Sexuality in ancient Egypt was open, untainted by guilt. Sex was an important part of life – from birth to death and rebirth. Singles and married couples made love. The gods themselves were earthy enough to copulate. The Egyptians even believed in sex in the afterlife. Sex was not taboo. Even the Egyptian religion was filled with tales of adultery, incest, homosexuality and masturbation… with hints of necrophillia! Masculinity and femininity itself were strongly linked with the ability to conceive and bear children.
To the ancient Egyptians, the most attractive women tended to be the fertile ones. A women who had children was seen to be more fortunate than ones without. Taking after Isis, the mother goddess of Horus, Egyptian women strove to be intelligent, wise, mystical and mothers. Where her twin sister Nephthys was barren, Isis was fertile.
In the Egyptian community, men had to prove their masculinity by fathering children, while the women had to be able to bear these sons and daughters. Being a mother meant being able to keep her marriage secure and to gain a better position in society.
But an Egyptian family was not just a status symbol – the Egyptians loved their children and were not afraid to show it. But there were some advice to parents, written by scribes:
Do not prefer one of your children above the others; after all, you never know which one of them will be kind to you.
— Tyldesley, J.A. 1995, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt, p. 68
Adultery in Egypt was wrong. women got the worst punishment for adultery – a man might just be forced into a divorce, but a women could conceivably be killed for that crime. In the Tale of Two Brothers, the adulterous wife was found out, murdered and her body was thrown to the dogs.
Unmarried women, on the other hand, seem to be free to choose partners as they so desire, and enjoy their love life to its fullest.
Itinerant Performers and ‘Prostitutes’
The Egyptian sacred ‘prostitute’ (who was probably a highly regarded as a member of Egyptian society because of her association with different gods or goddesses (such as Bes and Hathor), rather than the street walker that the modern mind imagines) advertised herself through her clothing and make up. Some of these women wore blue faience beaded fish-net dresses. They painted their lips red, and tattooed themselves on the breasts or thighs and even went around totally nude. There is no evidence that these women were paid for these fertility-related acts, so some believe that word ‘prostitute’ is probably an incorrect term for these women. In fact, the Victorian era theory that these women were prostitutes is not backed up by evidence at all. All archaeological evidence for women with such tattoos shows them to have been New Kingdom female musicians or dancers.
Another idea pointed out to me by Daniel Kolos, an Egyptologist academically trained at the University of Toronto, is that this premarital sexual activity might be a prerequisite for marriage. One of the theories that disassociates these women from being prostitutes, is that their sexual activity could be part of a “coming-of-age ritual”, just as circumcision was one for males. With Egypt’s heavy emphasis on fertility as the defining nature of a man or a woman, this idea is a highly likely probability.
Other theories could be that the young virgin girls joined itinerant performing groups – dancers, singers and the like – and during their time with these groups they experienced their first sexual encounters. If a girl became pregnant, she would probably leave the troupe to head home to her family with proof of her fertility. (Motherhood was venerated, giving a woman a much higher status in society, so pregnancy was something to be proud of in ancient Egypt.)
These travelling groups of women were strongly linked with midwifery and childbirth-related deities. The goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet and Heqet disguised themselves as itinerant performers, travelling with the god Khnum as their porter. Carrying the sistrum and menat instruments – instruments with sexual overtones – they showed it to Rawoser, the expectant father. Knowing that his wife, Raddjedet, was having a very difficult labour, he told these women – the disguised goddesses – about his wife’s troubles, and at their offer of help, he let them in to see her.
These women do not seem to be pay-for-sex prostitutes, instead they seem to be a link with the divine, a helper of expectant mothers and singers, dancers and musicians. This is not to say that there were no pay-for-sex prostitutes in ancient Egypt, it it just that there is little evidence of this found. Considering Egypt’s very different image of sexuality, the modern concept of both sexuality and prostitution do not fit this ancient society. Women operated under a totally different cultural imperative than women today, thus ancient Egyptian sexuality must be looked at without modern prejudices. It seems that these female performers, these ‘prostitutes’, were treated with courtesy and respect, and there seemed to be a well established link between these travelling performers and fertility, childbirth, religion and magic.
The Egyptians had their own ways and means of getting around the fact that sex produced children. They had both contraceptives and abortions, mostly these were prescriptions that were filled with unpleasant ingredients such as crocodile dung. Here is one of the nicer ones:
Prescription to make a woman cease to become pregnant for one, two or three years: Grind together finely a measure of acacia dates with some honey. Moisten seed-wool with the mixture and insert it in the vagina.
Ebers Medical Papyrus
— Tyldesley, J.A. 1995, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt, p. 62
From the close family relationships in Egyptian mythology and the fact that Egyptians seemed to have no taboo against incest, many have concluded that incest was rife in ancient Egypt.
There were probably some brother and sister marriages, but more likely than not, the siblings in question would have been half-brothers and half-sisters. The problem arises from the limited Egyptian terms of kinship, which are very confusing. A ‘father’ could refer to the actual father, the grandfather or male ancestors, while ‘mother’ could be the same, but for the females of the family. ‘Sister’ could mean a lover, a wife, a mistress or concubine, niece or aunt!
The royal family, on the other hand, did have more incestuous marriages. One theory is that the royal blood ran through the females, not the males, and so to become pharaoh a man had to marry a royal princess (who would be his sister or half-sister). This is known as the Heiress Princess theory, which is now largely discredited.
Another explanation for these marriages is that:
The prevalence of brother-sister marriages within the New Kingdom royal family, a custom in obvious contrast to contemporary non-royal marriage patterns, appears to have been an attempt to reinforce the links between the royal family and the gods who themselves frequently indulged in brother-sister unions.
— Tyldesley, J.A. 1995, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt, p. 62
Atem is he who masturbated in Iunu (On, Heliopolis). He took his phallus in his grasp that he might create orgasm by means of it, and so were born the twins Shu and Tefnut.
— Ancient Egyptian Worldview Expressions
Hathor and Ra
Baba a predynastic baboon god, taunted Ra who stood for Set becoming ruler rather than Horus, “Your shrine is empty!” With that, Ra stormed off to be alone – presumably this is a story about a solar eclipse – and refused to join the other gods. Realising that they’d gone too far, the others sent Baba away, but still Ra refused to stop sulking. Finally, Hathor decided on a plan. She went into Ra’s presence and stood before him and started to dance and strip, revealing her nakedness and lewdly showing him her private parts. The dance caused Ra to laugh, forget his hurt feelings and he once again rejoined the gods.
Nut, the goddess of the night sky, and her brother Geb, the god of the earth, were originally thought to be in a constant state of love making. Ra grew angry with his grandchildren, and commanded their father Shu to separate the two lovers. The god of the air took his place, and trampled on the ithyphallic Geb, and lifted Nut high into the air. Nut was found to be pregnant, and was then cursed by Ra – she would never be able to bear her children on any month of the 360 day year. Thoth managed to win a game against Khonsu, god of the moon, and used some of the light of the moon to create five extra days (making the year 365 days). During those days Nut gave birth to her five children – Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, Set and Horus the Elder (not to be confused with Horus, the child of Isis and Osiris).
Nephthys and Osiris
Some tales of sex and the Egyptian gods is on the seamier side – one of the reasons given as to why Set and Osiris hate each other was because of Nephthys, Set’s sister-wife. She was barren (she represented the desert, as did Set), and she hit on the plan of disguising herself as Isis and seducing Osiris. Getting Osiris drunk, Nephthys took Osiris to her bed, and the two had drunken sex together. Osiris dropped his garland of melilot flowers in the act of passion. Set found the adulterous goddess and the flowers, and knowing who the flowers belonged to, he began to plan Osiris’ death. The child of this union was thought to be Anubis, god of mummification.
Now as the overflowings of the Nile are sometimes very great, and extend to the boundaries of the land, this gave rise to the story of the secret intercourse between Osiris and Nephthys, as the natural consequence of so great an inundation would be the springing up of plants in those parts of the country which were formerly barren.
— Wilkinson, J.G. 1841, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 334
Isis and OsirisAfter his first attempt, Set managed to kill Osiris again and cut up his body into numerous parts. These parts Set spread all over Egypt. Isis, Nephthys and Anubis searched Egypt, and managed to retrieve all of the pieces of the body, except one – Osiris’ phallus. Set had dropped the penis into the Nile (making it fertile), where it was eaten by a fish. The god and goddesses pieced Osiris together and created the first mummy. Using her magic, Isis fashioned a replacement for Osiris’ missing part, either out of clay, wood or gold, and attached this to her dead husband’s body. Through magical spells, life was breathed back into Osiris’ body (though some dispute this and believe that Osiris was dead at the time)… The goddess managed to share a time of passion with her husband who impregnating her with their child, Horus. Osiris then passed into the afterlife, becoming god of the dead. This part of the mythos borders on necrophillia!
Horus and Set
Then Set said to Horus: “Come, let us have a feast day at my house.” And Horus said to him: “I will, I will.” Now when evening had come, a bed was prepared for them, and they lay down together. At night, Set let his member become stiff, and he inserted it between the thighs of Horus. And Horus placed his hand between his thighs and caught the semen of Set.
— Houlihan, P.F. 2001, Wit & Humour in Ancient Egypt, p. 121
After Osiris’ eventual death, while Horus was growing up and planning his own revenge, Set and Horus engaged in a homosexual relationship. In one part of the myth, Set proclaimed to Horus, “How lovely your backside is”. Informing his mother Isis about his uncle’s ardour, Horus is told to catch Set’s semen rather than becoming impregnated by the murderer of his father. Set, in doing so, was planning on humiliating Horus by showing the gods that Horus would be filled with someone else’s semen.Horus and Isis’s next plan was to ‘impregnate’ Set with Horus’ semen. His mother spreads powerful unguents on Horus’ penis, after which he ejaculated into a jar, and they spread it on some lettuce, a favourite aphrodisiac to the ancient Egyptians. Set then ate the semen-covered lettuce, and so Horus (rather than Set with his first ‘attack’) bacame sexually dominant over his uncle. Set then asked the gods to bring the semen forth from the ‘impregnated’ one, to humiliate Osiris’ son. The semen comes out of Set himself, and he becomes the laughing stock of the gods!
However, the Pyramid Texts offer another point of view:
Horus has penetrated Seth’s anus with his seed. Seth has penetrated Horus’ anus with his seed.
— Dollinger, A., Drink, Drugs and Sex
This reflects an interesting shifts in attitudes regarding homosexual desire and homosexual acts in ancient Egypt:
It is possible, then, for the words to have both the connotations of cowardice in retreat and feminine sexual activity. The desire of sexual penetration is therefore the defining feature of Seth and Horus’ homosexuality. Because Seth desires the young Horus, he is seen as evil; Horus resists the penetration, and therefore avoids social stigma. However, in later texts like The Book of the Dead, it becomes not the desire, but instead the act itself which defines the Egyptian as a social pariah.
Readings from the Book of the Dead suggest that by Egypt’s New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE), the stigma had shifted to include the action of homosexual penetration, rather than solely the desire for the act. Absent from the Egyptian consciousness, however, seemed to be the convention of any firm and defined sexuality. Modern conventions of homo- or heterosexual were absent because there was no affiliation for sexuality beyond the sex acts themselves.
— Clayden, A., (pers. comm., 2013)
Homosexuality and Lesbianism
The study of ‘homosexuality’ in ancient Egypt is a difficult task. The term ‘homosexuality,’ is a modern concept that presupposes sexual classification; a psychophysical division of beings into categories based upon distinct assumptions regarding the sexual preferences of said individual, whether these are sexual acts, desires or pleasures … It must also be noted that since sexuality was not utilised as a defining mechanism, that any modern preconceptions of ‘homosexual’ attitudes and behaviours must not be projected upon the ancient evidence. Representational evidence for ancient sexualities is ambiguous. Recognising and identifying an artefact as exemplifying ‘homosexuality,’ as opposed to simply recognising ‘homosexual’ desires, must be certain.
… The verb nk, (to have penetrative sex) carries no connotations, however, nkw, (a man on whom penetrative sex is performed) is likened with sexual abuse, and carries with it negative overtones of submission. This response to the passive role of penetrative sex is one that is recurrent throughout the ancient and classical periods, with even Julius Caesar falling victim to ridicule after submitting to Nicomedes in 46BCE.
— Roberts, P., Egyptian Homosexuality
There is little evidence for lesbianism in ancient Egypt. There are two possible mentions, one being The Book of the Dead in Papyrus Nestanebtasheru (c. 970 BC) which mentions that she had never had sexual relations with the wife of a male – however, this may be because the text was mistakingly copied from the male version of the Book of the Dead instead of the correct female version. The other is related to a book of dreams, the Papyrus Carlsberg XIII (c. 2nd Century AD), which shows that lesbianism was at least recognised late in Egypt’s history:
If a married woman has intercourse with her, she will have an ill fate, and one of her children will [lacuna] … If a female has intercourse with her, she will lie.
— Manniche, L. 1987, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, pp. 102-103
There is, however, more evidence for homosexuality, other than that occurring during the battle of Horus and Set:
‘Homosexual’ desire, as apparent from the twenty-seventh declaration in the Negative Confessions of the Book of the Dead, Chapter 125, is condemned by society, nonetheless, there is evidence to support that ‘homosexual’ acts were known to the ancient Egyptians and the practice of such acts seems to have been more accepted. Declaration 27 states: “I did not nk a nkk(w).” nkk(w) is likened with nkw, but apparently without the connotations of abuse that the Old Kingdom term once carried, and simply refers to a sexually passive male.
References to ‘homosexual’ acts and desires, however, are very few, and where represented, are usually done so with aggression. In the Coffin Texts, Spell 635 utilises the degrading status associated with sodomy to assert the deceased’s power over the god Atem: “Atem has no power over N. N nks his backside (`rt).” Likewise, in Spell 700, in a passage talking of Geb, the deceased again uses sodomy as a symbolism of power: “his phallus is between the buttocks of his son and his heir.”
— Roberts, P., Egyptian Homosexuality
To have such references to homosexual acts within writings such as the Negative Confessions, indicates that it was a well known occurance. It sits within a long list of 42 things that the deceased claimed not to have done, some of which are easier to avoid than others. The Papyrus of Nu makes it clear that the spell is to be recided by the deceased so that “he may be separated from every sin which he hath committed”. As such, whilst these socially unacceptable transgressions may well have been performed in life, the disruption of ma’at which results can be expunged by the correct recitation of these Negative Confessions.
One male-male relationship captured in a Fifth Dynasty mastaba is that of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, who were both Manicurists to the King and Inspectors of the Manicurists of the Palace. The way they are depicted in their joint tomb is reminiscent of tomb paintings of husbands and wives, such as images of the two embracing and holding hands, and Khnumhotep (alongside their wives and daughters) smelling a blue water lily. The implication of the water lily is related to ideas of sexual desirability and potency, although it is most commonly linked with women. However, both men had wives and children of their own. As such, their relationship is uncertain. It is possible that they could be twins, rather than lovers. The writing within the tomb does not help decipher their relationship, as the term sn has multiple meanings: brother, friend, lover, husband, colleague, or even co-regent. Both Egyptian Homosexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Pharaonic Egypt note that opinion is thus currently divided, although academics tend to believe that the pair’s relationship was that of twins.Further evidence of homosexuality has been catalogued by Alex Clayden, Classical Studies alumnus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in his thesis on Same-Sex Desire in Pharaonic Egypt. He noted that:
Ancient Egyptian culture is shrouded in mystery due to its age and the paucity of sources which detail the average Egyptians’ life, and what does exist focuses more on the elite than the layman. This study delves into a highly intimate and secretive aspect of Egyptian life: same-sex desire. Through an examination of primary source documents and artifacts from Egypt, and existing Egyptological research, this study will catalogue homosexuality amongst males in Ancient Egypt in an effort to better understand the origins of documented queer history. The results of this study indicate that while same-sex desire amongst males was officially condemned, in practice the attitude seemed to be more accepting. Understanding that modern hetero-normative relationships do not monopolize history, and that in many cultures the family unit was not bound by modern day constructs is crucial for queer youth and other members of the queer community and better contextualizes our understanding of history.
— Clayden, A., (pers. comm., 2013)
The Egyptian god if the Nile, Hapi, was a masculine deity, given female properties because of the fertility of the Nile river. Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt. Due to the duality of Egyptian thought, there were two Hapi gods – one of Upper Egypt wearing the water lily (lotus) on his head, and one of Lower Egypt wearing papyrus. He was usually depicted as a blue or green coloured man with a protuding belly, carrying libation jugs. He also has full breasts, indicating his ability to nourish Egypt. Despite being a hermaphrodite god, both the northern and southern versions of Hapi were given wives – Nekhbet in Upper Egypt and Wadjet in Lower Egypt.
Lettuce was thought to be the favourite food of the fertility god, Min. He was depicted as a god with an erect penis, wearing a feathered crown and carrying a flail. Lettuce was his sacred plant, and an aphrodisiac to the ancient Egyptians – this particular species of lettuce was tall, straight and secreted a milky substance when pressed!Another aphrodisiac was the onion. They were forbidden to the priests who had vowed celibacy, for fear that their passion might take over, and that they might desecrate themselves!
Fennel, ginger, pomegranates, coriander in wine and radishes mixed with honey were thought to have aphrodisiac qualities, too.
The water lily was also a symbol of sexuality, as well as immortality and health. It was possibly even a narcotic that the Egyptians used, but it was more likely to be a sexual stimulant.
Some of the more unusual aphrodisiacs included pearls dissolved in a cup of wine, baboon faeces added to aphrodisiac ointments!
The Egyptians thought of their afterlives as more of a continuation of life on earth (albeit a better life). This being the case, the Egyptians believed in sex life after death!
Egyptian men had false penises attached to their mummies while Egyptian women had artificial nipples attached. Both would become fully functional in the afterlife, where they were free to engage in sexual intercourse, if they so desired.
There were even fertility dolls in many graves – women with wide, child-bearing hips that were often carrying children in their arms. Other fertility dolls, known as paddle dolls, don’t have any legs, and their bodies end in very wide pubic area, with tiny heads and arms.
These dolls show that the Egyptians believed that fertility and sex were interlinked, though the ancient Egyptians quite clearly enjoyed sex in its own right!
A special thanks goes to Daniel Kolos, an academic Egyptologist (MA in Ancient Egyptian Language and Literature, University of Toronto) for suggestions and ideas about ancient Egyptian sexually active unmarried women and the roles they played in ancient Egyptian society.
[Header image]– Painting from the Tomb of Nebamun (c. 1350 BCE) shows women making music and other almost naked women dancing.- ancient.eu / CC:3.0
This is an abridge post which first appeared on www.thekeep.org. See the original article