Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ancient Egyptians and Erotic Poetry

 "If I am not beside you, where will set your desire? If you do not embrace me and seize the moment, then whom will you embrace for your pleasure? But if you woo me to touch my breasts and my thighs..."

Did you ever wonder about the old folk and erotic sex? No, I'm not talking about the cavortings of Grandma and Grandpa or the increased activity of seniors thanks to Viagra. I'm talking about really old folk -- the ancient Egyptians. Sexuality in ancient Egypt was open and untainted by guilt. Sex was an important part of their lives - from birth to death and rebirth. In this ancient world, singles and married couples made love. And royalty made plenty of it: the pharaoh Ramses had 8 wives, over 100 concubines, hundreds of children, and all of that sex must have done him some good because he died at over 90 years of age. How do we know this? We have the papyrus and pictographs for proof.

Egyptian Women and Men

To the ancient Egyptians, the most attractive women tended to be the fertile ones. A woman who had children was seen to be more fortunate than ones without. Taking after Isis, the mother goddess of  Horus, Egyptian women strove to be intelligent, wise, mystical and mothers. Where her twin sister Nephthys was barren, Isis was fertile.

What was a beautiful, fertile woman to most ancient Egyptian men? In the Papyrus of Chester Beatty I, the writer is explicit, mentioning her beloved scent, her hair, her eyes and her buttocks. From the same papyrus, another romantic poem describes the object of his affection as being ""bright" of skin, her arm "more brilliant than gold," long-necked and "white-breasted," hair of "genuine lapis lazuli," (blue?) and fingers like lotus blooms. It also mentions her beautiful thighs and heavy buttocks. He also admired her swift walk, sweet voice and, an age old compliment from men, her ability to know when to stop talking. (Maggie Rutherford, "The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Beauty,"

In the Egyptian community, men had to prove their masculinity by fathering children, while the women had to be able to bear these sons and daughters. Being a mother meant being able to keep her marriage secure and to gain a better position in society.

Unmarried women, on the other hand, seemed to be free to choose partners as they so desired, and they enjoyed their love life to its fullest. Reports say ancient Egyptians invented a means of birth control by mixing a paste out of crocodile dung and forming it into a pessary, or vaginal insert. (Nacy Gibbs, Time, April 22 2010)

But, despite the presence of pleasure-seeking, unmarried women, adultery in Egypt was considered wrong. Women got the worst punishment for adultery - a man might just be forced into a divorce, but a woman 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.

The Egyptians loved their children and were not afraid to show it. But there were some advice to parents, written by scribes: "Do not prefer one of your children above the others; after all, you never know which one of them will be kind to you." (Caroline Seawright, "Ancient Egyptian Sexuality," Tour Egypt, 2010)

As it turns out, Ancient Egyptians even believed that sex was a strong part of the afterlife. So much that mummies were given prosthetic penises and nipples. The theory behind this was that these artificial parts would be re-animated in the afterlife. The Egyptians also believed in begetting children even after their death and installed fertility dolls in their graves with wide child bearing hips and paddle dolls that ended abruptly at a wide pubic area with tiny heads, arms and legs.

 ...Revel in pleasure while your life endures
And deck your head with myrrh. Be richly clad
In white and perfumed linen; like the gods
Anointed be; and never weary grow
In eager quest of what your heart desires -
Do as it prompts you...
-- Lay of the Harpist

Erotic Egyptians

The most erotically graphic work of Egyptian artistic writing is the so-called Turin Erotic Papyrus (Papyrus 55001), now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy. Painted in the Ramesside period (1292-1075 B.C.E.), the severely damaged papyrus has not been treated well by time and the elements. It consists of a continuous series of vignettes drawn on a papyrus scroll about 8.5 feet long and 10 inches high. The first third of the scroll (reading from right to left) shows animals and birds carrying out human tasks. The rest consists of explicit sex acts. 

The erotic section of the Turin papyrus comprises 12 successive vignettes. In each vignette a grotesquely aroused, unkempt man has sexual relations with an attractive young woman. The woman, while virtually naked, is decidedly more elegant than her partner. The sexual positions are varied and extremely vivid. One vignette goes so far as to place the woman in a chariot with the man standing on the ground behind it creating an especially improbable scene. (David O'Conner, "Eros in Egypt," Archaeology Odyssey, September-October 2001)

Erotic Love Poems

Some of the erotic poetry of the ancient Egyptians also survives. Through this literature, people can get a first-hand view of the erotic Egypt of antiquity. The love poems composed thousands of years ago provide an intimate glimpse of the lives of everyday ancient Egyptians.

Love songs and romantic poems had a favorable image of women. Semi-erotic, they showed women who expressed their own sexuality, showing that women desired men just as much as men desired women. References to sexual intercourse were freely written, showing Egypt's relaxed attitude towards sexual relationships. In one such poem (translated by Michael Fox), a young woman tells her lover:
My heart desires to go down to bathe myself before you,
That I may show you my beauty in a tunic of the finest royal linen...
I'll go down to the water with you, and come out to you carrying a red fish, which is just right in my fingers.
I'll set it before you, while looking upon your beauty.
O my hero, my brother [a term of endearment],
Come, look upon me!

The blue water lily was possibly also a symbol of sexuality - Dr Liz Williamson says that the flower "has a sort of Viagra effect." Women were wooed with the blue water lily. In certain erotic scenes from the Turin papyrus, women are shown wearing very little apart from the white lily as a headdress. ("Blue Lotus - Nymphaea Caerulea,"

The Egyptian idea of sexuality was identified with creation. Being a flower of creation, the flower became linked to human fertility and sexuality. The images of women holding the flower may be hinting at her ability to bear children or that she was sexually desirable, and images of men holding the flower may hint at his potency. It could also be a way to ensure that the person painted would be fertile - and sexy - in the afterlife.

And, thanks to recent chemical analysis by the Egyptian section of Manchester Museum, it appears there is a scientific reason for this link - the chemical make-up of this plant contains phosphodiesters, the active ingredients of Viagra. ("Honey For My Honey: Ancient Aphrodisiacs," Heritage Key, December 14 2009)

My one, the sister (term of endearment) without peer,                                                                             
The handsomest of all!
She looks like the rising morning star
At the start of a happy year.
Shining bright, fair of skin,
Lovely the look of her eyes,
Sweet the speech of her lips,
She has not a word too much.
Upright neck, shining breast,
Hair true lapis lazuli;
Arms surpassing gold,
Fingers like lotus buds.
Heavy thighs, narrow waist,
Her legs parade her beauty;
With graceful step she treads the ground,
Captures my heart by her movements.
She causes all men's necks
To turn about to see her;
Joy has he whom she embraces,
He is like the first of men!
When she steps outside she seems
Like that the Sun!

O my god, my lotus flower! . . .
It is lovely to go out and . . .
I love to go and bathe before you.
I allow you to see my beauty
in a dress of the finest linen,
drenched with fragrant unguent.
I go down into the water to be with you
and come up to you again with a red fish,
looking splendid on my fingers.
I place it before you . . .
Come! Look at me!
(IFAO 1266 + Cairo 25218, 7-11)

Ancient Egyptians expressed desire, passion, and longing in their poetry. Romance and sexuality went hand in hand in these writings.   

I wish I were her Nubian slave
who guards her steps.
Then I would be able to see the colour
of all her limbs!
I wish I were her laundryman,
just for a single month.
Then I would flourish by donning [her garment]
and be close to her body.
I would wash away the unguent from her clothes
and wipe my body in her dress . . .
I wish I were the signet ring
which guards her finger,
then I would see her desire every day.
(IFAO 1266 + Cairo 25218, 18-21)

Another poetic desire: 

I wish I were your mirror
so that you always looked at me.
I wish I were your garment
so that you would always wear me.
I wish I were the water that washes your body.
I wish I were the unguent, O Woman,
that I could anoint you.
And the band around your breasts,
and the beads around your neck.
I wish I were your sandal
that you would step on me!
(Papyrus Anakreon: K. Preisendanz, Anacreon.)

Ideals of beauty were worshiped by Egyptian men. Their effect on the male populace echoes the yearning so prevalent in modern society. A beautiful Egyptian earthly goddess could certainly turn the heads of adoring fellows.

She makes all men turn their necks
to look at her.
One looks at her passing by,
this one, the unique one. 

Here is another poem of adoration.

She is one girl, there is no one like her.
She is more beautiful than any other.
Look, she is a star goddess arising
at the beginning of a happy new year;
brilliantly white, bright skinned;
with beautiful eyes for looking,
with sweet lips for speaking;
she has not one phrase too many. . . .
(from Papyrus Chester Beatty I in Dublin, c. 1000 BC)

And this guy really really falls for the woman, even to the extent of elation while sacrificing his favorite beverage.

It will be for me a spell against the water
For I see my heart,
My beloved standing right before my face.
My arms open wide to embrace her
And my heart if joyful in my breast.
She will be to me like eternity
Her lips open wide as I kiss her

 And I am joyful even without beer.

Romance was certainly alive in Egyptian imagery and in devotion to never-ending love.

Sister without peer
For heaven makes your love
Like the advance of flames in straw,
And its longing like the downward swoop of a hawk.
George A. Barton, Archaeology and The Bible, 3rd Ed.

As clean ritual robes to the flesh of Gods,
As fragrance of incense to one coming home
Hot from the smells of the street.
It is like nipple-berries ripe in the hand,
Like the tang of grainmeal mingled with beer,
Like wine to the palate when taken with white bread.

While unhurried days come and go,
Let us turn to each other in quiet affection,
Walk in peace to the edge of old age.
And I shall be with you each unhurried day,
A woman given her wish: to see
For a lifetime the face of her lord.

translated by John L. Foster

And, honey was an often used sensual symbol. It contains boron, which stimulates the sex hormones in both males and females. Ancient Egyptians ate figs and honey in celebration of Ma'at -- the Goddess of truth, balance and order -- to remind themselves that truth is sweet.

Your love has penetrated all within me
Like honey plunged into water,
Like an odor which penetrates spices.

When her little sycamore begins to speak
The murmur of its leaves
Drips honey in the ear
Its fragrant words taste sweet
Her own hand, as soft and delicate as lotus.
from Love Songs of the New Kingdom

My beloved met me,
Took his pleasure of me, rejoiced as one with me.
The brother brought me into his house,
Laid me down on a fragrant honey-bed.
My precious sweet, lying by my heart,
One by one "tongue making", one by one,
My brother of fairest face did so fifty times, . . .

Man of my heart, my beloved man,
your allure is a sweet thing, as sweet as honey.
Man of my heart, my beloved man,
your allure is a sweet thing, as sweet as honey.
You have captivated me,
of my own free will I will come to you.
Man, let me flee with you—into the bedroom.
You have captivated me;
of my own free will I shall come to you.
Lad, let me flee with you—into the bedroom.
Man, let me do the sweetest things to you.
My precious sweet, let me bring you honey.
In the bedchamber dripping with honey
let us enjoy over and over your allure, the sweet thing.
Lad, let me do the sweetest things to you.
My precious sweet, let me bring you honey.
from The Song of Songs 

The following video clips contain sexual images. WARNING - view at your own discretion. This is a scholarly look at ancient Egypt and sexual practices. KAMA SUTRA OF HATHOR - Ancient Egypt. Images and content may not be suitable for youngsters.


NylaNinja said...

Thank you soo much for this this was sooo interesting to read and I can't wait to do more research. Nyla

Miss Capricorn said...

Wowwwwwww just wow

Anonymous said...

Fantastic to find some translated very ancient love and sex poetry.
They were just as we are.
We are just as they were.