…Revel in pleasure while your life endures
And deck your head with myrrh. Be richly clad
In white and perfumed linen; like the gods
Anointed be; and never weary grow
In eager quest of what your heard desires –
Do as it prompts you…
— Lay of the Harpist
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.
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.
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.
Photo taken with kind permission of the Petrie Museum, London
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
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. The royal blood ran through the females, not the males. To become pharaoh, a man had to marry a royal princess… which would be his sister or half-sister.
The prevalence of brother-sister marriages within the New Kingdom royal family, a custom in obvious contrast to contemporary non-royal marriage patters, 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.
Even the gods had sex in ancient Egypt. Ra (in the form of Atem) masturbated his children Shu and Tefnut into existence!
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.
— Pyramid Text 1248-49
Nut and Geb
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.
Isis and Osiris
After 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.
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 stuff, and he inserted it between the thighs of Horus. And Horus placed his hand between his thighs and caught the semen of Set.
— Story of Horus and Set
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!
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 Turin Papyrus contains various pictures of sexual activity, perhaps focused on Ramses II and his many wives. It has been theorised that, more likely, it is just the fantasies of an ancient Egyptian who happened to sketch them out on papyrus, or an artwork poking fun at the sexual side of the Egyptian lifestyle. Most of the positions drawn on this papyrus seem to be rather uncomfortable!
Another sexual sketch – this time graffiti – from ancient Egypt shows a woman with a pharaoh’s crown, maybe Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC) engaging in sex with a male that many presume to be Senmut. This sketch has caused many people to believe that Hatshepsut and her favourite courtier were lovers.
From various sources, it seems that the Egyptian preferred method of intercourse were face-to-face or from behind.
References in writing to sexual intercourse between men are as rare as those to sexual intercourse between men and women; the absence of references in writing to sexual intercourse between women reflects the general male bias of the written record. Homosexual intercourse between a king and his general is implied in the fragmentary ‘Tale of Neferkara and Sasenet’, in the description of secret nocturnal visits by the king to the general, detected by the hero of the tale; although the tale is damaged, it reads as if the nocturnal visits are considered illicit.
— Sexuality in ancient Egypt, Digital Egypt for Universities
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.