The universality of the flood myth is quite astonishing, as was the astute intuition of our ancestors who viewed water as the beginning of all life.
Natural considerations in part shape the culture of each society. The sun will have a different meaning to people exposed to scorching heat pouring from the sky when compared to the inhabitants of Subarctic regions. For the first group, the sun can be a destructive force (in India, it is the moon that is associated with the source of life), while their vision of paradise is a cool and humid place (in the case of ancient Middle Eastern religions).
Yet if we think about water – its imagery in established mythologies and the meaning it has in rituals – we could risk making a few general assumptions. In a very obvious sense, we need water to live, no matter which part of the planet we inhabit. It also has an existential profundity which manifests itself in various ways in beginning-of-the-world myths, in the symbolism of baptism, in ritual ablutions or apocalyptic visions of a flood.
We need to remember that religious symbols are a kind of metaphor: they try to convey their meaning with the help of something that does not directly represent them, but rather ‘brings them to mind’. However, these symbols are not a metaphor in the proper sense, if translating the meaning of a metaphor into a non-metaphorical language is feasible at all in the first place. We are never able to exhaustively extract symbolic meanings; we can only speak of approximations here (if these meanings have been depleted or the symbol is extinct, it ceases to be a symbol).
Water can mean anything – it can be the source of life or it can be a grave. It is sometimes associated with masculinity (in our cultural realm, the deities of capricious and menacing seas are male, like Poseidon or Neptune), or with femininity or the maternal element (each spring in the Greek world had its nymph; perhaps water bubbling from the underground brought an image of human birth to ancient minds). The philosopher Gaston Bachelard named several symbolic categories of water that could be found in poetry and myths: standing water, running water, bright water, sweet and salty water, spring water, cleansing water, glimmering water, deep water and frisky water.
Due to its physical properties, water provides a wealth of meanings, but it has one elementary feature: its lack of form and shapelessness. In his book Patterns i