Blue and white water lilies, Nymphaea cerulea and Nymphaea albicans, were native to the Nile River in antiquity. Egyptologists have universally called them “lotus,” despite the fact that botanists reserve that apellation to the pink genus Nelumbo, which probably entered Egypt with the Persian conquest c.522 BCE. Since this misnomer is so entrenched in the literature of Egyptology, we will follow that convention for ease of comprehension.
The blue lotus is day blooming, opening shortly after dawn and again closing tightly in mid-morning. Each blooms for three days. The petals are blue with coloration most intense at the periphery. The calyx is a brilliant yellow and the blossom has a pleasing aroma to supplement its attractive appearance. Its distribution along the Nile favored Upper Egypt, while papyrus grew in the marshes of the Delta. They became the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively, owing to this geographic distinction. The blue lotus's day blooming mimics the sun appearing in the blue sky—a botanical reflection of the cosmic daily rebirth of the sun and of rebirth in the after-life. It was a perfect multilevel symbol of the complex intertwining political and religious belief system and thus its appearance in ancient Egyptian literature and imagery was ubiquitous.
The lotus is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, where it is designated as a poison. The hieroglyphic name sšn is reinforced by depiction of the blossom. Modern toxicological analysis has identified four potent narcotic alkaloids in Nymphaea—nymphaeine, nuciferine, nupharidine, and alpha-nupharidine. They are found only in the blossoms and rhizomes (roots) and are soluble in alcohol but not in water. Hieroglyphic texts do not designate color unless a blue pigment was used. The narcotic properties (and potential for poison), are confirmed in modern texts on herbal medicine and toxopharmacology. Nevertheless, the fiction that the lotus is innocuous persists in the literature of both Egyptology and standard botany, perpetuating an error from the Napoleonic era.
The association of wine and lotus blossoms becomes increasingly common from the New Kingdom throughout the later dynasties, in depictions of banquets and in funerary-offering depictions. Modern wines have an alcohol content in the 10 to 17 percent range. It is reasonable to believe that ancient wines did, too, and thus could dissolve the narcotic alkaloids. The Egyptians may well have appreciated the effect of lotus-enhanced wine.
Women are depicted in ancient Egyptian scenes harvesting lotus blossoms and extracting the essence with a twisted cloth press. The ultimate use was not indicated, but it could have been for perfume, medicine, or to enhance wines. The latter is supported by numerous New Kingdom banquet scenes showing young female servants pouring an unidentified liquid from tiny vials into much larger wine bowls. The inclusion of so many open blue lotuses in such scenes further indicates they were held during the very early morning, in the brief period in which they bloomed; this biological clock functions the same for the cut blossom as for the intact plant.
The white lotus is night blooming and its image is encountered primarily on drinking vessels. These containers probably were for daily use, whereas the blue lotus vessels were reserved for ritual purposes.
- Harer, W. Benson, Jr. “Pharmacological and Biological Properties of the Egyptian Lotus.” Journal of the America Research Center in Egypt 22 (1985), 49–54.
W. Benson Harer, Jr., M. D.