Family and Sexual Mores in Ancient Egypt

There is a wonderful study, perhaps from the Karl Jaspers Forum, about the hierarchical sexual mores of the Greeks - (I'll see if I can find it and reference it).  In addition to family or tribe, there was also 'class' and both authority and sexual penetration went from the top down, and never the other way.  The 18th dynasty also had a class structure:  the royal family, the Iry-Pat or the hereditary nobility, and the common people.  'Family', (as I have written elsewhere, reference to come) was more a 'household' where both relatives as well as servants (who were technically free but seemed to be living within a larger household for generations).

Young girls left their 'household' in order to become pregnant while serving Hathor, and to give birth, thereby proving that they were healthy and marriageable.  What could be farther from our current social reality?  In their culture they were so likely to die young:  either the child died at childbirth, or the mother, or both. I see in their practice a life-and-death initiation ritual, not wanton sexuality.

Those who passed the test of giving both to a healthy baby and staying alive themselves, returned home to get married.

They also practiced serial monogamy once married, but it was not so much as we practice it, due to divorce:  they practiced it due to a very high death rate at a very young age.  This sad fact of life gave them a different sense of family than we have.  A family today is nothing more than two people living together, even if they are the same gender.  This state was preceded by the nuclear family of the 1950s, the then idealized father, mother and two or more children.  Before that there was the extended family mostly living in the same viscidity. Eventually we had a tribe or clan.  A 'tribe' today, however, is our larger community:  those who either think like us, or share some similar passion for life.  Jungian psychoanalysts claim that all the young people who put metal studs and rings all over their bodies are mimicking belonging to a tribe but don't have the psychological benefits of actually being in a tribe.  In that sense, even this Akhnaton discussion group is a 'tribe' because one must have a great passion for the seminal role of the Amarna people in the development of the Greek, Hebrew and eventually the Western civilization to keep on reading and writing all these essays.  But you will not disagree that we are not a family!

My theory that all young pubescent girls followed a cultural imperative and went out in groups of musicians/dancers/singers to get pregnant to see if they would
a) survive the childbirth and
b) give birth to a healthy child
in order to become eligible for marriage, may not work at the level of the royal daughters.  Although in the 18th Dynasty Egypt Queens and Royal daughters take the title 'wife of Amun' and "Songstress of Amun" respectively, they do not join the itinerant troupes of musicians/dancers.  This seems to reflect a hierarchical class structure.

1.  The royals serve in the major state temples of Amun and Ptah
2.  The nobility's wives and daughters serve the provincial temples and within the nobility's own rich households and estates.  Their daughters also don't have to travel around in order to become pregnant.
3.  The common folk, workmen, artisans, peasants, their daughters have no safe place to go.

Of course, the threat of death at childbirth does not make any place safe, so that might not have been an issue.  But they all do the same thing in common:  they play music, dance and sing whatever their situation, whatever their class.  It's just that they sing and dance in different contexts.

What is not known is who impregnates the royal Princesses? The only example we have from hieroglyphic inscriptions or wall carvings/paintings is from Amarna where a Princess actually is depicted as having given birth - and having died in the process.  Some scholars use that scene as evidence that Akhenaten committed incest with his own daughter.  But that is clearly just one interpretation among many possible ones.

Someone on one of the Egypt Lists pointed out to me that most kings who acceded to the throne early, such as Amenhotep III or Tutankhaten, were married at their coronation, as if marriage was a prerequisite to Kingship.  Amenhotep III had to be at least 14 or 15 years old when he came to throne and had to be married to his Queen, Tiy, who could not have been more than a year or two younger than he.  Tutankhaten was only 8 and Ankhsenamun, his wife..., well, that's another story.  The best-case scenario I have come across comes from Abbie Herrick from Vermont, who proposed that the Ankhsenamun who married Tutankhamun was actually Ankhsenpa'aten-ta-Shereet, the daughter of Ankhsenpa'aten (Senior).  That would make her, the younger, about the same age as Tut at their wedding and coronation! The only precedent I can find is that in the myth, Horus is already 'friends' with Hathor when the court of the 42 gods of Egypt declare him King.  Later we find them married.  But this is a very ambiguous marriage.  Unlike the marriage of Isis and Osiris where Isis is the star Sothis or Sirius and Osiris is the constellation we know as Orion, these two always rise and set together.  Theirs is our own ideal marriage: togetherness, loyalty, faithfulness, etc.

Nevertheless, Isis in the myth forever taunts Sutekh, sexually arousing him then escaping from him, and Osiris is seduced by Isis's sister Nephthys and she bears him a child, Anubis!  So the ideal Egyptian marriage leaves room for 'error', as it were.  Even Sutekh, from time to time, catches Isis and takes revenge on her for all her taunts.  We are not given details but Sutekh as the deity of unbridled anger would not be kind as he takes both pleasure and revenge on his sister.  But neither does Isis ever show any 'damage' or suffering from having been caught by Sutekh.  The only time she is distraught is when Sutekh kills Osiris.  Jean Houston dealt very  well and in great detail about the passion of Isis in the book, "The Passion of Isis and Osiris."

Hathor, in contrast, is the opposite of the loyal, loving wife, and indeed a strange choice for the Egyptian Queen - unless the ancient Egyptians are telling us something in code.  Hathor is our planet Venus, and she sometimes sets and rises with the Sun God Ra, who is her father.  Other times she spends the night with Mars, or Mercury, Saturn or Jupiter.  These are all major deities, so Hathor is not a harlot figure:  she is, in fact, a fertility Goddess who has to copulate with many in order to ensure fertility.

In terms of Egyptian culture and reality, fertility both of the land and of the people was the foremost preoccupation.  Growing food and having enough people to work the land in order to grow food brought prosperity.  A household was only as rich as the number of people it could muster to work the land.  With a high mortality rate, fertility rites were the only way to stay ahead of the game.  That is why I propose that sexuality in ancient Egypt was so open, quite the opposite of what was being practiced elsewhere in the ancient World where women were already treated as chattels since the early law codes of the Sumerians, culminating in the Code of Hammurabi.

Famine and pestilence were the only way to bring down the Egyptian civilization for its first three thousand years, and it only happened three times.  Egyptologists refer to these anomalies as Intermediate Periods.  Pestilence may also have occurred during the reign of Akhenaten and may have brought his experiment in Atenism to an untimely end, but Egypt as a whole was fortunate enough to bluff its way out of a Hittite invasion.

Akhenaten was born into this posited sexually free culture.  I don't mean it in the sense of the 'free love' of the 1960s (AD), because Egypt had so many festivals that sexuality was free only within these ritualized celebrations.  The closest I can come in today's world is that Saturday nights seems to be the ritualized time for sexual unions, either after  a sports event or after a night out with music or dancing or both, and inevitably drinking is involved in the pre-sexual ritual.

But there is more evidence, although circumstantial, for what fueled the sexual activities depicted, for example in the Turin Papyrus 55001.

First, there is much pictorial evidence that psychotropic drugs were involved.  Not only did young women hold blue lotus flowers to their noses (to inhale the hallucinogenic scent of the petals?) but mandrake is also visibly present at scenes of what we might call 'parties'.  Dr. William Theaux insists that drug usage was commonplace from the psychoanalytic point of view.  It is Ioan Culianu form the University of Chicago who defined for scholars of the history of ideas how to approach ancient cultures in his book, "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance" (University of Chicago, 1984) pages 11-12:

"The crowning wish of the historian of ideas is not... to define the ideological contents of a given period which are fundamentally recursive in nature, but to glimpse its hermeneutic filter, its 'selective will', which is, at the same time, a will to distort."

And again, further on the same page, Culianu repeats,

"...a cultural era is not defined by the content of the ideas it conveys but by its interpretive filter."

The fact that most run-of-the-mill scholars will not recognize hermeneutics as an admissible tool of history only limits their understanding.

Secondly, it is time to present the evidence.  We have only two sets of hard evidence for sexuality at festivals:  paintings of the festivals, both the musicians/dancers and the 'audience', of which the prime example comes from the Tomb of Nakht at Sheikh el Gurna, the Tombs of the Nobles on the West bank of Thebes; and the sexual activities form the Turin Papyrus.  In a sense, we are looking at the 'before' and 'after' scenarios and we have to interpret how the musicians/dancers go from one (playing their music/dancing) to the other (engaging in sexual activity).

The fact that only the audience seems to be inhaling the lotus essence does not mean that the musicians/dancers go without it.  But let's say they don't.  We have rather numerous examples of modern musical performances, especially within the popular rock and roll and its derivative formats, where the musicians work themselves into a frenzy and inevitably engage in sexual activity afterwards.

There is no question that a modern rock concert is a festive occasion.  There is every indication that drugs are involved, either in the form of alcohol or marijuana, or more serious drugs.  There are numerous willing females hanging around intent upon engaging in sexual activity with the musicians.  There are biographies of female performers, even married ones, who openly admit that after a performance they go back stage and make love with their husbands in order to 'get back to earth'.

There is no reason why the performing experience would have been any less intense four thousand years ago!

Thirdly, I see a perfectly intuitive, or even instinctive response in these ancient Egyptian dancers and musicians to work themselves into an ecstatic state and then engage in sexual union when both they and their partners (assuming that their partners, the impregnators, also attended the festival) are both already aroused.  It is as if the music and the dance constituted the foreplay.  Modern developmental psychologists have identified the optimum state of conception as coming from a mutually orgasmic couple, where the orgasm itself is said to focus each participant's energy into their respective contribution to the intended conception:  the sperm and the egg.  In a sense, orgasm energizes these microscopic organisms for optimum performance or development.

Returning to 18th dynasty Egypt, let's take a look at the court of Akhenaten, or, as he was called before he changed his name, Amenhotep IV.  Is he, in fact, a paradigm for the Oedipus Complex?  With his mother still alive in year 12 of his reign, we would have to conjecture ceremonial events where she plays the Goddess and he the God and they have a ritualistic sexual union.  It is possible, even probable, but there is no proof.  Some scholars have argued that Tutankhamun is a child of Akhenaten and Tiye, not because that is most likely, but because that would make him a paradigm.  That is circular reasoning, unfortunately, and we don't need to resort to such simplistic trickery to find evidence for incest between the King and his mother.

Our first stop in this search is mythology.  While Hathor ends up as the wife of Horus, in some myths she starts out as his mother.  There is little evidence of this until the 18th Dynasty when almost every King calls himself "The Bull of His Mother."  What that epithet means is not clear until we examine what happens within a herd of cattle.  The dominant bull impregnates all heifers, including his mother!  The Egyptians called themselves the 'Noble Cattle'.  The first usage of that word occurs in the story of Khufu and his Magician, Djedi.

The analogy is readily graspable by anyone when looking at the death of the old King and the coronation of the new king in almost any polygamic culture.  One of the first acts of the new King is to claim the old king's women.  The fact is that the new King's mother is among the old King's women.  Whether or not the new King ceremonially 'impregnates' his own mother, I cannot say.  But the lesson comes rather close to home when we read in the Old Testament that when Absalom rebelled against his father, King David, and David left Hebron, leaving behind some of his concubines, one of the first things Absalom did was to 'go in unto them.'  It does not say whether or not his own mother was among them.  The distortive nature of writing or recording would never admit that in a culture where such incest is already taboo.  It was difficult enough for the Old Testament writers to include Lot and his two daughters in their 'history', where, finding themselves alone as survivors of Sodom and Gomorra, the two daughters put their survival and procreative instincts ahead of any social taboos, get their father drunk and copulate with him to preserve the human race.

Even while he was a young King, Akhenaten lived through at least 9 years of his father's last years as senior King (in a scenario of a long Co-regency between AIII and AIV) during which AIII had impotency problems after 30 years of intense sexual activity. Tiye was a strong woman and ambitious.  Temple rituals called for the Queen and the King to have ceremonial sexual union, such as at the annual Opet festival at Thebes when the God amun made a conjugal visit to his wife, Mut, or at the Temple of Dendera where Horus paid an annual conjugal visit to his wife, Hathor.  If the King was impotent or otherwise indisposed, who performed the conjugal activity?  The fact is we don't know, but the 18th dynasty epithet many Queens took as the "Wife of Amun" strongly suggests that sexual union was part of their 'duties'.  Whether that union was with the first Prophet of Amun or with their own sons as coregents, we cannot tell.

Plenty of material exists to fuel what Freud identified as an Oedipal pathology.  Once started, it rolled along until it became an 'industry', that is, one psychoanalyst after another wrote about it, producing studies, books and theories.

Returning to sexuality, if we consider that the ancient Egyptians
1:  had no problems with nudity;
2:  were prolific in sexual innuendo in their tomb paintings;
3:  wrote graphic love poetry in the New Kingdom (which includes Akhenaten);
4:  followed the lead of Hathor in their sexual practices;
5:  and had a fertility-centered social construct,
the royal family most likely adapted these social models to suit their
particular exclusivity.

End of Part 1

1. For comparison, read this rather drab article on the Tour Egypt Site and check out their other articles as well:
2. Caroline Seawright, on the other hand, has a lively article by the same title:
3.  There is a book out on  'Sex', an anthology of writings from 'The Erotic Review', edited by Stephen Bayley, is published on 8 November 2001 by Cassell, price 25, reviewed in the Independent:
4.  Sacred Sexuality