The meaning of the dream symbol: Sea

Drowning or fear of drowning would then symbolize an unconscious death-wish. Sea may symbolize the feminine. For a male dreamer, therefore, going to sea may symbolize getting acquainted with the feminine in himself - the anima. In mystic-meditative traditions there is the belief that the multiplicity of natural phenomena are merely different forms of one ultimately real thing (Cod, Brahman, Ultimate Reality, the One); and the One is commonly symbolized by the ocean, and the individual person or thing by a drop of water which eventually rejoins the sea from which it originally came.

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Freudians, tike Moussaieff Masson, in his book, The Oceanic Feeling, may say that, if this piece of imagery appears in your dream, it signifies a death-wish. Jungians would say it is a message from your unconscious concerning the disillusionment that awaits you if you continue to build your life round the ego, instead of acknowledging the One (life-force, God, or whatever you care to call it). Whether the Freudian or the Jungian interpretation fits you better should be easy to decide.

The complex symbolism of the Sea represents the embodiment of our entire emotional matrix. Moreover, an endless body of water which reflects the sun and sustains a multiplicity of wonder below its depths may be indicative of our unconscious. As such, all movements directed into the sea may imply an immersion into our unconscious. Conversely, physical movement rising out of the deep waters may refer to memories recalled from our own personal depths. Accordingly, in the dream sense, a sea may refer to the symbolic transition from our unconscious to our conscious and vice versa. In so doing, the sea may represent the plateau between our waking mind and our dreaming mind.

Because of their apparently limitless extent, seas and oceans are images of the primal undifferentiated state of primeval formlessness. Such was the ocean upon which Vishnu slumbered. It was arnava, the dark and shapeless sea, the Lower waters over which the Spirit of God broods and from which arises the primeval burgeoning of egg, lotus, reed or island. The boar (Varaha-avatara) brought the Earth up to its surface; Izanami stirred it with his spear and by coagulation formed the first island; the deva and the asura ‘churned’ it and from it distilled amrita, the draught of immortality.

Seas are also symbols of the Upper Waters, of Divine Being, of Nirvana and of Tao. This is expressed in the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, of Tauler, Angelus Silesius (‘the uncreated sea of the One God’), Master Eckhart (‘the unfathomable sea of the nature of God’) and even in those of Dante and of Sufism. The Upanishads elaborate on this theme as does Buddhism - the dew-drop dissolves in the sparkling sea. It is, furthermore, the ‘Ocean of Joy’ to the Beguines, Ibn Mashish’s ‘Ocean of Divine Solitude’ and al-Jill’s ‘Ocean of the Glory of God’. According to Shabistari, the ocean is the heart; its shores, gnosis; its shells, language, and the pearls which they contain, the ‘knowledge of the heart’, the hidden meaning of language.

But when the sea is stormy, to reach the further shore entails a dangerous crossing of its treacherous stretch of water. It is Shankaracharya’s ‘sea of passions’; the ocean of the world of the soul crossed in stages in St Isaac of Nineveh’s allegory; the ‘ocean of existences’ represented by the lake of the temple of Neak-Pean at Angkor; and the sea of the realm of the senses in the Samyutta-Nikaya (4: 157): ‘Whoever crosses the sea with its sharks and demons, its terrifying waves which are so hard to surmount, may be said to have gone to the ends of the Earth and have departed to the beyond.’

The sea played a highly important part in Celtic traditional concepts. The gods - Tuatha De Danann, People of the Goddess Dana - reached Ireland by sea and it was by sea that the Otherworld was reached. One of the most notable mythological themes relative to water symbolism is that of the child who is cast adrift. When Morann, son of the usurper, Cairpre, was born, he was a dumb monster who was cast into the sea. The waters broke the mask which covered his face; he was saved by servants and became a famous judge during the reign of his father’s lawful successor. Dylan eil Ton (‘Dylan, Son of the Waves’), son of the Welsh goddess Arianrhod (‘Silver Wheel’) entered the sea as soon as he was born and swam like a fish. Merlin, the enchanter, was Mori-genos, ‘born from the sea’, and Pelagius (Morien) was Mori-dunon, ‘fortress of the sea’. One of the epithets of the Gaulish Apollo was Moritasgus, ‘he who comes [?] from over the sea’. The sea partakes of the divine property of giving and taking life.

Manannan, the Dagda’s brother and lord of the Otherworld in the Irish pantheon, was called Mac Lir, ‘son of the sea’. Sea symbolism is linked with that of water in the context of the origin of all life. However, neither Manannan nor the Welsh god, Manawyddan, who corresponds to him, was a sea-god in the sense sometimes attached to them by modem researchers. He is in fact linked to the primeval state through the sea symbolism which reinforces his mythological office.

This is also the reason motivating the old Jewish writers to state plainly that the sea is part of God’s creation (Genesis 1: 10); that it should submit to his commands (Jeremiah 31: 35); that he could dry it up to allow the Children of Israel to pass through the midst of it (Exodus 14:15ff.); and that he could raise or calm storms upon it (Jonah 1: 4). The sea thus became the symbol of creation assuming the place of, or being taken for, its creator.

The Christian mystics were others who took the sea as a symbol of the human heart as the seat of the passions. In the dedication to his Moralia super Job, St Gregory the Great describes his entry into the monastic life as ‘an escape from the shipwreck of life’. According to the twelfth-century Aelred of Rievaulx, a sea lay between God and ourselves. This denoted the present age. Some drowned in it, others crossed it. A boat was needed to cross the sea: the married state was a leaky skiff, but the fife of the Cistercian was like a stout ship.