Nefertem, Ancient Lord of Perfume
The Egyptian pantheon is a particularly huge and fluid one, with a wide array of deities floating in and out of one another's myths. Because of the vast quantity and because of limitations of space, collections of mythology are forced to edit, choosing to spotlight certain deities as being most important while relegating others to the lesser ranks. Which deities are chosen as important often reveals more about the modern editor and his or her culture than about the ancient Egyptians themselves.
Until very recently at least, the favored spotlighted deities tended to be gods of the "big picture," transcendent Creator Spirits, remote and sometimes aloof holy beings involved in large conceptual issues: the arts of civilization, for instance, the creation of the world or the birth of agriculture. Deities with narrower scopes, deities involved with the functional day-to-day aspects of ordinary life and in particular those deities involved with what has become categorized as women's issues, (oh, you know, those little things like facilitating conception and childbirth, for instance), tended to be relegated to minor status. Yet, archaeological evidence increasingly indicates how important those so-called "minor gods", Bes and Taweret, for instance, were to the average ancient Egyptian, not only to women but to men and families as well.
Those who wish to demonstrate the triviality of ancient Egyptian polytheism all too often cite Nefertem, God of Perfume, as an example. Troubled by the sheer volume of Egyptian gods, it's pointed out that the Egyptians even had a god of perfume, implying that perfume was somehow too trivial and not worthy of divine patronage. This attitude is not only dismissive of Nefertem, whom mythology shows was not a trivial god but actually a figure of tremendous spiritual and practical consequence, but also demonstrates how rigid and limited the modern view of fragrance has become.
Perfume, like its patron god, is often now considered a mere triviality, at best a room freshener or perhaps an expensive and romantic gift, an item of superfluous luxury, an item associated with women. For the ancient Egyptians, however, with their holistic grasp of the universe, fragrance and perfume were not only beautiful but were also vast fonts of spiritual and therapeutic potential. Yes, the ancient Egyptians were famed perfumers; as the clich goes, Alexandria was once the Paris of its day. Yes, the ancient Egyptians appreciated the sheer beauty of fragrance as well as its marketing potential yet their vision of fragrance also incorporated spiritual and therapeutic aspects. Thus, Nefertem was not merely an ornamental god but also a god of healing and a god intensely involved in the nation's overall spiritual rituals.
Nefertem's story is intertwined with that of Re, supreme though eternally vulnerable solar power. In the fluid manner of Egyptian mythology, Nefertem is simultaneously an aspect of Re and yet also his grandson.
Nefertem's arrival on the mythological landscape coincides with the very beginnings of the world. In this particular creation myth (and Egyptian mythology possesses several versions of the origins of Earth and humans), a giant spectacular lotus emerges to float alone upon the primordial waters of Nun. On the day of creation, the lotus opens to reveal a beautiful male child nestled in the center. The baby boy's tears produce humanity. This baby, identified with Nefertem, ultimately matures into Re. Re's cycle of birth, his maturation into power followed by his nightly plunge into the dark underworld to face the dangers of chaos was repeated every 24 hours. Each new dawn heralded Re's reemergence and the victory of order over chaos.
Nefertem figures in Egyptian mythology as an independent figure, part of the Triad of Memphis. When Nefertem is presented as an aspect of Re he is depicted as a baby but when Nefertem is an independent deity he is typically depicted as a beautiful, handsome young man wearing a cluster of lotus blooms on his head. Nefertem's official role was patron of the cosmetic and healing arts derived from flowers.
Nefertem's intrinsically compassionate nature is reaffirmed in legend where he brings to the aging, wounded Re a collection of sacred, beautiful lotuses for the purpose of easing his suffering, giving us a myth with deeper implications when we consider that the science of anesthesia derives from the narcotic properties of certain flowering plants.
Even as part of the Triad of Memphis, Nefertem's affiliation with Re continues. He is the son of the triad. His father is Ptah, his mother is lion-headed Sekhmet, Re's daughter, who bears the epithet, "Eye of her Father," proclaiming her role as Re's fiercest defender and enforcer of justice. As befitting the son of such a leonine mother, Nefertem's primary affiliation, beyond flowers, is lions. Sometimes depicted with a lion's head, numerous faience figurines depict him standing upon the back of a lion.
What could be the connection of gentle, compassionate Nefertem with fierce bloodthirsty Sekhmet? When viewed rigidly, their relationship may seem puzzling however when both Sekhmet and perfume are permitted to be multi-faceted, the relationship makes sense.
Modern renderings of Sekhmet's legend tend to pigeonhole her as a destructive and even somewhat malevolent deity. In her most famous legend, her bloodthirsty and unpredictable qualities ultimately intimidate even Re. Yet, there are other sides to Sekhmet, too. She possesses beneficial aspects and the archaeological evidence indicates that she was viewed with great respect.
Statues of regal seated Sekhmets are legion. She seems to have been quite a prominent deity, her statues found, often in great multitudes, not only throughout Egypt but also beyond, well within what is now Israel. Modern day rationales explain that this was because she was a deity who had to be supplicated and placated constantly for fear of unleashing her powers of destruction. Yet, it ignores the fact that in addition to her role as fearsome avenger, Sekhmet was also a supreme deity of healing. Her clergy were trained healers. The Egyptians had not one but various healing deities; the essence of the deity revealing the methods of healing that they sponsored. Sekhmet is most frequently envisioned today as the embodiment of the scorching destructive power of the sun. Her role as the all-seeing, inescapable Eye of Re may also have been to search out and then destroy illness. Although, as of yet at least, we do not know what methods and techniques were actually used by Sekhmet's healers, somehow the focused beams of heat and light with which she was associated were used to eradicate illness, a concept familiar to modern readers.
Nefertem, on the other hand, healed through the power of flowers. (When Imhotep, the master physician was deified after death as a god of healing, he, too, would be installed as a son of Sekhmet and considered as Nefertem's younger brother.) Time has been more gracious to Nefertem's secrets and wisdom. Many of his healing and replenishing arts remain and have seemingly reemerged with the 20th century rebirth of flower essence therapy and especially aromatherapy.
Nefertem is not a deity of agricultural fertility; he is specifically associated with flowers. His special flower, the lotus, may be a luxurious rarity today but in Nefertem's heyday, it bloomed plentifully. The lotus' emergence from amidst muddy waters has made it an object of spiritual contemplation in many parts of Earth, however it had special significance in Egypt, as its form echoes the shape of the Nile Delta. Thus the flower most identified with the God of Perfume was not a blossom so rare and unusual that it would be reserved only for temple or aristocratic use; instead it was a flower readily available to all, a source of beauty that transcended economic limitations.
Nefertem's presence is still implicit on Earth, not so much in the modern perfume industry, with its narrower vision of fragrance and floral fragrances are often synthetically reproduced, thus preserving the scent but losing any therapeutic value. Nefertem's modern influence can be felt most powerfully in aromatherapy, the modern revival of the ancient fragrant arts, in which Egypt played such a large part. Aromatherapy uses fragrant plant extracts known as essential oils for beauty and pleasure, to replenish our spirits, but also to provide spiritual, emotional and physical healing. While essential oils are derived from a variety of botanicals including herbs, fruits and trees, some of the most profound and beautiful healing agents are derived from flowers. To bring the story nicely full circle, modern Egypt is among the world's greatest supplier of these aromatic substances.
Prominent in aromatherapy's floral repertoire are such flowers as these, grown in vast quantities in Egypt:
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens): used to relieve anxiety, regulate women's hormonal cycles as well as heal blemished skin.
Neroli (Citrus aurantium): the essential oil of orange blossoms has proven to be one of aromatherapy's most profound tools against depression. It is powerful enough that it is used to replenish aging skin yet gentle enough to be one of the few oils safe for use with children.
Jasmine (Jasmine officinalis or J. grandiflorum): another profound anti-depressant is also used for male and female reproductive complaints as well as to ease childbirth.
Jasmine and Neroli's historic roots run deep within Egyptian soil; Cleopatra reputedly soaked her sails with these scents, when she embarked upon her successful seduction of Marc Anthony. Even today, jasmine and neroli are considered among the most effective, albeit expensive, aphrodisiacs.
What of the lotus, the flower most associated with Nefertem himself? It is still an integral component within Traditional Chinese Medicine and especially within Ayurveda, the 5000 years old traditional healing art of India. (And it is quite likely that educated Egyptian healers would have been conversant with the methods used by their contemporaries in India and vice-versa. Egypt imported fragrant materials from the Himalayas and it was to India that Cleopatra attempted to send her eldest son in her futile attempt to maintain her dynasty and an independent Egypt.) An essential oil of lotus also exists. It is used for perfume, to relieve anxiety and for its spiritual properties.
Essential oils are powerful and can have profound physical effects. They must be diluted before use and should never be taken internally without direct supervision by a qualified professional. If you are pregnant, nursing or have any health vulnerabilities, consult a professional before use.
When purchasing essential oils, the Latin botanical classification should be clearly marked to ensure that it is clear exactly what you are purchasing. Many reputable aromatherapy producers will also tell you where the botanical was grown. In the manner of wine or olive oil, place of origin has great effect upon the product. If you purchase neroli, geranium or jasmine, it is quite likely that you will receive an Egyptian product. However, if you wish to be sure, Kyphi9 carries a line of essential oils derived from botanicals grown exclusively in Egypt.
For essential oil of lotus, grown and produced in India, as well as extensive information about the lotus flower and aromatherapy in general: (http://www.members.aol.com/somanath/fragrant.html )
Welcome to the Ancient Egyptian Home By Ilene Springer
Historical Hotels in Egypt - Part IV By Jimmy Dunn
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
Nightlife Various Editors
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek
Last Updated: June 5th, 2011