The term “lotus” refers to a variety of rather similar plants — at least some of which are often termed “water lilies.” In its various forms, the “lotus” has been of enormous religious and cultural significance across a range of cultures.
For example, the lotus flower is venerated by both Hindus and Buddhists. The deities Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganga, Ganesha, Vishnu and Brahma are often depicted as sitting or standing on a lotus flower. In some legends, lotus flowers sprang up in the Buddha’s footsteps wherever he walked.
Because it commonly originates out of mud yet remains beautiful and pure, the lotus is also thought to symbolize human spiritual potential, to stand for our ability to rise above mortal passions and weaknesses. In Bhagavad Gita 5.10, those who are untainted by sin are compared to the lotus, which is untouched by the dirty water and the muck out of which it emerges. In Buddhist imagery, it represents the concept of floating above the murky waters of physical desires and attachment to material possessions.
The lotus often occurs in poems and songs as a representation of elegance, purity and grace, and thus, too, of idealized femininity. The Sanskrit name of the flower (“padma”) and various derivatives from it are frequently used to name girls (and sometimes boys) wherever the culture of India has exercised influence. (The term may even have affected the naming of Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé Amidala, in the “Star Wars” prequels.)
One of the most stunningly beautiful religious uses of the lotus in art appears in the famous Lotus Temple in Delhi, India, a Bahai “House of Worship” that was completed in 1986.
It isn’t clear whether the Egyptians sensed this, but, from above, the Nile Valley and its delta, which opens onto the Mediterranean Sea, look strikingly like a long-stemmed lotus flower. Thus, it’s entirely appropriate that the lotus played an important role in the iconography of the ancient pharaohs and their subjects.
In ancient Egypt, the lotus was associated with death and rebirth. An obvious reason for this was the belief — not entirely accurate, in fact — that it sank into the water every night and emerged fresh and pure every morning. In this regard, it was comparable to the sun, which also obviously disappears during the night but reappears to bring the day. In a manner reminiscent of Hindu and Buddhist iconography, in fact, the lotus is sometimes shown emerging from the primordial waters (“Nun”) bearing the Sun God, who is typically regarded as the chief deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Likewise, the four sons of Horus were sometimes shown standing before that god on lotus flowers.
The “blue lotus” very commonly formed the capital of columns in ancient Egyptian temples, and the powerful and beloved goddess Hathor is frequently shown holding it as her symbol. Often, too, gods and goddesses are represented as holding the flower to the noses of pharaohs and queens in order to represent the restorative power of its scent and, accordingly, the deities’ protective care for the royal family.
Some believe that the ancient Egyptians may have used the lotus to induce an ecstatic state, much like certain modern narcotics. If so, this is probably connected with the account given in Book IX of Homer’s “Odyssey,” which speaks of the “land of the lotus-eaters.” This was an island whose inhabitants lived entirely from the fruits and flowers of the “lotus” — it’s not clear exactly which species Homer may have had in mind, or even whether it was a real-world flower — and who, accordingly, spent their lives mostly asleep.
The two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt — that is, respectively, of the south and the north — were united around 3000 B.C. by a southern ruler who is known as Menes. (He is generally believed to be the same person as “Narmer,” whose famous “palette” is displayed near the entrance to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.) Thereafter, the pharaoh wore the white crown (the “hedjet”) of Upper Egypt and the red crown (the “deshret,” with its decorative honey bee antenna) of Lower Egypt and was known as “Lord of the Two Lands.”
However, another symbol of Upper Egypt was the lotus flower. The corresponding symbol of northern or Lower Egypt was the papyrus reed. For that reason, after 3000 B.C. the lotus was commonly shown in Egyptian art with its long stem intertwined with the papyrus reeds. Their intertwining represented the historic unification of the two lands.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.