Water in Culture: The Symbolism and Cultural Importance of H2O
Water has held a unique and complex place in human culture for millennia and it’s easy to see why. It is, after all, the substance that grows our crops, cleans us, and keeps us functional. As such, humanity has enjoyed a copacetic relationship with water for millennia. Every society since the dawn of time has been shaped, or at least steered, by its relationship with water, whether it’s been feared, venerated or both. And that’s why it crops up time and time again in our artistic endeavours.
In literature, water often represents both life and destruction. In the Biblical narrative, for example, water plays a dual role: the destructive deluge of Noah and the life-giving waters of baptism. Similarly, in Homer’s “Odyssey,” the sea is both a path for Odysseus’s journey home and a dangerous force full of treacherous creatures.
In modern literature, water often symbolises change, rebirth, or introspection. In Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” the sea is a powerful force, reflecting the inner emotions of the characters whereas in the classic “Moby Dick” water is a constant, unfeeling and unforgiving enemy. Water lends itself so naturally to so many metaphors that we struggle to see a time when water doesn’t play a major part in literature.
Water in cinema is an ever-present motif. In movies like “Life of Pi” and “The Perfect Storm,” the ocean is depicted as both majestic and menacing, emphasising humanity’s fragility. In contrast, more esoteric and artistic films such as “The Shape of Water” use water as a symbol of love, understanding, and connection between beings from two very different worlds.
Then there are Disney films like “The Little Mermaid” or “Finding Nemo,” which delve into mysterious underwater worlds that reflect the vast unexplored realms of our own psyches and the magic hidden within the mundane. We won’t, however, mention the ill-fated Waterworld, much as it would make sense here.
From the ancient frescoes of Crete depicting dolphins and sea life to the iconic “Water Lilies” by Monet, water has been a favourite subject for artists of all persuasions. Often, it’s used to invoke calmness, reflect introspection, or illustrate nature’s cyclical patterns but it can be used in so many more inspirational ways too.
Artists like Hokusai, with his famous woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” for example, showcased water’s raw power. Meanwhile, Salvador Dalí, in paintings like “The Persistence of Memory,” used water as a surreal backdrop, suggesting fluidity, dreams, and the perpetual passage of time.
In various cultures, water holds spiritual significance. Hindus regard the Ganges River as sacred, believing its waters purify the soul. Similarly, in many indigenous cultures, water sources are seen as sacred sites, playing central roles in creation myths.
Baptism in Christian traditions signifies rebirth and purification, using water as a central element. In Islamic culture, the ritual washing before prayer (wudu) is a testament to the purity and sanctity of water. In Japanese culture, the concept of “Mizu no Kokoro” or “Mind like Water” is popular in martial arts and Zen, suggesting a state of calm, ready to adapt and change without hesitation.
Water is Life
Water is transformative and infinitely adaptable and serves as a quite literal mirror for human emotion and existence. There’s a universal significance and understanding that helps it flow seamlessly through the stories and images of countless diverse cultures, binding humanity in shared reverence and respect. Long may water continue to inspire our greatest creative minds to reach into themselves and explore what it truly means to be human and at one with nature.