water flowing from his arms and hands.
- Taoist: The strength of weakness; the power of adaptation and persistence; the fluidity of life as opposed to the rigidity of death. Water is the expression of the doctrine of wu-wei- giving at the point of resistance, it envelops and passes beyond it, ultimately wearing down even the hardest rock.