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.
Adultery in Egypt was wrong. women got the worst punishment for adultery – a man might just be forced into a divorce, but a women 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.
Itinerant Performers and ‘Prostitutes’
Faience Beads in a Fish-Net Pattern, Similar to a Faience Beaded DressA Reconstructed Faience Beaded Dress
Photo taken with kind permission of the Petrie Museum, London The Egyptian sacred ‘prostitute’ (who was probably a highly regarded as a member of Egyptian society because of her association with different gods or goddesses (such as Bes and Hathor), rather than the street walker that the modern mind imagines) advertised herself through her clothing and make up. Some of these women wore blue faience beaded fish-net dresses. They painted their lips red, and tattooed themselves on the breasts or thighs and even went around totally nude. There is no evidence that these women were paid for these fertility-related acts, so some believe that word ‘prostitute’ is probably an incorrect term for these women. In fact, the Victorian era theory that these women were prostitutes is not backed up by evidence at all. All archaeological evidence for women with such tattoos shows them to have been New Kingdom female musicians or dancers.
Another idea pointed out to me by Daniel Kolos, an Egyptologist academically trained at the University of Toronto, is that this premarital sexual activity might be a prerequisite for marriage. One of the theories that disassociates these women from being prostitutes, is that their sexual activity could be part of a “coming-of-age ritual”, just as circumcision was one for males. With Egypt’s heavy emphasis on fertility as the defining nature of a man or a woman, this idea is a highly likely probability.
Other theories could be that the young virgin girls joined itinerant performing groups – dancers, singers and the like – and during their time with these groups they experienced their first sexual encounters. If a girl became pregnant, she would probably leave the troupe to head home to her family with proof of her fertility. (Motherhood was venerated, giving a woman a much higher status in society, so pregnancy was something to be proud of in ancient Egypt.)
These travelling groups of women were strongly linked with midwifery and childbirth-related deities. The goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet and Heqet disguised themselves as itinerant performers, travelling with the god Khnum as their porter. Carrying the sistrum and menat instruments – instruments with sexual overtones – they showed it to Rawoser, the expectant father. Knowing that his wife, Raddjedet, was having a very difficult labour, he told these women – the disguised goddesses – about his wife’s troubles, and at their offer of help, he let them in to see her.
These women do not seem to be pay-for-sex prostitutes, instead they seem to be a link with the divine, a helper of expectant mothers and singers, dancers and musicians. This is not to say that there were no pay-for-sex prostitutes in ancient Egypt, it it just that there is little evidence of this found. Considering Egypt’s very different image of sexuality, the modern concept of both sexuality and prostitution do not fit this ancient society. Women operated under a totally different cultural imperative than women today, thus ancient Egyptian sexuality must be looked at without modern prejudices. It seems that these female performers, these ‘prostitutes’, were treated with courtesy and respect, and there seemed to be a well established link between these travelling performers and fertility, childbirth, religion and magic.
A Musician with a Bes Tattoo on her Thigh
The 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:
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.