The Lotus in Ancient Egypt

This week’s topic is a little bit of a random one but is something you will have seen throughout Egyptian collections in museums, architecture and myths. The lotus.

Types of Lotus

The lotus isn’t the botanical term for this plant but the one used by Egyptologists to refer to the water lily or seshen in ancient Egyptian. Which also served as the emblem of Upper Egypt alongside the white crown. Along with the lotus, there is a counterpart for Lower Egypt is the papyrus plant. Both of these emblems can be seen on granite columns in the Hall of Records at Karnak temple (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sacred Lotus Columns, Temple of Karnak, Egypt. , ca. 1899. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2019637025/.

During the Pharaonic period, there were two kinds of lotus; the white Nymphaea Lotus and the blue Nymphaea coerulea[1]. The white lotus has white petals that are bluntly pointed and very large flowers (Figure 2) whereas the blue lotus has pointed petals and a slightly smaller flower (Fig 3)[2]. Later the around 525 BC a third type Nelumbo nucifera from India.  The way these flowers grow also informed mythology as well. Lotus grow in still water flower buds only rising above the water and opening their petals when the sun is shining[3].    

Figure 2 (Left) and 3 (Right)

Figure 2 (Left) the white lotus in bloom https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/115821#toPictures

Figure 3 (Right) the blue lotus https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nymphaea_caerulea_(Nymphaeaceae).jpg

The Lotus in Art and Architecture

But back to the Egyptians and the lotus. The blue lotus is the variety most commonly shown in art. Banquet goers in tomb scenes are often shown with lotus blossoms being offered to them, holding them to their noses and wearing the blooms on their heads (Figure 4). In addition to this, the dead represented on these tomb walls with get the benefit of the lotus’s perfume and by extension the new life as followers of Ra tying into the lotus and creation myth that I will explore a little later [4]. The lotus also formed part of dress and jewellery.  Alongside wearing garlands of fresh flowers in a banquet setting women often sewed the gently fragrant flowers into the seams of their hair [5]. Beaded collars also show a variety of plant life with lotus buds often forming the terminals of these collars and lotus petals forming the outer layers (Figure 5). 

Figure 4: Banquet goers are shown in the tomb of Nebamun wearing and smelling lotus plants. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA37981

But these plants didn’t just influence art. Much of ancient Egyptian architecture takes inspiration from the native Egyptian plant life. The capitals of columns show both papyrus, palm, lotus blooms and a combination[6]. These columns not only support the roof of these temples but also help to create the small-scale version of the cosmos. These columns mimicking the marshy and mysterious waters of Nun from which the universe emerged from.  

          

Figure 5: Beaded floral collar with lotus bud terminals and lotus petal shaped beads trimming the outside edge. https://collections.rom.on.ca/objects/187585/broad-collar-necklace-wesekh-collar?ctx=f449c17d-d06c-4d80-a9db-7fa17ecc1720&idx=0

The Lotus in Myth

The lotus also had a mythological significance as a symbol of rebirth and the emblem of the god Nefertem.

The lotus also had a mythological significance as a symbol of rebirth and the emblem of the god Nefertem. In some version of the Egyptian creation story, the sun god emerged from a blue lotus that rose up from the primaeval waters of Nun [7]. Specifically, the Hermopolitan cosmogony was influenced by the behaviour of the blue lotus, which in the morning opens, revealing a ball of golden-yellow stamens: theologians saw in this the image of the solar disk leaving the Nun (the primordial ocean) every morning, as it did on the first day of the world[8]. Therefore its connection to rebirth and creation is strongly tied to this version of the creation myth. Furthermore, the lotus grows in still water only rising above the water and open their petals when the sun is shining[9]. The lotus is also pollinated by beetles which links it with the god Khepri, the beetle god of the dawn. From around the 14th Century the newly risen sun god Ra could be shown as a naked child sitting on or inside and lot and holding one finger to his lips [10]. The being transformed into this emerging of the lotus from the water is dealt with in chapter 81 of the book of the dead stating ‘ I am the pure one who issued from the fen … Oh lotus belonging to the semblance of Nefertem….’[11].     

Figure 5: Bronze sculpted statue of Nefertem statue inlaid with valuable precious stones red agate, turquoise, and lapis lazuli.https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/4/92603/Egypt-uncovers-statue-of-god-Nefertum-in-Saqqara-necropolis

That move nicely onto a deity also strongly connected to the lotus flower. Nefertem. Nefertem is the primaeval god of the lotus blossom and secondarily the god of perfumes. He is usually depicted as an anthropomorphically male god wearing a lotus blossom on his head. Sometimes the lotus headdresses are shown with two upright plumes and twin counterpoises that hang at their sides (Figure 5). He usually wears alongside this distinctive headdress a short kilt and sometimes shown with a khepesh sword- more likely the latter element reflecting his epithet ‘protectors of the two lands’[12]. Nefertem can also be shown as a child seated on a lotus blossom, similarly to the sun god Ra, or his head is shown emerging from a lotus[13]. An example of this type of depiction comes from a wooden sculpture found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (Figure 6). Where the head of the god is instead replaced by that of the king emerging from the lotus, strengthening the dead’s connection to rebirth in this funerary context. I have always liked this statue from King Tut’s tomb and have a small story to go with it. During secondary school, I walked into the library and being the bookish teenager that I was had told the librarian about my love for ancient Egypt. She then reposed the next day by presenting me a library book she had found all about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and on the cover was this statue. It took me a while to read the book alongside my school work but that gesture and by extension, the statue has become a fond memory. 

Figure 6: Painted wooden sculpture of King Tutankhamun his head appearing out of a lotus like Nefertem. http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/detail.aspx?id=14988

References


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page185

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 184

[3] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. p 158

[4] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. p 158

[5] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 106

[6] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 79

[7] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. p 158

[8] https://www.osirisnet.net/docu/banquet_harpiste/e_banquet_harpiste_02.htm

[9] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. p 158

[10] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. p 158

[11] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page185

[12]  Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 135

[13] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 135

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