A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Art
Professor Chris Witcombe


In Ancient Egypt, the hieroglyphic sign for water was a horizontal zigzag line; the small sharp crests appear to represent wavelets or ripples on the water's surface

When Egyptian artists wished to indicate a volume or body of water, such as a lake or a pool or the primaeval ocean, the zigzag line is placed vertically and multiplied in an equally spaced pattern

Cattle Fording a River
Tomb of Ti, Saqqara, c. 2450 BCE

Water can also be signified by horizontal wavy lines. A wavy line in the lowest section of the great alabaster vase found at Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia probably indicates a river, along the banks of which reeds and plants are growing

(image source)
The Uruk Vase, from Uruk, Iraq
c. 3500-3000 BCE

Much later, a pair of wavy black lines represent the water of the English Channel in the Bayeux Tapestry

(image source)
Norman Fleet Sailing for England
detail from The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070-88)

In ancient Egypt the name for water was uat, which also means the colour green. In early mystical lore, water and green were considered synonymous because water was believed to typify the earliest form of soul or generative essence.

For the Egyptians, the word uat also signified the hard green stone, the emerald, and the green feldspar. Of these stones, the emerald is associated with romantic love and the sensual side of Nature. The emerald is sacred to the goddess Aphrodite/Venus, who was born from the sea (see Water Divinities).

Because of its connection with the life-giving river Nile, the water-lily was also associated symbolically with water. It can also signify the female principle in life.

The sacred lotus which occurs in mythology is the large, fragrant, night-flowering white water-lily (Nymphaea lotus). The plant is native to Africa. Another African species with blue flowers is the plant which appears in ancient Egyptian representations. In Egypt, it was associated with fertility and resurrection, was a common votive offering, and used in funeral rites.

The so-called Indian lotus, Nelumbium speciosum, has a large globular pink flower held well out the water. It is regarded as a holy plant in India.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College