Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt

Ruth Schumann Antelme and Stephane Rossini
Translation by Jon Graham
Inner Traditions
Rochester, Vermont
ISBN: 0-89281-863-8

Warning: The nature of the material presented in the book may not be suitable for children

The book opens with the creation myths of the ancient Egyptian city cults of Heliopolis and Hermopolis which reveal the foundation of the world and existence. its codes, laws, purposes and desire. Large black and white images fill up much of the pages with incredibly tiny side remarks off the main story which I found distracting.

Though the images are very interesting including an image of the birth of Atum from the tomb of Ramses IX in the Valley of the Kings and in this self-birth we find the beginning of the universe and the world.The main story line is quite easy to follow.

"Atum is a demiurge; he took the form of himself and created his descendants by masturbating". Here we are presented with an image of Atum on his back performing fellatio on himself,  Atum swallowed his semen and expectorated out his children, Shu and Geb

Due to the lack of mates, we find the children of these gods in full on brother sister incestuous relationships, the participants Osiris, Seth, Isis and Nephthys. In the myth of the Osirian cycle, Osiris' brother Seth tricks Osiris to climb in a box which is locked shut and thrown in the Nile eventually getting rid of Osiris to take over as the kingship.

A determined Isis retrieves Osiris' body but Seth gets hold of it again, this time Osiris is cut into 16 pieces and thrown in the Nile but Isis manages to find the pieces and tie them back together in the first mummy, except that a fish had swallowed Osiris' penis and so Isis fabricated one turned herself into a bird and mounted her brother/husband while Nephthys watched over.

This joyful union created Horus the falcon god who for the rest of Egyptian history would be represented by almost all mortal kings of Egypt. The Osirian myth is fundamental to the Egyptian belief of life after death as Osiris is reborn as the god of the underworld.

A series of nice colored pictures include a particularly interesting small ritual sarcophagus complete with ithyphallic mummy.The author from here moves on to the various attributes of the goddess' particularly Hathor and Isis, the power of these attributes and their relation to reproduction.

These include the sekhem sistrum which has a noas shaped top representing the gate through which a child is born and the sesheshet sistrum which was strung with metal discs so that when shaken it made a tinkling sound. In the next chapter, we are on to the theogamy of the king and his great royal wife but also the contracts of the common people dealing with issues of monogamy and polygamy.

The intrigues of the harem is quickly dealt, with those wives of the king who may have done anything to raise their own offspring up to a higher level in the court, or even king, and in some cases such as Pepi I and Amenemhet I leading to the assassination of the king. Fidelity, adultery, and rape are laid out in legal standards of the ancient Egyptian's.

The laws are explored which affect the transmission of inheritance, divorce, remarriage and incestuous marriages. We are on to sexuality, ritual purity and the position of prostitutes in Pharaonic Egyptian society.

By the time I hit chapter three I was hooked on this fascinating book and had learned a number of new tidbits of information and it was in this chapter on love and sexual literature that we find the advice of the ancient sages?

"When you have prospered and founded your house,

  and ardently love your wife,

  fill her belly, cover her back [with clothes],

  [give her] ointments [that] soothe her body,

  Give delight to her heart for as long as you live,

  for she is a fertile field for her master.

  Do not seek to oppose her in court,

  but give her no power, restrain her.

  Her eyes are her tempest when she gazes...

  In this way, you will keep her in your house."

In chapter four the author explores the code of love in art both royal and civil including the changes instituted in the royal art of the Amarna period. The pages are filled with black and white images of couples in allurance and sexual play.

Here we have another series of colored images of artifacts which demonstrate an attitude of sexuality, particularly feminine eroticism. We are on to the senses and their effect on the attraction of mates and the power of music and dance.

This section is filled with some of the most mysterious images of people dancing, from the Muu dancers and their unknown hand signals to musicians and dancers covered in vines. From the tomb of Niankhkhamun and Khnumhotep comes a bas relief of a flutist being directed by the gestures of his accompaniment as a chironome.

Though black and white the images taken from tomb walls, temple walls, and ostraca are unusual depictions much overlooked if not deliberately by the casual viewer to these monuments. The chapter on medicine and sexuality included fascinating sections on gynecology and obstetrics, venereal diseases and sexual mutilation, all subjects never seen before by myself in my readings.

In chapter six we are on to "Uncommon Sexual Practices" such as homosexuality in the society as tolerated behavior or in the contractual form such as that the man will not bring into his wife's home concubine or young male. Other sexual practices are quickly dealt with including animal love and the affections misplaced on a corpse.

Here we finally get to the much-anticipated chapter on the erotic papyrus in Turin. The papyrus has been in the Turin museum since before 1824 when Champollion examined it and the rest of Turin's crumbling collection of papyri.

The papyrus is in very bad condition and much of what can be gleaned from the papyrus comes from early researchers copies created when portions of the roll that are not visible today were still visible. On the verso of the papyrus is an inscription "Fan bearer to the right of the king (...), royal scribe, commander of the soldiers ", likely this person was an original owner of the document.

Of the document, Champollion wrote to his brother "Here a piece of funerary ritual,...and the remnants of paintings of a monstrous obscenity that give a very curious notion of Egyptian solemnity and wisdom." The first half of the papyrus is missing its beginning and is satirical in nature with animals in human activity's while the second half contains the pornographic content.

A number of full page color pictures are presented at this point with a picture of a fragment of the papyrus, the chapter continuing with black and white vignettes taken from the document complete with explanations of the individual vignettes. the images display different sexual acts and in all the men have enormous phallus'.

I found the sexual content of the papyrus to be rather mild in terms of obscenity especially in light of the content of the creation myths already dealt with. The books conclusion is followed by an appendix on a chronology of ancient Egypt.

The second appendix deals with short but very informative descriptions of Pharaonic Egypt's deities including the Ogdoad. In the third appendix, we are on to Egyptian place names and a fourth appendix on hieroglyphs which I found particularly interesting. The book was a relatively easy read not intended for children though as pornography goes is on the mild side.

The subject presented by the authors is well worth a read in dealing with a side of ancient Egypt that is almost never explored though I probably will not return to read again "Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt".

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