(Nefertem) Nefertum’s name is most likely to be interpreted as “that which is beautifully completed,” that is, perfected or actualized (the –tum ending is the same as the name of Atum). The consistent element in his iconography is the blue lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, which was highly popular in Egypt for decoration, for its fragrance, and as offerings to the Gods. It has also recently been alleged that the blue lotus may have been used as a narcotic, though this has now been disputed (Counsell 2008). Whatever may be the truth of this claim, the smelling of the lotus flower is used in Egyptian iconography to symbolize the enjoyment of sensual pleasure in its most exalted form. In PT utterance 249 Nefertum is “the lotus-bloom which is at the nose of Re,” who “will issue from the horizon daily and the Gods will be cleansed at the sight of him.” In this utterance the deceased king identifies himself with Nefertum: “I am this zeshzesh-flower [lotus] which sprang up from the earth [BD spell 174: “I am this lotus that shines in the earth”] … and I am at the nose of the Great Power.” The lotus, as a flower that grows in water, symbolizes the emergence of the cosmos from the watery abyss and the beauty of the forms borne upon its ever-shifting surface. Regarding these forms, the Egyptians do not emphasize their aspect of impermanence, but rather their aspect of being always new, and therefore signify them through deities depicted in the form of children. PT utterance 307 speaks of the formative era “when Re was ruler of the Two Enneads and the ruler of the plebs was Nefertum.” Here Re’s sovereignty over the Gods (signified in the unknown number of their totality by the idealization ‘Two Enneads’) is paralleled in the realm of mortals by the sovereignty of Nefertum during the childhood of humanity. However, it may be the implication of impermanence, of fleetingness, that makes of Nefertum at times an object of apprehension. Thus in CT spell 335, Re is asked to save the operator from “that God whose shape is hidden … who puts bonds on the evildoers at his slaughterhouse, who kills souls,” which is explained in one of the ancient commentaries as referring to “Nefertum, son of Sekhmet the Great [or ‘son of Bast‘ in one of the glosses from the version in BD spell 17], he who uses his arm,” i.e. to smite. Nefertum can be depicted as a man wearing a lotus headdress or as a child seated on a lotus, or as a lion-headed man or a lion devouring an enemy. In these leonine forms Nefertum has often a hawk on his head which itself wears the lotus headdress. Nefertum may also be mummiform, or carrying a curved sword or khepesh, or standing on a recumbent lion. He is most often considered the son of Sekhmet and Ptah, but also frequently of Bast, a connection which is probably responsible for his occasional depiction accompanied by a cat.
CT spell 295, for “becoming a scribe of the altars of Hathor,” names this scribe as Ihmos, “son of Nefertum.” The association with Nefertum makes sense for one who is, as it were, tallying the things consecrated to the Goddess of beauty and pleasure. CT spell 571, “To build a mansion among the waters,” states that “As for these mansions among the waters of sky and earth, if my wish to come to them be not granted, sky and earth will be trodden down,” and “the hebennet which is in front of the house of Nefertum will be trodden down,” the hebennet being a type of offering-cake (mentioned as well in CT spell 39 and PT utterance 158). The point in such a statement is not to pose a threat, but to establish an equivalency. The permanent position which the operator seeks amidst the waters is itself the offering which is rendered to Nefertum; its impossibility would render impossible, in turn, the recognition of Nefertum’s divinity, if we understand him to embody the idealized beauty and perfection of things in themselves impermanent. Assuming the form of the lotus, which is smelled and enjoyed by the Gods themselves, is to constitute this offering. Hence BD spell 81, for “assuming the form of a lotus,” has the operator affirm that “I am this pure lotus that has ascended by the sunlight and is at Re’s nose. I spend my time shedding the sunlight on Horus. I am the pure lotus that ascended from the field.” Here the lotus of Nefertum is an intermediary between Re, the principle of cosmic order, and Horus, the principle of social order, vindicator of his father, that is, of the mortal as such. To identify with the lotus in this context is thus to identify with what is most noble and holy in mortal being, and which gratifies the Gods themselves.
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Counsell, David J. 2008. “Intoxicants in Ancient Egypt? opium, nymphea, coca and tobacco.” Pp. 195-215 in A. R. David, ed., Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT].