Plant Lore-Water Lily

Flower lore and legend
By Katharine McMillan Beals



In that dusk land of mystic dream,

Where dark Osiris sprung,
It bloomed beside his sacred stream,

While yet the world was young.

William Winter, A Lotus Flower.

A flower delicious as the rose
And stately as a lily in her pride.

Under the name of the lotus, which some of our modern iconoclasts now declare to be historically incorrect, the water lily has drawn around it all the rich symbolism of the East. Long before Homeric days it was sacred, not only as a symbol, but was in itself an object of worship as the tree of life.

According to Hindu theology, before the creation of the world, a great sea existed everywhere. Om, the Supreme, thought, and behold, Vishnu, the preserver, appeared floating in the water. He neither swam nor walked, but was borne by the gods upon nine golden lotus plants. From his body arose one of the blossoms in which was seated Brahma, the creator, who by his radiant countenance dispelled the gloom which hung over the waters, and by the power of his presence caused the earth to rise out of the sea. The paradise of the Hindu is described in the Mahabharata, the great Indian poem, as brilliant with gold and gems, and having many green valleys and beautiful lakes, upon the surface of which are myriads of these lilies, white, blue, and red, some of which have as many as a thousand petals. On a throne covered with them sits Om, the Supreme, and beside him is enthroned Lokamata, the mother of the world, who sitting upon a lily holds another in her hand. The sweet odor of the blossom is diffused all through the heavens. Buddha also appeared on earth, floating on the water in an enormous lotus and carrying another surmounted by a trident as his symbol. Many of the sacred images of India are represented as seated upon one, and it enters conspicuously into the decorations of their temples.

In Egypt the plant was regarded as under the especial protection of the gods. It was dedicated to Osiris, the Apollo of the Egyptians. Dawn was typified by a youth dancing in a water lily. Like the Brahmans, their story of the creation was that a lily appeared upon the surface of the water and its leaves unfolded under the rays of Osiris, the sun-god. The ancient Egyptian always carried one of these lilies in his hand when approaching a place of worship, and offerings of them were placed in the tombs to pacify the anger of the gods. At festivals the walls of the banqueting halls were decorated, and great vases filled with them stood about the room and on the tables. Wreaths and necklaces, made from the stems and blossoms, were placed by the servants upon the heads and around the necks of the guests. While the lotus was reverenced by the inhabitants of Upper Egypt, in Lower Egypt the papyrus was the sacred plant. The Indian variety was of a pinkish tinge, while that of Egypt was pure white. Both the seed and the root of the latter were used for food. The root was said to enclose a nut more delicate than the almond. The seeds were dried and then powdered into a flour, from which bread was made.

In sowing the seeds they were enclosed in a ball of clay and thrown into the water. Some of the commentators suggest that this custom was referred to by Solomon in Ecclesiastes xi, i, when he wrote: "Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days." The Egyptians have many names for the plant, among them being one which means bride of the Nile. The surface of that great river, at the time of its rising, is covered with thousands of the white blossoms.

The Greeks regarded the water lily as the symbol of beauty and eloquence. According to their mythology, it owed its origin to a beautiful nymph, named Lotus, who fell deeply in love with Hercules. When he did not return her affection she died of a broken heart. Hebe, taking pity upon her, transformed her into the water lily. Long after, when Hercules went sailing with Jason in search of the golden fleece, he took with him Hylas, a youth whom he loved as his own son. When they reached the Hellespont they landed and prepared to rest. Hylas was sent to find a spring where they might get some water to drink. He found one near a pool of water, surrounded by green rushes and maiden-hair fern. The surface of the water was covered with white water lilies, each one being the home of a beautiful water-nymph. When Hylas put his pitcher down to dip up the water the maids all clung to his hand and drew him down into the depths of the pool. Just then one of the Argonauts shouted that the wind was fair for sailing. Hylas endeavored to go, but the water-nymphs held him fast. Hercules called him loudly three times, and the youth heard, but he could not answer, and his companions sailed mournfully away. Lotus was avenged, but the flowers were tinted with gold, the identifying color of an Argonaut, and the origin of the yellow water lily is thus accounted for. This is the source of the botanical name castalia nymphaea, the Latin word lutea being added for the yellow variety.

Some writers insist that the magic food upon which the lotus-eaters subsisted, and which caused whoever partook of it to forget everything in the dreamy languor of the present, was made from the seed of the Indian species.

When Ulysses in his wanderings came to the enchanted island he sent three chosen men to explore the country. The islanders met them and entertained them hospitably; but after they had eaten of the food offered them they forgot country and friends, and refused to leave that happy land " where all things always seemed the same." Their leader, having had them bound hand and foot and forcibly brought on board ship, weighed anchor and hastily sailed away from the fatal shore.

The Japanese hold the plant in scarcely less veneration than their oriental neighbors. It is to them a constant symbol of purity and truth. As it is associated with death and the spirit world, the lily is considered inappropriate as a decoration for festivities. Certain sects believe that it is the flower of paradise, and when a death occurs on earth a new water lily appears on the surface of the lake in Nirvana, while the soul makes its entrance into the land of the blest at the unfolding of its own bud.

In China, the Shing-moo, or holy mother, is represented holding the lily in her hand. Few of their temples are without some representation of it. Abbe Hue, who was one of the first writers to give any account of the Chinese, said that the roots and seeds of the plant are a great resource in culinary preparations, and that in whatever manner it is dressed it is delicious and wholesome. The large leaves are made use of instead of paper for wrapping up parcels. The Chinese poets are very fond of expatiating upon the beauty of the water lily gleaming in the moonlight, illumined by swarms of glow-worms and fire-flies.

Isis, the goddess of fertility and abundance, was regarded by the adherents of the Hindu religion as the Queen of Heaven, and cakes made of corn and lotus seeds were favorite offerings to her. In the conspiracy which arose in British India, in 1857, and which resulted in the terrible Indian mutiny, these cakes accompanied by a lotus blossom were circulated among the Sepoys to notify them that they must rally to the standard of Buddha. Whatever other elements entered into that strife, whether the ambitions of princes, the desire for gain, or the intrigues of rival nations, the student of history will not fail to discern that a deeper one was the conflict between the lotus and the cross.

The Order of the Lotus is conferred upon those who have attained prominence in the administration of British India, and the collar of the order is ornamented with the heraldic rose of England alternating with the Indian lotus.

The beauty of the flower is thus emphasized by Shelley in the Passing Cloud:

Such luster water lilies throw
Upon the brook that lies below,
Lipping their blossoms with its flow,
'Twould make a landscape painter pine
To win a hue to match with thine
To make his martyr's mantle shine.

Dr. Halbertsma says that the old Frisians, who thought the water lily had mystical powers, also believed that if a person fell with one in his hand he would become subject to fits.

In several countries it was regarded as an antidote where a person had taken a love potion.

The Wallachians have a superstition that every flower has a soul, and they say that the lily is the sinless flower, and when it dies it blossoms again at the doors of heaven, where it judges the souls of the other flowers as they arrive, and solemnly demands of each flower a strict account of the use it has made of its perfume.

An Eastern song tells the tale of a star that looked down upon a water lily as the sun stepped into the golden sea and loved her. But she was too sleepy to care much about his fond words, and she tightly closed the great thick leaves about her beauty. He could not see her in the daytime, because of the brightness of the sun, and it was only at evening that he could smile upon her, but then she was too tired to respond. At last his heart burst and he shot from the sky into the pond. For a moment the lily was startled and opened her leaves to look at the bright glare. But the falling star plunged into the water and his light and beauty were extinguished forever.

In our country, also, legends of the pond lily originated. Many, many years ago, when the Indians alone possessed the American wilderness, a band of warriors were encamped on the shore of a lake. At night, as they sat and smoked their pipes, they watched the stars, for in them they believed dwelt the good who had been taken away by the Great Spirit. Once they saw a star that seemed brighter and nearer than any of the others. A council of their wise men was called to ascertain the meaning of this wonder. Some thought that it was an omen of evil; others that it was a messenger of good. A whole moon passed and the mystery remained unsolved. One night a young brave dreamed that a radiant maiden stood beside him and said: "I love your land, its lakes and its mountains, its birds and its flowers, and I have left my sisters to dwell among you. Ask your people where I can live and what form I shall take to be loved of all." At dawn the warriors were summoned to the council lodge, and the young brave reported his dream. Three of the wisest were chosen to welcome the stranger. They were surprised to find that as they went toward the star it seemed to advance nearer and nearer to meet them, until it was almost within their reach. They offered a pipe of peace filled with fragrant herbs, and it was taken by unseen hands. As they returned, the star followed, and hovered over the camp until dawn. That night the maiden again appeared to the young brave to know what form she should take and where she should live. Numerous places were suggested, but at last it was decided to leave it to the maiden to choose for herself. At first she chose a white rose on the mountain, but no one could see her. Then she selected a prairie flower, but the hoof of the buffalo crushed her to earth. Then she passed into a honeysuckle on the cliff, but the children could not reach her. At last the star said: "I know where I will go. I will be safe and I can watch the canoes as they come and go, and the children can play with me." So saying, she dropped gently into the cool water of the lake, and the next morning thousands of white pond lilies were blooming there. The Indians called them wah-be-gwan-nee, meaning the white flower.

Another account of the origin of these lilies comes from the Caranac tribe. It was summer. All the spring the young brave chief, Wayotah, or the blazing sun, with his warriors had been away fighting with a neighboring tribe, but they had returned victorious to their camp on the shore of the lake of the reflected stars. There was wild feasting and revelry to welcome them home. Every one was joyous, save one, and she should have been the happiest of all, for in one week she was to be the bride of the victorious chief. Oseetah, which means the bird, or the sweet singer of the tribe, had vowed a vow, that no one knew of save the Great Spirit, and she was sad. Silently she withdrew from the throng, and slipping into her canoe paddled along the shore of the lake. But her lover had seen her, and, running to the shore, sprang into his canoe to follow. On they went, until beaching her canoe, she climbed up to the top of a high cliff. She called to her lover not to follow, but he either did not, or would not, understand. On he came climbing after her to find out what was the matter and to persuade her to go back with him. Perceiving that she could not stop him, Oseetah turned her face to the sky and leaped from the cliff into the lake below. The chief sprang in after her, and swam with giant strokes, searching everywhere for her, but in vain. She was not to be found, and after a while he went sadly back to his people. The feasting was changed into mourning, for the maiden was loved by all.

The next day a stranger came to the Indian village, holding in his hand a new flower. No Indian had ever seen one like it, and much wonder was expressed. Their surprise was still greater when he told them in the lake of the reflected stars there were many more just like it. Hurriedly they went to see for themselves, and sure enough, there were hundreds of great, white water lilies floating on the water. While they were gazing a man appeared, dressed in flowing robes, and he told them that because Oseetah had been true to her vow the Great Spirit had given her a new form. The white petals were for her goodness, the yellow center for her faith, and the green leaves a symbol that she should live forever. Every morning she would open to the sun as he rose, and close when he sank be neath the horizon in the evening. And so to the Indian the pond lily is the emblem of good faith.

In Germany it is believed that the Undines, or water spirits, make their homes in the heart of the water lilies. As the night comes on the petals of the flowers close tightly, shutting them in, and then slowly sink down into the water to rise and open in all their beauty with the morning sun. There is a story of a German knight, who loved one of these beautiful nymphs and made her his wife. Soon after the marriage he wanted to take his lady out on the water in a boat. She begged him not to go, but he laughed at her fears. Tearfully she slipped into the boat with him. They had not gone far when hundreds of little hands dragged the boat and its occupants under the water. The next morning two lilies, larger and more beautiful than the others, appeared near where the boat had gone down.

The most wonderful variety of the water lily in the world is the Victoria regia. It was introduced into England from South America about 1850 and Professor Lindley, who has written an exhaustive monograph treating of it and its culture, has named it after England's great and good Queen. The blossoms are enormous, while the leaves sometimes measure nine feet across and can bear up a man. The plant is night blooming. The first evening that it opens the blossom is white and the odor is almost oppressive. On the second day when it unfolds it is pink. This remarkable flower is grown in many public and private gardens in the United States.

There has been almost as much attention paid in literature to the water lily as to the rose and the violet. Under the name of the lotus, ancient authors wrote of its mystical qualities and religious symbolism, and in later days as an emblem of purity and beauty it has been a favorite with writers of both poetry and prose. Thoreau's chapter on water lilies is cooling to the most fevered mind. Heine, Moore, Shelley, and Wordsworth have all paid their tribute to the mystic flower. A recent laureate of England chose it as an exquisite emblem of affection.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up
And slips into the bosom of the lake;
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom, and be lost in me.

Tennyson, The Princess.

Those virgin lilies all the night
Bathing their beauties in the lake,

That they may rise more fresh and bright,
When their beloved sun's awake.
Thomas Moore, Paradise and the Peri.