What is it about ?
In some of the scenes from tombs or temples, some characters can be seen carrying a branch in their hands, often resting on the shoulder. It is the context of this action which we are going to examine.
According to Gobeil
"the iconography of the plant consists, in style, of a long thin branch decorated of feathery leaves, of an ovoid spear shape".
The nature of the branch remains a subject of study, and the Egyptians didn't assist us in the task by never naming the plant.
What are the candidates ? It could represent the sycamore, or the willow or the date-palm.
The sycamore has oval leaves and no fruit on the small branches. Moreover, it conveys a strong symbolic link to Hathor, "Goddess of the sycamore" and with the idea of regeneration after death.
The willow has the spear-shaped leaves and the fruits so small that one could disregard them in a representation. It conveys a symbolic link to Hathor, and notably to the festivals in honour of it here (Dendara) and a festival even exists "to raise the willow" to plant a shoot of the tree, again a symbol of regeneration. Branches of willow are offered during propitiatory rituals in the temple of Edfu.
The palm is proposed by the author as third possibility.Its shape is well known and compatible with the iconography. Its leaf is a symbol of length and one sometimes found on mummies or on sarcophaguses. Moreover, the date palm is associated with water, shade and coolness. And for this reason it is necessary to think about a very possible pragmatic use for the branch: the one to serve to bring the freshness by fanning, which could constitute a mark of hospitality after great effort.
It is in at el-Bersheh, dating to the Middle Kingdom, that one finds the oldest representation of groups of young men carrying on their shoulders a long branch.
This motif is found in the tomb of Kenamon (TT93), dating from the time of Amenhotep II, then at the time of Amarna at Meryre (I). One then subsequently finds it with , viceroy of Nubia under Tutankhamun, and with Neferhotep (TT49), from the time of Ay.
Three representations of it are also present in the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari: on the south side of the first colonnade (arrival of a pair of obelisks), on the east wall of the upper terrace (transportation of two colossi) and on the north wall of the hypostyle hall of the chapel of Hathor (festival of the new year).
On the one hand, it represents manifestations of joy, of rejoicing, with a certain note of triumphalism.
Then, it represents collective manifestations (even though only one person is represented with the branch), what confers on them a sacred "dimension". Indeed, a single person never uses this type of representation to express joy, this is always in the context of a group.
The men seem to walk in a sort of rhythmic step as seen with Djehutyhotep, with Hatshepsut (where these are soldiers) or with Amenhotep-Huy. The women often seem to be part of "professional" groups, dancers, musicians reinforcing the idea of festival.
The carrying of the branch also seems bound to the idea of youth, or of vitality.
The notion of welcome is also constant: one welcomes a character or an object whose presence is bound to an exploit or a honorary distinction.
This tradition of welcome with branches is found again in Egypt and in the Sudan, and is manifested in the Gospels:… (the people of Jerusalem)
"took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him (Jesus)" (John, XII, 13).
Again, the question of the real significance of these representations is not completely clear, as moreover the use of other plants in these scenes (some are visible on the documents).
Nathalie Baum points out that the role of the vegetable species is variable and that they are efficient only in the given situations.