Blue Lotus (Nymphaea caerulea)
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Called a ‘lotus’, the depictions of the floral symbol of Upper Egypt is actually known as a Nymphaea caerulea which is actually known today to be a water lily. This flower, along with the papyrus flower, was shown throughout Egypt in tombs and temples to symbolize the union of Upper and Lower Egypt, but the blue water lily had a much deeper significance to the Egyptian people.
In the beginning were the waters of chaos … Darkness covered the waters until … the Primeval Water Lily rose from the abyss. Slowly the blue water lily opened its petals to reveal a young god sitting in its golden heart. A sweet perfume drifted across the waters and light streamed from the body of this Divine Child to banish universal darkness. This child was the Creator, the Sun God, the source of all life.
So the Primeval Water Lily closed its petals at the end of each day… Chaos reigned through the night until the god within the water lily returned….
… the Creator … knew that he was alone. This solitude became unbearable and he longed for other beings to share the new world with him. The thoughts of the Creator became the gods and everything else which exists. When his thoughts had shaped them, his tongue gave them life by naming them. Thoughts and words were the power behind creation.
— The Waters of Chaos, Ancient Society
The Egyptians saw that the blue water lily opened up each morning, seeing the intense golden center set against the blue petals, seemingly an imitation of the sky that would greet the sun, releasing sweet perfume. Each afternoon, they would close again only to open again each day. The flower was therefor firmly linked with the rising and the setting of the sun, and thus to the sun god and the story of creation. The religious significance of the flower was great – many columns of the Egyptian temples had water lily capitals crowning them.
I am he who rises and lights up wall after wall, each thing in succession. There will not be a day that lacks its owed illumination. Pass on, O creatures, pass on, O world! Listen! I have ordered you to! I am the cosmic water lily that rose shining from Nun’s black primordial waters, and my mother is Nut, the night sky. O you who made me, I have arrived, I am the great ruler of Yesterday, the power of command is in my hand.
— Spell 42, The Book of the Dead
The god of the blue water lily was Nefertem, a god not just linked to the sun but to beautification and healing. It was he who brought a water lily to the sun god Ra, to help ease the suffering of his aging body. The perfume of this flower was not only pleasing to the Egyptians, but they saw it as healing as well. Scenes show women holding the water lily and people being offered the flower at parties, smelling its divine fragrance. Some people today believe that the Egyptians used this plant as a narcotic both for its healing qualities and as a recreational drug when soaked in wine, though this is a hotly debated topic.
Contemporary reference to the role of water lilies and mandrakes (Nymphaea and Mandragora, respectively) in ancient Egyptian healing … suggest the possible importance of these plants as adjuncts to shamanistic healing in dynastic Egypt. Although the usual interpretation of the water lily and the mandrake has been that of a part of ritual mourning … it is argued that the dynastic Egyptians had developed a form of shamanistic trance induced by these two plants and used it in medicine as well as healing rituals. Analysis of the ritual and sacred iconography of dynastic Egypt, as seen on stelae, in magical papyri, and on vessels, indicates that these people possessed a profound knowledge of plant lore and altered states of consciousness. The abundant data indicate that the shamanistic priest, who was highly placed in the stratified society, guided the souls of the living and dead, provided for the transmutation of souls into other bodies and the personification of plants as possessed by human spirits, as well as performing other shamanistic activities.
— The Sacred Journey in Dynastic Egypt: Shamanistic Trance in the Context of the Narcotic Water Lily and the Mandrake, Dr William Emboden
A test was carried out to see if there were any narcotic effects of the blue water lily. There were no known psychotropic substance found in the flower itself. In The Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies Rosalie David (‘Keeper of Egyptology, Manchester Museum’) says that “we see many scenes of individuals holding a cup and dropping a water lily flower into the cup which contained wine”. The assertion by Dr Andrew Sherratt, based on these depictions, is that he believes that when the flower was infused with wine, that the chemical content might change and become the ancient Egyptian party drug or a shamanistic aid.
The lilies were flown from Cairo to England, and nineteen of them opened after the sun came out. The flowers were soaked in the wine, and after a few days, two volunteers – who claimed to know nothing about ancient Egypt – drank the lily-wine:
On August 24th 1998, on British TV, the last of a 4-part series called “Sacred Weeds” was broadcast … This last program investigated the blue water lily (Nymphaea caerulea) which had never before been scientifically tested for psychoactive properties.
… It contains a substance called nuciferine, soluble in alcohol but not known to be psychoactive.
Nineteen fresh flowers of the lily were soaked in wine for a few days. The flowers were then removed and the wine drunk by two volunteers, new to entheogens; Marie and Robert. Their experiences proceeded as follows:
|“I feel good, I feel quite excited now.”
|“I feel fine…slightly flushed…a lot more relaxed. I do feel a bit giggly …a bit more chatty.”
|“I feel very happy, very laid back…I feel good.”
|“I never felt like this before.”
|Rob and Marie went out for a walk even though it was raining.
|They sit down in a porch out of the rain.
|“I’m certainly feel something now, definitely, no placebo.”
|I feel very chatty.”
|Rob felt the effects were wearing off.
|“You do pick out things quite clearly to listen to…I keep going off and staring at things.”
|Rob and Marie ate the flowers and the effects seemed to return.
|“It alters your perception for the better…you notice more things.”
|“My mind felt very alert, yet at the same time I was very physically relaxed.”
|“…contentment, relaxation, happiness, cheekiness, increased awareness.”
|A pharmacologist present summarized the effects as being “euphoria with tranquilization.” Another specialist claimed the effects were similar in some ways to MDMA (ecstasy). — The Blue Water Lily, Colin Byrne
Unfortunately the test was not up to scientific standards – there was no control group (where another set of volunteers would drink wine not infused with the lily, but told that it had been) – so it is rather difficult to know how much of the effects on the two were just from the alcohol and if any were from the lily infusion itself.
Nymphaea caerulea … contains an anti-spasmodic called Nuciferin, and likely contains aporphine… Dosage: Probably about 3-5 flowers, or about 5g. Method: Eat (put in capsules; takes longer) or make “tea (use about 20-25oz of water to get maximum content).” Effects: The history of this species says that is appears to be a hypnotic sedative … Everything seems to refute the idea of this being MDMA-like… It is much like cannabis, codeine or propoxyphene; maybe a little hallucinatory (at higher doses) – but mainly hypnotic like cannabis/opiods.
— Blue Lilly of the Nile: The Narcotic Lilly
The blue water lily was possibly also a symbol of sexuality – Dr Liz Williamson says that the flower “has a sort of Viagra effect”. Women were wooed with the blue water lily. In certain erotic scenes from the Turin papyrus, women are shown wearing very little apart from the white lily as a headdress.
And I will say to Ptah, Lord of Truth:
“Give me my fair one tonight.”
The river is like wine.
The god Ptah is its tuft of reeds,
The goddess Sekhmet is its bouquet of flowers,
The goddess Yadyt is its water lily bud,
The god Nefertem is its opened water lily.
My love will be happy!
The dawn illuminates her beauty.
— 19th Dynasty Love Poem, Harris 500 papyrus
Qedeshet, the Syrian love goddess who the Egyptians married off to Min, was depicted as a naked woman who stood on the back of a lion, carrying snakes and water lily buds. The buds are likely linked with her role as a goddess of sexuality and fertility. Votive offerings to Hathor included bowls with water lily motifs, again alluding to fertility, the renewal of life and rebirth. (A water bowl was also the hieroglyph for a woman, which A.H. Gardiner in Egyptian Grammar believes to represent the vagina, linking the fertility sign of the water lily in the bowl to female fertility in this case.) The Egyptian idea of sexuality was identified with creation. Being a flower of creation, the flower became linked to human fertility and sexuality. The images of women holding the flower may be hinting at her ability to bear children or that she was sexually desirable, and images of men holding the flower may hint at his potency. It could also be a way to ensure that the person painted would be fertile – and sexy – in the afterlife.
When you look at its brilliance, your eyes become imbued with dynamic force. When you breath in, your nostrils dilate.
— Horus, Talking about the Blue Water Lily, Graeco-Roman Temple of Horus at Edfu
The flower wasn’t just used at parties, but it was used at funerals. As with many symbols of fertility, the blue water lily was also symbolic of rebirth after death. Tutankhamen’s innermost gold coffin had blue water lily petals scattered over it along with a few other floral tributes. The Egyptians looked forward to their souls coming to life “like a water lily reopening”, thinking that the deceased died as the water lily closed awaiting opening with the morning sun. The Book of the Dead has a spell to allow the deceased to transform into one of these flowers:
[The Chapter of] Making the Transformation into the Water Lily
The Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, saith:- I am the holy water lily that cometh forth from the light which belongeth to the nostrils of Ra, and which belongeth to the head of Hathor. I have made my way, and I seek after him, that is to say, Horus. I am the pure blue water lily that cometh forth from the field [of Ra].
One of the items found in Tutankhamen’s tomb is that of the boy’s head emerging from the water lily. There are depictions of this in the Book of the Dead with the face of the deceased. It is probably a symbolic likening of the deceased to the creation myth as the water lily opened to reveal the sun god for the first time, giving the deceased new life as the flower opens each morning.
The four sons of Horus who guard the canopic jars – Imsety, human headed protector of the liver, Hapy, baboon headed protector of the lungs, Duamutef, jackal headed protector of the stomach and Qebehsenuef, falcon headed protector of the intestines – are often shown standing on a blue water lily flower. They were thought to have, like Nefertem, out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun. The four mummiform gods were rescued by the crocodile god Sobek, by the orders of Ra, and Anubis gave them funerary duties. They also attend the judgement of the deceased in the Halls of Ma’ati where they stand before Osiris on a half opened blue water lily.
The blue water lily was sacred to the ancient Egyptians, ornamental and sweet smelling. People who have had the pleasure described the smell as being similar to that of a hyacinth, a loquat and even of a banana. Whatever the fragrance is like, the Egyptians loved this plant that represented the sun and rebirth. It was presented at parties, and took on a sacred significance at death. There is little wonder that it became the floral symbol of Upper Egypt, and a flower enjoyed by all people throughout Egyptian history.
– By Caroline Seawright