The Purpose of Symbols
According to the Webster-Merriam Dictionary, a symbol is “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance.” The word, ‘symbol,’derives from the Greek word, symbolon, meaning “throwing things together,” so as to create an imaginative association between them. For a symbol to hold significance within a culture or community, its meaning must be clear and easily understood. A country’s flag, for example, is a symbol of its national identity and is recognized with pride by its citizenry. Similarly, the red or yellow octagonal shape located on a street corner is known throughout the world as a directive to STOP, regardless of the language.
Symbols in Art
A visual symbol is a mark, a design or an image used to convey an idea or physical entity. In art, symbols are the oldest form of communication. They appeared on the walls of caves, on ceremonial objects, on clothing, on jewelry, on sculpture and on tools and were a visual language used to appease or praise the gods, petition for food or rain, give thanks or tell stories.
Water Symbols Throughout History
Since water represents life to a community and is a requirement for human survival, symbols for water were especially common throughout history. In researching these images of water from ancient cultures all over the world up to the present time, I was amazed at how little they have changed. The earliest Egyptians represented water with the following symbol of parallel, wavy lines:
A detail from a side panel of the outer coffin of Ti of Saqqara, (c. 2450 BCE) entitled, Cattle Fording a River, shows the River Nile as a series of parallel, zig-zag lines at the bottom of the image, a slight variation from the symbol above. Egyptians tombs were filled with the images and objects that the deceased would need in his/her eternal life and the vital waters of the Nile would certainly have been included in this one.
The artist who created The Uruk Vase from Uruk, Iraq, (c. 3500 – 300 BCE), at a significant distance of time and geography from the creator of the Saqqara tomb scene, depicted a somewhat similar image of cattle on the banks of a river, illustrated by parallel, wavy lines, from which plants and reeds are growing.
Half a world and 1300 centuries later, a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, entitled, “Norman Fleet Sailing for England (1070 – 1088) shows the vessel upon a sea of (yes, you guessed it) parallel, wavy lines.
There are certainly some variations in visual symbols for water in other cultures. The earliest Chinese symbols for water appeared as a central, wavy, vertical line, representing a river, with shorter lines signifying drops of water on the side. But, really, don’t you think they’re still parallel, wavy lines?
Eventually the symbol for water in Chinese evolved into an image that is a central, bold stroke with two angular marks on its left and right.
The Navahos, Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni tribal artists used (and still use) spiral, wavy lines as symbols for water, cycles of life, renewal and springtime.
Check out how the zodiac sign for Aquarius was and is represented – the parallel, zig-zag lines again.
Contemporary Symbols For Water
Trademarks and logos for corporations that are associated with the water industry as well as icons for Twitter and Facebook accounts representing water organizations abound with symbols for water. The Water-Sea icon shown below should look familiar by now:
The American Rivers Association Twitter Account uses a symbol of a wavy, blue line representing the river, a brown field of color below the line to symbolize earth and a yellow sky.
Finally, there’s a radically different image for water that has emerged in recent years to reflect the water conservation movement: the tap water icon.
This compilation of water symbols is by no means an exhaustive one but it does show how the importance of water has been emphasized by every culture in every time period. What symbols of water can you find? We’d love to post them.