Updated: Mar 21, 2022
Egypt was once known as the two lands. When they were eventually united into one kingdom, this was seen as a revitalisation of Egypt. Pharaohs would describe themselves as "Lord of the Two Lands", and this unity seems to have been central to the pharaohs' identity, as binder of two separate realms. But were these realms the pharaoh united just the two lands upper and lower Egypt, or does this binding link the worlds of the divine and the mortal too? Sema Tawy is usually translated as "Uniter of the Two Lands", and the image always contains a central axis straddled with twines or cords, sometimes being handled by gods, perhaps Horus and Seth, or Horus and Thoth, or two river gods, or even a pharaoh, who is duplicated and so pulls at both sides.
What exactly is sema tawy, is it a ritual, a symbol?
A year ago I took a picture of such an image on the base of a statue in an exhibition on Ancient Iran at the MARQ museum in Alicante, in Spain (see above). I didn't think anything of it until I came across a very similar image again recently, which ostensibly depicted the union of upper and lower Egypt. But why would such an image be found on a statue from what is now Iran? I was intrigued, and when I looked into it further, I found that the central axis is generally agreed to represent a a human trachea entwined with the papyrus and lotus flowers. What has the respiratory system got to do with uniting two parts of an ancient Egyptian kingdom - or with Iran for that matter? I expect there are many layers of meaning to this image.
This is the image I came across, in a paper by Jim Alison, where he writes:
Hapi, the androgynous Nile god, was also a dual god of the upper Nile and the lower Nile. The carved relief from the temple of Luxor shows Hapi on both sides of the lung and windpipe, uniting the single stream of upper Egypt with the multiple streams of lower Egypt.
This is in the context of a fascinating discussion on the ancient settlements found near Cairo the possible future Babylon, and in a previous section, Jim Alison writes:
We may conclude that in the second millennium BC the wetter prevailing conditions meant that the future Babylon lay within the flood plain or perhaps even within a still functioning paleo-channel. Only with the lower floods from the beginning of the first millennium BC did it become feasible to settle there...The location of Babylon at the southern limits of the city of Heliopolis (ancient On) has in more recent times suggested a derivation from the hypothetical pr-H’pi n iwnw (the house [that is the temple] of [the river god] Hapi in [the city of] On). The first century BC accounts of Siculus and Strabo of the foundation of Babylon have thus been considered to reflect ancient attempts to explain the etymology of Babylon, as having come about through the occidentalizing of an Egyptian toponym. However, both of these authors’ accounts show clearly that by 50 BC a view existed of the foundation which could very plausibly represent the establishment of a trading colony or military base by the Persian kings. (‘they named 10 Babylon from their native land’ -- Siculus -- 1:56:3) (‘Babylon was built by some Babylonians who had taken refuge there’ -- Strabo -- 17:1:30)...The tremendous symbolic significance of the junction between the Nile Valley and the Delta was recognized and celebrated by the ancient Egyptians. The area was called Kher-Aha, ‘the battlefield,’ and was identified as the site of the mythical battle between Horus and Seth, perhaps a reflection of real battles between the peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt in the Predynastic period, such as those shown on the Narmer Palette.” 24
The greater Cairo area is at an interesting location, in terms of the delta and valley of the Nile. The role of the Nile in Egyptian history is unquestionably central, and added to this, the question of a future Babylon growing up at an important part of this great river is a fascinating one. So why the connection with lungs and breath? Firstly, it seems clear that the Nile is the source of life in the entire area, and the without it, there would be no Ancient Egyptian civilisation. The river is perhaps a giant windpipe, through which all life is channelled. The image is a powerful one, and fits in well with what is known of Egyptian history. It stands to reason that a ruler would want to be associated with bringing not just unity but life itself to the realm.
This image is from the base of the pharaoh's throne. It was on the base of a statue - though whose, I'm not sure, that I saw the Sema Tawy at the MARQ Museum. Presumably it was of some great leader, I wish I had taken down details. It was a huge black statue of a man standing upright, one foot placed in front of the other. There were Egyptian looking cartouches on the base, but they were slightly different to Egyptian ones, somehow simpler, more streamlined.
It would be sensible to assume the image is a symbol of power, linked to justifying divine rule on earth, and perhaps provides a link between two worlds, one of which only the pharaoh (and the dead) can access.
The question of the breathing apparatus is intriguing. If the vertical column is the windpipe, the bottom part is a pair of lungs. As Thinkitover, on the Graham Hancock Message Board, observed, the two gods flanking the central axis seem to have a foot each on a lung.
In an article in the Canadian Respiratory Journal, the author is very happy with this depiction of the respiratory tract, and considers it proof of the advanced medicine of the Ancient Egyptians.
Quote from Jakub Kwiecinski:
I draw attention to some unconventional versions of the glyph depicting the respiratory tract that appear to have escaped the attention of medical historians, and may confirm not only that ancient Egyptians noticed the separation of lungs into lobes, but also prove that they were well aware of the existence of the bronchi. The first glyph (Figure 1B) comes from a damaged inscription on a broken stone vessel from the reign of the first dynasty king Andjib (circa 30th century BC). Only traces of trachea remain, due to a crack in the vessel, but other inscriptions from the reign of this king show that it was most likely marked with cartilaginous rings. The lungs are obviously divided into separate pieces (7), which makes this inscription the earliest known depiction of pulmonary lobes (surprisingly, each lung has only two lobes, with similar lobe sizes on both left and right sides) All three described glyphs significantly depart from its conventional, most common version, thus revealing the extent of the ancient Egyptian’s knowledge of anatomy, proving their awareness of the bronchi and pulmonary lobes.
So the central part of the sematawy image must be at least partly about breath. Breath is life, and also about uniting mind and body in ancient yogic practice.
Why are the flowers on the binding cords different on each side? The triangular flower heads seem to represent papyrus flowers, and the others lotus flowers.
The lotus is an Indian symbol of course, of consciousness - again linked to being alive.
Actually, the ancient Egyptian lotus flower was not really a lotus, it was a lily.
Egyptian lotus flowers were one of the symbols of Upper Egypt, while the papyrus flower were one of the symbols of Lower Egypt.
The white water lily opens up, or flowers, at night. It’s a beautiful moon flower that lives above the water for up to four days and is usually found in ponds and marshes. The other is the blue water lily, which is the one that was more important to ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs.
The blue water lily opens up during the day. It sinks beneath the surface of the water during the night then climbs back up to greet the sun.
As we know, ancient Egyptian beliefs revolved around the sun, and a flower that seems to worship the sun has a lot of religious significance. And, like in Buddhism and Hinduism, one of the more meaningful aspects of lotuses (and lilies) is that they are rooted in soil deep beneath the water, and then struggle to grow out of that soil and then rise above the waters.
Wikipedia tells us: "Some evidence indicates the medicinal effects of plants including N. caerulea that contain the psychoactive alkaloid aporphine were known to both the Maya and the Ancient Egyptians. The mildly sedating effects of N. caerulea makes it a likely candidate (among several) for the lotus plant eaten by the mythical Lotophagi in Homer's Odyssey."
This flower is often shown in the context of gatherings in Ancient Egyptian art, parties or rituals, so perhaps the trippy element is more important than at first it might appear, in this Sema Tawy scene, which is supposed to depict something political, or religious.
N. caeruleawas considered extremely significant in Egyptian mythology, regarded as a symbol of the sun, since the flowers are closed at night and open again in the morning. At Heliopolis, the origin of the world was taught to have been when the sun god Ra emerged from a lotus flower growing in "primordial waters". At night, he was believed to retreat into the flower again. Due to its colour, it was identified, in some beliefs, as having been the original container, in a similar manner to an egg, of Atum, and in similar beliefs Ra, both solar deities. As such, its properties form the origin of the "lotus variant" of the Ogdoad cosmogeny. It was the symbol of the Egyptian deity Nefertem
There are many flowers which close after sunset, the hibiscus springs to mind. Perhaps the blue and yellow appearance of the blue lotus, together with its medicinal use, gave the flower its importance. Both the narcotic properties and solar symbolism of this flower appear to give the image of sema tawy a different dimension.
If this image, the Sema Tawy, is not just Egyptian, then it may simply have been appropriated by Egyptian pharaohs not only to symbolise their link to the divine, to life itself even, but also to giving life to Egypt in particular, and by binding the two parts, north and south. Iran is a long way from Egypt, the other side of 'Arabia'. Perhaps Egyptian culture was somehow alive in what is now Iran, either through trade connections, or perhaps imperialism, or a common culture in the entire region.
What about the papyrus?
Papyrus is also an aquatic plant. It's famously the source of papyrus paper, and can be turned into boats - as Thor Heyardahl demonstrated in his epic journeys. If the blue lotus is the party animal, papyrus is the practical, useful one. It's even edible. It grows tall so it could perhaps be a symbol of growth and vitality.
So why are both papyrus and blue lotus shown in sema tawy scenes? There is no need to show a flower on the end of a binding cord, if unification is the sole purpose of the image or ritual. it, except to show that it the rope or cord is made of papyrus. It is strange then to see in some images the combination of papyrus an lotus.
Here papyrus is used to bind men, or concepts, together:
Here lotus and papyrus are each on one side of the image, and the central axis is otherwise like a symmetrical axis:
Here it is apparently Ramses III acting out the sema tawy ritual, and there is no foot on the lungs.
In ancient Indian and Eastern art and myth generally, there is a tradition of churning the Milky Ocean, a reference to the spinning on its axis of our galaxy, the Milky Way. I don't know of any such stories of representations associated with Egypt however.
Sema Tawy presents some at least superficial similarities with the churning of the Milky Way images from the east, but the central axis in these images is usually a rock (Ophiuchus?) , often balanced on a turtle, and around the rock is entwined not a plant or a rope but a snake (again another link with Ophiuchus). While Ophiuchus occupies the same place in the sky as the sun boat of the Ancient Egyptians, according to the Dendera zodiac, and is also connected with many figures connected to the sun, including the Archangel Michael, this is not the same as being connected to breath. But the central axis remains, and the gods or pharaohs on each side also.
On the Graham Hancock Message Board, Thinkitover also suggested that the unification represented by the sema tawy might be applied to other fields, such as metrology.
Quote Thinkitover / Rob Regarding the Cubit rod, from my own perspective it seems plausible to me that this may also mean a unification of measurements. I think a number of cubit rods have that capability, but in the broader context I'd at least like to be able to take it to mean a unification of celestial cycles and metrological unit in regard to some of the remarkable similarity between calendar values and known metrological units. Already it's quite become apparent that the simplest variations on the Royal Cubit are able to unify the Solar and Lunar cycles, among other calendar cycles
Either unifying the various natural cycles into one user-friendly system, or unifying the systems of measurement into one system could possibly be represented by this image. Even just unifying the solar and lunar cycles is impressive, and perhaps that is what, symbolically, the draconic month / year does to a certain extent. The sematawy - a symbol for metrology? Perhaps, with one deep breath, everything will become clear. Or at the very least, that breath will help us see that, as Hendrik Dirker suggests, on the same online discussion, "the Universe is impervious to mankinds' measurement-system dilemma."
The great metrologist John Neal is not keen on referring to natural cycles in measurement systems, because they are changeable, but the changes are so slow over time that even if it was known that they were changeable, a working system could still be devised. To have an image representing both something along these lines, and justifying the power of the pharaoh, as well as unifying the two parts of Egypt probably shows how important it once would have been.
Below are three images compiled by researcher Carrie Love (see https://adeptinitiates.com/sema-tawy-hermaphrodite/). I was looking for images similar to the Egyptian Sema Tawy from other cultures or periods, and found that Carrie Love had made several connections. I'm not sure where most of these carvings are from, though some look obviously Babylonian or Aztec. The similarities are remarkable. Often, a foot is to be seen resting on or pushing against the central stump or lung of the axis. Also, I had noticed that on many of the Egyptian images of Sema tawy, the two figures either side of the 'windpipe' have unusually large stomachs and breasts, as well as beards, so it is intriguing to find that Carrie Love has connected these images to hermaphrodites. Hapi, the Nile deity, is an androgynous god, and 'his' breasts' are usually associated with the bounty of the river.
These images clearly depict trees, not lungs or windpipes, and yet the structure of the image is similar, with a figure on either side of the central axis, and each figure with one foot forward. Unfortunately I can't find out where this image is from.
Is Sema Tawy a ritual predates the unification of Egypt? Does it allude to the forces of life: breath, growth, balance? Did a ritual depicted by these images of a lung and windpipe and papyrus and lotus flower and pulling from two sides at once, involve narcotics? Is there a good reason why such a scene might be found at the base of a huge Iranian statue? I can't say for sure. There is an interesting Phi connection though. which might point to a life-giving process:
What does the duality either side of the main axis symbolise?
Looking at the Luxor image again, I feel my breath slightly constrained with all that tugging on the windpipe, but if the lotus represents consciousness and the papyrus vitality or growth, then let them tug away...