What Does Snow Symbolize? Symbolic & Spiritual Meaning of Snow
Glimmering, crisp, bright — snow is a beautiful natural phenomenon that typically heralds the coming of winter and represents the change of the seasons. It inspires excitement for the holidays and nostalgia for childhoods spent enjoying the magic of every snowflake. But these common meanings aren’t the only things that snow represents, and you might be surprised to learn that this form of precipitation can symbolize everything from hardship to transformations to individuality. Join us as we look at snow symbolism and the different ways it's been interpreted in different religions, myths and cultures over time.
Spiritual Symbolism of Snow
Snow has long been used as a symbol in the spiritual beliefs of various cultures. In Christianity, snow’s use as a symbol of purity is evident in Bible verses such as Psalm 51:7, in which the psalmist prays, "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." East Asian philosophies also address snow as something uncontaminated and fresh. In the book Everyday Tao: Living With Balance and Harmony, author Ming-Dao Deng likewise writes that "White is the symbol for purity. In ceremonies, it is the color of spirituality."
The use of snow as a symbol of purity is also sometimes evident in literature — not just religious texts. Consider, for example, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, in which one character remarks, "I thought her as chaste as unsunned snow." Shakespeare also uses snow as a metaphor for purity in other plays, such as Macbeth, The Winter's Tale and even Hamlet. Another obvious metaphor is in the name of the famously pure fairy tale heroine, Snow White.
Author and Rabbi Simon Jacobson takes things even deeper in an essay written for Meaningful Life Center, a spiritual education and wellness center. He begins by explaining that "water in all its forms is a symbol of knowledge. Descending water represents the transmission of knowledge from a higher to a lower place, the flow of information from teacher to student." Thus, snow falling could represent knowledge being bestowed on people.
While the rabbi equates rain to a continuous downpour of knowledge to Earth, snow is a bit subtler. Jacobson points out that, in order to form, a snowflake needs both water droplets (in the form of vapor) and a nucleus made up of dust, minerals and other particles in the air. In other words, it's technically made up of a combination of earth and water.
In this way, Jacobson argues, the water droplets represent the knowledge of God, while the earth represents the material world. Because of this combination, snow could represent an intermediary between heaven and Earth. Given the fact that snow eventually turns into water, Rabbi Jacobson also points out that "snowflakes represent the need to explain gradually, step by step, in a language that is accessible to the student."
Mystical Symbols of Snow
Snow also appears in the popular 1909 Rider-Waite deck of tarot cards, notably in cards like the Five of Pentacles, the Hermit and the Fool. Given that the tarot itself is all about symbolism and serves to interpret subconscious symbols, such as those that appear in dreams, it’s interesting to explore how the cards tend to depict snow.
As you can see in the Five of Pentacles card, snow doesn't tend to take on gentle interpretations in the tarot. In this card, a couple personifies the idea of being left "out in the cold," a situation that can be attributed to financial loss, poverty or poor planning. While the Hermit looks to be faring better, his card's message lies in his mastery over his snowy surroundings. In this sense, the Hermit is often associated with isolation, especially the kind of withdrawal that's sometimes purposefully undertaken to pursue spiritual growth. Having gained a level of spiritual mastery over his harsh environment — the isolation and desolation represented by snow — he holds out a lantern as a beacon to fellow seekers.
Last but not least, there’s the Fool, an enthusiastic young man who’s just setting out on his journey into the unknown. As he prepares to take the final "leap off the cliff," he seems blissfully unaware of the trials and obstacles that await him as he prepares to attempt to conquer the snowy mountains in the background. While snow may sometimes represent purity or new beginnings, its symbolism can change drastically depending on perspective. For many years, a harsh winter could be a death sentence to those who weren't prepared for its severity.
Snow has likewise often been used in literature as a metaphor for bleakness, desperation and death. In Edith Warton's Ethan Frome, the author describes one character's face as looking "more than usually drawn and bloodless" due to "the pale light reflected from the banks of snow." Even Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol uses the analogy of snow to describe the particularly cold-hearted Scrooge. In describing the infamous miser, Dickens wrote that "no wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty."
Snow in Celtic Myths and Folklore
Have you ever wondered why we traditionally hang holly in the winter? This custom largely goes back to Celtic folklore. These ancient predecessors were incredibly aware of seasonal shifts, often because their lives depended on taking advantage of the weather to enjoy successful planting and harvesting seasons.
In Celtic culture, summer and winter were represented by two mythical figures, the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King was the ruler of summer, and he represented growth, fertility, harvest and days with longer light. On the other hand, winter was the Holly King's domain, and he tended to represent darker days, a lack of growth and death.
Each year, the Oak and Holly kings engaged in battle, with one dethroning the other and ushering in the season he represented. Each year, when the Holly King ascended the throne and brought with him the snowy days of winter, it became traditional to hang holly leaves in his honor. Holly was also thought to ward off evil spirits due to its prickly leaves, and it was even believed to represent hope and resistance because holly is one of the few plants that can grow in the snow.
What's interesting to note is that even though the Holly King was rightfully respected (and even feared), he doesn't appear to have been despised enough to be depicted as a demon or other evil force. Instead, he looked a bit like Santa Claus, as he wore red and occasionally rode around on a sled driven by eight stags. It seems that while the ancient people imagined the Oak and Holly kings always at war, they also acknowledged that one couldn't exist without the other.
In this way, snow can also be seen as a sort of necessary death that precedes the recreation of life. In this context, snow can be interpreted as a harsh yet powerful force for rebirth and new beginnings. This type of symbolism is still evident in the winter tradition of New Year's resolutions when we vow to cast aside our old habits and usher in newer, more beneficial ones.