Despite two-thirds of the Earth’s surface being covered in water, only 0.5% is available for our needs. Throughout human history, the ready availability of water has always been the biggest issue societies have struggled to manage.
Even today, the majority of humanity still finds difficulties in gaining access to clean water.
Given its importance to our daily lives and our very existence, it is only natural that we humans would come to attach various symbols to water.
In this article, we have compiled the top 23 symbols of water throughout history.
Zodiac symbol of water / Aquarius symbol
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The Water-Bearer is the zodiac symbol of the constellation of Aquarius. According to myths, the water-bearer represents Ganymede, a Phrygian youth who is said to have been so beautiful that Zeus himself fell in love with him and personally came and took him away to serve as his cupbearer.
One day, being dissatisfied with his treatment, Ganymede pours out all the water, wine, and ambrosia of the gods, resulting in massive flooding down on Earth.
Rather than punish him, however, Zeus realizes his unkind treatment of the boy and so instead made him immortal. (1)
2. Willow (Celts)
A Celtic symbol for water / Weeping willow tree
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In Celtic society, the Willow was considered a sacred tree. Its wood was used in various ceremonies and rituals.
The tree was closely associated with the element of water, and thus, seen as a source of psychic and intuitive energy. (2)
It was also considered an aspect of female divinity and linked to the lunar cycle and fertility. (3)
3. Serpent (Various)
Across various cultures, the serpent has served as a symbol of water, usually by association with the local water deity.
Interestingly, this association seems to have developed independently in many regions, rather than being a result of outward diffusion from a single cultural source.
In Canaan, the serpent was a symbol of Yam, the god of the sea, and a rival of Baal, the god of storms. Yam himself was said to resemble a sea monster or a dragon. (4) (5)
This tale may have later inspired the great sea monster myths in many religions, such as the story of the Leviathan in Judaism, Christianity and of Midgard Serpent in Norse. (6)
Further north, among the Slavic people, the serpent was a symbol of Veles, the god of the underworld, water, trickery. (7)
In Yoruba folklore, the serpent is an attribute of Mami Wata, a benevolent water spirit that is said to abduct people while they are boating and swimming and then bringing them to her paradisiacal realm. (8)
In Mesoamerica, serpents were associated with Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec water, and storm deity. (9)
4. Lioness (Ancient Egypt)
The Lioness was the primary symbol of the Ancient Egyptian goddess, Tefnut. Literally translating as “That Water,” she was responsible for bringing moisture in the air and making it rain.
According to myths, she is the daughter of Ra, the chief solar deity, and a sibling of Shu, the god of wind and air. She and her brother were created from Ra’s sneezing. (10) (11)
5. Pasha (Dharmic Religions)
Varuna is a Vedic deity that is said to rule over both the sky and the oceans. In Hindu iconography, he is often depicted wielding a pasha, a type of noose, which he uses to punish those who commit sin without remorse. (12)
He is also recognized as an important deity in the Theravada school of Buddhism, where he serves as the king of Devas.
He is also worshiped in the Shinto religion, where he is identified with the Japanese supreme kami, Ame-no-Minakanushi. (13) (14)
6. Mušḫuššu (Babylon)
The Mušḫuššu is a dragon-like creature from Ancient Mesopotamia myths. It is said to have served as a servant of Marduk and as his symbolic animal.
Marduk was the chief patron deity of Babylon and was associated with water, creation, and magic.
Marduk took Mušḫuššu as his servant after defeating his original master, the warrior god Tishpak. (15) (16)
7. Crab (Global)
Symbol of Cancer / Crab
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The crab is the zodiac symbol of the constellation of cancer, which is associated with the element water.
In Greco-Roman myths, the constellation is actually the dead remains of a crab that bit Hercules on the foot while he was fighting the many-headed Hydra.
Angered, Hercules crushed him under his foot, which was then placed among the stars by Hera, the sister and wife of Zeus. (17)
8. Fish (Various)
A symbol of water / School of fishes
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Fishes are another commonly employed symbol used for representing water or deities associated with it.
In Ancient Greece, it was one of the symbols of the great Titan Oceanus, the primeval father of all Greek water deities. (18) (19)
In Lithuanian mythology, the fish was one of the symbols of Bangpūtys, a deity associated with the sea and storms. (20)
A duo of fish also serves as the symbol of the Pisces constellation. According to Greco-Roman myths, the two fishes represent Venus and her son, cupid.
They are said to have transformed into fishes so as to escape from the monstrous serpent, Typhon. (21)
9. Currach (Ireland)
A currach is a type of Irish boat constructed from wood and stretched animal skin. In Irish myths, Manannán mac Lir, a water deity and the ruler of the underworld, is said to own a self-navigating currach named Wave Sweeper.
In pre-Christian times, boat miniatures were used as a votive offering to the deity. (22)
10. Trident (Greco-Roman Civilization)
The trident is one of the chief symbols of Poseidon-Neptune, the Greco-Roman god of the seas and the patron of the seafarers.
His trident was said to be an immensely powerful weapon. When angered, the god would strike the ground with it, creating earthquakes, floods, and violent storms. (18)
The prongs of his trident are said to have symbolized the three properties of water – liquidity, fecundity, and drinkability. (23)
11. Icosahedron (Ancient Greece)
Platonic solids are 3D polygonal objects where each face is the same, and the same number of them meet at each vertex.
The ancient Greeks extensively studied these objects, the most notable being the philosopher Plato.
In his cosmological dialogue, Plato associated each of the five solids with an element, with the Icosahedron being linked with the element of water.
He justified this by stating that the shape had the greatest number of sides, like ‘little balls,’ which, when picked up, will flow out of one’s hand. (24) (25)
12. Oriental Dragon (East Asia)
In East Asia mythology, dragons are powerful yet benevolent supernatural beings who rule over the domain of water, rain, and weather.
In Chinese mythology, there are four dragon deities that rule over the four seas, seasons, and directions: (26)
- The Azure dragon king rules over the East, the East China Sea, and Spring.
- The Red dragon king rules over the South, the South China Sea, and Summer.
- The Black dragon king rules over the North, Lake Baikal, and Winter.
- The White dragon king rules over the West, Qinghai Lake, and Autumn.
Another prominent dragon figure is Yinglong, a winged dragon that controls the Rain. (27)
Across the sea in Japan, we have Ryujin, a dragon god that ruled over the oceans and lived in a vast palace made out of red and white coral. (28)
However, not all dragon deities were considered good. For instance, the Chinese water deity, Gonggong, was responsible for floods and other natural disasters. He would finally be killed by Zhurong, a fire god. (29)
13. Orca (Ainu)
Ainu symbol of the ocean / Orca
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The Ainu are an ancient group of people and the original inhabitants of the Japanese islands.
Because of their historic persecution and near-assimilation into the greater Japanese society, information on their heritage and folklore remains scarce.
From what can be gathered, the Ainu did worship a water deity called Repun Kamuy. It was a benevolent god with a carefree and highly generous nature.
He was often depicted in the form of an orca, which was regarded as a particularly sacred animal.
It was an Ainu custom to hold funerals for stranded or deceased orcas. (30) (31)
14. Black Tiger (Manipur)
Symbol of Wangbren / Black tiger
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In Meitei mythology, Wangbren, locally known as Iputhou Khana Chaopa Wang Pulel, is one of the nine deities that serve as guardians of the South direction.
He is said to rule over all bodies of water, from ponds and lakes to the vast oceans.
He is said to be black in appearance, wears black robes, and rides atop a black tiger, which is also his animal symbol. (32)
15. Shark (Polynesian)
Symbol of the sea deity / Shark
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Various Polynesian cultures attribute the shark with a number of water deities. In Fiji, the shark is a representation of Dakuwaqa, a patron of the fishermen and a protective sea deity.
A similar depiction can be found in Hawaiian religion, where Kāmohoaliʻi, another sea deity, would take the form of a shark when guiding stranded ships, although he could take on the form of any other fish as well. (33) (34)
16. Whale (Maori)
Symbol of Tangaroa / Whale
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Maori myths tell us the tale of Tangaroa, the great Atua who, along with his three other brothers, caused the forceful separation of his parents, Ranginui (Sky) and Papa (Earth).
He and the rest are then attacked by their older brother, Tāwhiri, the Atua of storms, forcing him to seek refuge in his realm – the sea.
Afterward, he would father a single son named Punga, from whom all lizards and fishes descend from. In Maori artwork, Tangaroa is typically depicted in the form of a great whale. (35) (36)
17. Moon (Various)
The moon carries influences over the world’s oceans; its gravitational pull causing high and low tides.
Since ancient times, people have observed this phenomenon and thus, come to link the moon with the ocean. (37)
The moon also served as a symbol of many different water deities in various cultures. Among the Inuit, it was a symbol of Alignak, the god of weather, earthquakes, and water. (38)
Among the Aztecs, the moon was the domain of Tecciztecatl, the son of Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of water, rivers, sea, and storms. (9)
18. Mexican Marigold (Mesoamerica)
The Mexican marigold is a symbol of the Mesoamerican god, Tlaloc (39) whose attributes include rain, earthly fertility, and water.
He was both feared and loved by the Mesoamerican people, being both the giver and sustainer of life as well as having the ability to conjure storms and lightning.
He is among the most ancient of deities worshiped in Mesoamerica; his cult having a large following in Aztec, Mayan, and Mixtec societies. (40) (41)
19. Water Tap Icon (Universal)
From the most developed parts of the world to its more remote, today the majority of people can easily recognize what this ubiquitous symbol stands for – that being running fresh water.
Surprisingly, while indoor plumbing had existed since antiquity and faucets existed since the time of the Romans, running water remained a luxury reserved only for a select few well into the 19th century. Only in the 1850s and later did this become to change. (42)
20. Blue Droplet (Universal)
A blue drop-shaped symbol is among the most recognized and widely employed symbols for representing water.
Be it observing the rain or small amounts of water from a tap or other source, people have always noticed the distinctive shape that a small column of the liquid makes.
This is a result of surface tension, which causes the water column to form a pendant until it exceeds a certain size, causing the surface tension to break and the droplet to detach itself. (43)
21. Aquamarine (Various)
The word ‘aquamarine’ is derived from a Latin word for seawater, and it is easy to see why it is named so.
Appearing naturally in various light shades of translucent blue, aquamarines have since ancient times have been a highly valued gem.
Because of its appearance, many people naturally came to associate it with water or related aspects. Among the Romans, it was considered a sailor’s gem, granting ships a safe passage across stormy seas.
In Medieval times, it was identified with Saint Thomas, who is said to have made long journeys by sea to preach the Christian religion to distant lands.
In some societies, it was also used in ceremonies to bring rain or send droughts to enemy lands. (44)
22. Seashells (Various)
Since ancient times, seashells have served as a symbol of water, being connected to various water deities and related qualities. (45)
In fact, the human fondness for seashells and assigning them meanings may well be even older than us modern humans.
It has been found that as far back as half a million years, early humans were using seashells not just for tools and decorations but were also drawing their symbols, in a way perhaps projecting themselves onto the natural world. (46)
23. Seabirds (Various)
Symbol of the Seas / Flying seabird
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By their very nature of living near the coastlines and other marine environments, seabirds have always come to be associated with the seas.
In literature, seabirds such as gulls have been often used as a metaphor to denote the closeness to the sea.
It was also considered taboo to kill certain seabirds, such as the Albatross, as they were considered the lost souls of sailors who had perished at sea. (47)
Over to You
Do you know of any other important symbols of water? Let us know in the comments. Be sure to also share this article with others if you found it to be a worthwhile read.
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