In the symbolic sense, Water refers to the diverse states of our entire emotional capacity. Accordingly, every time water appears in a dream landscape, we represent the fluid, ever-changing and insubstantial characteristics of our own sensitivity. Moreover, clear, untainted water intimates spiritual purity and cleansing.
The variations upon these basic themes which different cultures provide, against a virtually identical background, will help us better to grasp and study the scope and nuances of the symbolism of water.
In Asia, water is the ‘substantial’ shape of manifestation, the origin of life. As a fluid, it tends towards dissolution, but in so far as it is homogeneous it tends to cohesion and concentration. As such, it might correspond to sattva; and since it always finds a lower level and flows towards the abyss its tendency is tamas, and since it stretches horizontally it tends also to rajas.
Water is prakrti, or materia prima; ‘All was water’ say the Hindu scriptures, while the Taoists say that ‘the wide waters had no shores.' The Book of Enoch was to translate this in terms of sexual opposites and iconographically it is often represented by the double spiral. The Lower Waters (potential of form) are supposed to be enclosed within a temple dedicated to the king of the naga at Lhasa. In India formless potential (Upper Waters) is represented by the apsara (from Ap, ‘water’). The notion of primordial waters and of an ocean from which all things began is virtually universal. It is to be found in Polynesia, and the peoples of southern Asia localize cosmic power in water. This is often accompanied by the myth of the animal which dived to the bottom, such as the wild boar of the Hindus, and brought a scrap of mud to the surface, exposing the embryo of manifestation.
In southern Vietnam the Montagnards say that water from Heaven makes the rice; and they are, in addition, well aware of the regenerative role of water, which they regard as a medicine and beverage of immortality.
Water is as widespread an instrument of ritual purification. In this respect washing plays an essential part from as far afield as Islam and Japan, via the rites of the ancient Taoist Masters of the Holy Waters and not forgetting the Christian use of holy water. In India and southeast Asia statues of the gods - and of the worshippers themselves - are regularly washed (especially at New Year) as a rite both of cleansing and of regeneration. Wen Tzu wrote that water by its very nature tended to purity, while Lao Tzu taught that water was the emblem of the highest virtue. It was also a Taoist symbol of wisdom for ‘it is free from disputation’. It is also free and unattached and flows with the slope of the ground. It is moderation as well, since wine which is too strong should be mixed with water, even if the wine is that of knowledge itself.
Lastly, we should observe that the ritual water employed in initiations in Tibet is the symbol of the vows and promises made by the postulant.
Nevertheless, like all symbols, water can be regarded from two diametrically opposite points of view which are not, despite this, irreconcilable, and this ambivalence occurs at all levels. Water is the source both of life and of death, is creator and destroyer.
Palestine was a land of springs and torrents. Jerusalem was lapped by the peaceful waters of Siloam. rivers were agents of God-given fertility, rain and dew supplied their own fecundity and displayed God’s goodness. This is why in prayer and supplication they asked for water, begging God to hear his servants and send rain and show them wells and springs. The laws of hospitality insisted that clean water should be given a guest so that his feet might be washed and his peaceful rest assured. The Old Testament celebrates the miraculous qualities of water and the New Testament accepted this inheritance and was to exploit it.
Jehovah was compared with Spring rains by Hosea (6: 3), with the dew which makes the flowers grow (14: 6), with the fresh water running from the mountains and with thirst-quenching streams. The righteous man is like a tree planted beside running water (Numbers 24: 6) and, in this context, water is regarded as a blessing. However, due acknowledgement should be made that it comes from God. Thus, according to Jeremiah (2:13), in their unbelief the Children of Israel despised the Lord, forgot his promises and no longer looked upon him as the source of living waters. They built cisterns of their own, but these were cracked and the water leaked away. Jeremiah blamed the people for their treatment of God, the spring of living waters, mourning and saying that they would ‘make their land desolate’ (18: 16). Covenants with strange peoples are compared with the waters of the Nile and the Euphrates. The soul searches for its God as ‘the hart panteth after the water brooks’ (Psalm 42: 1). In this context, the soul is seen as parched and thirsty land; it awaits divine revelation, just as the parched land longs to drink in the rain (Deuteronomy 32: 2). Such symbolism, drawn from the deepest levels of Mediterranean experience, was to furnish Lorca with the theme of his tragedy, Yerma, the woman who is barren for want of a man just as the desert (yermo) is barren for want of rain.
It was perfectly natural for inhabitants of the Near East to regard water first and foremost as a sign and symbol of blessing, since water conditioned life itself.
The Lord gives water to the Earth, but there is another and more mysterious water. This derives from Wisdom, which presided when the waters were created and took shape (Job 28: 25-6; Proverbs 3: 20; 8: 22, 24, 28-9; Ecclesiasticus 1: 2-4). This water dwells in the heart of the wise man and is like a well or spring (Proverbs 20: 5; Ecclesiasticus 21: 13). Its words are like a flowing brook (Proverbs 18: 4). ‘The inner parts of the fool are like a broken vessel and he will hold no knowledge as long as he liveth’ (Ecclesiasticus 21:14). The Son of Sirach likens the Law (Torah) to Wisdom, because the Law pours out the waters of Wisdom. The Church Fathers regarded the Holy Spirit as being the fountain of the gift of wisdom which he poured into thirsty hearts. Medieval theologians took up this motif and applied an identical meaning to it. Thus Hugh of St Victor conceived of Wisdom as the possessor of waters in which it washed the soul.
Water became a symbol of the spiritual life and of the Spirit which God offered and which mankind often refused.
Water, which was above all a symbol of life in the Old Testament, has become a symbol of the Spirit in the New.
Jesus Christ had revealed himself to the Woman of Samaria as Lord of the living waters, the well from which ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink’ (John 7: 37). Like Moses’ rock, the water sprang from him and, on the Cross, the lance made blood and water flow from the wound in his side. Living waters flow from the Father, they are channelled through Christ’s human nature or else through the gift of the Holy Spirit who, in the hymn for Pentecost, is fons vivus (a living fountain), ignis caritatis (the fire of love) and Altissimi donum Dei (the gift of the Most High God). St Athanasius explained the meaning of this teaching when he wrote: ‘The Father is the spring, the Son is called the stream and we are said to drink the Spirit’ (Ad Serapionem 1: 19). Water therefore partakes of eternity and whoever drinks of these living waters already shares eternal life (John 4: 13-14).
According to Tertullian, the Holy Spirit chose Water from all the elements and preferred it above the others because, from the very beginning, it seemed a perfect matter, simple and fertile and wholly translucent (De baptismo 3).
Rain-water and sea-water symbolize the duality of the heights and the depths. One is fresh and the other salt. When clean, water is a symbol of life, cleansing and bringing into being (Ezekiel 36: 25); when bitter (Numbers 5: 18), it carries a curse with it. Rivers may be channels of blessing or shelter monsters. Rough water carries the meaning of evil and disorder. Isaiah compares the wicked with a stormy sea (57: 20).
Still waters convey a sense of peace and order (Psalm 23: 2). In Jewish folklore, the division which God made at the Creation of the Upper from the Lower Waters denotes the separation of the male from the female waters, symbolizing security and insecurity, male and female; this is, as we have stated, part of a universal symbolism.
Salt sea-water denotes bitterness of heart. Man, Richard of St Victor was to say, must pass through the waters of bitterness when he becomes aware of his own wretched state, but this ‘holy bitterness’ will be changed into joy (De statu interioris hominis 1: 10).