The Egyptian Lotus Flower – Lily of the Sun
The ancient Egyptian lotus flower was not really a lotus, it was a lily – actually there are two types of lilies in two different colors that are significant in ancient Egyptian symbolism. Egyptian lotus flowers were one of the symbols of Upper Egypt, while the papyrus flower were one of the symbols of Lower Egypt.
The white water lily opens up, or flowers, at night. It’s a beautiful moon flower that lives above the water for up to four days and is usually found in ponds and marshes. The other is the blue water lily, which is the one that was more important to ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs.
The blue water lily opens up during the day. It sinks beneath the surface of the water during the night then climbs back up to greet the sun.
As we know, ancient Egyptian beliefs revolved around the sun, and a flower that seems to worship the sun has a lot of religious significance. And, like in Buddhism and Hinduism, one of the more meaningful aspects of lotuses (and lilies) is that they are rooted in soil deep beneath the water, and then struggle to grow out of that soil and then rise above the waters.
The Egyptian Lotus Flower in Mythology
The ancient Egyptian creation myths have a common theme. They describe the state before all creation as being the primordial waters of chaos, personified as the deity Nun. And from these waters, a mound called the benben appeared, where the first god would rise up from. In some myths, the god is Ra, in others it is Atum, and in others it is Khepri, and more.
In some of the versions of this myth, the god that arose did so directly from benben itself, and in others, he was inside a lotus flower that emerged from the benben, opened up and let him out.
The god of the Egyptian lotus flower is Nefertem, whose name and titles reflects the qualities of the blue water lily. The lily’s bright golden center that resembled the sun, and the blue petals surrounding its center were like the blue sky.
It opened up during the day and closed up during the night and disappearing back into the water. It also had a pleasant fragrance. Nefertem was then sometimes called “the beautiful one that closes” and “water-lily of the sun.” In depictions, he was sometimes shown as a man with an Egyptian lotus flower on his head.
The way the lotus arose and disappeared every day symbolized the sun’s journey, and so it also symbolized the journey of death and rebirth – a central theme in ancient Egyptian religion. There are spells in the Book of the Dead to help the deceased pass through the underworld and reach Aaru by “transforming into a lotus.”
“I am the holy lotus that comes forth from the light which belongs to the nostrils of Ra, and which belongs to the head of Hathor. I have made my way, and I seek after him, that is to say, Horus. I am the pure lotus that comes forth from the field.”
The blue water lily is the Nymphaea caerulea, and it is depicted on temples and tombs. In some depictions, it is shown being sniffed by people. There is some evidence that shows the blue lily as having a psychoactive property, an alkaloid called apomorphine, which has a mild sedative effect, and possibly an aphrodisiacal effect as well.
These effects seem to have been known in the ancient world, and may have been why the Egyptians sniffed them. The blue lily may be the flower that was eaten by Lotophagi – or “lotus eaters” – in Homer’s Odyssey. The other possible flower eaten by the Lotophagi is the white lily. The white water lily is the Nymphaea lotus, and has similar effects to those of the blue lily, though perhaps less potent.
The Egyptian lotus flower was used in perfumes, garlands and temple rituals. In some depictions, the god Horus as a child was seen sitting on top of a lotus accompanied by his mother Isis. Also, the pillars of temples were shaped like lotus flowers emerging from the soil, with the capitals being the flower petals and the column as the stalk. These are called “lotiform columns” while those shaped like a papyrus plant are called “papyriform columns.”
One of the goddesses of birth, Heket, is sometimes depicted as a frog in a lotus.
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