Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Beauty - Flowers

Flowers: The Fundamental Fashion Accessory

The ancient Egyptians' love of beautiful fragrance inspired their renowned perfume industry. Ingredients were painstakingly carried from the ends of the Earth: from the depths of Africa to the heights of the Himalayas. Successful perfumers were held in high esteem; trade secrets were zealously guarded.

Fine fragrance was also linked to the visual sense: not content with merely inhaling beauty, perfume containers and vessels were carved into intricate, eye-catching designs. Yet, fine fragrance was not limited to the perfume vessel or the unguent jar. Visual and olfactory beauty in the form of flowers was omnipresent.

Images of individuals as well as social gatherings are filled with flowers. Divinities, pharaohs and commoners alike are adorned with blossoms and garlands. These blossoms range from the water lilies and papyrus that once grew rampantly by the Nile to cultivated flowers. Indeed, it is believed that some of the earliest gardens on Earth were in ancient Egypt. (Garden, in this sense, indicating planned and cultivated human-controlled agriculture, rather than a spontaneous, natural bower of flowers.)

Tremendous effort and care went into the cultivation of these gardens, with trees and flowers strategically arranged. Wealthier Egyptians hired professional gardeners. Images of flowerbeds demonstrate their beauty.

Although a blossom might simply be snipped and carried or worn in the hair, the effort involved did not end with cultivation. A tremendous amount of time and effort was spent crafting cut flowers into adornments for the body. Garlands, wreaths and collars were worn. Bouquets were carefully crafted, including some shaped to resemble an ankh.

Flowers were appreciated on a wide number of planes: spiritual, social and sensual. Guests were presented with flowers upon arrival. Socialites at parties are depicted holding and sniffing water lilies. Servants were kept busy, not only with cooking, preparing and serving but also weaving wreaths, collars and garlands which would be distributed throughout the festivities.

In an interesting parallel, we have seen that the tradition of tattooing, closely identified with Polynesia today, has its earliest documented roots in ancient Egypt. Likewise, the flower garland or lei is most associated today with Hawaii, where it remains a vital art form and spiritual expression. Some of the earliest surviving specimens of this art can also be traced to ancient Egypt. As with the surviving tattoos, the Egyptian mode of burial and mummification preserved the most perishable items, like flesh or fresh flowers.

Garlands were not only for living mortals. Statues of deities were dressed daily with appropriate flowers while bouquets were presented as offerings. Mummies and coffins were typically draped with garlands: many dried, desiccated specimens of these garlands have survived. It has become possible recently, with great care, to gently restore these floral ornaments to a semblance of their former appearance. We can also observe the workmanship, giving us an understanding of how these garlands were created and appreciate the human effort involved.

The techniques used by the ancient Egyptians are quite similar to those of the most skilled artisans of modern Hawaii. Flowers are not merely pierced and strung. They are carefully woven, twisted and folded, artfully arranged so that the collar or wreath appears seamless. Flowers might also be sewn onto linen bands to create a wreath.

Wreaths are typically worn across the forehead. Collars and garlands were distinguished by their length. Illustrations depict very small collars used as hair ornaments. Although both men and women enjoyed the use of makeup, moisturizers and perfume, hair ornamentation seems to have been a female fashion. In addition to fresh flowers, ribbons, beads and jewels were attached to hair and wigs.

As each divinity was believed to exude a specific scent and certain botanicals were identified strongly with specific deities (i.e. the water lilies with Nefertem or the sycamore fig with Hathor), it is probably safe to assume that specific flowers held symbolic value for the Egyptians. Here we would also find parallels with Hawaiian tradition: in modern Hawaii, for instance, stephanotis is associated with weddings while the gift of a pikake lei may signal romantic intentions.

It is very tempting to try to analyze the Egyptian garlands in the style of Victorian England's Language of Flowers. Was there a meaning encoded within each wreath, the flowers chosen not only for scent and beauty but also for symbolic value? We know that the Egyptians enjoyed multi-leveled meanings and word play; certainly, their poetry suggests that flowers held erotic and flirtatious connotations. However, unfortunately at this time, we can only speculate on what those symbols and meanings might be.

For obvious reasons, the best-preserved wreaths are funerary. King Tutankhamun's coffins were carefully wrapped and arranged with multiple garlands and floral arrangements (perhaps a precursor of today's funeral flowers?) The preserved botanicals included olive and celery leaves, cornflower heads, safflower and pomegranate blossoms and blue and white water lily petals. Similar flower ornaments have been discovered on other pharaoh's coffins.

Perhaps the transience of fresh flowers struck some funeral-arrangers as inappropriate. Other mummies have been found encircled by collars with floral motifs, created from permanent faience beads rather than temporary blossoms. But there is nothing morbid about these floral garlands. Rather they seem an affirmation of the beauties of Earth and life. From the imagery that remains to us, it seems that flowers were the most abundant ornamentation for the living as well as the dead, for rich and poor alike.

Anyone who has been privilege to inhale the luxurious scent of an Hawiian lei can imagine the wonders of a blue lotus garland. Egypt's finest perfumes, created for the native elite and for export, still would not compete with the heady beauty of a fresh, fragrant flower wreath. It is like carrying a bit of paradise around with you. For a culture that associated beautiful fragrance with sacred qualities, it is easy to imagine that enveloped in fragrance one would feel protected, attractive and empowered simultaneously.

Further Reading:

Manniche, Lise An Ancient Egyptian Herbal Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989

Dr. Manniche provides diagrams of ancient gardens, a full analysis of the floral arts and a listing of the botanicals known to the Egyptians and their mode of use.

Ronck, Ronn The Hawaiian Lei Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1997 Detailed full color illustrations of a variety of leis, including instructions and a discussion of the symbolism of various botanicals.

Last Updated: June 1st, 2011