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The Sesen is the lotus flower used extensively in Egyptian art, and represented the power of the sun, creation, rebirth, and regeneration. The lotus flower is often depicted in bloom with a long stem, sometimes standing vertically and at other times bent at an angle. While the color of the Sesen could vary, most depictions feature a blue lotus.
This symbol first appeared very early in ancient Egyptian history in the first dynasty and became important from the Old Kingdom onwards.
The Lotus Flower in Ancient Egypt
The Lotus flower was, according to myth, one of the first plants to come to existence. This flower emerged in the world from the primordial mud deposit before the dawn of creation. It was a potent symbol with a connection to life, death, rebirth, creation, healing, and the sun. Although the lotus flower is part of many cultures, few held it in such high esteem as the Egyptians.
The blue lotus flower was one of the symbols of the goddess Hathor, and the Egyptians believed that it had curative properties. People made ointments, remedies, lotions, and perfumes out of the Sesen. As part of their worship, the Egyptians used to bathe the statues of the gods in lotus-scented water. They used the flower for its health properties, for cleansing, and even as an aphrodisiac.
Scholars believe that Egypt was the original place of the blue and white lotus flower. The Egyptians appear to have preferred the blue lotus to the white for its scent and beauty. Other species like the pink lotus originated in Persia. All these uses and connections caused the lotus flower to become the national flower of modern Egypt.
The Sesen was depicted on several items of ancient Egypt. There were depictions of the Sesen in sarcophagi, tombs, temples, amulets, and more. Although the lotus was originally the symbol of Upper Egypt, people also worshipped it in the city of Heliopolis, where modern Cairo is situated. The Sesen was also significant in architecture and was depicted on temples, pillars, and thrones of the pharaohs.
The Symbolism of the Sesen
The lotus is among the most symbolic of all flowers. Here are some of the meanings associated with the Sesen in ancient Egypt:
- Protection – Apart from the actual properties of the lotus flower, the Egyptians believed that its scent offered protection. In this sense, there are many depictions of deities offering a blue lotus flower for the pharaohs to smell.
- Regeneration and Rebirth – One of the most important features of the lotus flower is its transformation over the course of the day. In the evening, the flower closes its petals and retreats into the murky water, which is its environment, but in the morning, it re-emerges and blossoms again. This process strengthened the connections of the flower with the sun and rebirth, as it was believed that this process emulated the journey of the sun. The transformation also symbolized the regeneration of the flower every day.
- Death and Mummification – Due to its connections with rebirth and with the god of the Underworld Osiris, this symbol had associations with death and the mummification process. Some depictions of the Four Sons of Horus show them standing on a Sesen. Osiris is also present in these depictions, with the Sesen symbolizing the travel of the deceased to the underworld.
- Unification of Egypt – In some depictions, especially after the unification of Egypt, the stem of the Sesen appears intertwined with the papyrus plant. This combination symbolized a unified Egypt, as the lotus was the symbol of Upper Egypt while the papyrus was the symbol of Lower Egypt.
The Sesen and the Gods
The lotus flower had connections with many deities of Egyptian mythology. Due to its associations with the sun, the Sesen was one of the symbols of the sun god Ra. Later myths associate the Sesen symbol with Nefertem, the god of medicine and healing. For its rebirth and its role in the journey of death, the Sesen became a symbol of Osiris too. In other, less common myths and depictions, the Sesen had to do with the goddesses Isis and Hathor.
The Sesen Outside Ancient Egypt
The lotus flower is a notable symbol in several eastern cultures, most prominently in India and in Vietnam. As in Egypt, it represents rebirth, spiritual ascension, cleansing, purity, and enlightenment, especially in Buddhism and Hinduism.
Apart from the symbolism of the lotus flower, people have also used it as a medicinal plant throughout history. In many Asian countries, the lotus root is commonly eaten in a variety of dishes.
So important was the Sesen symbol that the lotus flower became the flower most commonly associated with Egypt. The lotus flower was notable not only in Ancient Egypt but also in other eastern cultures, and was valued as a symbol of regeneration, rebirth, power, purity and enlightenment.