Spiritual/Religious significance of Nymphaea caerulea/ampla for аncient Egyptians and Mayans Options
#1 Posted : 6/13/2018 1:40:06 PM

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Hello my curious friends,

After recently digging deeper and deeper in those two extremely fascinating cultures, I stumbled upon the mention of their use of the Blue/White Water Lily (as well as Mandragora officinarum and Papaver somniferum) as a way of spiritual and religious transcendence in rituals and ceremonies, as well as part of healing and funeral rites. After looking further into it, it turns out a California State University professor called William A. Emboden did quite an extensive research on this very topic. Below I will try to summarize what he found out, as well as share my thoughts and theories on the findings.

Nymphaea caerulea and ancient Egyptians

First of all, let's make ourselves familiar with this interesting plant. In THIS 1905 research document published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Henry Shoemaker Conard made an extensive description of the entire Nymphaea genus. Although he talked about the history and uses of water lilies, he did not mention their use as narcotics. His opinion was they had no significant chemical properties.

Some properties of Nymphaea caerulea:

Leaves: entire, orbicular to ovate-orbicular and entire; narrowly peltate, 30 - 40 cm in diameter; upper surface green, lower surface green with fleshy coloration and marginal spots of deep purple.

Flowers: emerging from conical buds enclosed by sepals bearing purple striations and dots; breadth 7 - 15 cm across when fully opened 14 - 20 light-blue lanceolate petals; held above the water on a scape of 18 - 38 cm; 50 - 73 stamens indistinctly spiraled in 16 vertical ranks, bright yellow; blooming on 3 successive days.

Fruit: forming above the water and truncate; spiraling peduncle carrying it to below the bottom of the marsh; ellipsoidal seeds are 17 mm long.

Time of bloom: 7.30 a.m. - 12 noon, during which time the blossom is very fragrant.

Rhizome: thick, erect, ovoid, up to 75 mm long and 64 mm in diameter.

Distribution: Old World, in marshes, ponds, and pools in northern and central Africa; now rare in the Nile delta.

Some properties of Nymphaea ampla:

Leaves: large, narrowly peltate, suborbicular, 15 - 40 cm in diameter, sinuate or nearly entire; green above, purple spotted on green lower surface, purple-red veins prominent.

Flowers: white, 9 - 13 cm across; sepals 4, coreaceous, narrowly oblong, length 1.2 - 5.8 cm with acute to acuminate tips, outer surface marked with dark lines; petals 7 - 21, the outermost tinged yellowish green; stamens 30 - 190, the outermost longer than the innermost; anthers apendicuiate; carpels 14 - 23, styles short, conical; stigmas extending out on styles on short, rounded, or rarely acute, rays.

Fruit: forming above the water; truncate; bearing subglobose to elliptic seeds, about 10 mm long.

Time of bloom: dawn to dusk.

Rhizome: thick, elongate, about 85 mm long and 55 mm in diameter.

Distribution: New World, in still, fresh waters; tropical and subtropical America from 26 degrees north in Texas through the Antilles, to 8 degrees south in Brazil.

Nymphaea caerulea was indigenous to the Nile valley and delta, being found in still-waters there. It is the sacred water lily that figures on tombs, artifacts, and in ritual depiction. Pickering (1879) and Pleyte (1875) concur in their belief that the earliest dynastic representation of N. caerulea is in a depiction of the 4th Dynasty where it is a part of the offering to Osiris by the dead.

Another interesting fact is concerning the four sons of Horus. As noted by William James Erasmus Wilson in his 1877 "Cleopatra's needle : with brief notes on Egypt and Egyptian obelisks" publication, Her-ur (Horus the Elder) was one of the oldest gods of ancient Egypt. He was seen as a great falcon with outstretched wings whose right eye was the sun and the left one was the moon. Later, he also became the patron of the pharaohs, and was called the son of truth, signifying his role as an important upholder of Maat - the Egyptian goddess who personified the concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice.

Horus' four sons were the following:
Imsety– human form – direction South – protected the liver
Duamutef – jackal form – direction East – protected the stomach
Hapi – baboon form – direction North – protected the lungs
Qebehsenuef – hawk form – direction West – protected the intestines

Interestingly enough, the depictions of the birth of these four deities is always emergence from a Nymphaea cearulea flower, as seen below:

This collective presentation of personages and alter-egos in several strata serves to establish shamanism and shamanic stratification in ancient Egypt and also points to the very important ritual implication of the blue water lily as the origin for these divine successions.

In 2012 Ian Radipath of Oxford University described the term "cosmogony" in his "A Dictionary of Astronomy" as "any model concerning the origin of either the cosmos or universe."

Out of the four ancient Egyptian cosmogonies, two are mentioning the blue water lily - the Heliopolis one, and the Memphis one.

The world began from the watery chaos called Nun. From Nun there emerged a blue water lily from which Atum (the sun god) sprang. He engendered Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture) who in turn engendered Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). Geb and Nut bore Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nepthys. This company of nine were the divine ennead, much like the divine trinity in Christianity, and were considered as one divine entity.

Memphis produced the third cosmogony when it became the capital of the kings of Egypt. Not wishing a breach with Heliopolis the creation myths were borne of pragmatism and borrowed from the Heliopolitan ennead and the Hermopolitan ogdoad. In addition, Memphite deities such as Horas, Thoth and Nefertum (Nefer-Tern) were included. The principal theme was the struggle between Horus and Seth who was the brother of Osiris and his murderer. In one version the body of the slain Osiris was thrown into the Nile. He was resurrected in the form of the blue water lily and with Isis bore the child Horus. It was Horus who was later to have four sons borne of the blue water lily.

An overview of these cosmogonies, which have numerous variant versions, shows the influence of the blue water lily in conceptions of the origins of the universe.

Shamanism was a part of Egyptian thought throughout many dynasties. Magic served the ordinary man and his consultations were with oracles and magicians. The priestly caste had a private religion and a more complex theology. Tales as reconstructed by Maspero (1915) and others indicate that magical events were wrought by eating magical foods, drinking magical liquids, reading magical papyri, eating magical hieroglyphics, undergoing shamanic transformation, talking with the dead, freeing the soul to journey to other realms, etc.

Texts, images from tombs, papyri, vessels, etc. frequently depict the blue water lily in conjunction with the fruit of the narcotic Mandragora officinarum, the mandrake, and Papaver somniferum capsules, the opium poppy. The blue water lily most frequently is found as a funerary offering or is depicted above what have been called “unguent vessels”.

Despite having visual proof of the presence of those plants, we see no depictions in which any of these are being ingested. The reference to their use is infrequent in papyri with the exception of Ra conquering Hawthor by “spiking” her beer with mandrakes, thus putting her into a deep sleep.

An 18th Dynasty wooden stela depicting Ra-Harakhte (the Healer) being offered a vessel whose contents are symbolized by the Nymphaea caerulea above it:

It is also worth mentioning that Daniel E. Moerman from the University of Michigan-Dearborn states in his 90s edits of "Journal of Ethnopharmacology" that the Chippewa, Potawatomi, Micmac and Ojibwa Indians used the juice of Nymphaea spp. rhizome for poultices, as a cough medicine, as a pulmonary aid, in dermatitis and for mouth sores, but no mention appears of North American water lilies being used in a narcotic or shamanic context.

We have many examples of the presence of narcotic plants throughout ancient Egyptian history. The below is a limestone plate, presented in Staatlichen Museen in Berlin. It represents Meriton, consort to Semenhkara, offering him two mandrake fruits and a bud of the blue water lily as part of a healing ritual. She holds more of these flowers in her left hand.

Arguments that Nymphaea caerulea was only an ornamental plant must recognize that the flower opens only for four hours, from 8 a.m. until noon, and then promptly closes. For this reason, it is not particularly suited as an ornament. Moreover, the closed flowers have no fragrance.

The scents provided by the water lily and the mandrake were supposed to purify the nostrils during funeral ceremonies, a ritual of great importance. The Papyrus of Ani ( better known as "The Book of the Dead" ) makes mention of purification of the nostrils by the water lily and a chapter is devoted to the mystical transformation of the water lily in which Ani is reborn as a blue water lily flower.

In the chest found in the tomb of Tutankhamun made of ebony, ivory, bronze and copper, there is a revealing scene in which the king is ministered to by his wife Ankhesenamun. His wife wears an unguent vessel and two mandrake fruits upon her head. She offers two bouquets of opium poppy fruits and blue water lilies. Beneath this scene, two female attendants pick mandrake fruits to take to the royal couple. In every scene presented on this coffer, opium poppies, mandrakes and water lilies are in abundant evidence, which further solidifies the notion of their importance.

If one were to make a compendium comparable to Rands’ for 18th Dynasty Egypt, the most frequent depiction of the water lily would be a half-opened flower, flanked by two buds. This was apparently a magical combination which appears in all ritual healing, as well as many of the depictions of the approach of the soul of the dead to Osiris.

Second in frequency would be the depiction of a single, partially opened flower. This is most often placed over a vessel of some fluid offered to Horus (the healer), or is on the forehead (sometimes with a mandrake fruit), or is at the nostrils in the rite of purifying the nostrils.

The third motif in frequency of depiction would be the single flower bud and stem often wrapped around the leg of a royal chair, wrapped around vessels of unnamed fluids, or in a funerary offering of food.

One depiction that is characteristically Egyptian is the use of single petals of the blue water lily to decorate “unguent” vessels and to serve as royal collars or as part of a fillet around the head. Mythic images associated with the blue water lily of ancient Egypt are the god Osiris and to a lesser degree his wife and sister, Isis.

The creator gods of the different cosmogonies appear from the water lily. The genii sons of Horus appear to emerge from the flower. Horus himself is offered jars of fluids with a water lily laid over them.

The baboon god, Thoth, is associated with the water lily because of his working of magic. The scarab beetle that both feeds upon the flower and takes the sun across the sky is associated with this flower. It is the flower of the frogs and the crocodile. In sacred ritual it is used by the wearer of the leopard skin which is comparable to the water lily jaguar in Maya belief systems.

Most importantly it is an alter-ego for any personage undergoing shamanic transformation such as is recorded in the Papyrus of Ani. In most imagery the blue water lily, like the white water lily of the Maya, is associated with the head and especially the brow and nostrils.

Nymphaea ampla and Mayan rituals

Bufo secretion, Nymphaea ampla, Lophopora, Psilocybe, Nicotiana, alcohol and other narcotics served as vehicles to the ecstatic transcendent states that were reached during spiritual ceremonies by the priests or chilan among the Mayans.

Descriptions of the water lily in Maya art were presented by Maudslay (1889), Spinden (1913), Lothrop (1926), and Rands (1953), although none of these investigators recognized the water lily as a sacred plant with psychoactive properties.

A very interesting thing to point out is the presence of depictions of a Mayan male emerging from the petals of a white water lily in Palenque Palace (Pier F, House D), as seen in the below illustration in Maudslay’s four-volume work on the archaeology of Central America (1889 - 1902).

It is an excellent example of spiritual animation of a narcotic plant and is of special importance in light of the Eyptian cosmogonies in which the head of gods or spirit beings emerge from the water lily.

Seen below is a recreation of the Bonampak fresco. Note the fish touching upon the frontal water lily in the turban of the central figure.

One cannot help but compare the Bonampak fresco with that taken from the Theban tomb of Nebaum in the 18th Dynasty (seen below), now on deposit in the British Museum. Depicted there you can see a funerary dance ritual is enacted by two dancers accompanied by three females. They clap their hands and one figure plays a horn that is identical to the simple Bonampak horns. The four wear incense cones on their heads, all have garlands of the blue water lily petals around their necks, two have fillets of these petals about their heads, and one has an entire Nymphaea caerulea flower over her brow.

Some poems in the Manuscrito de los Cuntores Mexicanos, translated by Garibay ( 1968 ), contain inconclusive suggestions implicating some water flower in both creation myths and in a narcotic intoxication. On page three of Garibay’s text (cited in Spanish by Diaz, 1977) we find:

In the region of the water and of the mist
where the precious aquatic flowers
open their corollas,
I am the unique effigy of the gods
I am their creation.

Again, citing Garibay in a Nezahual coyotl monologue (26, p. 11), we encounter:
There are flowery verses; that speak
I drink flowers that intoxicate
now coming to those flowers that cause vertigo
. . .
with beautiful narcotic flowers
I stain my heart.

Finally, Diaz cites a further couplet in a Netzahualpilli poem (Garibay 26, p. 34):
They drink the precious liquor
of the aquatic flowers.

Wasson (1966) writing on Maria Sabina and her Mazatec mushroom Velada, states that there are numerous references among monoglot Indians to an aquatic plant with curative powers. At times, the individual is rubbed with leaves of such a plant. When Maria Sabina is intoxicated with mushrooms during the ceremony, she chants (p. 61:19 - 21):
Woman (of a) root below the water am I,
Father Jesus Christ
Tender root woman am I.

It is curious to note that the present practice in Chiapas is to use the root. The Nezahualcoyotl and Netzahualpilli poems both implicate the flower specifically just as in the Egyptian usage and depiction.

Finding verse equivalents of such passages in Egyptian texts is difficult. During the Intermediate Period between the Old Kingdom and New Kingdom a period of intellectual and moral probing previously unknown in ancient Egypt existed. Semiphilosophical dialogues and poems emerge from this period. One of the most interesting of these is the Dialogue of a Pessimist with his Soul (Berlin Museum Papyrus, 3024). In it, a man and his soul are separated:

Death is before me today
as the odor of water lily flowers,
as when one sitteth on the shore of drunkeness.”

The idea of water lilies, ecstasis and intoxication are united in these verses. Perhaps a stronger association is found in the verses that accompany the Theban representation of a funerary ritual in a painting taken from the tomb of a nobleman, Nebamun (British Museum, No. 37984). The accompanying verses read:

(Flowers of sweet) odors consumed (?) by Ptah and produced
by Geb.
His beauty is in every body.
Ptah hath done this with his (own) hand to gladden (?)
his heart.

Geb is the one who eventually replaced Thoth as judge in Ra’s kingdom. He is a member of the Heliopolitan ennead (mentioned earlier to worship the blue water lily as a pivotal element of the creation). The flowers are the blue water lilies depicted in the scene. Dispute over “given” versus “consumed” in the first line is critical here, but remains to be resolved by Egyptologists.

In a sculptured design at Palenque dating to 692 A.D. presented by Maudslay and reproduced in Thompson (1966) we see a shield with the face of the jaguar god. It is flanked by two Maya priests who stand on subordinate figures. The figure to the left has a water lily bud emerging from his head and ascending, and the priest to the right has a hybrid form of the same bud emerging from the top of his headdress. The corners of the shield (earth) are water lilies.

Stela 11 at Yaxchilin shows three prisoners to be sacrificed. Over them stands a richly clad priest who wears the face mask of the long-nosed god. In his left hand he extends a small kneeling figure who has the fullblown water lily as a headdress. It approaches the nose and mouth of the mask of the long-nosed god. The suggestion is much like that of the Egyptian Papyrus of Ani in which it is said that the water lily purifies the nostrils of Ra.

Copan has an interesting portrayal (Thompson, 1966) of the long-nosed god emerging from the jaws of the serpent and wearing a headdress of the maize plant. In his left hand he holds the water lily. While we can find no specific explanation, it may derive from the Maya Book of Balam, of Chumayel.
There is brief mention that the son or sons of holy Izamal had to be given in tribute to the serpent Hapay Can “Sucking-Snake” in order to nourish the deity. If, perhaps, the long-nosed god were presented to Hapay Can and emerged unharmed with the sacred maize and the sacred white water lily, we may be encountering a depiction of shamanic triumph. Hapay Can is not the plumed serpent but a separate, seemingly malicious, deity. Such a story recalls some of the earliest Arcadian and Erech tales, such as the legend of Gilgamesh; the protagonist finds the plant of eternal life only to have it stolen by a serpent. He too recovers from such an encounter.

Alberto Ruz found a sculpture at Palenque reproduced by Thompson (1966) in which a seated figure offers an elaborate headdress while seated on a demonic personage. On the head of this seated figure is a snail; on his brow is a flower that we may identify as the white water lily worn in the very fashion seen in funerary depictions of the ancient Egyptian dynasties.

The person who has been identified as the long-nosed god, so often found in association with the water lily, is frequently a shaman with a mask of the deity that he represents. In so doing, he wears a water lily as a part of his headdress. The distinction between the representation of the god versus the shaman presenting the god as his alter-ego or familiar is critical to an understanding of the ritual importance of the water lily as an element used by a priestly caste as opposed to the appearance of this motif merely as a symbol.

In their presentation of the god Tlaloc in frescos of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, Heim and Wasson present an outline of the fresco, details of this god of rain, waters, torrents, rivers, oceans - in brief, all aqueous elements. In this representation they are able to discover mushrooms as well as the colorines or narcotic red seeds of Rhynchosiu pyrimidalis. The latter is a red bean used for ritual intoxication.

The authors neglect to mention a rather frequent representation of the narcotic water lily in the waters or tributaries at the feet of Tlaloc as well as in the figure to the left of Tlaloc in which there is a row of Nymphaea ampla buds alternating with the leaves of this sacred narcotic plant:

The frequent repetition of this motif in similar murals and decorations of temples is consistent. The peltate leaf is that which these authors have taken to be mushrooms. The image of the water lily is also consistent with the nature of the god of waters.

Seen below is the presentation of a detail of the fresco of Tepantitla, in which there is a recreation of the garden of paradise. The lake to the right of this detail has the metamorphic tadpole swimming in it and in the center is a gigantic toad, which was the element that Dobkin de Rios found so frequently in association with the narcotic water lily in her paper of 1974.

From the back, mouth and anal region of the toad there are three depictions of the sacred water lily, Nymphaea ampla. Each has one flower bud (sepals evident) and one leaf with serrate margins. The plant emerging from the anal area shows the peltate nature of the leaf that is implied in the other two figures. These would characteristically be found in a lake; mushrooms would not be found in this environment.


The similarities between ancient Egypt and the Maya with respect to the use of water lilies as a vehicle to ecstasis may be explained by psychoactive constants, as documented in the peyote experience by Kluver (1969). Within the genus Nymphaea, nupharine and nupharadine would act as psychodysleptics. The additional presence of aporphine converted to apomorphine would accentuate this syndrome and add to it emesis and hallucinations.

Representations of Nymphaea with ritual implication are found in Copan, Palenque, Bonampak and other Maya sites of religious importance. Parallel elements are to be found in the ancient frescoes from Heliopolis, Thebes, Memphis and other sites of religious activity in ancient Egypt. Both civilizations have left us cryptic messages implicating water lilies in priestly ritual and in ecstasis.

Chemical assays, animal behavior studies, art-artifact, literary sources and first-hand accounts collectively implicate the water lilies of the Old World and the New World in narcotic ritual and hallucination.

Sightings of psychoactive plants are present in pretty much everything left behind those two civilizations. From written texts, to architecture, to art and remains from burial sites, tombs, sacrificial grounds etc., there is a strong presence of these plants.

This is very interesting, given that both civilizations have nothing in common. The two funerary frescoes depicted above portray a striking resemblance.

It also is obviously quite common to find human and animal forms emanating from psychoactive plants, or forming an integral part of them both in ancient Egyptian papyri and remains, as well as Mayan artifacts, art and legacy. This would further consolidate the evidence of their profound understanding of sacred union between human and plant. As we bond together, we connect the body with the mind - the finite with the infinite - in a spiritually significant elevation towards altered states of consciousness and subsequent growth and healing of the mind and body.

Anyone who has some interesting experiences or information on the topic is very welcome to share it in the comments. Also, if you disagree with anything in this post, or have an editing suggestion, by all means share those with me. I'm always open to new knowledge.

Much love and respect, my beautiful brothers and sisters! Love

Sources and references:

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."

Such is the hero's journey.

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