Ancient Egyptian erotica are manifested in pictorial representations—figurines of clay, faience, or stone, wall paintings, papyrus and leather scrolls, ostraca, and other media—and in the texts of love poems, magic spells, tales, and treatises on subjects such as medicine, dreams, local customs, and calendars. The sources are rather scattered; most are of New Kingdom date or later, and the majority of erotic figurines and spells date to Greco-Roman times. Some information may also be gathered from classical authors writing on Egyptian matters. The subject is interlinked with sexuality and fertility, which for the Egyptians exceeded the boundaries of life on earth; it is not always easy to determine whether an object was thought to bring about fertility on earth or to assist in rebirth in the hereafter, if indeed it was not simply fashioned to amuse the owner.
In its most tangible form, erotic intent is apparent in numerous figurines dating especially to the Late and Greco-Roman periods. Such objects may be fashioned of clay or stone, or later, of blue or green faience. A common motif is sexual intercourse, with the male participant sporting a huge phallus; the figure of the woman has often broken off, leaving the group incomplete. Musical instruments are often involved in such representations—for example, an angular harp of which the phallus may seem to form a part. Larger figurines of limestone may pursue the theme of musical accompaniment to sexual intercourse, or the group of two participants may be extended to include a number of “helpers.” The purpose of these figurines may be magico-religious, reflecting the life-giving activities of the goddess Isis.
The most significant erotic document from ancient Egypt is the so-called Erotic Papyrus in the Museo Egizio in Turin. It dates from the New Kingdom (c.1200 BCE) and shows an orgy in the form of a cartoon, presented on the same scroll as illustrations to satirical tales involving animals. The tales have no accompanying text, but fragments of Hieratic text remain among the twelve erotic illustrations. The participants in this orgy are male and female (at least two different men are shown, along with women who have at least three different hairstyles); there are also a number of helpers. Each scene shows a variation on the theme of sexual intercourse, and the text leaves no doubt about its nature, since it renders scraps of the conversation by the participants, concerning their activities. Among the paraphernalia at hand in the establishment are a bed and a stool with a cushion, a chariot drawn by two pubescent girls, musical instruments, a jar used as a dildo, a mirror, and cosmetics. The lotus flower (symbol of love and sexuality) and a twining plant that may be convolvulus (morning-glory) emphasize the erotic atmosphere; both plants are otherwise also found in scenes dealing with conception, birth, and rebirth. Completing the picture are a vervet monkey on the chariot and a duck's head decorating the lyre—both of these animals are exponents of female sexuality.
On this New Kingdom scroll, the motif and style of illustration are related to material found at Deir el-Medina, the workmen's village that was the home of those engaged in excavating and decorating the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. A great many ostraca were found there, a number of which bear drawings of an erotic nature, from naked women with or without musical instruments to variations on the theme of intercourse. A rare fragment of leather, discovered at Deir el-Bahri (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) shows an interesting fragment of an erotic occasion in which more than two persons take part. A woman kneels under a grapevine playing a harp, the sound of which arouses a man dancing or running in front of her. It appears that he carries a bundle of straps or similar objects. The feet and ankles of another kneeling woman appear at the edge of the fragment.
A wall painting excavated in one of the houses at the village of Deir el-Medina depicts a dancing musician playing the double oboe, clad in flimsy garments and with tattoos of the god Bes on her upper thighs. She performs in the shade of a convolvulus vine. Perhaps this is the physical setting of the orgy depicted on the papyrus and leather scrolls. The wall painting was situated on one of the walls of a kind of alcove, taken by some to be a bed; others see such a raised podium as a shelf for ancestral busts.
That establishments catering to the needs of the flesh existed is suggested by the discovery at Saqqara of a series of rooms that have been called “Bes chambers” because of their large-scale decoration, in relief, of the god Bes with female companions. Because of their lavish decoration, the chambers may well have had some ritual function rather than being a mere brothel. According to literary references, such places existed. One tale from the Late period relates how the goddess Isis had to seek refuge in a house full of women of different rank when she was fleeing with her son Horus. That women could be bought for money or merchandise is also evident from literary texts such as the “Story of Setne and Tabubu,” or Herodotus' report on the daughter of King Khufu.
Prostitution carried out under the auspices of a temple probably existed in Egypt, at least in the later phases of its long history. Strabo, a Greek historian who traveled in Egypt around 25 BCE, mentions child prostitutes in the temple of Amun. The god Amun is indeed credited with having a “harem,” and although the titles of some of his female associates hint at sexual matters, no detailed information is available.
Although explicit erotic images are perhaps less abundant in Egypt than in some other ancient civilizations, the subject was most frequently treated in symbolic fashion. The texts, however, are quite straightforward in their vocabulary. The expressions for sexual activities are extensive; there are at least fifteen words for “copulating,” including the biblical “knowing.”
In the world of the gods, it is related that the primeval god, Re-Atum, created the world by masturbating and impregnating himself; there was no female in the world, and none was needed. The act was reenacted, if not in reality then at least in spirit, in temples where a priestess bore the title “Hand of the God.” Amun-Re, the mighty god governing the acts and destiny of the rulers of the New Kingdom, enters the stage as father of royal offspring in an even more human fashion. In the guise of the king, he seduces the queen. Emotions come into the picture as well, for we are told:
"When smelling the divine scent, she woke up, and she smiled to him…he lusted after her, and he gave her his heart. He allowed her to see him in his real god's figure, having come close to her. She rejoiced at his virility, and love for him flowed through her body…thereupon the god did what he wished with her. She made him rejoice over her, and she kissed him. She said, “How splendid it is to see you face to face. Your divine strength engulfs me, your dew is all through my limbs.” The god once more did what he wanted with her."
Although the text is mundane, the accompanying illustrations make it clear that this is literally a union made in heaven. It is the most detailed description of sexual intercourse from ancient Egypt, and an official one at that, since it was inscribed on the walls of three temples, with different queens playing the female lead.
Among ordinary human beings, erotic matters were treated as affection, as sexual attraction, or in purely legal terms. The last two are treated straightforwardly, however much modern translators attempt to vary or modify their vocabulary. Excerpts from court cases at Deir el-Medina give a vivid picture of the goings-on at that locality, where the regular ten days' absence of husbands would leave their wives ample opportunity for extramarital relationships. Tales and letters dating from the New Kingdom to the end of pharaonic times elaborate on the theme of physical pleasure in a romantic setting, but not without mentioning the punishment that befell those who were discovered in adultery.
References to sexual intercourse can be gathered from stray passages in various texts. The Demotic “Story of Setne and Tabubu” describes in a most dramatic way the advances and demands made by the beautiful Tabubu, who even persuades Setne to kill his own children before she lets him have his way with her. In love lyrics, the erotic acts are veiled in symbolic imagery. There is talk of the young man “playing with the latch,” of “fluttering door hangings,” and “the sky coming down in the wind,” and of the prominence of “fragrance” at the moment of climax (see the passage quoted above about Amun-Re). On such occasions, intoxicating beverages were often mentioned: “He begins to feel the strong ale”; she lets him spend a “merry” day (nefer, meaning “laden with sexuality”); “when I kiss her and her lips are open, I rejoice even without having drunk beer”; “she lets him become drunk and does whatever he says…her garment is below me and the ‘sister’ is moving about.”
Although these quotations are most discreet, it would seem that the erotic imagination of the Egyptians was vivid. The so-called Dream Books are a good example. Two have survived, one dealing with a man's dreams (c. 1175 BCE) and another with those of a woman (second century CE). The erotic dreams of the man range from seeing his phallus erect to having intercourse with his mother or sister, or with an animal (jerboa, kite, or pig). The woman's dreams list a whole range of animals as partners (among others, baboon, horse, donkey, wolf, crocodile, and the more fanciful mouse, bird, and serpent), as well as a peasant, a foreigner, and another woman.
These lists alone introduce the question of whether the sexual life of the Egyptian world included intercourse with animals and homosexuality. The former was referred to by Herodotus, who was told of a he-goat having had intercourse with a woman. Since he mentions the incident in connection with the city of Mendes in the Nile Delta, where goats were sacred, this may well have been a ritual act performed in connection with the cult of the animal. A similar situation is hinted at in connection with the sacred bull at Memphis, but this bull had cows at his disposal from time to time. A curse of very ancient date was “May a donkey copulate with your wife and children!” But bestiality does not seem to have been common practice in Egypt, as far as we know.
Homosexuality was not alien to the Egyptians. The sources are not abundant, and discussion has usually focused on the case of Horus and Seth and the possible deficiencies of Akhenaten. In the Horus/Seth case, the episodes of homosexual behavior are components of the ongoing struggle for power and have little to do with the inclinations of the two deities; in the Akhenaten case, the question is raised by the iconography. Stray references in the literature are ambiguous; for example, a passage in a woman's copy of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) mentions not having had intercourse with a woman in the temple (it was obviously copied from a male version, with incomplete editing). Pictorial evidence (as seen through the eyes of the male artist) suggests a certain sexual rapport between women who may be shown embracing or playing with erotic symbols. In images of the Amarna period it is sometimes difficult to distinguish males from females, and other representations may also appear to depict two persons of the same sex in an intimate situation.
Incest was by no means a common practice among ordinary Egyptians, but it is attested in myths and in royal families. Polygamy, too, was an exception rather than the rule among ordinary people; the stylized nature of Egyptian representation makes it difficult to say whether a man had two wives at the same time or in succession.
When Egyptians found their sex lives lacking and wanted to change the state of affairs, even with a view to the hereafter, they had recourse to magic and remedies—usually, a combination of the two. A Middle Kingdom Coffin Text recommends a formula, “concerning every man who knows it, he will be able to copulate on this earth at night and at day, and the hearts of women will come to him at any time he desires” (Spell 426). For impotence, a physician in the New Kingdom would recommend a poultice for the penis, consisting of leaves of Christ-thorn and acacia ground in honey. In the third century CE, acacia seeds ground with honey applied to the male member are recommended for making a woman love her husband; the same papyrus scroll has a number of formulas for manipulating women's feelings, either to win a woman's love or to separate a couple.
- Manniche, Lise. Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt. London and New York, 1987. The only existing monograph on the subject, including numerous illustrations of erotica.
- Omlin, Josef A. Der Papyrus 55001 und seine satirisch erotischen Zeichnungen und Inschriften. Turin, 1973. A lavish publication of the Erotic Papyrus, particularly useful for its color illustrations and photographs of additional erotica.