Eros in Egypt
David O'Connor
Archaeology Odyssey, September-October, 2001

We moderns tend to believe that ancient Egyptian art contains little that is overtly sexual. Egyptian painting seems to lack the strong sensual qualities of much classical art and its descendant, the richly textured art of the Renaissance.

This impression is mistaken, however. In paintings and reliefs in Egyptian temples and tombs, the sexuality is often only suggested—as when a husband and wife are depicted sitting demurely side by side—befitting the dignified surroundings. In the "low" art of papyrus scroll-painting, on the other hand, Egyptian artists created explicitly erotic images. Unfortunately, only one of these scrolls has survived.

The most erotically graphic—some would say pornographic—work of Egyptian art 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.(1) 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 various human tasks. The rest consists of explicit depictions of sexual 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 (and her), creating an especially improbable scene. So graphic are these images that a recent commentator, the Swiss Egyptologist Joseph Omlin, felt compelled to resort to  Latin to  describe the activities involved.


Yet the vignettes' artistic merit is high, indicating that the papyrus had an elite owner and audience. The draftsmanship is of good quality, and the 12 erotic vignettes are carefully designed—both as an entire structure and as separate scenes.

The central scene of the erotic vignettes, unlike the others, is horizontal. It consists of a woman lying above a bed, reaching down below the bed to embrace a man. This centerpiece separates equal amounts of space to the left and right, with five vignettes to the right and six to the left.

The vignettes themselves are grouped into three sets of three scenes and one set of two scenes (vignettes 1 and 2). In the three-scene format, a dominant central vignette of especially graphic character is flanked on either side by vignettes given a slightly less prominent treatment. These groupings were probably meant to conform to the way in which a papyrus scroll is read—by unrolling one end and rolling up the other end, exposing only a portion at a time. Viewing each group of scenes, then, would be like turning the pages of a large book.

The Turin Erotic Papyrus is obviously a satire on human manners and desires, as the animal vignettes on the first third of the papyrus suggest. Another papyrus from the Ramesside period, the so-called Satirical Papyrus, now in the British Museum, shows animals performing activities often represented in the "high" art of Egyptian tombs; a lion, for example, is shown mummifying a corpse. The Satirical Papyrus appears to be a parody of "high" themes in "low" style. The graphic, vulgar Turin papyrus probably also pokes fun at the upper classes. The erotic vignettes, I believe, were appreciated as ironic commentary on the love poetry enjoyed by the Ramesside elite.(2) These poems use sensuously and erotically charged imagery to celebrate emotional and sexual relationships between beautiful young elite women and their handsome male peers. 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!*

In the satire of the Turin Erotic Papyrus, the voracious male lovers are seedy and vulgar, and the women who service them, while not of the highest elite, are rendered as young and attractive. The suggestion of elegance in the women adds to the amusing, ironic, yet pornographic excitement that was evoked by the papyrus's scenes. The Turin Erotic Papyrus, then, presents a kind of frank, earthy Rabelaisian satire of human acts—not unlike what we find in other instances of "low" comedy, such as Shakespeare's clown scenes.

Such explicitness, however, was not deemed appropriate for the dignity of temples and tombs. Some Egyptologists have suggested that to maintain decorum, a kind of visual code was commonly used in "high" Egyptian art to express sexual or erotic messages. As the French scholar Phillipe Derchain suggests, a mandrake berry might be a "sign of voluptuous sensuality," or a duckling held between a woman's breasts might designate her function as a sexual partner. To Derchain, the extremely common scene in mortuary art of "husband and wife sitting soberly next to each other in the presence of their family" symbolizes their sexual union as a reality even after death.(3)

It is also possible that sexual wordplay is rendered visually in formal Egyptian art. For example, the word "to shoot" can mean, depending on its hieroglyphic determinative or ideogram, "to shoot an arrow" or "to ejaculate." A scene showing young Pharaoh Tutankhamun (1336-1327 B.C.E.) shooting arrows at distant birds in the presence of his attractive wife might well have been read by Egyptians as a symbolic depiction of their sexual union.(4)

Although Egyptologists disagree, sometimes vehemently, whether there is erotic encodement in Egyptian art,(5) there can be no doubt that sexual themes are indeed represented in formal tombs and temples. Sexuality could not be ignored because of its importance in Egyptian myths and beliefs about the afterlife. Creation itself could be described in sexual terms (the creator, being alone, masturbates to generate other gods), and deities had sexual relations with each other.(6) Although some Egyptian inscriptions piously note that lovemaking is replaced by apotheosis in the afterlife, more often Egyptians looked forward to resuming sexual activity in the world to come.

If they couldn't do away with sexual themes, the Egyptians' strong sense of decorum(7) required that the erotic activities of deities or the deceased be depicted in restrained and modulated forms. A fertility god like Min was shown frankly as ithyphallic, because that was what he was, a producer of seed. More typical of the treatment of sexuality in high art, however, are the renderings of the union between the god Osiris and his sister-consort Isis. The depiction of the copulation of Osiris and Isis was appropriate in formal contexts because it was such a crucial episode in a myth of great significance for Egyptians. Osiris is murdered and dismembered by his envious brother Seth. Osiris's sisters, Nepthys and Isis (the latter also his wife), reassemble Osiris's mutilated body in order to mummify it—though in some versions of the myth they need to build an artificial penis, because a Nile carp ate the original. After mummifying Osiris, Isis is able to revive his sexual potency and become pregnant. She then gives birth to Horus, who defeats Seth, becomes the ruler of the living, and performs cult rituals for Osiris. Now fully effective again, Osiris becomes ruler of the dead in the afterlife.

These events had several meanings for Egyptians. Osiris symbolized the forces of regeneration, which enabled the sun god, the source of all life, to renew himself day after day. Osiris and Horus also provided the paradigm for the orderly succession of Egyptian kings—as well as for the performance of mortuary cult rituals by sons on behalf of their deceased, though hopefully revitalized, fathers.(8)

The coupling of Osiris and Isis is shown in a number of temples from the New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.E.) and later.(9) All of these depictions follow a standard format that makes the sexuality explicit and yet maintains Egyptian decorum. Osiris is shown in human form; despite his evident arousal, he lies inert. The problem, however, was how to depict Isis, who has the active role of arousing Osiris and having intercourse with him: To depict her in human form would be a disturbing intrusion upon the dignity of the gods.

The Egyptian artistic solution was brilliant: Isis flutters over the inert Osiris in the form of a small bird, descending to achieve impregnation and thus to conceive Horus. This may seem grotesque to us, but it enriched the scene symbolically while moderating (but not concealing) its sexual character. Why a bird? Isis and Nepthys are often identified as kites, in connection with their roles as mourners. In anthropoid depictions, moreover, Nepthys and Isis are sometimes shown with wings, which they beat over Osiris to fan him with life-giving air. Isis's bird form is especially appropriate because Horus, the royal son she is about to conceive, is often represented as a falcon—a close relative of the kite.

Egyptian artists could also depict sexual relations between humans and anthropomorphized deities without transgressing the bounds of modesty. According to Egyptian royal mythology, either a king's human mother (a queen) is impregnated by a god or his human father (a king) impregnates a goddess. The future king is born, nursed and proclaimed legitimate by the divine parent; then, when he comes of age, he accedes to the crown.(10)

These themes are depicted in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) at Deir el Bahari, as well as in the temple of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 B.C.E.) at Luxor. The dramatis personae are the god Amun-Ra and the human queens who bore Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III. Although in both depictions, which are almost identical to one another, sexual intercourse is only suggested, not actually depicted. Matters are explicit in the accompanying texts: The god gets into the queen's bed and, taking the form of her husband, unites with her sexually. Both queens recognize the god Amun-Ra, however, and they are delighted to be so honored.

A number of pictorial devices are used to soften the sexual dimension of the episode. The bed, the actual locale of the sexual union, is present, but the god and the queen are physically separated from it: Two goddesses seated on the bed hoist the couple above it. In one case, the god and queen sit on a long, horizontal hieroglyph for heaven, a device emphasizing the transcendental aspect of their union.

Nonetheless, it is clear what the god and queen are up to. They directly face one another, an unusual arrangement for a seated couple in Egyptian art, suggesting the imminence of an embrace. Furthermore, their legs overlap (but do not intertwine), suggesting the intercourse that is to follow and result in the birth of the king.

In both depictions, Amun-Ra makes a common gesture—repeated again and again in temple reliefs—of holding the life hieroglyph to the queen's nostrils, endowing her with life. At Deir el Bahari, Amun-Ra performs a more unusual gesture: Not only does he put the life hieroglyph to the queen's nose but he passes hieroglyphs representing life and "dominion or overlordship" to the queen at waist level. This latter symbol probably refers to the royal life transferred to the queen by the god in the act of copulation.

Another treatment of the conception, birth and nursing of a future king occurs on the south wall of a small chapel erected for a cult of King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (2008-1957 B.C.E.) of the 11th Dynasty.(11) The chapel stood near the goddess Hathor's temple at Dendera, so she is the divine partner involved. Her human partner is a king. Here, decorum is observed to such an extent that neither the sexual intercourse of the couple nor the actual birth of the future king is depicted. Yet each is clearly, if only implicitly, present.

On the right, Hathor shakes a sistrum, a symbol of sexual arousal in the temple cult, before a king who awaits her while seated on a bed. On the left, Hathor dandles an infant king with the assistance of a nurse, an episode indicating that the birth of the future king has taken place. Thus the episodes of intercourse and birth are to be "read" as occurring between the scenes of sexual foreplay and after-birth suckling, even if they are not actually depicted.(12)

For the ancient Egyptians, sex clearly mattered, and not only as the means of propagating the species. Egyptian men expected to resume sexual activity after death—believing that through intercourse with a female partner (typically, a wife) in the afterlife, the deceased could procreate a rejuvenated, reborn version of themselves.(13)

We would therefore expect to find numerous depictions of sexuality in Egyptian mortuary art. The fact is, however, they are relatively rare, and even the most explicit depictions, as at Deir el Bahari and Luxor, are greatly subdued for modesty's sake. Yet there are a few scenes in tomb chapels that do indeed seem (if the "codes" are interpreted correctly) to refer to sexuality, opening up the possibility that sexual depictions are more common than is generally thought.

The most famous of these scenes is in the Saqqara tomb chapel of Mereruka, the vizier of King Tety (2350-2338 B.C.E.) of the 6th Dynasty.(14) Some scholars believe it represents the prelude to sexual union between Mereruka and his wife, for the sheer pleasure of engaging in sex and for the purpose of his rebirth in the afterlife.(15)

The intimate, relaxed couple sit on a large and prominent bed. This is similar to, though earlier than, the scenes from Deir el Bahari and Luxor in which Amun-Ra is shown above a bed with the queen. As in the royal scenes, Mereruka and his wife directly face one another. The Mereruka scene also recalls the prelude to sexual union depicted in Nebhepetre's chapel. Much as Hathor shakes a sistrum in order to arouse her human partner for intercourse, Mereruka's wife plays a harp for her husband, perhaps to accompany a love song.

There is a final indicator of imminent intercourse, one that is rarely mentioned even by commentators who think that the scene refers to intercourse and the deceased's rebirth.(16) Over his left shoulder, Mereruka holds a large fly whisk made of three fox skins tied together. The whisk forms the hieroglyph for "(re)birth" or "to be (re)born." This is almost certainly not accidental; it suggests that the scene represents the prelude to the sexual union necessary for Mereruka's rebirth.

So the Egyptians weren't stiff, straight-laced puritans. They created a genre of extremely graphic, erotic images, few of which survive today; and they represented sexual scenes, if sometimes in coded form, in their temples and tombs. If these scenes tend to be restrained and modest, we probably shouldn't be surprised. As anthropologist Ernestine Friedl observes, "ordinarily, run-of-the-mill, everyday sex relations in virtually all human societies are hidden, conducted away from the gaze of all but the participants."(17) The Egyptians simply extended this principle to much of their art.

1 The only comprehensive publication of Turin Papyrus 55001 is Joseph Omlin, Der Papyrus 55001 und seine Satirisch-erotischen Zeichnungen und Inschriften, (Turin: Fratelli Pozzo-Torino, n.d.). Related to the vignettes of this papyrus are numerous explicitly erotic ostraca and figurines; see Lisa Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1987). (Back)

2 For translations and discussion of these love poems, Michael Fox, The Song of Songs and Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1985); John Foster, Hymns Prayers, and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Poetry (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), pp. 162-166 (a selection). (Back)

3 Quotations and materials in this paragraph from Philippe Derchain, "Symbols and Metaphors in Literature and Representations of Private Life", in Royal Anthropological Institute Newsletter 15 (1976) pp. 6-10. (Back)

4 Derchain, "Symbols and Metaphors," pp. 9-10. (Back)

5 For a forcefully worded discussion, see Marianne Eaton-Krauss and Erhart Graefe, The Small Golden Shrine from the Tomb of Tutankhamun (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1985), Chapter 3. (Back)

6 For the sexual aspects of creation accounts, see Lana Troy, Patterns of Queenship in Ancient Egyptian Myth and History (Uppsala, 1986), 12-23; for divine families, Dimitri Meeks and Christine Farvard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 36-37; on the sexuality of deities, Meeks and Farvard-Meeks Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, pp. 66-69. (Back)

7 On this sense of decorum, a major factor in Egyptian art and other aspects of culture, see John Baines, "Society, Morality and Religious Practice" in Byron Shafer, ed., Religion in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 137-146. (Back)

8 On myths and beliefs associated with Osiris, see Troy, Patterns of Queenship, pp. 32-34; Stephan Quirke, Ancient Egyptian Religion (London: British Museum Press, 1992), Ch. 2. (Back)

9 A typical example of the scene in question is illustrated in Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, p. 58 (Fig. 51). (Back)

10 On the (half-) divine birth of kings, see David Silverman, "The Nature of Egyptian Kingship", in David O'Connor and David Silverman eds., Ancient Egyptian Kingship, (Leiden: Brill, 1995), pp. 69-71. The depictions of the divine birth cycle at Luxor and Deir el Bahari are discussed and depicted in Hellmut Brunner, Die Geburt des Gottkönigs (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1964). (Back)

11 Labib Habachi, "King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep: His Monuments, Place in History, etc.", in Mitteilungen der Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 19 (1963), pp. 19-28. (Back)

12 David O'Connor, The Dendereh Chapel of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep: a New Perspective, in Anthony Leahy and John Tait eds., Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honor of H.S. Smith (London Egypt Exploration Society, 1999) pp. 215-220. (Back)

13 See Troy, Patterns of Queenship, pp. 20-23. How ancient Egyptian women underwent such a process is a more difficult issue, discussed recently by Ann Roth, "Father Earth, Mother Sky: Ancient Egyptian Beliefs About Conception and Fertility", in Alison Rautman ed., Ieading the Body Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), pp. 198-199. (Back)

14 The scene of Mereruka and his wife is conveniently reproduced in John Baines and Jaromir Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (New York Facts on File Publications, 1988) p. 205. For a very similar, contemporary scene see Aylward Blackman and Michael Apted, The Rock Tombs of Meir, part 5, Egypt Exploration Society, London, 1953, Plate XLV. See also, for related issues, David O'Connor, "Sexuality, Statuary and the Afterlife; Scenes in the Tomb-chapel of Pepyankh (Heny the Black)" in Peter Der Manuelian (ed.) and Rita Freed (supervisor), Studies in Honor of William Kelly Simpson Vol. 2 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1996), pp. 621-633. (Back)

15 Most recently, see Hartwig Altenmuller, Geburtsschrein und Geburtshaus, in Der Manuelian and Freed, Studies, Vol. I, p. 30. (Back)

16 So far as I know, noted only by Erik Hornung, as cited in H. Buchberger, Sexualitat und Harfenspiel Notizen zur "sexuellen" Konnotation der altgyptischen Ikonographie in Göttinger Miszellen 66 (1983), p. 18. (Back)

17 Ernestine Friedl, "Sex the Invisible", in American Anthropologist 96 (1994), p. 833. (Back)