An image captured me in the Egyptian Museum. I passed a glass cabinet filled with a variety of objects, the typological arrangement of which was quite obscure. Nested among pots and utensils with disfigured faces, I found a small ceramic shard. On it was a painting of a man walking with three lotus flowers sprouting from his head. I copied it into my notebook:
Underneath I gave the caption: “The lotus grows from his head, our heads. The lotus is sacred.”
My thought process was: As the Egyptian lotus can only grow in very clean and healthy waters, it is associated with purity and holiness. The lotus growing from this figure’s head implies that he is sacred, or contains some extraordinary quality in this moment. Since the figure does not appear with any other supernatural accessories or signs of great wealth (he’s dressed in simple white cloth), I believe he might represent the common man. He could be a reflection of our own selves, perhaps at our most exalted. So his head is the head of many heads. By virtue of my speculation, the picture indicates the general holiness of humankind.
I took this conclusion under my arm and walked out of the museum. I continued my day with it in mind, and imagined the lotus flower growing from my own head.
When I showed a friend the drawing, however, he contested my caption. He said: “No, this man is the Nile, and the lotus is the lotus that used to grow in the Nile.”
In this case, the man is a place or site, and it’s the lotus that is the body. With this the picture’s whole logic and meaning changes — I would then assume it is about the relationship between the Nile and the lotus flower. Some questions arose in my mind: Depicted in this way, does the Nile give life to the lotus, or the lotus give life to the Nile? Or is the relationship symbiotic? Also, how should we look at the space around the figure? What kind of space and time does the Nile walk in?
If this second interpretation is accepted, then the picture resonates a sadness in contemporary times. This is because at some point in history, the lotus disappeared from the Nile. There is no official explanation accorded to this phenomenon, but most people have their own ideas. I have often heard it attributed to human interference with ecological processes, such as the building of dams or factories. One person I know is sure that a big businessman came and bought all the lotuses of the Nile and kept them for himself, or sold them to Europe. Whether the lotus was severed from the head, bought out, or just fell of its own accord, remains a mystery. But we know that the Nile-man no longer walks with a head of flowers.
A month after that trip to the museum, I got access to its library, and took this chance to seek further dimensions to the picture. I found the only book on the lotus that was in English, and this is what it revealed: ‘Nefertum, of the Memphite Triad, appears with the lotus upon his head. As a god of the rising sun, we find the deceased after being transformed into a lotus saying: “I am the pure lotus which spright up from the divine splendour that belongth to the nostrils of Ra.”’
Contextualizing the lotus within the religion of Ra, the book also implies the figure of the man may well be the god Nefertum. In any case, among all its other aspects and qualities, the central point that makes the lotus so sacred is that the opening and closing of its flower is synchronous with the rising and setting of the sun. In this respect, it symbolizes the cycle of beginnings: When Seth tore out Horus’ eyes, lotuses immediately grew from his eye sockets, and these were later replaced with a new pair of eyes. Therefore the lotus is about renewal and resurrection.
The memory of something that had happened earlier this year struck me, and paired with this new information, formed a new meaning to the lotus. A friend of mine was arrested on April 25. I was new to Egypt, and this event placed me in a period of uncertainty and a re-evaluation of many things. Sitting by the river with another friend, perplexed at the situation, we likened our friend’s arrest to the disappearance of the lotus from the Nile. This detached the situation from its particularities into a story greater than ourselves. We felt the disappearance of the lotus was a similar type of abduction: an injustice of which the details cannot be known, that feels fraudulent and dirty, leaving you confused about how to voice a response and to who.
My friend was released a few months later, and he and I visited the Egyptian Museum together. On this day he decided to steal a lotus from the pond in front of the museum, one of the few places you can still find the lotus in Egypt. Unaware of the analogy we’d previously made, he linked this act to his release from prison and titled it, “Lotus Resurrection.”
For me, the discovery of symbols takes place in various parts, some parts completing others, with long gaps of time or distance in between. It is never a linear process of discovery, but one that stops, stalls, backtracks and can take me for a wander. A symbol can lie dormant for a long while before it is recognized. I have to be receptive. Once it appears, I can choose to carry it with me, and also drop it or disregard it when I wish.
When I first arrived in Egypt, for a while I stayed away from ancient sites and had a disinterest in pharaonic history. I associated these things with tourism and the exoticization of Egyptian history. More than anything, I assumed such symbols had nothing to offer towards a current and “grittier” understanding of Egypt. Nonetheless, certain ancient Egyptian symbols and stories appeared and began to weave themselves into what was happening around me. They took their place in conversations and in what people were drawing and painting in their homes, particularly in response to the gritty realities young Egyptians face.
One thing that struck me was how the necessity of immorality was understood by ancient Egyptians, and that “evil” was not a force in itself, and not a concept to be feared. Take for example Seth, who tore out his own nephew Horus’s eyes. While Seth committed seemingly atrocious acts, he was not considered a villain, but a god in his own right. At the point that Seth and Horus are really going to kill each other, Thoth arrives and reconciles them, because their fight is important for the continual play of order and chaos that maintains the universe. The stories do not reach moral closures by condemning certain behaviors and praising others, but illustrate how different drives get entangled and play out in a narrative form. The gods are of human nature too: they are driven by jealousy, love and greed, and power structures are built and toppled in un-heroic ways. Within these sagas, plants and animals are typically used as symbols to illustrate different powers or aspects of human nature, and in fact all parts of nature are seen as symbolic of each other.
Maybe I came to accept some of these figures and symbols through an underlying necessity: By substituting certain forces or events with pictures, one can at least see them and find a way to talk about them. But to involve symbols and myths in day-to-day life is considered archaic these days and the lotus is not easily dropped into a conversation about the prison system. We are more accustomed to discussing things by way of quotes and figures — but these are also symbols, only more serious looking. In fact, in pretending to be truth, words and numbers can lend themselves to more dogmatic purposes and political manipulation, while symbols and pictures are much more obviously open to interpretation. They provide a plane of freer association where they can merge and collide, forming new meanings and facilitating a plurality of values. They are also spatial things: a picture bears a stronger relationship to its surface, and what else is around it, than a word or number.
In his book Pure Immanence, Gilles Deleuze talks about different types of thought. One is the kind that judges and measures, ultimately restricting and condemning itself to a set of values. The other is the kind that creates, lightening life by inventing new possibilities, and affirming it. Pictures lie in the latter category, because their invention and reception (by the beholder) takes place in the mode of creation as opposed to deduction. They can communicate in a way that adds a much-needed plurality to the way we judge the world, and live by these judgments. I propose we draw more pictures.
I also propose we steal more symbols from the world, for ourselves and our friends. Symbols, when they are really lived with and not just appropriated, can become tools of empowerment — like how Super Mario picks up a flower and for a while it gives him a secret strength. I do not mean stealing in the sense where something is diminished, but rather when something is claimed for oneself because it is open to claim by anyone. I recently questioned my friend as to why he stole the lotus three months ago, and he explained that at that moment he needed it more than anything. He needed new life, and this was the lotus for him. Since it was a matter of life he had to take it, because a life is immanent: inherent, existing beyond external judgments of right and wrong, it is “in itself” — for everyone yet belonging to no one.
Returning to the picture of the man and the lotus, I still wonder: which interpretation should be accepted? Which source carries the most legitimacy? One might assume it would be the book found in the library, because a book must be well-researched and is an accomplished object. But interpretation is also based on the context of the beholder and, to an extent, what they are already searching for. Is it possible that all these meanings can exist at once? For me, they can: that my friend has undergone a resurrection, that the Nile has lost the lotus it once bore on its head, and that flowers grow from those that are holy — these are all co-existing realities. All is possible at once, but only if one believes in the symbol of the lotus and has stolen it for oneself.
Correction: This text initially suggested that Seth was not Horus’s uncle but his brother.