Sexuality in the universe of the Egyptians can be assessed at different levels. It is interlinked with fertility and erotica in a common aim, the procreation of the species and the continuation of life, even after death. A primitive awareness of sexuality is apparent in Predynastic figurines, but it is only during the Old Kingdom that we find a more sophisticated approach to the subject, which during the entire pharaonic period was veiled in symbolic conventions.
The available evidence for the attitude of the Egyptians toward sexuality is literary and pictorial. The written sources are by no means abundant, and the interpretation of representations is far from straightforward. With the exception of certain unofficial depictions of sexual intercourse, in pictorial language the means of expression are restrained and often disguised in a coded language. In the corpus of literary texts, information must be gleaned from stray references.
Few members of the Egyptian pantheon are specifically credited with a sexual identity, though some are placed in situations where this is implied, such as triads of gods united to conform to a conventional mother-father-child pattern. Though distinguished in appearance and grammatical gender as male or female, some deities appear almost asexual. An exceptional case is that of the Syrian goddess Anat, who is said to be “a woman acting as a warrior, clad as men and girt as women.” When sexuality is emphasized in the world of the gods, it is seen not only as a natural characteristic distinguishing the two sexes, but also as a power, a weapon to be exploited for the benefit of some and the disadvantage of others.
Some deities, like Min or the composite god Min-Amun, display their male sex in no uncertain terms in order to emphasize their position as powerful fertility gods. Min is depicted with an erect phallus; the color of his skin is the deep black of the fertile Nile silt that contains the life-sustaining seeds; and his heraldic plant is the Cos lettuce, whose stem exudes a sap reminiscent of seminal fluid. Bes, the dwarf god, uses his disproportionate characteristics of short body and long phallus in order to establish his image as protector of the woman's world from the moment of conception to childbirth. His look-alike Nekhet, meaning “the strong one,” appears in literature and art as a virile god: his iconography includes, in addition to his erect member, birds' wings and composite headgear made of the heads of animals.
Among goddesses whose sexuality is of prime importance, Hathor must be mentioned—goddess of love, fertility, music, joy, and inebriation. Although these goddesses sometimes have a companion of the opposite sex (Hathor of Dendera cohabits with Horus of Edfu once a year, for example), they preserve their individual sexual identity, which functions in relation to the public whether they are on their own or not. The case of Osiris and Isis is different, for their destinies are linked in their sexual embrace: the fate of one is the raison d'être of the other.
According to popular belief, Osiris, mythological king of Egypt, is overcome and murdered by his brother Seth in a struggle for the leadership of the world. His body is dismembered and scattered along the Nile. Knowing that a complete body was essential for survival in the afterworld, Isis, his sister and wife, painstakingly searches for and assembles the pieces of his body. But until she works her magic with him, it remains a dead body. By positioning herself over his abdomen she “revived what was faint for the Weary One,” as it says in one of the many hymns in her honor. In pictorial representation Isis is usually performing this crucial act in the guise of a bird hovering over the corpse of Osiris. At this moment she conceives an heir, the young Horus, who is later to undertake a battle with Seth for the rulership of the world; finally, Horus is declared the winner. Osiris, fulfilling his destiny as a dead king, becomes king of the underworld. The miracle of conception, brought about entirely by the magical ministrations of Isis, became a beacon of hope for many Egyptians who aspired to achieving rebirth in the afterworld. This sexual concept is of vital importance for an understanding of Egyptian funerary beliefs.
In popular literature, Isis appears a number of times in a role where she makes specific use of her sexuality for her own ends. During the trial concerning the case of Horus and Seth, a number of amusing episodes take place, including one in which Isis transforms herself into a beautiful maiden and lures Seth to condemn himself and his vile acts. Seth, in turn, is seen in a homosexual encounter with Horus, whereby, through the intervention of Isis, Seth is made to eat Horus's sperm. This is seen as a sign of defeat for Seth and a triumph for Horus.
Female sexuality in the divine sphere is displayed when a new sacred bull is installed in the city of Memphis. According to Diodorus (I.85), when the new bull, recognized by its special markings, is carried in procession on a state barge and placed in its new abode in the temple, for forty days women stimulate its power by lifting up their skirts and displaying their genitals to it. The tale of the struggle of Horus and Seth contains a related incident: Re, who presides over the court, becomes angry and exhausted. Hathor, in this case playing the part of daughter of Re, “came and stood before her father, the master of the universe. She uncovered her vulva for his face, and the great god smiled at her.”
In the corpus of miscellaneous texts from the Old Kingdom known as the Pyramid Texts, the sexuality of the king is mentioned together with his other physical needs. Through recitation of spells, he is encouraged in general to be sexually active. When the dead king commutes in the universe, there are no moral limits, and he may cohabit with all the females available.
By the time of the New Kingdom, royal sexuality is described in a particular literary genre known as “theogamy,” or divine marriage. This was created in order to legitimize the divine institution of royal marriage and succession. Here, the royal husband is watching from the sidelines while the mighty god Amun enters the stage, allegedly in the guise of the king, but with easily recognizable characteristics such as “the scent of god.” According to divine plan, the queen is to submit herself to the god in order to conceive an heir to the throne of suitable divine parentage. The queen soon acknowledges the divine qualities of her partner and becomes the receptacle for his seed. This event was narrated first by Queen Hatshepsut (playing the part of the divine issue), then copied by Amenhotpe III and Ramesses II.
A related theme is reflected in the Greco-Roman birth-houses, the so-called mammisi, built at right angles to the main axis at the entrance of major temples (Dendera, Edfu, etc.). Here was celebrated the birth of the son of the resident divine pair, whose qualities are mirrored in the ruler. The world of the gods and the life of the king are interwoven.
In Egyptian nonroyal funerary belief, sexuality plays a crucial part. The way in which this was clad in metaphorical language was first understood by Desroches-Noblecourt in 1954, followed up by important discussions by Westendorf (1967) and by Derchain in the 1970s. Certain aspects of the pictorial repertory in tombs with wall decoration, particularly from the Middle and New Kingdoms, make sense only when interpreted in the total context of funerary beliefs concerned with a continued existence after death. Rebirth was seen as a reenactment of birth, and so the necessary preliminaries for the miracle of conception had to be available, this time in the decoration and equipment of the tomb. The crucial concept of sexuality and the preamble to sexual intercourse were underlined by the presence of beds and headrests, and more subtly in certain of the scenes of daily life. The “banquet scene” abounds in erotic symbolism: heavily made-up participants, often wearing flimsy garments; the omnipresent lotus flower, a common symbol of rebirth; the unguent cone and garments soaked in scent; heavy wigs and jewelry; the presence of mandrake fruits and intoxicating beverages—all details that, along with other symbols of female sexuality such as vervet and duck, relate to sexuality. In the Theban tombs of the eighteenth dynasty, the framework of the banquet scene is the annual Valley festival, celebrated in honor of Amun of Karnak visiting Hathor of Thebes. In Roman times this was explicitly interpreted in terms of divine cohabitation. It was an occasion when, under the influence of intoxicating beverages originating at the offering tables of the gods, the participants gathered in the tombs to communicate both with the divine and with their deceased relatives “coming out.” The sexual atmosphere of the occasion is suggested by the symbolic imagery of the representations.
The fishing and fowling scenes in tombs of Middle and New Kingdom date, and perhaps even of the Old Kingdom, refer not to the tomb owner's sporting activities but to his capacity for procreation; the scene showing him hunting game in the desert with bow and arrow points in the same direction. Many of these interpretations can be substantiated by plays on words, a common Egyptian device.
Looking back to the Old Kingdom, with the later representations and their interpretation in mind, it is possible to see a link. The prominence of the lotus flower in wall decoration is a case in point. The flower, later proved to be symbol of rebirth, a token of affection among lovers, and even a slightly narcotic remedy facilitating the lifting of the spirit, is prominent because of its exaggerated size in the representations. The motif of the bed and the conjugal pleasures enjoyed on it is referred to in some sixth dynasty tombs, where the tomb owner's wife plays the harp in bed. The fact that this is part of funerary decoration makes clear its role as a prerequisite for rebirth.
In Egypt, where death played such a prominent part in life, it was inconceivable in conventional funerary belief to foresee a continued existence without the essential activities performed on earth to sustain life: breathing, eating, drinking, and copulating. These concepts were taken either literally or in sublimated form, the deceased person having been transformed to a glorified spirit.
Sexuality in Focus at Tell el-Amarna.
Nowhere is the question of sexuality more in focus than in the brief reign of Akhenaten. In the Amarna period, concepts were reconsidered and openly displayed in a different form, although sometimes the essence of the message was unaltered. The canon of representation centered on the king's own physiognomy, carefully worked out with the artists to portray him as the fertile manifestation on earth of the solar disk (Aten), incorporating both the male and female creative principles—just as the solar deity had proceeded alone to create the world. Akhenaten's outward form was adapted to the female (narrow shoulders, broad hips, accentuated breasts): male characteristics were confined to codes of dress, such as his bare upper torso and king's crown. In one case (a colossus from Karnak, now in the Cairo Museum), he is shown without his kilt and with no genitals. In art, the king's subordinates are rendered with similar female contours. A final detail of what can best be termed “unisex” consists in abandoning the usual skin color of red for men and yellow for women for a more or less uniform dark orange for both sexes.
It is perhaps significant that in the Amarna period the conventional sexual symbolism in funerary art disappeared, in itself evidence that the so-called scenes of daily life were far more than representations of leisure activities.
- Derchain, Philippe. “Symbols and metaphors in literature and representations of private life.” Royal Anthropological Institute News 15 (1976), 7–10. A summary of the interpretations of the so-called scenes of daily life.
- Desroches-Noblecourt, Christiane. “Poissons, tabous et transformations du mort.” Kêmi 13 (1954), 33–42. A pioneering article on sexual symbolism in funerary belief. The author expanded her ideas on sexual symbolism in interpreting the Valley of the Queens as a giant vulva in Les dossiers d'archéologie 149–150 (1990), 4ff.
- Manniche, Lise. Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt. London and New York, 1987. The only monograph on the subject, presenting source texts in translation and numerous illustrations.
- Troy, Lana. Patterns of Queenship in Ancient Egyptian Myth and History. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Civilizations, 14. Uppsala, 1986. A fundamental study on the sexuality underlying Egyptian thought, with particular reference to the royal family.
- Westendorf, Wolfhart. “Bemerkungen zur “Kammer der Wiedergeburt” im Tutankhamungrab.” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 94 (1967), 139–150. A crucial work for the understanding of the sexual symbolism of certain motifs in scenes of daily life.
- Westendorf, Wolfhart. “Schiessen und Zeugen: Eine Gemeinschaftkeit afrikanischer und ägyptischer Vorstellungen.” In Festschrift Hintze: Ägypten und Kusch, edited by E. Endesfelder et al., pp. 481–486. Berlin, 1977.