ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian plants: Lotus and water lily
    The blue lotus
    The white lotus
    The lotos

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Lotus and water lily

The blue lotus

Blue lotus     The blue lotus, preferably called the blue water lily, Nymphaea caerulea, was often depicted in New Kingdom pictures of celebrating people, sometimes held by the person as if he were sniffing it, often hovering above his or her head.
    In architecture pillars were sometimes shaped like bundles of lotus supporting the skies embodied by the temple ceiling.

    In mythology, the lotus was the first plant to rise out of the primordial waters and, at the same time, it also appeared out of the light, like the sun at dawn. The lotus flower disappearing in the water at dusk and rising out of it in full glory in the morning became a symbol of rebirth. In the Book of the Dead Re is referred to as the golden youth emerging from the lotus. The change of the deceased into a sacred lotus flower symbolises the hope to be born again:
I am the holy lotus 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 lotus that cometh forth from the field [of Ra].
Book of the Dead, translated by E.A.Wallis Budge
    The god Nefertem, offspring of Ptah and Sekhmet, was often shown emerging from a lotus flower. One of his epithets was Lord of Perfumes. The fragrance of the flower was most attractive, at least a scribe thought so, when he tried to convince his pupils of the usefulness of a good education:
Behold, it is beneficial to complete it (i.e. the schooling), more than the smell of lotus flowers in summer time, more than anointing oil in the tomb (?)
The Teaching of Amennakht [1]
The suggestion that the ancient Egyptians sniffed lotus flowers to become intoxicated, would–if proven to be correct–throw a new light on this passage, but it appears that the water lily's psychoactive properties are insignificant.[2]
    The blue water lily was the heraldic plant of Upper Egypt, while the papyrus was that of Lower Egypt.

The white lotus

    The white lotus, Nymphaea lotus, has a larger flower than the blue Nymphaea variety, and its petals are less pointed than those of the blue lotus. Its leaves float on the water surface, while its flowers rise well above it. The plant reaches a height of about half a metre and and prefers still, warm waters. It was therefore ideally suited to being grown in the small ponds wealthier Egyptians had in their gardens. It was more rarely depicted in ancient times than the blue lotus.
    It was possibly this water lily which was collected by the poor for food:
    When the river has become full and the plains have been flooded, there grow in the water great numbers of lilies, which the Egyptians call lotos; these they cut with a sickle and dry in the sun, and then they pound that which grows in the middle of the lotos and which is like the head of a poppy, and they make of it loaves baked with fire. The root also of this lotos is edible and has a rather sweet taste: it is round in shape and about the size of an apple.
Herodotus, Histories II

The lotus

    The lotus, Nelumbo speciosum or Nelumbo nucifera, is not related to the water lilies at all. Its flowers are white or pink and can have a diameter of up to twenty centimetres. It generally grows in water up to a metre and a half in depth, rooted in the soil of rivers and ponds and its flowers rise just above the water surface supported on thick stems. The leaves can grow to a diameter of up to sixty centimetres, are funnel shaped and generally rise above the water. The whole plant is edible, flowers, seeds, rhizomes and young leaves.
    The lotus is thought to have been imported from India in the sixth century BCE.
[1] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website. Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig: Literarische Texte => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Amunnacht => 06. oLacau => Die Lehre des Amunnacht
[2] See Drink, drugs and sex

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- Lotus Flower
- Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases: Nelumbo nucifera L.
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Updates: November, September 2010