Symbolism of Lakes

“And near him stood the Lady of the Lake,
Who knows a subtler magic than his own–
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.
She gave the King his huge cross-hilted sword,
Whereby to drive the heathen out:  a mist
Of incense curled about her, and her face
Wellnigh was hidden in the minster gloom;
But there was heard among the holy hymns
A voice as of the waters, for she dwells
Down in a deep; calm, whatsoever storms
May shake the world, and when the surface rolls,
Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Idylls of the King”

The Lady of the Lake taking the infant Lancelot, illustration by George Wooliscroft Rhead & Louis Rhead

While my train was approaching Lausanne, suddenly, though certainly not expectedly, which nevertheless did not spoil the effect – Lake Geneva (French Lac Léman) came to view in all its glory. Sparkling blue in the sun, nested by imposing mountains, surrounded by hills of vineyards, it took my breath away. Of all bodies of water, I have always felt particularly drawn to lakes for their depth replenishing power. So were many Romantic poets, notably Lord Byron and Percy B. Shelley with his wife Mary, who spent the summer of 1816 in Cologny near Geneva, drinking from Lac Léman’s  fountain of inspiration.

Lake Geneva

The summer of 1816 was very special for the whole world since a few months before there had been a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia, as a result of which the whole Northern Hemisphere suffered from torrential rains and high winds also in summer months. 1816 was dubbed “the year without summer.” Restrained by ghastly weather, Byron and the Shelleys spent most of the time indoors, drinking wine, taking opium and working on their masterpieces:

“One night, when Byron read aloud a haunting poem, Shelley leapt up and ran shrieking from the room, having hallucinated that Mary had sprouted demonic eyes in place of nipples. It was in this surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere that she experienced the famous nightmare that became the lurid plot of Frankenstein…”

Tony Perrottett, “Lake Geneva as Shelley and Byron Knew It,” The New York Times of 27 May 2011, retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/travel/lake-geneva-as-byron-and-shelley-knew-it.html?_r=0

J.M.W. Turner, “The Castle of Chillon” featured in Byron’s narrative poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” (“Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls: /A thousand feet in depth below / Its massy waters meet and flow / … and like a living grave / Below the surface of the lake / The dark vault lies wherein we lay: / We heard it ripple night and day”)

J.M.W. Turner, “The Castle of Chillon” featured in Byron’s narrative poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” (“Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls: /A thousand feet in depth below / Its massy waters meet and flow / … and like a living grave / Below the surface of the lake / The dark vault lies wherein we lay: / We heard it ripple night and day”)

This particular quote attests to an important aspect of lake symbolism, namely their association with death and the underworld. In his Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann writes about the concentric circles found on the walls of megalithic graves as suggesting “ripples in the surface of a lake when an object is dropped into the water, and thus seem to symbolize the descent of the soul into the waters of death.”

Circles at Knowth, Ireland

Circles at Knowth, Ireland

The Romans believed that the entrance to Hades led through Lake Avernus. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas is planning a visit to the Underworld to talk to the ghost of his father. He is guided there by the most famous Roman prophetess – The Sybil of Cumae.

J.M.W Turner, “Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus”

J.M.W Turner, “Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus”

Also for the English Bohemian group their stay by Lake Geneva was quite a portent of death:

“In retrospect, the ‘Frankenstein summer’ seems a fantastical interlude of happiness in lives marked by tragedy. In 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in Italy, at age 29; Dr Polidori had committed suicide the year before, at age 25. Claire’s daughter with Byron died at age 5, and only one of Mary Shelley’s four children with Percy survived. Byron died in Greece in 1824, at the ripe old age of 36.”

Tony Perrottett, “Lake Geneva as Shelley and Byron Knew It,” The New York Times of 27 May 2011, retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/travel/lake-geneva-as-byron-and-shelley-knew-it.html?_r=0

Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols further unravels the archetypal significance of lakes by giving a few very important bits of information. He writes: “In the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, the schematic figure of a lake expresses the occult and the mysterious, probably by allusion to the underground lake which the sun has to pass over during its ‘night-crossing’ (but also simply by associating it with the symbolism of level, given that water always alludes to the ‘connection between the superficial and the profound’)”. There is an age-old analogy between the sun setting in the west and the death of a person. Hathor, a chief Egyptian goddess, was called The Lady of the West in her role as the one who nourished souls after death. At the heart of lake symbolism seems to be a consciousness of transition between here and there, this shore and the one barely visible, between life and death. Cirlot adds: “At the same time, the lake—or, rather, its surface alone—holds the significance of a mirror, presenting an image of self-contemplation, consciousness and revelation.”

One of the most beautiful poems inspired by lake contemplation was written by Adam Mickiewicz, a celebrated Polish Romantic poet. The following comes from his “Lausanne Lyrics”:

“Within their silent perfect glass

The mirror waters, vast and clear,

Reflect the silhouette of rocks,

Dark faces brooding on the shore.


Within their silent, perfect glass

The mirror waters show the sky;

Clouds skim across the mirror’s face,

And dim its surface as they die.


Within their silent, perfect glass

The mirror waters image storm;

They glow with lightning, but the blast

Of thunder do not mar their calm.


Those mirror waters, as before,

Still lie in silence, vast and clear.


They mirror me, I mirror them,

As true a glass as they I am:

And as I turn away I leave

The images that gave them form.


Dark rocks must menace from the shore,

And thunderheads grow large with rain;

Lightning must flash above the lake,

And I must mirror and pass on,

Onward and onward without end.”

Translated by Cecil Hemley

J.M.W. Turner, “Moonlight on Lake Lucerne”

J.M.W. Turner, “Moonlight on Lake Lucerne”

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22 Responses to Symbolism of Lakes

  1. cindy knoke says:

    gorgeousness & one of my favorite places!

  2. simon682 says:

    When I’ve completed following Tennyson, Shelley, Byron, Keats and Turner around England, I would very much like to follow them across Europe. Wonderful post.

  3. Maria F. says:

    Monika, I remember when I crossed Lake Dora and Eustis in Florida in U.S., what a feeling of doom I had; not because the Lakes were unsightly, but simply because I was not accustomed to it. The lake, as it says, seems to “hold the significance of a mirror”, or “self-contemplation”. I knew I was not in the ocean, but in an enclosed body of water. Since I was raised by the ocean, this increased my feeling of being closed-in, or engulfed.

    When you say in his Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann writes about the concentric circles found on the walls of megalithic graves as suggesting “ripples in the surface of a lake when an object is dropped into the water, and thus seem to symbolize the descent of the soul into the waters of death.” “, I remember that yes, this ripple effect is so particular to lakes. The stillness of lakes can make me so uneasy. Florida lakes are also full of Alligators, so there is a deceit in this calm, body of water. Not to mention the swamps, marshes, and Pythons (which swim)… I liked all the paintings very much, but loved the “The Lady of the Lake” engraving, which by the way is by George Wooliscroft Rhead, & Louis Rhead. The original text is here:

    https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rhead/louis/idylls/

    How I love these old engravings!!! Thanks for the post.

    • Maria F. says:

      (I meant the original engravings, not text) I also read lakes were linked with the female archetype, but I don’t know if I can associate females with monsters and passivity, unless I’m misunderstanding the female archetype altogether.

      • Maria F. says:

        I understand now, it’s the “feminine archetype”, mother earth, who claims her victims; but as some point was associated with monsters and demons, due to its historical and cultural context.

      • Yes, I would agree. Fear of depth, fear of the shadow, fear of being enveloped, enclosed and restricted come to mind.

      • I’d say water and the feminine general have a strong affinity. As for lakes and monsters, I’m so glad you mention them. I should have written about them too. Thank you!

    • Dear Maria,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m really grateful for you attributing that gorgeous engraving.
      I must admit I have never felt uneasy near a lake, though there is a haunting attraction I feel towards them.
      Best,
      Monika

      • Maria F. says:

        You’re welcome, It was probably my experience in the state of Florida. Lake Michigan would probably be another story since there are no alligators and it’s bigger also. I just brought it up because tropical lakes have the bigger reptiles which could have been perceived as monsters and demons. Imagine the lakes of Australia, those have crocodiles and even bigger serpents than the U. S..

      • All very good points. Thank you. All I know are Swiss, English and Polish lakes, which I do not associate with anything sinister whatsoever.

  4. Slartibartfast says:

    Thankyou Monika – another post full of wisdom and delight. I visited Switzerland in 2014 for the second time, but it was only my first visit to Lausanne/Vevey and Lac Léman.

    The poem by Mickiewicz is very evocative and reminds me of the lake very much when it is serene in still weather.

  5. Amy Campion says:

    Hello Monika, and thanks once again for a beautifully synchronistic post. I have just returned froma wonderful visit to Lake Wanaka, New Zealand. It is really an amazing place where one cannot help but self reflect…(and here I visited a dear old friend, who many moons ago backpacked with me to Lake Lucerne!) colors-of-wanaka-new-zealand.jpg

  6. Great post Monika. I would like to add that Native American shamans are reported to us lakes and holes in the earth as portals to dimensions of non-ordinary reality.

  7. 1weaver says:

    just awesome in the *deepest* sense. believe exactly as the native American shamans and hold a deep reverence. i smiled, too, about ‘holes’ as I immediately thought about alice down the rabbit hole (thanks, jeff!)
    when I visualize a lake, the very next instant I am visualizing all of the underground streams flowing into its lower regions at various strata and the stirrings, magical and incomprehensible in all their murk. these streams ‘keep’ the lake in existence.
    I wonder do you have a weighted 8th house or scorpio emphasis in your wheel…

    • Thank you so much!
      Yes, I suppose you are spot on about lakes being especially connected with the 8th house. Yes, I think I have a Scorpio vibe with my IC in Scorpio (progressed Moon is there too) with Neptune close to it (in Sagittarius), and as for my 8th house there is Lilith, Vesta, Mars and Jupiter there.
      This is a lovely vision of the underground streams.

  8. Pingback: New Moon in Gemini | Gray Crawford

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