Atossa, the Celestial and Terrestrial Lady of Ancient Iran
By: Shirin Bayani

Portrait of a Persian lady (from Persepolis)
Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, wife of two Achamenian kings, Cambyses and Darius and mother of Xerxes is the most prominent lady in the history of ancient Iran. Not much is known about her life, except that she has witnessed the reign of the four first Achamenian kings and that she has played a decisive role in the long period of turbulence and significance.

The first mythological-historical personality encountered with the same name, namely Atossa, alternatively Hutossa or Hutos, is the wife – or according to some sources – the daughter of Garshasb, a Kiyani ruler.

In Iran’s history of pre-Islamic era, marriage to close relatives, including daughters and sisters, was a common practice with the simple reason to keep up the blood and relation in the monarchial and aristocratic family. The mythological Hutossa Kiyani and the historical Achamenian Atossa might have been the first cases of getting married to their kin. Hutossa and Hutaosa (as mentioned in Avesta), who desired to get married to Goshtasb was eventually married to him and gave birth to several babies. She was, meanwhile, the first political figure who converted to Zoroastrian religion. Zoroaster called on Hutaosa of righteous deed and dignity to orient her thinking trend and her words and behavior towards religion and to convert to Mazda’s beliefs. Zoroaster then declared, “She is converted to my Mazdyasna’s beliefs.” Meanwhile, Hutossa called on her husband Goshtasb to convert to Zoroastrian belief. Since then the Zoroastrian belief was officially accepted. Thus the mythological Hutossa was introduced into the history as a politician and sacred lady of high influence and authority. From then on the Persian girls were called by the same name as a sign of respect for her, the first and most significant among whom might be Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. The sister and wife of Ardeshir II and the wife of Ardeshir III are other royal ladies called Atossa.

The Political Life of Achamenian Atossa
Despite having already admitted that our knowledge on Atossa is quite limited, we can trace part of her political and even cultural activities during her long lifetime. No other lady was ever competitive to her in the course of ancient Iranian history as far as her noble status in the family was concerned. That’s why, as already mentioned, she was the second female personality who was titled a “Lady”, which was a religious title, after Anahita. Since then such a title was gradually granted to some queens. Aeschylus, the 5th century (BC) Greek dramatist, in his famous play titled “The Iranians”, which is the story of Xerxes’ war with the Greek and the significant victory of the Greeks, has called Atossa “The Ladies Lady”.

Atossa’s mother, the Cassandane Queen, Pharnaspes’s daughter and a Persian lady of noble birth was the favorite wife of Cyrus the Great. That’s why among Cyrus’s children those born to the Cassandane Queen had preference to those from his other wives. Cassandane passed away during the lifetime of Cyrus who not only deeply lamented the demise of her beloved wife, but ordered all the tribes and nations subject to his reign to participate in the mourning ceremony as well. One might imagine that considering Cyrus’s open-mindedness on the one hand and the advanced trend practiced by the Persians in educating their children and youth on the other, as recorded in Xenophon’s – the 4th century (BC) historian – book titled Cyropedy, Atossa must have had a distinct character of merit. Given that Atossa had learned how to write and read, she played a decisive role in educating and training her own as well as those of other aristocrats and courtiers.

Cyrus’s son and heir, Cambyses (522-525 BC) took reign concurrent to getting married to her sister Atossa. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian, before then marriage to the kin (sisters) was not practiced among the Persians. Nonetheless, owing to his falling deeply in love with his sister, Cambyses gathered all the Persian judges and made them to give such a marriage a legitimate and legal aspect, which authorized him to do so for the first time.

It might be guessed that Atossa, besides enjoying a special social status, high potential and efficiency, should have been marked with great beauty as well.

Based on Herodotus’ written history, once Cambyses left Iran to take over Egypt, in an attempt of conspiracy, one of the rulers of his court enjoying influence and status, known as Gaumata, supported by the clergies abused his absence to introduce himself as Bardiya, Cambyses’ brother, on account of his close resemblance to him, and seized the Achamenian throne of monarchy. This was a quite risky measure marking the early stages of the Persians rule. Bardiya who enjoyed great popularity, was eventually assassinated by Cambyses in secret on the verge of his trip to Egypt in order to get rid of him and to have peace of mind. Gaumata or the fake Bardiya decided to get married to Atossa in order to take full charge of the affairs and to consolidate the legitimacy of his reign. Nonetheless, he confined her to the women’s sanctuary (haremsara) to keep his mystery from coming to light. The aggressive ruler was well aware of Atossa’s potentials. It was obvious to him that her being on loose could have entangled him in plenty of difficulties. Besides the ladies imprisoned in the haremsara were kept separately to prevent their getting into contact with one another.

Once Darius, an Achamenian prince, known in the history as Darius the Great, was informed on the mystery of the fake Bardiya through one of the ladies of Cambyses’ haremsara, he decided to return monarchy to his own family. On the other hand, given that Cambyses on returning home from Egypt after his victory passed away in a mysterious way, the throne should have been passed on to an Achamenian prince. Eventually Darius managed to kill the aggressive Gaumata and take charge of the affairs. Then, despite having a wife and numerous children, he got married to Atossa for many reasons.

1- Given that Darius came from an origin of Achamenian dynasty, which was not entitled to rule, he decided to get married to the daughter of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses’ sister and wife in order to legitimize his rule. The decision was not only to his advantage politically, but the children who would be born to her would be marked for the blood of a monarchial origin flowing in their veins.

2- Atossa who was marked for her character of high culture, potential, political expertise and gift, could serve as an effective assistant to Darius under the risky period of the time.

3- Given that Atossa was an ambitious and power-seeking woman who had been through lots of difficulties, she totally agreed with such an arrangement. Since as the spouse of Darius, the new monarch, she could have materialized her own ambitious goals and to gain a proper political and social status. That’s how Atossa became “The Ladies Lady” at the climax of the Achamenian power and glory. Ever since a lady was selected officially among the monarch’s spouses as a queen Atossa was crowned and took possession of a separate courthouse. Despite the insufficient and vague information available, it can be realized that Atossa had a say in the administration of the state political and cultural affairs. This is despite the fact that traditionally and legally she had no right to vote.

According to Herodotus, “Atossa was of great authority, and during the Greek war initially recommended by her, Darius made use of her advice. She was even interested in accompanying her husband in the process of war.”

“It seems so strange that despite all your might and power you are sitting still without embarking on any war, conquering any land and enlarging Iran’s territory and increasing its glory,” added Herodotus quoting Atossa. “A young monarch as rich as yourself deserves to embark on making some achievements and prove to the Iranians that a great man is ruling over them,” added Atossa. Though what is said by Herodotus seems an exaggeration, it reflects the reality of Atossa’s influence on her husband.

It was mentioned that Atossa was well informed on the cultural affairs of her time and made full use of the frequent visits of the Greek and other nationalities and tribes to the court. Democdes, the Greek physician, who was taken to Iran during the Achamenians war in the Asia Minor, stayed in the court of Darius and was supported and respected by the monarch. Having treated the queen’s and the king’s serious diseases, he became their special physician.

Atossa and the Monarchy of Xerxes
Four sons were born to Darius and Atossa, among whom the oldest was named Xerxes. As told earlier, Darius who had another wife before getting married to Atossa had some other sons from his first wife. Given that Xerxes was not the oldest son and according to customs, a monarch had to be replaced by his first son, a lot of arguments took place between them. Xerxes claimed that his mother is the “Savior of Persian Tribe” in view of her being the daughter of Cyrus. Besides when she was born her father was the Monarch, while his older brothers were born earlier. On the other hand, Atossa’s influence and authority was quite effective in the decisions made by her husband and other officials in this respect, disregarding the absence of any legal and inheritance right to this effect. Eventually, the 35-year-old Xerxes was appointed as the crown prince, while the unprecedented measure reflected the high authority of “The Ladies Lady”. That’s how Xerxes, the grandson of Cyrus the Great took reign after his father (486-465 BC), while Darius’ older son from his other wife was the best candidate deserving to replace his father and had already been trained for it.

Atossa’s three other sons were also given important army and administrative positions. That was actually the period when Atossa enjoyed the greatest authority of her long lifetime. As a woman in her middle ages and with high expertise and having been through a lot of ups and downs, she made use of her influence in the state affairs as the queen mother. As stated earlier, Aeschylus has made frequent references to her in his play titled “Iranians”. It might even be said that Atossa played the second most decisive role at Aeschylus’ play after Xerxes, which actually reflects the reality. Seems like Atossa didn’t find Xerxes’ war with Greece reasonable and she was apparently one of the opponents of entering into such a conflict. She had been quite upset while the monarch was on his way to Greece. Once she heard about the defeat of her son, she got really disturbed and exasperated. She had realized that there is no consequence to the war. Based on one of the episodes of Aeschylus’ play, “Iran’s Ladies Lady, the respected mother of Xerxes, the wife of Darius, – having fastened her belt (which is reminiscent of Anahita) – Oh, Thou hast been the spouse of a monarch and Thou hast gave birth to another monarch, provided that the star of the fate of this ancient tribe has not lost its luck.” Then quoting the Ladies Lady it continued, “This is similar to the same fright which made me leave the royal night residence and Darius’ bedroom. I am full of concern and worries.”

Aeschylus then goes on to describe the detailed story of the war while Atossa had just heard about the failure from a newly arrived messenger. Then he illustrates Atossa’s coming face to face with her son and gives his play a tragic dimension by being partial towards the Greek.

Nothing is known on the conclusion and details of Atossa’s demise. Nonetheless, as already witnessed, based on the existing evidences, it might be realized that she has had a long life and has been alive until Xerxes returned from Iran-Greece war front (479 BC). Thus she might be guessed to have lived more than 70 years. Neither anything is known about her mausoleum. She might have been buried at Darius’ mausoleum in Naqsh-e Rostam and next to her spouse. According to some unknown source, the Zoroastrian Mausoleum is known as her special point of burial, while others take the mausoleum as Anahita’s temple. It is strange to notice that at the conclusion of the article, Atossa’s name has been intertwined with that of Anahita, similar to its outset. This marks the fact that the two theological and worldly female personalities were distinguished by their similar significance and authority, rather than being of the same importance and potential.

Ancient Egyptian Sexuality

Ancient Egyptian Sexuality
By Caroline Seawright

nk phallus Musicians and a dancer …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 woman 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 woman 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.

Prostitutes advertised themselves through their clothing and make up. Some prostitutes wore blue faience beaded fish-net dresses, some of which is kept in the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Archaeology in Dublin. They painted their lips red, and tattooed themselves on the breasts or thighs and even went around totally nude.


Offering made on a gigantic phallusThe 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

Incest Dogs copulating 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.

Ra Even the gods had sex in ancient Egypt. Ra (in the form of Atum) masturbated his children Shu and Tefnut into existence!

    Atum is he who masturbated in On. 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 raised above GebNut, 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. The stereotypical Egyptian image of a fertile woman

    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

Two men embracing 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 eats the semen-covered lettuce, and so Horus (rather than Set with his first ‘attack’) becomes 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!


Hapi, Nile god with breasts 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 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 Hapis were given wives – Nekhebet in Upper Egypt and Uatchet in Lower Egypt.


Ithyphallic Min holding a flail 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 Lotus 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 faces added to aphrodisiac ointments!


Is this meant to be Senmut and Hatshepsut doing it doggy style? The Turin Papyrus contains various pictures of sexual activity, perhaps focused on Ramses II and his many wives, or maybe depicting an ancient Egyptian brothel. It has been theorised that, more likely, it is just the fantasies of an ancient Egyptian who happened to sketch them out on papyrus. 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 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.

After Life

An ancient paddle doll 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!