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The Blue Water Lily (photo Richard GAUTIER)
Image © Richard Gautier

The Egyptian 'Lotus': Nymphaea Caerulea, the Blue Water Lily

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: March 26, 2014

 

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Blue water lilies found in pharonic New Kingdom tombs

Image © Jon Bodsworth
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 (s sh n sšn or zšn), along with the papyrus flower, was shown throughout Egypt in tombs and temples to symbolise 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 and silence reigned but in the depths of the watery abyss lay the formless spirit of the Creator, the father and mother of all things... Darkness covered the waters until magical day that 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 but every evening a water lily sinks below the surface and does not rise again until dawn. So the Primeval Water Lily closed its petals at the end of each day and vanished back into the waters. Chaos reigned through the night until the god within the water lily returned.

-- The Waters of Chaos

An reflection of the sun in the blue sky within the water lily

Image © Tropical Pond & Garden
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. (Unlike in the above story, the water lily does not sink beneath the water at night.) 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.

Utterance 249

264a. To say: O ye two contestants, announce now to the honourable one in this his name:
264b. N. is this sšsš-plant which springs from the earth.
264c. The hand of N. is cleansed by him who has prepared his throne.
265a. N. it is who is at the nose of the powerful Great One.
265b. N. comes out of the Isle of Flame,
265c. (after) he, N., had set truth therein in the place of error.
265d. N. it is who is the guardian of laundry, who protects the uraeus-serpents,
265e. in the night of the great flood, which proceeds from the Great.
266a. N. appears as Nefertem, as the flower of the water lily at the nose of Ra;
266b. as he comes forth from the horizon every day, the gods purify themselves, when they see him.

-- Mercer, S. 1952, The Pyramid Texts

Nefertem, god of the water lily

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.

-- Emboden, W. 1989, 'The Sacred Journey in Dynastic Egypt: Shamanistic Trance in the Context of the Narcotic Water Lily and the Mandrake', Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, vol. 21, no. 1, p. 61

Votive offering bowl with a fish and blue water lily pattern

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:

A tall column with a water lily capital

Image © PicstoPin

On August 24th 1998, on British TV, the last of a 4-part series called "Sacred Weeds" was broadcast ... This last programme 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.

19 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, Marie and Robert. Their experiences proceeded as follows:

5.25pm They drank the wine.

5.40pm Rob: "I feel good, I feel quite excited now."

       Marie: "I feel fine...slightly flushed...a lot more relaxed. I do feel a bit giggly...a bit more chatty."
       Rob: "I feel very happy, very laid back...I feel good."
       Marie: "I never felt like this before."

6.00pm Rob and Marie felt restless and went out for a walk even though it was raining.

6.37pm They sit down in a porch out of the rain.
       Rob: "I'm certainly on something now, definitely."
       Marie: "I feel very chatty."

7.40pm Rob felt the effects were wearing off.

       Marie: "You do pick out things quite clearly to listen to...I keep going off and staring at things."

8.10pm Rob and Marie ate the flowers and the effects seemed to return.

8.37pm Rob: "It alters your perception for the better...you can notice more things."

At the end of the day they both felt very tired. The next morning they were quite well except for faint headaches.

Marie: "My mind felt very alert, yet at the same time I was very physically relaxed."
Rob: "...contentment, relaxation, happiness, cheekiness, increased awareness."

A pharmacologist present summarised the effects as being "euphoria with tranquilisation." Another specialist claimed the effects were similar in some ways to MDMA (ecstasy).

-- Byrne, C. 2000, The Blue Water Lily

Nakht, holding a water lily, and his wife, seated before offerings of water lilies

Image © TourEgypt
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-spasmotic 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.

-- Clear White Light 2000, 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.

A New Kingdom chalice in the shape of a blue water lily

Image © Walters Art Museum
More recently, it has been discovered that this plant could have been used by the ancient Egyptians to help with erectile dysfunction. This would help explain why the plant was so intimately connected with sex and sexuality:

Nymphaea caerulea (blue lotus) and N. ampla, which has a white flower but a similar alkaloid content, grow along lakes and rivers, thrive in wet soil, and bloom in the spring. They belong to the water-lily family ... The isolation of the psychoactive apomorphine from Nymphaea species has offered chemical support to speculation that Nymphaea species may have been employed as hallucinogens in both the Old and the New World. The use of N. caerulea and of N. lotos in rites and rituals is depicted in the frescoes within the tombs, and in very early papyrus scrolls. The most important of these was the scroll of Ani (Book of the Dead). Nymphaea is mentioned and represented in several chapters of the book, always tied to magical-religious rites.

...

However, it has only recently become clear that apomorphine can be utilized, with excellent results, to treat erectile dysfunction. It is a centrally acting, selective D1/D2 dopamine agonist, and activation of dopaminergic receptors in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus initiates a cascade of events, ultimately resulting in smooth muscle relaxation and vasodilatation within the corpora cavernosa, leading to penile erection.

This discovery provides a likely explanation for the appearance of Nymphaea in the Luxor frescoes and in erotic cartoons ... The fact that temple drawings only depict use by the higher castes, such as priests and royalty, suggests that the masses did not benefit from this discovery. The Nymphaea story serves as a further illustration of how the effects of substances of plant origin were known even though the discoverers lacked the technology to explain them.

-- Bertol, E., et. al. 2004, 'Nymphaea cults in ancient Egypt and the New World: a lesson in empirical pharmacology', Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 97, no. 2, p. 84.

The water lily was also used for other medicinal purposes, according to Lise Manniche in An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, including liver disease, poultices for the head, constipation and as an enema (1989, p. 134). She also notes that it was used in a magical spell to cause a "hated woman"'s hair to fall out. In Greco-Roman times, it was thought of as a cooling herb, and was thus used to bring down a fever.

The goddess Qedeshet, standing on a lion, holding water lilies and a snake

Image © Julianna Lees
Qedeshet (Kadesh, Qadesh, Qetesh, Qudshu), 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 their potency. It could also be a way to ensure that the person painted would be fertile - and sexy - in the afterlife.

I am going to Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis)
To tell Ptah, Lord of Truth:
"Give me my sister tonight!"
The river is as of wine.
Its rushes are Ptah,
Sekhmet is its foliage,
[The goddess] Yadyt its [water lily] bud,
Nefertem its water lily blossoms.
[The Golden] is in joy,
When earth brightens in her beauty.

-- Lichtheim, M. 1978, Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom, p. 189

Tutankhamen's head rising from an open blue water lily

Image © Jon Bodsworth
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 a lotus. The overseer of the palace, the chancellor-in-chief, Nu, saith:

"I am the pure Lotus which springeth up from the divine splendor that belongeth to the nostrils of Ra. I have made--my way--, and I follow on seeking for him who is Horus. I am the pure one who cometh forth out of the Field."

-- Wallis Budge, E.A., The Book of the Dead

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 Sons of Horus standing before Osiris on a blue water lily 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, wolf or 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, come 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.

When you look at its brilliance, your eyes become imbued with dynamic force. When you breath in, your nostrils dilate.

-- Tyldesley, J. 2001, The Private Lives of the Pharaohs, p. 194

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.

Girls wearing blue water lilies at a party
Image © History Source LLC

The blue water lily echoing the sky and sun rising out of the waters of Nun
Image © Richard Gautier
Note: I have changed the word 'lotus' into 'water lily' in this article to specify which exact plant is being discussed.

A special thanks goes to Clair Russell Ossian, author of the KMT Magazine story 'THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF FLOWERS: Water Lilies & Lotuses in Ancient Egypt', for helping me with corrections and facts about the blue water lily.

Special thanks also go to Richard Gautier for two of his Blue Water Lily photographs, both © Richard Gautier, webmaster of Jardin! L'Encyclopédie.

Also thanks go to Jon Bodsworth for his photo of the blue water lilies from a New Kingdom pharonic tomb.


Further Information about the blue water lily


Video about the blue water lily

Part one of the 'Sacred Weeds' episode focusing on the blue water lily as a potential drug, by dmthead2012:

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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