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The bindweeds of Egypt and their symbolic role for the deceased

From the Middle Kingdom until the 18th Dynasty, representations are found of a parasitic bindweed associated with the stems of papyrus, . Its representations increase and refine themselves during the Amarnian period because of the naturalistic leaning to nature; but it is in Ramesside times, and more particularly that of Ramesses II, that the images become more beautiful and most detailed. The plant is frequently attached to the stem of the papyrus, or to bouquets, but being also able to, more rarely, exist separately. After the 20th Dynasty, if the theme persists, the quality of the representations decrease (as do all more representations of nature).
This success under the Ramesseses is probably linked with the specific beliefs of that time, and notably the eminent place that the solar cults occupy.

The nature of the plant has been under debate a long time

Some people wanted to recognise it as an ivy, others a bindweed. It has been established however that the ivy is not an indigenous plant and does not appear in Egypt until the Greco-Roman period.
It is necessary to incline therefore toward a Convolvulus of the type Bindweed of the fields (Convolvulus arvensis), since it is often present in the floral garlands found in tombs (including that of Tutankhamun). It is not however the only candidate, and another very close variant is possible. However, according to Lopez-Moncet (botanist): "Whatever species is recognised in the bindweed, it seems therefore that although a Convolvulaceae was the archetype of it, essentially chosen for its symbolic character expressing vigour, from the shape of its leaves as triangular or in the shape of an arrow-head, and it has become conventional".

In modern botany, the convolvulaceae, the bindweed of the fields, Convolvulus arvensis, is classified as weeds. It is especially difficult to get rid of it because of the length of its long white rhizomes which can reach several metres and are multi-branched. This exceptional rhizome has a means of vegetative reproduction (without using the seeds), which is very effective since only one fragment is sufficient for it to regenerate, sometimes years after its supposed eradication.
The ancient Egyptians had perhaps noticed this astonishing fertility, an additional argument to represent the plant in a context of rebirth.

How to interpret the absence of usual and unusual flowering in the representations

First hypothesis, the flowers were considered insufficiently conspicuous, because they were too small.
Second hypothesis, a voluntary separation of the flowers and the rest of the plant. It is found, for example in the tomb of Panehesy, with characteristic flowers, bell-shaped or funnel-shaped, in friezes. The bindweed lives in very close contact with the papyrus in a swampy habitat, close to the banks of the Nile. Sometimes the leaves seem to spring directly from the stem of the papyrus. Because of this fact, the extraction of the two plants had often to be simultaneous. Besides, the umbel of papyrus is often schematised by artists, in a corolla aspect, which would then also serve to the bindweed as a unique, terminal flower, giant, turned toward the sun. Thus, every plant brings to the other some elements which the other seems to lack.


Five classes of bindweed exist, which can be divided into subtypes.

Type I

One or several bindweed wind themselves around a stem of papyrus, in search of light. This can be observed in scenes of offering to individuals (Ia), in bouquets offered to divinities (Ib), or around catafalques (Ic).
Notably at the tombs of Benia and Nefersekheru, the triangular shape of the leaves can clearly be seen.
Another representation at Benia shows a parasitised lotus stem, indicating another possible support for the bindweed, but rarely observed.

Type II

The plants hang as greenery from the roof of kiosks (as in Amarna) or in childbirth. Their representation in this case is very natural.
In the Amarnian tomb of Panehesy, Queen Nefertiti can be found pouring a drink through a filter, for her royal spouse, Akhenaten. The royal couple are under a kiosk with the papyrus capitals. The roof hangs with vines, some of which are in bloom, mixed with lotus and grapes. It is therefore about kiosks of greenery, which are in the open air. The bindweed is represented in a very faithful manner, and it is very unlikely that in the Amarnian period it had the religious connotation that it will have in the Ramesside period.

Type III

The plants were dissociated from the papyrus, their most frequent natural support (which was easy, there are no spikes) and constitute a fully-fledged offering (IIIb); sometimes the bindweed is grasped like a sistrum or a menat-necklace (both are Hathoric symbols) (IIIa). In any case, the presence of the papyrus is implicit.
The coffin of the chantress of Amon, Hatshepsut, is in the Grenoble museum . In stuccoed wood and painted, it dates from the 21st Dynasty. A special place has been reserved for the plant representations, the classic lotuses and papyri, but also the bindweeds. On the lid, four long stems of bindweed hang from the dress from the waist. Below the feet, the bindweed again climbs up itself and around the papyri raised by Nephthys.
Another beautiful example of these representations is found on the coffin of the wife of the craftsman Sennedjem, found in his tomb at Deir el-Medina.

Type IV

The bell-shaped flowers of the bindweed appear between the open flowers of the blue lotus, at the level of the frieze decoration, as in tomb TT278 of Amenemhab.

Type V

The bindweed is incorporated into tall floral composition, either simply (Va), as offered to the beloved (Vb), or next to the tall "bouquet of Amon" (Vc).
In the scene of the mummy raised in front of the tomb of Nefersekheru, a large bouquet created from papyrus is in front of the mummy. It is surrounded with a plant with large triangular blue-green leaves. These leaves, associated this time with red bell-shaped flowers, are also found around the bunch behind the mummy near the head of the cow Hathor.

Type VI

This represents the floral metaphor.
The best representation is the stela of Tenperet, which is in Louvre . The deceased is standing in worship in front of Ra-Horakhty. The solar disk, which is on the god's head, bathes the lady with its radiance, the rays being symbolised by bindweed flowers.

Place of the bindweed in the symbolic funeral

Papyrus is more abundant on the west bank of the Nile than on the east bank, especially in Thebes. The entangled bindweed and papyrus, in their natural habitat, is clearly visible in the representation which comes of the tomb of TT217 Ipuy: at the edge of the shallow water which is beneath the man operating the chadouf, can be seen the bindweeds climbing up the stems of papyrus.

• Thus, reaching the western shore where the funeral will take place, the mummy of the deceased must cross a marshy area where the reeds and papyrus grow. The latter representing the Hathoric plant par excellence, because we are in the middle of the area where the cows preferentially graze; the animals which symbolise the goddess. To offer papyrus and bindweeds was a means to curry favour with the goddess and proof that the deceased had successfully reached the western bank and could continue his journey toward the necropolis. The bindweed was also considered as encouraging birth, and it is known that Hathor plays a central role in the (re)birth of the dead that she will bear within. Thus, it decorated, since the Amarnian period, the kiosks of childbirth, such those attested to Deir el-Medineh. The plant being inseparable from the papyrus, forms the marshes of Chemmis where Isis was able to symbolically give birth in safety to the young Horus.

• The bindweed had another important characteristic, which explains its preferential representation, firstly in the days of Akhenaten, then during the Ramesside period (which is known to have taken over many Amarnian ideas): its marked heliotropism. Just like the flower which always faces the forces of light and opens its flowers at sunrise, the late Ramesside period aspires above all else to greet the dawn every day.

• The bindweed is sometimes represented being carried by the deceased's wife on the crook of her left arm, which makes sense knowing that the deceased is often likened to the papyrus stem, which his erect phallus evokes. His wife, likened to the bindweed, shows him her affection whilst coiling herself around him. Become a "complete" papyrus, the couple will also be able to become implanted on the banks, waiting for the passage of the Hathor cow.

Here is S. Aufrère's conclusion: "Thus, the bindweed affirms itself as a vehicle of passage from one world to the other, in a form of horizontal transfer from the marsh towards the shore of the dead, which rises towards the sun, under the light of which it starts blooming, to greet the passage of the solar star, thus in a cascade of colour, as shown in Taperet stele which, although belated, summarises admirably as a reminiscence, an old Theban belief."


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