Crossing a river in a boat may symbolize either death; or a more or less fundamental change of lifestyle or attitude. Crossing by a bridge may signify a change as above; or it may be a symbol of avoiding a flood of passion or observing it from the safe vantage point of a detached observer.
The symbolism of the river refers to the psychological and emotional continuity of our existence. As such, violent rapids may represent difficulty in our everyday interrelationships. Furthermore, swimming against the current of a river, may be indicative of unproductive and wearisome actions, which exhaust our drive, yet lead us nowhere.
The Zen patriarch Hui Neng taught that the far bank was paramita, that is, the state which is beyond being and non-being, a state, furthermore, which is symbolized not simply by the far bank but by the smoothly flowing stream as well.
The celestial stream of Jewish tradition is the river of grace and heavenly influences. However, this heavenly stream flows vertically down along the World axis, and then from the centre flows horizontally out to the four points of the compass until it reaches the rim of the world, and these four streams are the four rivers of the Garden of Eden.
The celestial stream is the Ganga (Ganges), in India the cleansing river which flows from Shiva’s tresses. It is a symbol of the Upper Waters but, additionally, in so far as it cleanses all things, it is an instrument of liberation. In Hindu iconography the Ganga and Yamuna (Jumna) are attributes of Varuna as Lord of the Waters. The Ganga’s stream really is an axial stream since it is said to flow along a triple bed traversing Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.
In Ancient China, the symbolism of crossing a river possessed considerable importance. This was undertaken by young couples at the vernal equinox and was a true passage from one year and from one season to another, from yin to yang. Additionally, it was a ritual cleansing as a prelude to the fecundation which would be consequent upon the restoration of the power of yang, as well as a prayer for rain, itself the fecundation of the soil by celestial activity. At the equinox, the legendary Weaver crossed the celestial river (the Milky Way) for her marriage to the Ox-herd. This seasonal ceremony had its prototype in the landscape of Heaven.
The Ancient Greeks made rivers the objects of worship and elevated them to the rank of demigods, such as the sons of Oceanus and the fathers of the Nymphs. Sacrifice to them took the form of drowning live bulls and horses in their waters, and they could not be crossed without first undergoing ritual purification and offering prayers. Like all the forces of fecundation, their actions were arbitrary and they could both irrigate and flood or wash away the fields, carry or sink the boats on their waters. They inspired both adoration and fear.
Hesiod laid down the rule never to cross rivers with their ever-flowing streams until the traveller had said a prayer as he gazed upon their shining waves and bathed his hands in their clear and pleasant waters. Whoever crossed a river without first cleansing his hands from the evil with which they were sullied, would attract the anger of the gods who would send down the direst punishment.
The rivers of the Underworld mark the punishments reserved for the damned - Acheron (pain), Phlegethon (burning), Cocytus (mourning), Styx (terror) and Lethe (oblivion).
One of the chief rivers of Ireland, the Boyne (Boann), was regarded in a passage from the ‘History of Place-names’ (Dindshenchas) as an aspect of the great cosmic river from which all comes and to which all returns. It is to be seen in other lands under such other names as Severn (England), Jordan (Palestine), Tiber (Italy) and so on.
As they flow down from the mountains, wind through valleys and are lost in lakes and seas, rivers symbolize human existence and its winding passage through desire, emotion and intent. In this respect Heraclitus’ theory is significant. In Fragment 12 of Diels’s standard edition we read: ‘Those who enter the same rivers receive the current which has come from other streams and washed other people, and souls exhale moist substances.' Plato was to put it more concisely: ‘You cannot step twice into the same stream’ (Cratylus 402a).
Patri observes of the Heraclitan symbolism of fire and water (Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale 2-3: p. 131) that the the plural ‘rivers’ does not denote plurality of streams. Every bather has his own river. In the symbolic sense of the term, to enter a river is for the soul to enter the body. ‘River’ takes on the meaning of ‘body’. The dry soul is drawn in by fire, the moist soul is enfolded in the body. The body leads a precarious existence, it seeps away like water, and each soul possesses an individual body, its temporary habitation, its river.