Erotic scene

Fertility was a very important and holy notion for the Egyptians and other ancient cultures. The Egyptian religion and other ancient religions from regions all across the world were essentially almost fully focused on the concept of fertility, with both the philosophy and practices, all coming down to maintaining agriculture, thus survival. In short, fertility meant life.

Gods and goddesses, would be depicted in reproductive role, what with the nourishing suckling of Hathor the mother goddess, to the erected phallus of Min protruding forward in scenes. The Osiris myth, of his sister-wife, Isis, replacing his lost phallus with magic, and becoming pregnant with their son, Horus, of whom the living pharaoh would associate himself with… all of these concepts share similar notions of fertility.

Erotic scene
Brooklyn Museum. 58.13

The name “Kemet” itself even stems from such ideology. “Kemet”, meaning “Black Land”, for instance, may seem strange and has led to many conspiracies floating upon the internet… alas, in short, the name “Kemet” was literally the declaration of the fertile land. “The Black Land”, referencing the black luscious silt, that left fertile soil for life to spring within the Nile Delta after the annual inundations. These inundations, aka floods, would therefore become the centrepiece of Ancient Egyptian religion, prayers, rituals and rites, all working towards a common goal in hope of maintaining the annual flood, thus promise of fertility and life to Egypt through agriculture. For this reason, the colours black and green became associated with such notions of fertility and rebirth after death. Black being the fertile soil, and green being the agriculture growing forth with new life.

The Ancient Egyptians saw sexual love as a vital component of the reproductive process, and hence necessary for continuing fertility. It is believed that religious festivals, like the “Festival of Drunkenness”, that would usually take place in the summer months as the Nile began to flood, would involve sexual aspects: “The destruction wrought by Hathor is the background to the level of drinking that goes on in the festival: It’s not just to drink but to drink to pass out. A hymn inscribed in a temple associated with the lion goddess describes young women, dressed with floral garlands in their hair, who serve the alcohol. It is described as a very sensual environment.”

These type of pieces, with exaggerated male reproductive organs, were therefore both comic and symbolic. This piece dates from approximately Early Ptolemaic Period, 305–30 B.C.

Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told the Los Angeles Times;

“The sex is about the issue of fertility and renewal, and about bringing the Nile flood back to ensure the fertility of the land as well. The festival of drunkenness typically occurred in mid-August, just as the Nile waters begin to rise.

The Forgotten Treasures of Tanis – Erotic Carving (limestone).
Late Period, 30th Dynasty, c. 380-343 B.C.
Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

We don’t have the same kind of clarity as to why the sex is included as we have with the drinking. When I first speculated there was a sexual component to these rituals, I got a lot of push-back from colleagues who didn’t believe it.

There were songs — their words were found on the sides of pots that appeared to be used in these rituals: “Let them drink and let them have sex in front of the god.

We do know people left texts that refer to the ritual’s sexual component. We have one dating back to 900 BC, saying, “I remember visiting the ancestors, and when I went, anointed with perfume as a mistress of drunkenness, travelling the marshes.

Travelling the marshes” is a euphemism for having sex (marshes being the place from which life springs). Another was written by a man who is a priest, who identifies himself as having been conceived in this context. Much later, in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, 330 B.C. to 27 B.C., there are a number of people identified as orphans who are gifts to the temple.”

Erotic scene
Erotic scene

In the centre of this limestone figure, a naked woman with white skin is wearing a shortly cropped wig and is flanked by six naked men with red skin, each wearing a side lock. Three of the men have an oversized phallus, three engaging with the woman, one engaging with himself.

In the front right corner, two males hold a bound oryx.

An artwork like this is most likely related with the cult of Min or Hathor rather than the mythos of Isis and Osiris, as previously claimed. Min was an ancient fertility god who is frequently shown with an erect phallus, while Hathor was a female goddess of maternity and fertility who was also intimately associated with feminine sexuality. However, such pieces may have also been made as funerary objects, something the modern age may find to be rather crass or unusual, however, baring in mind the fertility aspect of religion, and rebirth after death, such objects held important symbology.

Fertility was a major concept of ancient religious practices. Festivals would include drinking and sexual activity.
Fertility was a major concept of ancient religious practices. Festivals would include drinking and sexual activity. However, it was not something all would partake in; ” found substantial evidence that these festivals of drunkenness were frowned upon by many in society. This was something Egyptians struggled with — the alcohol making them lose control. For them, this ritual is designed to bring chaos as close as it could possibly come without upsetting the world order. They allow themselves to slip to the very brink in participating in this.” – Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Below is another fertility display, of a man with an oversized phallus while he rests a papyrus scroll upon it. A woman sits upon the end of the phallus, holding what appears to be a harp like instrument. The Brooklyn Museum, where this piece now resides, writes of the piece that the scroll the man holds has “non-hieroglyphic writing” which they describe as enigmatic, “perhaps representing musical notation“. This could fit in with the work of Betsy Bryan, who mentioned evidence of song from Ancient Egyptian writings with an erotic nature, such songs would possibly have been sung during religious festivals associated with fertility, both of human life and agriculture. Thus, the Brooklyn Museum displays this piece with the title of; “Erotic Musicians“.

Erotic Musicians, Limestone, c. 305–30 B.C.
Erotic Musicians, Limestone, c. 305–30 B.C.
Brooklyn Museum. 58.34

Below an ostracon showing a pair copulating, dating between the 19th-20th Dynasties, from Deir el-Medina (workman artisan’s village). Drawn upon a fragment of limestone, such images likely had entertainment value rather than any religious or spiritual significance. Such pottery and stone shards were discovered in mass within a pit at the worker’s village (Deir el-Medina).

Inscription translation: One satisfied (or gentle) of skin […] happy (or charming) “A satisfied foreskin means a happy (or charming) person”

Deir el-Medina was a purposely built village housing the workers who were building and decorating the nearby royal and elite tombs. The families of the workers also lived in the village.
Many of these fragmented pieces of stone (ostracon) showcasing different drawings are believed to have been created by the artists of the village; due to either practising or perhaps ‘doodling’ for fun.

An ostracon showing a pair copulating, dating between the 19th-20th Dynasties, from Deir el-Medina (workman artisan’s village).
British Museum. EA50714