Different cultures and eras have their own perceptions of love that they eloquently communicated through various creations of literature, including poetry, epos, and philosophical pieces. Symposium by Plato is remarkable in this regard because concepts recorded in this work can be traced in multiple poems composed in distinct regions, centuries after this fundamental source was produced.
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One of the primary ideas about love that can be observed in Plato’s composition is the unity of Earth and Eros, which means that the material world and love are inseparable phenomena. Moreover, love is regarded in Symposium as a driving force of life, the law of attraction, and the major source of goodness. These notions of love are also central in many Ancient Egyptian poems, including “My God, My Lotus.” In this piece of poetry, lovers who dwell on the opposite sides of the river are pulled to each other by the force of love that endows them with the power to overcome all obstacles and eventually reunite. This dominant theme of the poem will be analyzed in this essay, along with other conceptions of love embodied in Plato’s Symposium.
Before conducting a conceptual analysis of “My God, My Lotus,” it is appropriate to take a look at the poem’s form and contents. The piece can be logically divided into two parts: the one narrated by a female persona and the one – by a male persona. Their speeches are in juxtaposition and cannot be regarded as a dialog but must be rather seen as internal experiences shared with an undefined audience. According to Fox, the Egyptian love poets chose monologs as a form of expression mainly because they aimed to present “personality and emotion rather than a complete relationship” (221). Such an approach allows exploring each persona in isolation and sees the role of romantic feelings in individuals’ lives and worldviews.
However, it is valid to note that even though the Girl and the Boy in the selected poem do not communicate in a conventional sense of the term and do not respond to each other, their monologs are interconnected thematically and logically. The Girl calls for her lover – “Oh my hero, my beloved! Come and see me!” – and he intuitively reacts to her call by taking action (Puchner 72). In this way, it is possible to say that the lovers have an internalized, natural aspiration to re-join.
The main love theme commences unfolding in the Girl’s monolog. She starts to long for closeness with her lover as “the north wind blows” and prepares for the meeting with him by beautifying her body, adorning it with “the finest royal linen,” and anointing it with aromatic oils (Puchner 72). The first part of the poem introduces readers to the way people in Ancient Egypt could perceive love and reveals its high value in their eyes.
These ritualistic preparations carried out by the Girl show reverence not only towards her lover but the feeling as such. In this way, it seems that love is endowed with a divine status, which is also reflected in the poem’s title. As stated by Puchner, “lotus was the most important Egyptian flower, whose aroma was held to excite the senses” (72). It is possible to say that the Girl refers to her lover as a lotus and a god because the thoughts of him bring a foretasting of the great virtues and pleasures of love.
At the same time, the second part of the poem leads to the climax and reveals the significance of Eros in Egyptian songs to its full extent. In anticipation of seeing his beloved, the Boy crosses the river even though “floodwaters are powerful in this season,” and a lot of other dangers threaten his life during this endeavor (Puchner 72). It is worth noticing that through depictions and images of the physical world surrounding characters, poets mainly aimed to disclose the psychological reality.
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As Fox states, “not only does this world provide a pleasant backdrop to the expression of love, it also reveals the author’s idea of a lover’s view of the world” (227). In this regard, floodwaters, crocodiles awaiting their prey on the sandbank, and the very distance between the Boy and the Girl can be regarded as dramatic elements and symbols of obstacles to lovers’ reunion. These elements also help emphasize the power of Eros, as the characters overcome them no matter what.
It is love that makes the Boy brave and strong enough to reach the opposite shore. Noteworthy, he praises the beloved’s feelings and emphasizes her role more than his own. He believes that:
It is her love
that makes me strong.
She casts a water spell for me! (Puchner 72)
This stanza also verifies the assumption about an elevated status of the beloved ones and love in Ancient Egypt. Moreover, it seems as if love gives supernatural powers to the character.
The poem’s rich imagery and symbolism indicating divine properties of love are compatible with the reflections of Phaedrus, Hesiod, and Parmenides about the highest spiritual quality of this feeling expressed in Symposium. They state that “love is a mighty god” and “the eldest of the gods” – the source of life itself and “the greatest benefits” for all human beings (Plato). Moreover, they note that love bestows great inner strength on people: “that courage which… the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover” (Plato). This courage inspired by love makes both men and women “dare to die for their beloved-love alone” (Plato).
All these conceptions are reflected in a profound aspiration of the Girl and the Boy in “My God, My Lotus” to reunite and embrace each other. Lovers’ reunion provokes thoughts about the pleasantness of being and harmony, an ideal state epitomized in the very essence of Eros. Based on ideas recorded by Plato, the lovers in the selected Egyptian song strive to reach that perfect state because it is in nature of all animate beings and inanimate things present in the material world too long for this perfection.
When it comes to love-inspired courage in “My God, My Lotus,” it is depicted with the help of comparisons. For instance, when wading through the river waters, the Boy “found the crocodile to be like a mouse” and “the surface of the water like dry land” (Puchner 72). The divine and magical properties of love can also be seen in the protagonist’s conviction that his beloved “casts a water spell” to help him cross the river easier (Puchner 72). From a certain perspective, it looks like the Boy and the Girl in love obtain supernatural abilities. Overall, the provided examples demonstrate that Eros is represented in the poem as a phenomenon through the contact with which a person can become close to a realm where miraculous creatures and gods live.
Lastly, rich imagery is utilized in “My God, My Lotus” to depict and emphasize the virtues of love. But firstly, it is appropriate to specify here what is implied by virtue in this case. As noted in Symposium, while courage and willingness to die for love can be considered a virtue as such, goodness is also achieved through long-lasting, honorable attachments between males and females. At the same time, an honorable attachment is the one in which any service is rendered to the beloved selflessly (Plato). As it was already mentioned before, the Boy and the Girl tend to praise each other, and, thus, they meet the latter requirement of virtuousness. In addition, one may find some prompts regarding the honorability of their love affair. The main one is the image of a tilapia fish in the Girl’s monolog:
I’ll go down to the water with you,
And come out to you carrying a redfish,
Which feels just right in my fingers (Puchner 72).
While Puchner states that tilapia is “a well-known erotic symbol” (72), Manniche notes that it is a symbol of fertility and rebirth (40). It is likely that in the abovementioned stanza, water is represented as a symbol of sexual intimacy, whereas the redfish stands for rebirth through the creation of a new life. Although this is just a free interpretation of the symbolic meanings, it helps support the hypothesis about the nobility of the lovers’ relationships and shows the thematic interconnectedness of the poem with Plato’s composition.
It is valid to conclude the analysis by saying that Egyptian songs captured an ideal view on romantic relationships, passion, and love. Although it is hard to tell whether ancient Egyptians practiced the same values that are depicted in poems of that period, such literary pieces as “My God, My Lotus,” nevertheless, bear incomparable cultural significance. They incorporate mythological elements, as well as customs and traditions, and, thus, reflect common worldviews of the people. Moreover, considering the purposes of the present writing, the selected Egyptian song is important as the poetic messages contained in it allow tracing the affinity of Ancient Egyptian ideals of love with those proclaimed in other cultures and literary pieces, including Plato’s Symposium.
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In both of the analyzed works, the literary characters acknowledge the power of love and are amazed by it. As one of the oldest and most mighty gods, Eros pervades the matter and affects everyone. Thus, love can be regarded as something simple and granted but, through contact with it, an individual gets a chance to become elevated and let miracles happen in their lives. In the case of the female and male personae in “My God, My Lotus,” the miracle of love takes a form of courage that crushes all obstacles on the way towards their reunification. And, in accordance with statements made in Symposium, the willingness to take great risks and even die in the name of honorable love can be considered one of the primary features of a virtuous personality.
Fox, Michael V. “Love, Passion, and Perception in Israelite and Egyptian Love Poetry.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 102, no. 2, 1983, pp. 219-228.
Manniche, Lise. Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt. Columbia University Press, 2002.
Plato. Symposium. Internet Classics Archive. Web.
Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume A. 4th ed., WW Norton & Company, 2012.