Sex and the single goddess

Hat-hor wall painting -Sex and the single goddess

Such is she whom I worship

Kemetic religion includes perhaps the most explicitly sexual of all creation myths.  Stated simply, it is that Atum performed the first act of creation by masturbating.  As an allusion to this, Hat-hor is regarded as the hand of Atum.

The myth makes a lot of sense.  Given that divine creation is sexual (and a look at the world should assure us that this is so) how could the first act of creation have taken place?  The myth, then, affirms the central place of sex in the creative process – and in the divine order.  Atum may be regarded as the original undifferentiated godhead.  Within this first deity are the potentiality of both the female (Hat-hor as the hand) and the male (the penis of Atum).

Back in the days when I would have liked to have believed in the Kemetic faith – but found myself unable to do so – the sexual aspects of the religion were not easy to discover.  An example that seems to typify the (in this case literal) cover up dates to the mid 1960s.  I visited what was then known as University College Department of Egyptology Museum – now called the Petrie Museum.  (Named after the Professor Petrie whose article on the gods of ancient Egypt I’d seen in Wonders of the Past, when I was a child.)  One of the more impressive objects in the museum is a large relief sculpture of a king dancing before the god Min.  The god is represented as having an erect penis.  When I saw the stones, a notice (explaining what the carving depicted) covered this detail, if detail is the correct word.

Back in the 1960s, my chief source on sex in ancient Egypt was an article on Sexual Behaviour by Jean Yoyotte.  It occupies less than a page in A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization edited by George Posener and published by Methuen in 1962.  In addition to the Sexual Behaviour article, page 260 also contains the end of a piece about King Seti I and the start of an article on Sheep.  That said, it was better than nothing.  Monsieur Yoyotte’s remarks begin with this:

There is no study yet available of the ancient Egyptians’ attitude towards sex or of their ideas about physical intercourse.

They end with this:

In a country of educated people there were still some who scribbled indescribable pictures on ostraca.  Propriety has prevented the Turin Museum from exhibiting the famous papyrus in which the capers of a bald priest and a Theban coquette are depicted in a coarse manner and annotated with ribald remarks.

(Ostraca – the singular is ostracon – are fragments of limestone or broken pottery inscribed in ink.  They were the ancient Egyptian equivalent to cheap paper.  Papyrus was expensive.  Surviving ostraca include such things as laundry lists, and documents relating to the hire of donkeys.)

I relied on Jean Yoyotte’s article during a time when I was taking an especially active interest in ancient Egypt – visiting museums and buying quite a lot of books on the subject.  With tougher times in the 1970s – and very often little disposable income – I lost touch with current Egyptology. During the second half of the 1990s, for perhaps the first time in about a quarter of a century, I entered a bookshop with a good stock of recent Egyptological work.  A glance at some of the book titles revealed that much had changed whilst I had not been paying attention.

There were now a number of books on the subject of women in ancient Egypt – a topic that had been neglected in the 1960s.  (In those days, my best source on the subject was half a chapter in a book mostly concerned with women in ancient Hellas.)  A glance at the authors’ names revealed that the shift mirrored a change in Egyptology – it was clearly a lot less male-dominated than it had been.

Lise Manniche, one of the rising generation of female Egyptologists, had written a book entitled Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt (details will be found in the bibliography).  She reproduced some of what Jean Yoyotte termed indescribable pictures on ostraca.  Predictably, they turn out to be fairly easy to describe.

Propriety had not prevented Ms Manniche from reproducing the pictures included in the Turin erotic papyrus – nor from translating the fragmentary writing it bears (Monsieur Yoyotte’s ribald remarks, or so I assume).  Perhaps the most ribald is this exchange:

 (She:) ‘Leave my bed alone, and I’ll…semen(?) at me(?).’

(He:) ‘My big phallus… which suffers…inside.’

 (Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt p110.)

The pictures are not always a great deal easier to follow than the fragmentary text – although their general import is plain enough.  I was especially interested to see that the scenes seem to include pony girls (pulling a chariot).  Previously, I’d been unaware of such a depiction before the mid-twentieth century.  Many things go back further than one might imagine.  Lise Manniche has this to say of the pictures:

It has been suggested that the pictures represent the amorous adventures of a priest of Amun and a Theban whore, or that they were intended as an imitation of events at a higher level, in the world of the gods.  Some have attempted to identify the chief male character as the king in whose reign the scroll was written.

(Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt p107.)

Another book – Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt by Ruth Schumann Antelme and Stephane Rossini (Inner Traditions, 2001) also suggests that the Turin erotic papyrus may be – at least partially – religious.

 This book concludes:

Hathor’s secrets are numerous, varied, and often strange, but all derive from the first becoming, the divine creation of the universe, and commingle, on the terrestrial level, with humanity’s history since its inception.  Hathor the Golden One, the Sovereign of Love, and Lady of Death, Mistress of Drunkenness, the ravaging Distant One and the tender Bastet, joyous Mistress of music and dance, the generous Celestial Cow, lady of the Vulva and womb of the world, Ra’s burning eye, his untameable daughter, Uraeus who defends her father and protects the king, the Unique One who is always everywhere and nowhere, as ungraspable as love.

Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt p162.

 Such is she whom I worship.