How The Oldest Depiction Of Sex Changed The Way We See The Ancient Egyptians
August 1, 2017|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
When we talk about how ancient civilizations envisioned and practiced sex, it becomes easy to think about the Greeks and Romans with their long and well-known depictions of their sex life. However, when it comes to the Egyptian civilization, it’s hard to really know the role sexuality played in their development as one of the most important cultures. If you think about these two topics, the only thing that comes to everyone’s mind is the famous and controversial character of Cleopatra, the sensuous queen whose charms enticed not one, but two of the most powerful men of her time. Apart from that, the other depiction, which isn’t as popular as Cleopatra’s, is the role of women in the not so well acclaimed (and yet very popular) movies of The Mummy. Far from these, Ancient Egypt is better known for its mysticism and mythology. It’s most renowned for their beliefs about death and life and their great constructions. But sexuality isn’t something we really associate with them when we talk about this great civilization. So, what did they think about it?
During the Napoleonic era, a craze and interest in Egypt and their ancient history arose, leading to the discovery of the great Rosetta stone and the birth of a new branch in history and archaeology studies known as Egyptology. As a result, during the 1820's, among a huge collection excavated from the Valley of the Kings and resting inside the safety of the walls of the newly opened Egyptian Museum of Turin, a very intriguing artifact was found. It is known as the Turin Erotic Papyrus. Concealed since until the seventies due to its “obscene” depictions, this document completely changed our western perception of Ancient Egypt. This 8.5-inch papyrus is divided into two main topics: on the one hand, one-third depicts human-like animals performing human activities, which are thought to be a satirical depiction of everyday life. The other two-thirds –and the most interesting ones– portray twelve scenes of people performing sexual positions.
Even today, historians and archaeologists still ignore what this papyrus represented in its time. While some think it was a theological document or magical artifact to ensure a deceased person’s journey to the afterlife, the most common consensus is that it could be the first erotic depiction of sexuality. In other words, it was one of the first examples of pornography. As I mentioned, unlike other ancient cultures, sexuality in Ancient Egypt was depicted in a more subtle and encoded way. According to specialists, sexuality was encoded, or at least that’s what many thought due to historical evidence, but if you look closely, we've been missing the fact that sex had a very important role beyond reproduction.
If we go a little bit back to the birth of Egyptology, we’ll realize why this happened. When all the amazing pieces were taken from their original land and transported to museums in London and other cities of Europe, they wanted to exhibit the mysterious and “exotic” side of this culture that had been forgotten for such a long time. As a result, many of the pieces with a slightly erotic load were automatically censored or altered to be deemed appropriate, according to the prudish perspective of the time. For example, figures and statues representing the god of fertility and reproduction, Min, which was originally depicted as a man holding his long and erected phallus, were mutilated. In the case of images or engravings, Victorians and other Europeans were more creative and placed museum signs to cover the god's genitals. When it was impossible to censor, they hid the artifact in warehouses and basements.
However, it’s not only a matter of censorship. In many cases, the depiction of the ancient Egyptian sexual life was done through symbols and a very complex iconography, because, yes, they were also a bit prudish in their art. So, in the different temples throughout the country (being the ones at the Valley of the Kings the most important ones) we can see many hieroglyphics and art loaded with this iconography, such as lotus flowers that represented the idea of resurrection. Now, what does this have to do with sex, you may ask? Actually, for the ancient Egyptians, the passing to the afterlife, was seen as a rebirth or resurrection, and the only way to achieve this was through sex, or through the idea of sex. If you think about it, it’s very logical in its essence. The way humans and most animals perpetuate life is through sex. In that way, the logical way to resurrect, or be reborn, must be through sex as well. However, this is not a matter of physical sexual intercourse, but a spiritual and symbolic rite that depends on the magical powers of iconography and figures, thus the effort in funerary rituals and decorations of the tombs.
The best and most famous example is a chest found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, which depicts him seating on a chair and aiming with a bow while his wife, kneeling next to him, holds the arrow. The interesting thing is that the ancient word sti referred to both shooting and ejaculation. In that way, hunting scenes or animals were mostly used to depict fertility, reproduction, and sexuality. Another important thing to mention is that while human sexuality was mainly encoded, when it came to the depiction of gods, the nature of the iconography changed. Just like the god Min, several other deities were depicted in explicit sexual interpretations. That’s what makes of the Turin Erotic Papyrus so interesting and game changing, since it doesn’t depict any deity of the Egyptian pantheon.
While we can’t know for sure the real meaning and story behind this papyrus, based on the images and the few remaining texts, specialists think it could be either a treatise on love making or an everyday depiction of a brothel. We might never know the truth behind it, but the important thing is that, since its exhibition during the seventies, it has given us a new lens to interpret and understand this majestic and millenary civilization in a new different way.
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