Family and Sexual Mores in Ancient Egypt

Sexual penetration and authority in fifth century Athens went from the top down, and never the other way.  That is the essence of a wonderful study on line about the hierarchical sexual mores of the Greeks by Brian Arkins entitled Sexuality in Fifth-Century Athens (CLASSICS IRELAND, 1994
Volume 1, University College Dublin, Ireland). 

Whether it is the culture that 'forms' sexual attitudes that lead to certain practices, or hormones do during human development, is still hotly debated.  For our basic sociological knowledge about ancient Greece in general and Athens in particular, we can be certain that in addition to family and tribe (in this case, 'citizenship'), there was also 'class' that determined sexual roles.  What we know about family and sexual mores comes mostly from the aristocratic 'class'.

Admittedly, in order to surmise almost anything about ancient Egyptian sexuality, I find it helpful to contrast it with what we know about sexuality from ancient Greece.  I do not claim that there was a direct migration of family values and sexual mores from Egypt to Greece.  But Greek sexuality has been studied longer than that of ancient Egypt and if nothing else, then
the methodology of these studies will help to look at ancient Egypt with a clearer mind. 

Unfortunately, there are methodological inconsistencies, none better illustrated than between Arkins' article and a book by Bruce S. Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997).  It is reviewed at

The 18th dynasty also had a class structure: the royal family, the Iry-Pat or the hereditary nobility, and the common people. 'Family' was more a 'household' where relatives as well as servants lived and functioned together for the well being of their particular economic unit.  These 'servants' were technically free but seemed to be living within a larger household for generations.

Evidence indicates the presence of itinerant female musicians and dancers at village festivals who overlapped as traveling midwives.  At the same time, there is also evidence that even among the nobility and royalty, their daughters entered into the service of a temple for a time.  Some remained there, others returned to be married.  Much has been written about both the itinerant musicians and the 'daughters of Amun', but I have my own theory:  a female coming-of-age ritual consistent with the cultural 'needs' of the ancient Egyptians.

Young girls left their 'household' after their first menses in order to become pregnant and to give birth.  Surviving first childbirth proved that they were healthy and marriageable.  It seems that childbirth mortality was high and that contributed to a short life expectancy.  They were likely to die young: either the child died at childbirth, or the mother, or both.  I see in this practice of giving birth before marriage a life-and-death initiation ritual, not wanton sexuality.  Those who passed the test by giving birth to a healthy
baby and staying alive, may have been highly prized young women!
If they practiced serial monogamy once married, it may have been entirely due to a very high death rate of young women.  Once married, these women were not just 'breeders'.  Gay Robbins, Barbara Watterson and others who have written books about ancient Egyptian women agree that once married, these women ran their 'household'.   And from all the archaeological evidence we have, each household was like a miniature 'factory' with a myriad tasks going on all the time.

If the ancient Egyptian family model gives us a different sense of family than we are used to, it is hardly surprising.  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, consisting of the idealized father, mother and two or more children. Before that there was the extended family mostly living in the same vicinity. Even farther back we had a tribe or clan living rather closely knit lives. 


Most of us don't have a clue what a 'tribe' means.  At best it 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 the Amarna Reunion 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!

The theory, then, is that all young pubescent girls followed a cultural imperative: they joined 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.

I believe that the daughters of the nobility and the royal daughters had a similar 'passage of life' ceremony within the protected temple precincts.  In 18th Dynasty Egypt Queens and Royal daughters take the title 'wife of Amun' and "Songstress of Amun" respectively.  They dance, drum, chant, play the sistra or other musical instruments and engage in the sexual rites of their particular temple. 

The venue for the female rite of passage reflects a hierarchical class structure:
1.  The royal daughters serve in the major state temples of Amun and Ptah.  They perform at such events as the repatriation of Sinuhe.
2.  The nobility's wives and daughters serve the provincial temples and within the nobility's own rich households and estates.
3. The daughters of the common folk (workmen, artisans, peasants), join itinerant musical/midwifery groups.  They have no safe place to go.

 Of course, the threat of death at childbirth does not make any place safe, so 'safety' might not have been an issue.  In fact, safety was not an overt issue at all!  Those who left their villages and families, whatever class, were most likely in a state of limbo, or in liminal space:  their parents would have literally ‘forgotten’ about them because of the pain and worry, then grief and mourning would bring.  According to the theory of liminality, those girls who survived and returned (with or without their babies), would then be ritually welcomed back into their villages and families and became ‘people’ again. 


These itinerant troupes played music, performed dance and sung and clapped whatever their situation, whatever their class.  Their class differences appeared only in the context within which they would have performed.

What we don't know is “who impregnates these girls to initiate their rite of passage, and, in particular, "who impregnated the royal Princesses of Akhenaten and Nefertiti?"  The only example we have from hieroglyphic inscriptions and wall carvings/paintings is from the Amarna royal tomb, which can be interpreted as a Princess who has given birth - and 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.

It has been suggested 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.  Some speculate that Amenhotep III was only 10 when he came to the throne and that Yuya, his Tutor (God’s Father) ruled the land.  Tutankhaten
was only 8 and Ankhsenamun, his wife, may have been his older sister who had already been married to their father.  But 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 and the Ennead declare him King.  Later we find them married.  But this is a very ambiguous marriage.  I will present a contrast to the ‘institution’ of marriage in our own time by showing a detailed analysis of several mythological ‘marriages’ from ancient Egypt.


A well-defined marriage would be that 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. However, their marriage, as an
ideal, has its drawback:  there is no evidence that Isis and Osiris ever enjoyed conjugal sex while they ruled Egypt together!  They united only after Osiris had died and Sutekh had cast his dismembered penis into the Nile River where the fish immediately gobbled it up.  Their sexual union was accomplished with a 'new' penis Isis had magically conjured for the occasion.

So far only one researcher has found this 'marriage' suspect:  the French Plural Analyst, Dr. William Theaux.  He suspects that the story of Osiris' death at the hands of his brother Sutekh and Isis becoming pregnant with an
artificial penis is a cover-up!  He believes that Sutekh was the actual father of Horus and Isis the mother.  Surprisingly, there is evidence that such a combination may have been possible.

Extramarital sexual union in the Isis/Osiris myth is more prevalent than conjugal union!  For example, Isis taunts Sutekh, sexually arousing him then escaping from him, and her sister Nephthys seduces Osiris and bears him a child, Anubis.  So either there is no ideal Egyptian marriage, or else there is room for 'error', as it were. 


In other fragments of the Isis/Osiris myth Sutekh catches Isis from time to time 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 Isis.  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. 

The chances are that at one of these instances when Sutekh actually catches Isis, she becomes pregnant and bears his child.  Dr. Theaux argues that there is evidence in the myth that Sutekh cares for and looks after Horus.  At one point Isis complains that Sutekh tried to murder Horus by sending a serpent to where the infant was sleeping. 


A serpent is a symbol of wisdom.  It sounds to me as if Isis was acting like a
wronged, divorced mother who, out of spite, would not allow access to the child's father under any circumstance!  It happens in our time often enough to the chagrin of family court judges and social workers.

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.


Sexually available to a series of noble lovers is not what we have been taught about ancient Egyptian Queens, with one notable exception:  Cleopatra!  We have a cultural situation where Kingship and power is based on sexual penetration that would make the males dominant and the females subservient.  But if the Egyptian Queen, and, in turn, the ‘wife’ of any household, noble or commoner, would have the freedom to choose her impregnator, then the law of Ma’at would be satisfied.  The second part of this essay will deal with studies and theories on these two issues.

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 open, quite the opposite of what was being practiced elsewhere in the ancient Near Easr 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 likely 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.  The topic, unfortunately, has been taboo among Egyptologists slightly longer than sexuality itself, but has recently come out of the closet, as it were. 


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, we have 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).  A third possibility of sexual rites comes from the writings of Herodotus, in particular a description of a feat of Bast, but there is so much controversy surrounding the authenticity of his ‘histories’ (and these are so late) that other than providing the reference, I cannot in a clear conscience call it ‘evidence’.

The fact that only the audience seems to be inhaling the lotus essence in the New Kingdom tomb scenes 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


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 polygamist 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 in the Old Testament.  When Absalom rebelled against his father, King David, and David fled 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 at the end of his father's reign (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

Some of these ideas have been incorporated by Caroline Seawright into an essay on ancient Egyptian sexuality. See:

See also

Go to Part 2:  to come

Go to Akhenaten’s Sexuality

Return to Amarna Papers