Sex in the Ancient World: Egypt
Egyptologists continue to face an incomplete picture of what sex was like in ancient Egypt, because, unlike the more flamboyant ancient Romans, Egyptians represented sex in a far more covert manner. Any references to sex disguised within ancient Egyptian artifacts were coded and far more symbolically displayed, making interpretation all the more complex. But if you know where to look, the clues left behind in paintings, poetry and ancient temples contain intricate fascinating stories and rich symbology indicating that sexuality was of paramount importance to this ancient civilization.
The Egyptians celebrated sex and held it as a fundamental aspect of their belief system, not only for its procreation purposes but for the recreation and romance that went along with it. They believed that sex was a critical part of the cycle of life, fertility and rebirth; even death didn’t stop Egyptians from planning for their sex lives in the future. Eroticism was pervasive in nearly every aspect of their cultural beliefs, from the way in which the universe began - right down to the path Egyptians took into the afterlife.
Isis and Osiris
Egyptians’ reverence of sex is well illustrated in their mythology, and no story is more famous that the creation myth of the goddess Isis and her husband/brother, the god Osiris. It is a story about birth, death and re-birth - and the sexual references are everywhere. According to one version of the legend, Osiris is an earthly ruler, and his brother Seth, who was jealous of Osiris’ popularity, killed and dismembered him, and scattered the body parts all over Egypt. Adding insult to injury, Seth throws Osiris’ penis into the Nile, where it was swallowed by a fish.
Osiris’ wife, devastated by the murder of her husband, searches far and wife for her beloveds scattered parts and manages to recover all of the pieces save one - his phallus. She puts him back together - creating the first mummy - and uses her magic to fashion an enormous replacement penis. Ancient artwork depicts the mummified Osiris with an erect phallus lying on a bed, while his wife Isis, represented (in Egyptian code) in the form of a kite or bird, hovers over him. After sharing a moment of passion with her husband, not only does Isis become impregnated with their child, Horus, but she helps Osiris then pass into the afterlife - becoming god of the dead.
The story of Isis and Osiris highlights the Egyptian belief in the mystical power of sex, and that even in death there is sensuality. It is also reflective of how closely linked they believed sensuality was to birth, life and rebirth.
In terms of depicting gods and deities, the sexual imagery Egyptians used was practically pornographic, but where mere mortals were concerned, it was completely the opposite, being discreet and subtle. There were very few prohibitions about having sexual relations in ancient Egypt, but despite their openness to sexuality, there were rules of conduct once a person married.
Egyptians viewed the marriage bond as sacred, the very foundation to the stability of their culture, and they frowned heavily upon adultery because they believed it attacked the fundamental basis of Egyptian society. In literary references, the adulterous wife receives the worst punishment of all; she can be thrown to the dogs or burned. When a man was found guilty for the crime, he could be executed, or perhaps get off ‘easier’ by just being mutilated.
If a couple was lucky enough to avoid the pitfalls of adultery, they could keep their attention on another important aspect of Egyptian society: having children. Masculinity and femininity themselves were strongly linked with the ability to conceive and bear children. Not only was fertility considered sexy, the notion of breeding heirs was one of the hallmarks of Egyptian civilization. An individual would not be considered successful unless he produced offspring to maintain the memory of the family name once the mother and father carried on into the afterlife.
Tombs and Temples
The tombs and temples of the gods were a gateway to the afterlife, and it is the inner sanctums of these massive monuments that teaches us most about Egyptian sexuality and spirituality. The intricate and detailed artwork adorns nearly every surface of these shrines dedicated to the afterlife. On the walls of some of the tomb chapels there are numerous depictions of scenes right out of daily life, such as the ideal daily activities, nature, parties, banquets, etc. But don’t forget, the Egyptians loved using code...
Aside from the fact that all tombs have a funerary purpose, there was another reason for having ancient code hidden within these memorials. The walls of the tomb chapel were decorated with symbols that were hidden within painted scenes depicting every day occasions like hunting and fishing, but the ancient Egyptians believed these images were instrumental in the act of being reborn.
The central idea behind the tombs was that upon death, the body would need to go to the afterlife. These tombs acted as portals, and sex would be an important part of that transition. The belief was that when you died it is not the end, but the beginning of a new life, and that beginning symbolically starts with birth. However, in order to be reborn, sexual activities would have to take place before any birth or rebirth could occur. Thus, sexuality and fertility were associated with just about every aspect of the death and the funerary rituals.
Turin Erotic Papyrus
Not all erotic art was concerned with such lofty notions as death and rebirth. After all, even the ancients weren't above a dirty joke. To get the full intimate details of the kinkier side of ancient Egyptian sexuality, it’s important to take a look at the true meaning of the Turin Erotic Papyrus, a famous Egyptian scroll painting dubbed ‘the world’s first men’s magazine’.
A papyrus is a form of artwork, a type of sketch that pokes fun at the sexual side of the Egyptian lifestyle. What makes this Turin Erotic Papyrus so special is that it is the only known erotic scroll-painting to have survived the toll of the ages, and gives us clear evidence that ancient Egyptian art was not devoid of sexual themes.
Symbols that are seen on many temple walls are also present on the Turin Erotic Papyrus. It contains twelve successive scenes, the majority of which are taken up by erotic sexual positions. Men are depicted with enormous phallus’ and deities with disproportionately huge erections (a tongue-in-cheek way of reminding its viewers of the magical, mystical part of the Isis and Osiris myth) and very nubile female characters executing quite an assortment of sexual acts.
Though some onlookers consider this papyrus as an obscene image, many would argue that the ancient scroll gives a glimpse into the humorous side of the Egyptians. Though sex was honored as a life-giving activity it was also, at the same time, viewed as the pleasurable and fun activity that it is! The satirical undertone of the Papyrus is perfectly demonstrated by the unusual and often silly representation of humanized animals playing musical instruments, picking figs, and driving chariots.
The Egyptians thought of the afterlife as a continuation of life on earth, and since sexuality was so important, the Egyptians believed in preparing for a sex-life after death! From ancient myths to everyday handicrafts, references to eroticism were usually a mainstay, although shrouded in codes and symbolism.