The Lotus in Ancient Egypt

The fossilised remains of what may be the earliest known flowering plants were discovered in a slab of stone in north-east China and date back at least 125 million years. The fossils reveal a species never seen before, and was named "Archaefructus sinensis" or "ancient fruit from China." This plant has been called "the mother of all flowering plants." It apparently thrived in clear, shallow pools and lakes, with its flowers and seeds extending above the waters surface. Based on its appearance and growing habits, scientists believe that the closest modern day relatives would be the waterlily and the lotus.

Sacred Flower of the Nile

The Lotus in Ancient Egypt
Linda Iles, ArchDrs., Prs. H.

In Egypt, two native species of lotus grew, the white lotus (Nymphaea lotus) and the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea). A third type, the pink lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) was introduced into Egypt from Persia during the Late period. All three species were depicted in Egyptian art, with the pink lotus featured more in work of the Greco-Roman period under the reign of the Ptolemies. The white lotus (Nymphaea lotus) and the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) are not lotuses at all, but members of the water lily family. They will be referred to as ‘lotus’ in this article because that is what the ancient Egyptians called them. The sacred blue lotus (water lily) was the flower most commonly used in earlier times and the one depicted in the hieroglyph of the ancient Egyptian word for lotus, 'Seshen'.

The white lotus blooms during the evening, giving it strong lunar associations. The flowers of the blue lotus seemed to close at night and sink beneath the water, in the morning they seemed to rise once again, opening to the sun. According to botanists what actually happens is that the flowers of the blue lotus close at night. The new buds form under the water and blossoms that have reached the end of their cycle sink back beneath the water. The lotus was the only flowering plant in Egypt that bloomed continuously throughout the year. Because of this, the blue lotus became a natural solar symbol and was corresponded to the process of creation and the continuance of life.

In Hermopolis, it was believed that a giant lotus blossom was the first expression of living form to emerge from the primordial waters of Nun. From this flower, in turn, the sun-god then came forth. Among the master works of art found in the tomb of Tutankhamun is a wooden carving of the head of the young king, represented as a boy of about nine or ten years of age. This expert sculpture depicts Tutankhamun as the Reborn Child, or Sun God rising from the petals of the sacred blue lotus, thus illustrating one of the most ancient of Egyptian texts. In describing the creation of the cosmos it says, “He who emerged from the lotus upon the High Mound, who illumines with his eyes, the Two Lands.”

It is the god Nefertum, through his associations with the primeval lotus and healing, who most personifies the functions of the lotus flower in ancient Egyptian life. His name has been variously translated as Perfection, Beautiful Being, Tem the Younger, or Beautiful Beginning, denoting that he was the first incarnation of Tem or Atum at Heliopolis. He is generally shown with a large lotus blossom forming his crown or as a small child crouched on a lotus flower. He is particularly associated with the blue lotus. As the patron deity of healing he presided over the art of medicine. A headache remedy from ancient Egypt features a mixture of juniper, cumin, myrrh and lotus in moringa oil, then combined with laudanum, frankincense, juniper, kohl and red ochre added to ibex fat. In ancient medical texts lotus oil is listed as being ‘cooling’ rather than invigorating. It is used in one of the longest recipes of the Ebers Medical Papyrus, a list of thirty-seven ingredients to be combined and used as a massage lotion. It was also used to treat ailments of the liver. Lotus was a favorite ingredient in aromatic baths and used along with coriander to expel fever. The water for these baths was frequently first poured over statues of the goddess Hathor, who, like Nefertum also held the blue lotus as Her sacred flower. In the temples, scenes of the lotus being held to the nose of royalty by gods and goddesses are very common. It’s scent was considered restorative and protective thus giving Nefertum, the lotus god of healing, the title 'Protector of the Two Lands'.

The Egyptians lived in a narrow strip of fertile land that bordered the Nile. Every plant that could be utilized in some way as food, eventually found it’s way to the Egyptian table. Flower heads of the lotus were soaked in wine to prepare a special intoxicating and fragrant drink for banquets and festivals. In ancient Egypt the root of the lotus could be eaten raw or cooked to the consistency of egg yolk. Its seeds were ground into flour for bread. Their herbalists used a concoction of the lotus to increase libido. Lotus seeds and pods were used as antidotes to love spells, and any part of the lotus carried upon the person ensured divine blessing and good fortune. “Celebrate a good day, place balsam and sweet scent at your nose, on your breast garlands of lotus and love apples...” ('Song of the Harpist' in the tomb of Neferhotep.)

Homes were frequently graced with arrangements of flowers, including the favored lotus. Flower bowls were often shaped to accommodate the floating of cut lotus flowers. A wonderful example of this type of bowl was found in the tomb entrance of the vizier Rekhmire. A model of his lotus garden was found expressing his loving pride and the continuous delight it had given him in life. Models of private gardens have frequently been found in other tombs, such as those of Meketre, a chancellor of Mentuhotpe II, Ineni a builder who worked for Tuthmosis I and Nebamum, a scribe of the granary. Private gardens that consisted of a pool containing lotus and papyrus were common for royalty and the well to do. They were often bordered by mandrake, poppy and cornflowers, and called Gardens of Rebirth. This type of garden was very popular in the New Kingdom. Homes of more modest means would have a small garden in which was centered a fishpond decorated with a few lotus plants. “I belong to you like this plot of ground, that I planted with flowers and sweet-smelling herbs...” says a love poem of the Papyrus Harris 500.

The gods and goddesses of Egypt were said to naturally exude divine scent from their bodies. So it followed in daily life that by being fragrant an individual emulated their deities. Perfumes, cosmetics and lotions often contained oil extracted from lotus flowers. The ancient Egyptians were considered masters of the art of perfume making and the fame of their products were known throughout the Mediterranean area. They were encouraged by their poets to “put unguents and perfumes to your nose, and garlands and lotus flowers on the body of your love.” Perfumes were often stored in small limestone vessels shaped as lotus flowers. The hieroglyphic symbolism of the goddess Bast shows a commonly used type of sealed alabaster perfume jar, called "bas", so Her name could be translated as 'She of the Perfume Jar'. Perfume containers were sometimes carved in feline form, royal perfume jars have been found featuring lions. Nefertum, the lotus god was associated with perfumes and unguents and also had a leonine aspect. Hathor, goddess of love and beauty was said to have hair that was sweet and heavily aromatic. Priestesses of Isis were described as having “locks moist with perfume.” Ointments containing lotus, myrrh, cumin and juniper in moringa oil were used to keep hair and scalp in good condition. "Susinon", or "Oil of Lilies" was considered by many to be the Egyptian perfume par excellence. Lotus oil was said to restore a happy disposition when its fragrance was inhaled. It was used by Cleopatra VII to scent the sails and draperies of her royal barge. She was also reputed to bathe in a lotus bath every day. Lotus, cinnamon, and marjoram were among the most commonly used ‘top notes’ in perfume production. The art of perfumery in ancient Egypt consisted not only of massing together the proper costly and precious ingredients, but of knowing when to add these ingredients at precisely the right moment. The length of preparation time could be anywhere from ninety-three to three hundred and sixty-five days, depending on the type of perfume or scented oil being produced. The Ptolemies built perfume laboratories at the temples of Edfu and Dendera where the ritual oils, perfumes and incense were processed. During their dynasty, Alexandria became the perfume manufacturing and trading center of the world.

As a symbol of re-birth, the lotus was closely related to the imagery of the funerary and Osirian cults. The Four Sons of Horus were frequently shown standing on a lotus in front of Osiris. The Book of the Dead contains spells for "transforming oneself into a lotus" and thus fulfilling the promise of resurrection. It was commonly found used as components of floral collars that adorned the deceased. Oil of the lotus is believed to be one of the Seven Sacred Oils commonly used in ancient Egypt. In the process of preparing the body of the deceased the use of these oils was thought “to unite the limbs, join the bones and assemble the flesh,” which along with the carefully prescribed application of certain resins and perfumes hid the body from the beginning effects of decay, thus, it was hoped, preventing its occurrence. The god Nefertum presided over this process as god of unguents and perfumes, giving him a mortuary aspect. In many tomb paintings the deceased is shown smelling lotus blossoms to help restore the senses. A final funerary prayer lists offerings made for the welfare and comfort of the soul of the deceased, “Take these lotus flowers and every bloom and every herb of sweet odor at its season, cool water and incense and every offering requirement in full, that you soul may be satisfied with them for ever and ever...”

The lotus motif was commonly used in Egyptian art. The white lotus is distinguished by the more rounded shape of the flower and of the individual petals. The calyx leaves have distinct ribs and the leaf edges of the plant are scalloped. The blue lotus has narrower petals and a more pointed, nearly triangular shape. The calyx leaves of the blue lotus are spotted and the leaf is rounded with a smooth edge. The blue lotus motif was by far the most commonly used in connection with the goddess Hathor. Glazed bowls used for drinking wine were frequently decorated with Her image either as a beautiful woman with cow’s ears or in her cow form surrounded by lotus flowers. When the blue lotus is conventionalized for use in border motifs, heads of temple columns, and other objects, the spots of the calyx are not depicted. Both types of lotus are frequently the inspiration for jewelry, bowls, perfume vessels and many other objects of daily life. Cosmetic spoons and bronze mirrors frequently have a lotus motif. In Egyptian art the lotus was the symbol of Upper (southern) Egypt. It was often shown with its long stems intertwined with the stalks of the papyrus plant which were used as the symbol of Lower (northern) Egypt. This represented unification of these two lands and served as a testimony to the strength, intelligence and prowess of the current reigning Pharaoh, who was responsible for keeping the two lands joined as one.

The lotus flower contains euphoric chemicals that produce an effect through dispersion of its fragrance. The essence of the lotus flower has been used since the time of ancient Egypt because of its particularly potent impact on our subtle bodies. It creates a link between the analytical and the higher, intuitive mind of an individual through it’s aphrodisiac and euphoric properties. This combination creates within the individual a longing for the higher spiritual kind of love and the seeking of pleasure that is found in union with the Divine. Modern day experiments using the blue lotus (water lily) have been conducted, the results described as "exciting and relaxing" at the same time. It is not surprising that the oil of the lotus was often used during temple rituals. It was employed in blessing, anointing, meditation and as a dedicatory oil to anoint the statues of the temple deities. As one of the commonest offerings made in the temples, the lotus represented spirituality and life force energy. As such it became intimately associated with imagery depicting life force within the etheric body. As a source of life the lotus is a symbol of the womb, the cradle of the inception and subsequent development of pre-natal physical life. In this context it also represents the inner sanctum of the temples and the shrine within our hearts where true compassion creates the first significant experience of enlightenment. This made it a favorite offering of the gods and goddesses of Egypt. Temple records show that Ramses III presented over three thousand lotus bouquets to the god Amun alone.

The lotus is a universal esoteric symbol. Though it has appeared in many other spiritual traditions besides that of ancient Egypt, it is always associated with spiritual rebirth and healing. It is this universality that makes the lotus a fitting symbol to associate with Isis, Goddess of Ten Thousand Names, Whose worship spread throughout so many parts of the world.

In Egyptian religious thought the lotus had associations with the etheric elements of water and of fire. The plant generated within water, but unfolded daily at the dawning of the sun. Water, the element of feelings, when developed fully, allows intuition, empathy and creativity to inspire a person to awareness of something greater than themselves. Healers, artists, musicians, mystics, poets, spiritual teachers, priestesses and priests have all learned to tap into their intuitive side. They have learned to reach beyond their normally utilized physical senses into the more etheric levels of consciousness. Fire is associated with energy and spirit. It is the vitality which provides the inspiration, the energy and mode of action to carry out the visions we gain from being sensitive to the currents of our intuition. The water of intuition provides the vehicle for expression but the fire of inspiration is needed to provide the spark of life. The ancient Egyptians knew this, and constantly celebrated the purity, healing and rebirth symbolized by the lotus in their daily life. So may it be with you.

"Isis the Lotus Bearing" a drawing by LInda Iles. Artwork is copyrighted. All rights reserved.