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HomeExpanded ConsciousnessThe Classical Element of Water: A Comparative Analysis of Cosmologies

The Classical Element of Water: A Comparative Analysis of Cosmologies

Abstract: Water is a fundamental element that has been an essential part of human life and culture throughout history. This article explores the qualities attributed to the water element in alchemical, ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, European, Celtic, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, African, and other indigenous peoples’ cosmologies. Additionally, this paper examines the connections between the water element and deities in these diverse traditions. By analyzing various sources, this article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the significance and symbolism of the water element across cultures.


The classical elements, often referred to as the building blocks of the universe, represent the fundamental forces that govern the world. Among these elements, water is unique in its ability to adapt and flow, possessing both life-sustaining and destructive properties. Across numerous cultures, water has been associated with various qualities, ranging from purification and transformation to wisdom and emotion. This paper examines the water element in different cosmologies and its connection to specific deities, highlighting the diverse ways in which water has been understood and revered throughout history.

  1. Alchemical Cosmology: In alchemy, water is one of the four essential elements that constitute the world, alongside air, earth, and fire. Water is associated with the process of dissolution, which is the breaking down of a substance into its constituent parts (Barnes, 2003). In the context of spiritual alchemy, dissolution represents the transformation of the self and the dissolution of the ego (Jung, 1968). The Ouroboros, a symbol of the cyclic nature of the universe, is often depicted surrounded by water, signifying the continuous flow of life and the transformative power of water (von Franz, 1980).
  2. Ancient Egyptian Cosmology: In ancient Egyptian mythology, water is the primordial substance from which all life originates. The god Nun, the personification of the chaotic waters, represents the infinite potential of the universe before creation (Hart, 1986). Additionally, the Nile River was revered as a source of life, fertility, and abundance, with the annual flooding of the Nile being central to Egyptian agricultural practices (Wilkinson, 1999). Hapi, the god of the Nile, was often depicted carrying offerings of food and water, symbolizing the river’s life-giving properties (Hornung, 1982).
  3. Ancient Greek Cosmology: In ancient Greek philosophy, Thales of Miletus proposed that water was the fundamental substance from which all things originated (Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, 1983). Water was also associated with several Greek deities, including Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Amphitrite, his consort (Grimal, 1990). The water element represented change, fluidity, and the balance between opposing forces. It was often connected to emotions and intuition, as exemplified by the river Lethe, which induced forgetfulness and symbolized the cleansing of the soul (Hesiod, 1988).
  4. European Cosmology: In medieval European cosmology, water was one of the four elements that constituted the world, as described by Aristotle (Barnes, 1995). The concept of the four humors, which influenced medieval medical practices, linked water to the phlegmatic temperament, characterized by calmness, passivity, and introspection (Nutton, 2004). Moreover, water was associated with the Virgin Mary and her qualities of purity, humility, and compassion (Warner, 1976).

5. Celtic Cosmology: In Celtic mythology, water played a crucial role in the natural world and the spiritual realm. Rivers, lakes, and wells were considered sacred sites, believed to possess healing and transformative powers (Green, 1997). Water deities, such as the Irish goddesses Boann and Sinann, were associated with wisdom, inspiration, and prophecy (MacCulloch, 1911). The Celtic water element also symbolized the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, as evidenced by the mythological figure of the Lady of the Lake, who granted King Arthur his legendary sword, Excalibur, and later received it back upon his death (Loomis, 1958).

  1. Japanese Cosmology: In Japanese Shinto beliefs, water is considered pure and purifying, with many shrines featuring water basins for ritual cleansing (Bocking, 1997). The god of the sea, Ōwatatsumi, is associated with water and its life-giving properties (Ashkenazi, 2003). Water is also connected to the yin-yang philosophy, symbolizing the balance between opposing forces, and representing adaptability and harmony (Kasulis, 2004).
  2. Tibetan Cosmology: Tibetan cosmology includes five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Water is considered the foundation of life and a source of purity (Beer, 1999). In Tibetan Buddhism, water offerings are common rituals, symbolizing the purification of negative karma (Tulku, 2006). The female deity, Tara, embodies the qualities of compassion and wisdom, often depicted seated on a lotus flower, which grows in water and signifies spiritual awakening (Shaw, 2006).
  3. Chinese Cosmology: In traditional Chinese cosmology, water is one of the five elements (Wu Xing) that shape the universe, alongside wood, fire, earth, and metal (Feng, 2005). Water represents the yin energy, characterized by passivity, receptiveness, and flexibility. The concept of the “Water Course Way” (Shui Dao) in Daoist philosophy underscores the importance of adapting and flowing like water to achieve harmony with the natural world (Laozi, 1997). The Chinese dragon, often depicted as a water serpent, is associated with rain and fertility, symbolizing the life-giving properties of water (Yang & An, 2005).
  4. Indian Cosmology: In Hindu cosmology, water is one of the five elements (Panchamahabhutas) that constitute the universe, along with earth, fire, air, and space (Klostermaier, 1994). Water is associated with the goddess Ganga, who descended from the heavens as the sacred Ganges River, purifying and liberating those who bathe in her waters (Eck, 1998). The god Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, is often depicted reclining on the cosmic serpent, Ananta, floating on the primordial ocean (Zimmer, 1972).
  5. African Cosmology: In various African cosmologies, water is central to the understanding of life, fertility, and the spiritual realm. Among the Yoruba people, the goddess Oshun is the deity of rivers and water, symbolizing love, beauty, and fertility (Murphy, 2001). In the Dogon cosmology, the creation of the universe involved the separation of earth and water, with water symbolizing the life-giving and purifying force (Griaule & Dieterlen, 1965). The Kongo people regard water as a sacred element, with the god Kalunga representing the sea and the boundary between the world of the living and the ancestors (Fu-Kiau, 1994).


Overall, this comprehensive analysis of the water element across various cosmologies reveals the shared human experience of water as a source of life, transformation, and spiritual renewal. By recognizing the diverse ways in which water has been revered and understood, we gain a deeper appreciation for its significance as a symbol and its continued relevance in modern cultural contexts.

The classical element of water has been an integral part of various cosmologies throughout history, symbolizing a wide array of qualities and associations. Across cultures, water has been consistently linked to life, fertility, purification, and transformation. The diverse symbolism of water reflects the human fascination with its ability to adapt and flow, as well as its dual nature as both a life-sustaining and destructive force. By examining the water element and its connections to deities in alchemical, ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, European, Celtic, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, African, and other indigenous peoples’ cosmologies, this paper highlights the universality of water as a symbol and its significance in shaping human understanding of the natural world and the spiritual realm.


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