Sacred Botany: the Ancients
During a time in a land where people spent their entire lives preparing for the next world, their daily routines were probably dominated by priests and ritual. The ancient Egyptians were such a people. Their customs and their beliefs were centered around the mystery of the afterlife. Entire lives of the pharaohs were spent preparing their own burial places. That land and those people created an ideal breeding ground for plant magic. Plant life was sparse in the arid country, and as with all rare and lovely things, a beautiful bloom was awe inspiring.
At a time when no belief system was in place, I find it interesting that early cultures tapped into the mystery of plants and nature as a way of answering questions they had no true answers for. In searching for answers, the Egyptians looked for evidence of divine presence and they found it in the blue and white lotuses that grew from the Nile's muddy shallows. They saw in them a symbol of nature's continuing fertility. It was the lotus blossom, they believed, that had emerged from the ocean at creation.
Nymphaea caerulea is known today as the water lily. This flower, along with the papyrus, is shown throughout Egypt in tombs and temples. The ancient Egyptian's belief in the supernatural quality of the water lily is told through writings of Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century B.C. and who sailed up and down the Nile exploring the grandiose Egyptian temples and studying their burial customs. I can only paraphrase his words, but he stated that the Egyptians of that time believed that in the beginning the land was covered in water and darkness until the Water Lily rose from the abyss. Slowly the blue water lily opened its petals to reveal a young god sitting in its golden heart. At the end of each day, it closed its petals and darkness fell.
Herodotus continued explaining the Egyptian beliefs by stating that they watched the blue water lily as it opened each day and closed each evening. They thought it imitated the sky opening up to reveal the sun each morning, and closing to hide it each night. The flower was then firmly linked with the sun, and thus to their sun god, Ra and the story of creation. The religious symbolism of the flower is evident in the many columns of the Egyptian temples that have water lily capitals crowning them.
As the lotus took on the symbol of creation, papyrus, the reed growing in the Nile, not only furnished the Egyptians with paper but became their symbol of freshness, youth and vigor. It rose from the edge of the water also, continually regrowing as seasons passed. A papyrus shaped amulet ensured long life to its wearer. Papyrus bouquets adorned religious rites; and papyrus columns, stone pillars formed to look like bundles of the plant, endowed the ancient temples with the reed's spiritual virtues.
In the onion's bulb the Egyptians found a symbol of the universe. As each layer of the onion was wrapped in another, so, they believed, was the nether world enveloped by the earth, and in turn, by heaven. They also presented onions to their gods as sacrificial offerings.
In the arid Egyptian land of those long years ago, trees were sacred, and groves of whatever tree they could find that would grow for them, were planted around temples for the enjoyment of the gods. They filled crypts with flowers. Their mummies have been found with the remains of wreaths of such familiar plants as sweet marjoram, chrysanthemums, narcissus and roses. They wanted to provide their deceased loved ones with the flowers they held sacred, to take with them into their journey to the afterlife.
Plant collecting was important to those early Egyptians, living as they did in a land that was often bare of plantlife. It was also an activity of military and commercial expeditions. In 1475 B.C. for example, when the pharaoh Thutmose III won his first campaign in Syria, exotic plants constituted an important part of the booty sent back to Egypt. After another campaign to new territories, all plants that grew in Syria were collected and the proud pharaoh offered the exotic specimens to the god Amon and decorated a room in Amon's great temple at Karnak with wall carvings of the foreign plants.
Even more remarkable was the venture of Thutmose III's aunt, Queen Hatshepsut. The god, Amon, informed her in an oracle that he wanted myrrh trees planted around his temple. Myrrh played a vital role in the Egyptians' religious ceremonies. When burned, it releases a fragrant odor the they believed pleased the gods. Since myrrh trees were not to be found in Egypt, Hatshepsut sent ships south to the land of Punt, a region in equatorial Africa known for its myrrh production. When her sailors finally reached Punt, they encountered there a strange tribe living in domed huts set atop pilings. In a deal reminiscent of the purchase of Manhattan Island many years in the future, the Egyptians bartered an ax, a knife, some bangles, necklaces and rings for ebony, ivory, gold, cinnamon, cattle, apes, dogs, panthers, slaves, sacks of myrrh, and 31 myrrh saplings.
The queen was of course delighted with the successful mission, and had it depicted in a series of reliefs on the walls of a temple she was building to enclose her own tomb. After formally offering the saplings to Amon, she used them to recreate the land of Punt in the "house of Amon". She ordered terraces built around the temple, reproducing in miniature the hilly landscape of Punt. As legend has it, Amon was so satisfied as he walked abroad in his new garden that he promised Hatshepsut life and satisfaction forever.
As I recall facts and legends from ancient cultures, I can't help but be amazed sometimes. Think of it in this way: we no longer have dinosaurs, the Bengal tiger and dodo bird are thought to be extinct, but we still have water lilies, onions, chrysanthemums, roses, and all those plants that graced the earth those thousands of years ago. And that lovely water lily continues to lift our hearts every time we look out and see it blooming, just as it touched the hearts of those ancient Egyptians all those years ago.
I did not grow up quite that long ago, and my beliefs are not the same, but I do find myself marveling at each new bloom that opens in my garden at the break of a new day. I also find it inspiring to remember just how many years our plants have been on this earth, bringing smiles to all of us along the way.
"Art Through the Ages", 10th edition, Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996
"Landmarks in humanities", Gloria K. Fiero, McGraw Hill, 2006
"Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt", Anna K. Capel and Glenn E Markoe, Hudson Hills Press, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1996
These photos came from plant files: Lotus Blossom, Roxxanne and Marjoram, Kennedyh. The papyrus, and the images from Egyptian artifacts are from Wikipedia's Public Domain. The last photo is also from Public Domain and is a photo of a portion of the Hercules Papyrus.