The Waterlily Mystique
This article was written by Amita Raval who spent the summer of 2017 working at Lilies Water Gardens, Amita has a gifted appreciation and interest in the natural world and its history and its impact on the human cultural world, hope you enjoy!
A single waterlily rises from the still pool before you, taking your breath away with its startling perfection, its enchanting creamy-rose spiral of petals. By evening it will be all but invisible, hiding its remarkable beauty until the sun rises again. For now it stands proud yet serene, lifted effortlessly just above the water’s surface on slender stem.
How many sages, mystics and healers have contemplated such an image and found therein some transcendental invitation? For how long have humans been attracted by the enduring mystique of the waterlily, arguably one of the most recognized sacred symbols in nature?
The name ‘waterlily’ is principally applied to plants of the genus Nymphaea, which name associates them with Greek and Roman nymphs, mythological inhabitants of springs, streams and wells. Nelumbo (more accurately described as lotus) and Nuphar are also sometimes referred to as waterlilies, but this tends to cause confusion in terms of botanical accuracy.
In Ancient Egypt the waterlily was a powerful symbol of creation and rebirth, perhaps because Nymphaea Lotus, the native white species, opens in the morning with the sun and closes at night. The stunning plant was therefore associated with the sun god Ra; the Creator was said to have been born from a waterlily; and the flower regularly appeared as a motif of divinity and honor.
Of course, the white lily has a better-known, and perhaps even more striking relative connected with the ancient Egyptians. Nymphaea Caerulea, the Blue ‘Lotus’ or Sacred Blue Lily was used as a spiritual sacrament for its psychoactive properties: the flowers were steeped in wine and drunk ceremonially to induce euphoria. There is some discussion as to whether the Lotus-Eaters of Homer’s Odyssey might refer to the same blue lily.
On another continent, the Mayans are also believed to have discovered the effects of ingesting waterlily, this time probably Nymphaea Ampla, as a ritual hallucinogen. Depictions of waterlilies have been found on various Mayan artefacts including altars and ceramics.
Hindu iconography blossoms with the Indian pale-pink lotus Nelumbo Nucifera, as a symbol of rebirth and enlightenment, testament to its capacity to re-emerge from the driest of riverbeds once the rains begin, reaching up through the muddiest waters to open spectacular, pristine flowers. Many deities are depicted holding the flower in one hand, while Vishnu and Lakshmi both appear seated on one.
In addition, each of the chakras is shown as a lotus with different numbers of petals, again representing a person’s ascent to enlightenment up to the crown chakra of a thousand petals.
The Buddha is another often seated on a lotus, a key symbol in Buddhism and perhaps the origin of the cross-legged ‘lotus’ position.
On a more practical note, Native Americans used various parts of the Nymphaea Odorata plant as a source of food.
Finally, the humble yet beautiful white Nymphaea Alba, native to the UK and Europe, though less associated with spiritual iconography, is equally deserving of attention. They are incredibly hardly, able to regrow from the tiny pieces of healthy rhizome, and surviving temperatures of -30°C and solid ice. They simply go dormant over winter and flower again the following spring even after the harshest conditions.
The white waterlily is also said to be psychoactive; there are differing opinions as to preparation and dosage, but the most common recipes seem to be tea or wine containing the buds. (This writer cannot confirm the efficacy of said concoctions and always advises caution with the consumption of mind-altering substances.)
Even stripped of their spiritual or religious connotations, waterlilies are truly remarkable plants: their sheer determination to live through extremes of heat, cold or drought epitomises the fortitude of nature. Conversely, they suffer in strongly flowing or splashing water, meaning they are most often found in tranquil pools, manifestations of the peace that surrounds them.
Who could witness such a scene and not feel a touch of the sacred, even if only as a wonder of the natural world? Perhaps, in the end, this is all we really need to discover the highest spiritual connection. Perhaps this is what we humans have been seeking since the existence of ancient civilisations in our fascination with the mystical, alluring waterlily.
‘The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.’
Written by a friend