Family and Sexual Mores in Ancient Egypt
AMARNA PERIOD; PART ONE
Sexual penetration, according to a recent study about the hierarchical sexual mores of the ancient Greeks, went from the top down. In addition to family or tribal structures, there was also a 'class structure' where both authority and sexual penetration was initiated by a social superior, either male or female, and perpetrated upon either a male or a female social inferior and never the other way.
Hierarchical class structure was already over 1500 years old in the ancient Egyptian 18th dynasty of the Thutmose and Amenhotep kings: the royal family, the Iry-Pat or the hereditary nobility, and the common people. 'Family' was more like a 'household' where both relatives as well as servants, who were technically free, seemed to be living and working together for generations.
In this essay I propose a specific social theory: that young girls left their 'household' soon after their first blood in order to serve Hathor, the fertility goddess, become pregnant and give birth, thereby proving that they were healthy and marriageable. The practice was socially condoned life-and-death initiation ritual for all young girls of every social status, not wanton sexuality. Those who passed the test of giving birth to a healthy baby and staying alive themselves, returned home to get married.
What could be farther from our current social reality? I will draw the contrasts between 'then' and 'now', time and again, in order to keep the reader from superimposing their 'romantically' and 'religiously' tainted idea of sexuality upon the ancient Egyptians.
Early death marks one of the main differences between 'then and now'. In their culture, the ancient Egyptians were likely to die young: either the child died at childbirth, or the mother, or both. Among those children who survived childbirth, half died before they reached their first birthday. For anyone familiar with the course of civilization, this bleak situation did not change appreciably until the discovery of penicillin less than a century ago, in 1928!
Reproduction and fertility, therefore, was at the top of ancient Egypt's social agenda. Since their agricultural practices in the fertile Nile Valley consistently produced a surplus (with a few notable exceptions during years of draught) survival was not an issue: food, clothing and shelter were a matter of administration and planning. Egyptian bureaucracy and craftsmanship were quite adequate to look after both.
Surplus produced leisure time and over their three millennia of civilization, the ancient Egyptians developed elaborate fertility rituals within every conceivable context! The most commonplace was the full moon celebration: repeated monthly, the moon cycle also dictated women's menstrual cycles. When the new moon was hidden, women were invisible, keeping indoors, busy with their traditional work and menstruating. When the first quarter had already lit up the sky, women also became visible and took part in the myriad local festivals that were held throughout Egypt. The Full Moon festival was their celebration, and they probably remained sexually active until the third quarter moon.
Which women participated in the festivals and how?
Young pubescent girls, according to the pictorial evidence, joined itinerant groups of musicians/dancers/singers who went from one town to the next from one local festival to another, presumably to provide the entertainment. The itinerant groups would consist of commoners. The Westcar Papyrus provides written evidence for a mythological precedent, where an itinerant group of deities include midwives and arrive at the household of a priest to assist in the birth of royal triplets.
Evidence, mostly from tomb paintings, shows that rich households had their own in-house group of musicians/dancers/singers, presumably the daughters of the nobility, and so did many of the richer temples. Royal daughters most likely went through their initiation in the temples of the state deities like Amun-Ra in the 18th Dynasty (Luxor-Karnak in the South of Egypt), or in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis (near modern Cairo, in the North). Many noble and royal daughter was given the title "Songstress of Amun." Each young girl, regardless of social position, followed a cultural imperative to
a) conceive a child within the context of a ceremonial festival
b) survive the childbirth and
c) give birth to a healthy child
d) become eligible for marriage.
Most Egyptologists have not yet disassociated themselves from the prevailing prejudice that these itinerant groups of young girls were prostitutes. Yet, no evidence exist that any of these girls received payment for their sexual participation, or that their sole purpose was to service men seeking pleasure.
That is not to deny the pleasurable aspect of their sexual union!
That pleasure, in fact, cannot be denied! Turin Papyrus 55001, published in various books, including Lisa Manniche's "Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt," (Kegan Paul International, London, 1993) shows musician girls still holding on to their lutes in the throes of sexual ecstasy.
Several points emerge from these pictures and the attendant literature: 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;
4: followed the lead of Hathor in their sexual practices;
5: and had a fertility-centered social construct,
In order to recreate one or two ritualistic context for the many ancient Egyptian festivals, let's take a look at a small village festival to a local deity. The itinerant troupe of young girls, possibly with one or two older women practiced in midwifery and several men looking after the donkeys carrying their gear, arrive at our village. The girls take ritual baths to clean the dust of the road off themselves, the men set up their tents and they rest until sundown. The villagers
provide them food. The first evening the girls entertain the village chief and his special guests: it is strictly music, dancing and song. The chief's harim most likely join in the dancing. At the end of the performance the girls are feted with the best the village has to offer. They sleep well after their journey, practice during the following day, take a siesta in the afternoon, and spend the evening applying their makeup, fixing their wigs, tuning their instruments and arranging their jewelry.
The entire village will gather for the ceremony. The Priests will do their part carrying the statue of their local deity on a processional throughout the village. The musical troupe follows them, the villagers, in turn, following the troupe. They all gather in the village common. The most likely scenario is that a mythological play will be performed by the troupe, in which the local deity is the hero. At the end of the play the local deity shares his bounty with a feast for everyone present. The girls provide an ongoing entertainment of acrobatics, dances, games, music and singing. The entertainment becomes heightened as the beer or wine intoxicate both players and festival goers, and chances are that hallucinogenic plants have also been mixed into either the food or the drinks. The priests declare the fertility prowess of their local deity, and the men and boys of the village begin to lure or chase the musicians, dancers and singers and, in their mutually aroused state, will engage them sexually according to local custom. Everyone sleeps off the effects of the festival wherever they laid their heads down, and begin the clean-up at sunrise.
Hard evidence from these two sources does not prove the theory. Tomb paintings on the one hand, such as the musicians and their appreciative audience 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 on the other hand show the 'before' and 'after' scenarios of a festival: we still have to interpret or imagine how the musicians/dancers go from one (playing their music/dancing) to the other (engaging in sexual activity).
It is as if the music and the dance constituted the foreplay. The ritual context also insured that the sexual union would take place at the optimum moment of arousal in both the male and female participants. Such painstaking public ceremonial sexual activity is a far cry from the practice of prostitution in any society.
Another argument against this pictorial record being prostitution comes from Egyptian mythology. The two Goddesses who serve as role models of sexuality are Isis an Hathor. Isis stands as the idealized wife, loyal to her husband Osiris and protective of her son Horus. If we look at Isis only from the Judeo-Christian point of view, we can readily identify her with the Virgin Mary. Hathor, in contrast, as the Goddess of fertility, consorts with a number of deities, including Ra, the Sun-god, as well as the Moon-god. If we look at Hathor only from the Judeo-Christian point of view, we have no alternative than to call her a harlot or an adulterer.
The ancient Egyptians, however, did not attach an abstract value judgment to their deities. Rather, they had practical, concrete reasons for accepting their deities for what they were. Isis, for example, was also represented as the star Sothis, or Sirius. Her 'husband', Osiris, in turn, was Orion. With a minimal knowledge of the winter night sky we can readily confirm that Sirius and the constellation of Orion consist of fixed stars: whenever Orion rises from the southern horizon, Sirius inevitably follows! No wonder Isis was seen as a loyal wife. Wherever Osiris went, she meekly followed.
Hathor, however, was the planet Venus. Venus travels along the Zodiac nd over the course of the year will often set with the sun or rise with it, meet the moon, engage the various other visible planets, most likely Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In a sexually open society such as that of ancient Egypt, these unions were also seen as sexual liaisons. Fertility was Hathor's nature, not her profession! The wisdom of the ancient Egyptians blossoms in being able to match their young daughters with Hathor prior to their marriage. No husband wanted to take an untried wife only to have her die at her first childbirth. There could be nothing more heartrending than the helpless cries of woman dying in childbirth!
Just as initiation for boys into adulthood consisted in going to hunt or into war, both being a life-and-death matter, so initiation into adulthood for girls was similarly an accepted life-and-death matter. Those who passed, by bearing one or two healthy children, became highly prized for marriage.