Primeval, beautiful, dangerous water lilies

The nenuphar, gorgeous & dramatic, at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

The Great Devourer, as she’s known by all, prowls towards me, leaving no tracks and casting no shadow. She stops in front of me and says, I am here for you, Nenuphar. Apep has given me until the end of the Seventh Hour to cross the sands.  

I can’t absorb all her words. But how can he do that? His powers are weakened by his chains.

He is free, she replies, and roars as she lunges toward me.  

I scream.

*** From Through the Monster-glass, Book 1 in the Chaos Roads Trilogy

The ancient Egyptian name of my novel’s protagonist, Romy Ussher, is Nenuphar. Through a series of dreams, she learns of her heritage, and gets a sense of her destiny.  

Nenuphar exists today, and has existed for millennia, as one of the most ancient flowers on the planet: the water lily. Fossil evidence suggests that they first evolved over 100 million years ago.  

We know them as the rather spectacular flowers that widely decorate ponds and reflecting pools. They live in temperate and tropical climates around the world, rooted in the mud at the bottom of shallow bodies of water, with leaves and flowers that float serenely on the surface. The family contains about 70 known species. There are a range of colours, from the white Nymphaea lotus and the blue Nymphaea coerulea that were so revered in ancient Egyptian culture, to pink, yellow, crimson and purple.

Water lily in the Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Their beauty, the way they grow, and their chemical properties have given them significance around the world.   

The Mayans, who were adept at obtaining drinkable water, used them to check if their water supplies were clean enough – where the water lilies grew, the water was safe. They began to incorporate water lily iconography into their artwork and hieroglyphic writing, even in settlements where the water supply wasn’t good for the growth of the flowers. Religious figures as well as aristocrats wore masks and headdresses that had water lilies and/or water lily symbols on them during special events. It also appears that the Maya consumed the plants to create an altered state of consciousness because of the opiate alkaloids in them.

To the Egyptians the water lily symbolized Upper Egypt and was used together with the papyrus flower, the symbol of Lower Egypt, to depict a united country. The blue variety was sacred, representing the sun and rebirth. They called the plant ‘lotus’, or seshen.

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Nefertem was their primeval god of the lotus blossom, painted wearing a lotus blossom on his head, and of perfumes, which were used heavily in their society. In daily life, lotus/water-lily blossoms were worn in garlands and woven into hair, as well as making a popular theme in jewellery. The flowers were cultivated in ponds to offer to the gods, as the sun god Ra was believed to have emerged from one of their flowers, and were found in tombs of the pharaohs. You don’t get any greater product endorsement than that.

In other religions as well, water lilies had great importance. They’re mentioned in the Old Testament, representing purity, innocence and love. In Buddhism and Hinduism the flower still symbolizes the potential to ‘rise above’ and achieve enlightenment.

However, their genus name, Nymphaea, came from ancient Greek lore of nymphs, beautiful yet dangerous water spirits who were prone to drowning people who visited the creeks or ponds they protected. 

The two faces of the water lily — purity and seduction — growing side by side in a pond photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

And so, the name of Nenuphar as Romy’s earliest incarnation was a very significant one, not just a reference to a beautiful flower. Romy herself is beloved, as well as beautiful and deadly. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll need to do so to find out more 😉

Today, the symbolism around water lilies is all positive: chastity, innocence, peace, beauty, rebirth, resurrection, enlightenment. You have a short window to catch a water lily blossom – only about four days before it sinks to rot under the water. Typically, though, there are multiple flowers in a pond or garden, so you’re bound to see at least a few in their glory, any time between July and September.

The painter Claude Monet was so enamoured of water lilies that he painted them in over two hundred pieces of artwork. I love taking photos of them, in all their colours and faces. I hope these few have captured your imagination with their eons of history and meaning.

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

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