Part of a series on symbolism and how it is used in western culture and beyond.
The ocean is one of my favorite symbols. It stands for the soul, the subconciousness, emotion, nature, a primal state, nature, the "good" parts of existance, dreams, fantasy and more.
Let's take a closer look how the ocean is used as a symbol in art, fiction, myth and other things.
The ocean often stands for emotion, somewhat opposed to, but not necessarily conflicting with the intellect.
The images in which the ocean are portrayed can change according to the state of emotions that are portrayed. For example, a novel could be based on the inner conflict of a person; and the image of the stormy ocean could be used as a symbolism in the story. The high, crashing waves represent the overwhelming emotions, that threaten to "drown" the person. Much different from portraying a peaceful ocean.
If a person has to go far out to the sea in a piece of fiction, this could be a representation of facing and exploring one's own emotion.
This brings us to a different aspect of this symbol, which is that the ocean stands for the subsconcious.
Keep in mind that all the aspects that I mentioned, and even others, are interconnected, and these different aspects always to a point blend together.
The ocean represents the subconscious, the unknown parts of the mind, the dark, hidden depths of the ocean standing for unknown, unexplored thoughts, emotions, feelings, that are not visible on the surface. If in a piece of art a person has to go far out on the ocean alone, this could mean it's a symbol for the person facing his own subconciousness, going deep into his own emotions and his mind.
The ocean (again, connected to the above) also stands for the soul. The tranquil, inner part of oneself, that lies at the core. The images of the still, deep ocean represents the deepness of the soul.
Which brings us to the next part, the equation of the ocean and nature. the ocean represents the untouched part, not part of "civiliation", or subjugated by authorities, hierarchies, repressive and "artificial" culture etc.
People related to the ocean in a work of fiction (for example inhabitants of a village near the coast) can represent a connectivity to nature. If the ocean brings a dramatic change in a story, for example by tidal waves, this could symbolise a "revenge" of nature, or a portrayal of nature being on the side of the protagonist (if the change in the end helps him).
This brings us to the last aspect I want to address, which somewhat concludes the above aspect. The ocean as a primal state. The ocean represents a core state, a primal purity, an "original" condition from which other things arise. In myth, "pure" gods, heros, creatures often have their origins in the ocean, or were at one point part of it. In fiction, the ocean can represent such a "basic point" and all other things are connected to it.
One of the most impressive use of the symbolism of the ocean I've seen so far is in the movie "Waltz With Bashir".
The ocean plays a central part in this movie, and throughout the movies there are real, dream and surreal sequences that feature an ocean.
One of these scenes, that touched me the most, is at the beginning of the movie. Calmly and peaceful, men are swimming, or rather floating, in the ocean, under a surreal yellow light. These scene portrays a feeling of tranquility. Then they get out of the ocean, put their clothes on, grab rifles, walk into a city and encounter screaming and running people. It is later explained in the movie that this is a surreally changed flashback to a war situation the protagonist was in.
The symbolism in the scene is as follows:
First the abovementioned primal state is portrayed. They're in the water, at peace, beyond all worries or problems. Then they get out of the ocean, out of the primal state, and walk into this world, "civilization", take their guns and encounter the violence, fear and and cruelty in this world.
Whales are different from fish. At one point during the evolution, fish evolved into reptilians, then manmals and other animals, which no longer lived in the water. Whales evolved from animals that turned this evolutionary step around, that lived on the land and evolved to creatures that live exclusively in water again.
I always found this a nice symbolism for going back to nature and the ocean.
An aspect of the ocean symbolism I haven't fully mentioned yet is the symbolism of "the ocean within".
I once read in a book that all creatures on earth come from the ocean and each has to carry a part of the ocean "within" itself in order to survive, as you know the human body consists to around 90% of water. A very romantic fact, in my opinion. This is not directly related to the above symbolism though.
The "ocean within" represents the soul, nature, emotions, primal things we have within our self.
Everyone carrys such an ocean within him and herself.
I assume everyone already knows the tale of icarus. It is often said it is a metaphor for the struggle for truth and knowledge, with the sun representing these things. He got too close to the truth and wisdom, and thus had to die. In my opinion, what is overlooked is toward which he fell after his wings no longer functioned. Which is the ocean (that he got smashed on a rock might be ignored here). So in a sense, maybe this very old myth is a metaphor for that at the end of the abovementioned struggle and quest, he returned to nature (the ocean).
Merging with the ocean is another concept that is found in many works of art and fiction. Somehow becoming one with the ocean
This is a representation of becoming one with nature, emotions and the other things again. And becoming one with oneself.